As in comics, fans of video games are beginning to find not just specific game companies or series, but specific writers and creators that they want to follow.Lead Writer for Mass Effect 3 at BioWare, Mac Walters is one of those creators. Having been part of the team since the start of the epic space-based trilogy, he has built the characters of Commander Shepard and the people Shepard interacts with from the ground up.
Walters and BioWare weren't satisfied in only using the games themselves to do this, however, so they teamed up with scripture John Jackson Miller, artist Omar Francia, and Dark Horse Comics to expand the universe and get deeper into the heads of some of its rich canvas of characters. [Click here for our look at ten things you must know from the previous comic book and novel tie-ins]
With Mass Effect: Invasion coming to stores in October, finishing up its four issue run just ahead of Mass Effect 3's launch on March 6, 2012, we sat with Walters at Comic-Con International: San Diego 2011 to talk about the comics, the games, what has happened and what's to come. We have exclusive new details about the upcoming mini-series' story, and a new tease of a couple elements of Mass Effect 3 that many fans will be excited about.
Just to throw a cherry on top, we have an exclusive extended look at the first issue of Invasion, previously seen for only one day on the Dark Horse Digital store.Newsarama: So Mac, let's start with the recent announcement of Mass Effect: Invasion, the third Mass Effect comic mini-series. This is going to tie into pretty much everything, the comics, the novels, and Mass Effect 3, bridge everything together, right?
Mac Walters: Yeah, it definitely takes elements; we're dealing with Aria, we're dealing with Omega, we're also dealing with the Illusive Man and the relationships between all those different people and place. If you've been following the novels at all, you know that Aria and the illusive Man are not exactly friendly. They have what you might call an uneasy business relationship right now.
The Illusive Man [Slight Spoilers for MASS EFFECT 2 Here!] has the base beyond the Omega 4 relay, and that's very important to him, all the research that Shepard was able to obtain for him there in Mass Effect 2. But it's kind of – guarded – shall we say, by Omega. Aria's ensconced there and she has no plans to leave. So this is kinda about their relationship, but also about where Cerberus is heading in Mass Effect 3. I can't really get into that, but it does elude to that.Nrama: There's that magic word floating around, "indoctrinated," is that something the comic will provide any hints for, or is that something you're saving for the game?
Walters: Well, at least as far as it ties to the experiments that Cerberus is undertaking, much like they did with Paul Grayson in the novels. Mass Effect: Invasion will expand on that for sure. We'll see a little more of what their plans are, what they're going to do. I haven't told anyone that yet, so there you go!
Nrama: So Cerberus is continuing to play with fire…
Walters: They are. In the same pursuit as always. The Illusive Man is very much about control, very much a "let's not destroy it needlessly if there's a way we can use it for our own advantage." And as you say, they're playing with fire. How many times until they get burned?Nrama: Of course it looks like the Illusive Man "got burned" during the First Contact War (as seen in Mass Effect: Evolution) and maybe doesn't even realize it yet.
Walters: Yeah but even that is kind of open as to exactly what happened there. Obviously, Mass Effect 3 will reveal all; that's the point of Mass Effect 3, we tie up a lot of those loose ends. But I think it's safe to say The Illusive Man is still very much "himself" throughout the course of what people have been playing. We wouldn't ever want you to feel like "oh this guy I worked for was really an enemy all along." But that doesn't mean there weren't influences in his life.
Nrama: With Mass Effect 3 being kind of the end of at least Shepard's story, the end of this tale, does that mean the comics will have to sort of end with it too, or do you feel like the comics give you a way to keep telling stories in this universe?
Walters: You know, I think much like the Star Wars comics are popular to this day, the Mass Effect universe is huge, not just in space but in time as well. Things happened before the events of the game series, maybe things that happen after; there's no limit to the stories we can tell. I think as long as we keep focusing on interesting characters, especially ones that are introduced in the novels or the games, they will continue to be successful. And there's so much room for that. There's all the people you know and love from the games, but there's also the friends of those people and the parents of those people and on and on it goes. So I think there's always a way to tie it back to something from the "original trilogy" of Mass Effect.Nrama: You've mostly done plotting with John Jackson Miller scripting, but what was the learning curve like jumping into the comic book world?
