Where The First Mass Effect Failed, And Succeeded, According To Its Head Writer

Drew Karpyshyn was there at the beginning of Mass Effect, but he still hasn't played the end. He was lead writer on the first two games in the series, but has yet to see the third game through to its conclusion. He knows about the the controversy, about the cupcakes and the Extended Cut. But he just hasn't gotten around to setting down and saying goodbye to his Shepard.


There aren't any kind of hard feelings or anything like that. Karpyshyn has just been busy. After a move from BioWare headquarters in Edmonton down to Austin, he spent some time contributing to Star Wars: The Old Republic. Working on George Lucas' iconic sci-fi universe brought things full circle for Karpyshyn in a way. After all, Mass Effect exists because of a desire to riff off of the science-fiction tropes and genre conventions that came before it.

"When we started planning out Mass Effect, before we started development on the game, we had a very small core team," remembers Karpyshyn. "I was one of the people. Casey Hudson, Preston Watamaniuk, Derek Watts, David Falkner, were the key leads on the project. We spent about a year trying to find out exactly what kind of science fiction universe we wanted to make. We were all about the same age and all kind of grew up with those classic ‘80s [movies], what we call the Golden Age of sci-fi movies. Things like Alien and Aliens, and Terminator. A lot of us were big Star Trek and Star Wars fans, too."

But it wasn’t just about regurgitating what came before, the writer says. “We were very familiar with the archetypes of science fiction or the standard stories that get told over and over again,” Karpyshyn told me. “We got together and took our favorite ideas and thought, 'How do we combine these into something that will capture the spirit of that Golden Age of science fiction but still maintain a fresh look to it?'”


I brought up Star Trek’s Prime Directive as the kind of element that got twisted around in the Mass Effect galaxy. Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s utopian ideal of non-interference gets violated regularly to create dramatic tension, but it’s still a rule that gets followed, mostly. But no such rule explicitly exists in Commander Shepard’s world; manipulation of other races happens all the time, often with dire consequences.

“The morality of some of the [preceding] science fiction was a little cut and dry," Karpyshyn says. "Star Trek is a good example of that. Or Star Wars, where good and evil is very clearly defined. We wanted to take that sort of thing and make it a little bit more, I don’t want to say more complex necessarily, or more mature, but we wanted to out a little nuance on it, put some gray areas in there.”


Karpyshyn was the lead writer on ME1 and was also the lead writer on ME2. “I was there pretty much until we locked down most of the story. I left in the last few months when we were kind of polishing things up, passing things over to Mac Walters, who had been one of the writers on the first game as well. He took over the lead writing,” Karpyshyn explains. “For the third one, we outlined some ideas, but of course, as a project evolves, ideas kind of change and shift. They took things in different directions. We did that with 2 as well. We had no idea that Cerberus is going to be as big as they were until after the first game. People kind of gravitated to them, so we kind of expanded their role.”

Talking to Karpyshyn, it sounds like the development of Mass Effect’s universe was filled with dozens of moving parts. When it came to building out the characters and races of Mass Effect and their relationships, the trilogy echoes elements of the real world like colonialism and xenophobia. But Karpyshyn says the writing team walked a fine line when it came to -isms. “As an author or writer, you always want to bring that universal truth of the human condition into your work. That’s a very pretentious sounding phrase, but those are the kind of things that make stuff interesting, because they can see reflections,” he offers. “It’s very important to have something that’s entertaining of course. I think that should be a key goal. But, part of it what makes it entertaining is making people think about difficult questions in ways that maybe they hadn’t thought about before. It’s definitely something we’re aware of.”

For me as a player, the sequence on Virmire where Normandy crew members clashed over what to do with research that could revive the Krogan race was a great example of that moment. Karpyshyn said that it was also one of the hardest moments to map out from a technical perspective. “The Ashley/Kaidan choice sort of affects what comes down the road. It’s going to completely change how the rest of the game plays out, because one of your primary characters is no longer there. That’s sort of a technical reason. There are some players who really struggle with that choice. I remember hearing from some players who said they literally sat the controller down and went to have a smoke or have a snack or something, and think about it.”


“I thought that was just going to be a great moment,” Karpyshyn continues, “especially in the second or third game, when you’re playing and a consequence plays out and you’re like, ‘Oh my God, I totally want the other decision. Do I want to go back and replay this whole series just to change that?’ ”

But a series as big as Mass Effect can’t deliver on everything its creators wanted. I mentioned to Karpyshyn that the Rachni plotline didn’t go where I was expecting. They’re this vast marauding race, but are organic, not mechanical like the Reapers. It seems like a face off between those two races in the third game would hinge on what you did in the first game. “The Rachni choice is something we really wanted to have massive repercussions down the road. Unfortunately, the realities of working in the industry—schedules and budgets and deadlines—mean that we can’t do everything we want to do.”


“I will say one of the ways we tried to offset that was with the inclusion of the Geths and the Geth party member that came in Mass Effect 2, was Legion," he continued. "He was never originally planned and the Geth were going to be sort of pushed to the side. But people really responded to them. We wanted to explore the Geths and that was one of the tradeoffs of not doing more with the Rachni.”


My love for Mass Effect partially comes from how it mixes widescreen scale and personal drama. It feels like the kind of thing that big-budget games have to do nowawdays and the BioWare series is a good example of how to do it. Karpyshyn spoke to that challenge during our talk. “If I’m going to play 30 hours of a game and invest my time and effort, I want to make sure that the payoff is worth it. Now, it doesn’t necessarily have to be saving the entire galaxy, but I want the end to feel like the time I invested makes me feel like I accomplished something worthwhile.

”Whether I’m good or evil, Paragon or Renegade, or whatever I’m trying to do, I want to feel like, ‘Yes, that was worth spending hours and hours and hours of time to get there to the end.'" Karpyshyn said. "Not that it wasn’t a great game, but the days of Mario lets the princess in the castle [in Super Mario Bros.] probably are done in some way, because it doesn’t necessarily feel like that’s enough of a payoff for the kind of time and effort you would put into playing a game. You don’t want to do a bait and switch on the fans. If they’re expecting one thing, you don’t want to give them something completely different. It’s okay to have surprises, or even twists, or things that go in different directions, but you still have to fulfill those basic needs that they’re looking for. If they’re looking to be the epic hero, you better make sure that they’re an epic hero by the time everything is said and done.”


It's Mass Effect Week at Kotaku. All week, we'll be taking a look back at the last five and a half years of galaxy-saving heroism, cross-species romance, and awkward dancing. You can follow along here.

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