Walters: I think it was like any medium, when you take your craft to it there's a huge learning curve at first. But fortunately, [Editor] Dave Marshall and the other guys at Dark Horse gave me as much information as I wanted. They were fine if I just stood on the side and said "here's the story, go ahead," but I wanted to learn. I'm a guy that if I'm not challenged, I get bored and die. And that's why I've taken on the two 8-pagers that I've done as well, that I scripted myself and made mistakes. You know, that's the way you learn! I made my mistakes and we fixed them, and I have a third 8-pager coming out that will digital release only. I don't know what we've talked about on that one, I don't think we've said who that's about yet. It's an interesting character…
So yeah, there was a huge learning curve, but it's something I think I'm picking up and really enjoy doing. I'd be up for doing a whole series myself if the opportunity arose. Or maybe even branch off and do my own series. Dark Horse is really open to that, creator-owned work. I certainly have lots of ideas. The problem is I have no time and no energy; right now Mass Effect 3 has all my time and energy.
Nrama: So maybe we'll be having another conversation in March or April…Walters: Yeah! Who knows?
Nrama: With Mass Effect 3 coming in March 2012, things already seem to be reaching a fever pitch for fans, even with seven months yet. Did you have any idea that fans would get this ravenous this early?
Walters: Interestingly, we've never done a true trilogy before, so there are new things we're seeing here. But our fans are our fans. They know what they're going to get from BioWare so they're always excited for what we're going to put out. Obviously it's growing, because it is a trilogy and it's leading somewhere, it's all part of the same story; there's that sense that it's coming to a head. They have all these expectations and I honestly believe that we will fulfill all of them and more. The story as it is now, I think we're going to blow their minds, and be able to satisfy on every level.
So yeah, it's a slightly higher fever pitch than we've seen before, but we are used to our fans and the interest, the passion is awesome; it drives us to do more and do better. One thing you can honestly say about BioWare, and I haven't ever worked at another game company, but we never rest on our laurels. We get to the end of one game, we say "damn, we didn't get to do X, Y, and Z, so we're doing it next game!" We know the fans want it and we're going to do it. Even things like story, character, we're always trying to grow.
Nrama: You and Drew Karpyshyn worked really closely together on the first couple of games, but then you took a sole role for this last one?Walters: Yeah, so the way it worked was Mass Effect 1 I was the Senior Writer, he was the Lead Writer. We had about 4 or 5 writers maybe. Mass Effect 2 we knew early on he was wanting to try something different, go somewhere else, so I was kind of being "groomed" as it were to take over as lead. Then about halfway through the project he went down to Austin to start work there, and I took over as Lead there. Then on on Mass Effect 3 I am the Lead on it. So we did the halfway through handshake and that was it.
Fortunately I've been on it since the beginning as well, so it's not like I was coming in blind and didn't know anything about the IP. I was there when we were creating the war and the characters, so it was a pretty easy transition.
Nrama: As Lead Writer, how much do you let your writers kind of go down their paths, and how much of it is stuff that you feel like you have to crack down on because of your particular vision?Walters: You know, I think a lot of that is handled up front. We say "this is the vision for the game, this is the style of the game, what we're trying to go for. We work a lot of that out with Casey Hudson, the Executive Producer, we hash that out. It's not just a top down "here this is what we're doing." We sit with the writing team and see what they want to do where they want to go and we adjust based on that.
Then the way we do it on the Mass Effect team is a lot of times a writer is given a level to do. Easiest example is you had your acquisition missions, your loyalty missions in Mass Effect 2, each of those is a level and a writer would be given responsibility for that. They were pretty free within the realms of "this is the greater sense of the story, this is what we need to get across here" and go. So we gave them a fairly big box which they can then work in and go.
The thing that I always stress with writing, and I think this is true anywhere, is iteration. You improve over time, you improve as you look at it. So every level, my own included, all the major scenes, they all go through a peer review process. We all go into the room and sit down, and it improves from there. I think that's part of the thing that makes us as good as we are, makes the story as good as it is. Then all of that, I oversee it and get into the nitty gritty, line-by-line and can say "this feels out of character" or "this feels like the wrong moment to be bringing up a joke."
I'm kind of sometimes the style taskmaster, keeping people in line with that, but it's more of coming in for a decent polish at the end, and working on my own levels.Nrama: One of the things that seemed to be missing from Mass Effect 2 is the party banter; it's something we saw in the elevator sequences of Mass Effect 1 and is a big part of the Dragon Age series, I think you've said that is something you're exploring more in the third. What can you tell us about it?
Walters: Yup! That's one of the key things, actually. I tweeted that out, much to the relief of fans. Part of it in Mass Effect 2, honestly, was a logistics thing: 12 henchmen. How do you write banter for 12 potential henchmen, right? We tried it, we tried a bunch of different things but it would get really unwieldy.
Nrama: I love all the different words you guys at BioWare use for them: Companions, Henchmen, Squadmates, Followers…
Walters: Well I'll give you the quick breakdown! A Henchman is someone who can join your party, a squadmate is someone who is in your party right now. That's the difference between those two. Companions, I think is more of a Dragon Age term.
Nrama: Fair enough!
Walters: But yes, in Mass Effect 3 it's a huge part of the game. it's something that I've hammered home, and we're actually doing specific banter passes through the levels. We're saying hey, when should we be chiming in, not just for informational purposes but also just for the stuff people love where they're chatting back and forth and developing the characters.Nrama: One nerdy question, and one to let you run free a little bit. Nerdy question: Please, just tell us, when we see Wrex, will we get a "Wrex." "Shepard." moment?
Walters: *laughs* I don't know if we do, I'm trying to remember now. I'll let you know when I get back to the office, I'll look into that.
Nrama: What's the one thing, if you have to pick, that you're really excited about, whether it's a feature or a theme, for Mass Effect 3?
Walters: For Mass Effect 3, the thing is; you learn so much every time you do a videogame. There were so many things that we wanted to accomplish with Mass Effect 1, and then we felt like we got a lot of that in Mass Effect 2, and ME3 is really like "wow, we're doing it." Your imagination is a lot of the time bigger than your budget, what you're actually able to accomplish. I think our imaginations on 1 were so big, it took us until 3 to get there.
It feels like, not just in one thing, but in everything; the way the gameplay feels, the way the art's coming together, the way the music themes tie-in, how all of that is fitting around this sci-fi epic crazy story that we've done. As I mentioned at the panel, we still have characters; we still have personal moments.One of the big things I've also said I want to do is explore Shepard. People are playing as Shepard and as a role-playing experience you can't go too far off the rails with who Shepard is, because it's their Shepard. But I have found a way to allow people to explore Shepard's humanity, to explore some of his or her vulnerabilities.
One of the things I drew a lot of inspiration from for some of the themes of Mass Effect 3 was the movie The Gladiator. You have this heroic character in ME3 who kind of knows that their days might be numbered, this heavy burden on 'em with people dying all around. The way Maximus explored that and the way he stood apart from everyone around him, the burden that he had and the skills that he had. What did that feel like?
So the player has all these friends, all these companions, these people that are close to you, and yet you're slightly removed from that. So what does it mean to that character? So we're kind of being able to look into Shepard's soul.
And that's optional! You don't have to, you can just be like "I'm off to kill things!" *laughs* And that's a valid response! That's a valid Shepard response to this. "Where are them Aliens? We're gonna kill 'em!"Related Stories:
- SDCC 2011: Dark Horse and BioWare - MASS EFFECT & More
- SDCC 2011: Halo, Dragon Age Writers on Writing for Video Games
- Bringing Mass Effect to Life, from FemShep to Turian Batman