Drew Karphyshyn: Expanding STAR WARS, MASS EFFECT Universes


Expanding universes, especially those of science fiction and fantasy, has become common practice. A property may start in a movie, or a book, or a TV show, or a game, or a comic, and eventually cross over into all of those things.

Drew Karpyshyn is one of those behind-the-scenes names that does this dirty work. He's written novels in the Star Wars universe, and is now lending his talents to the upcoming MMORPG Star Wars: The Old Republic, including a new prequel novel that ties that game to another series. He also has his hands firmly in the Mass Effect cookie jar, working as lead writer on the first game, co-lead on the second, and the writer of three novels.

We recently sat down with Karphyshyn to chat about the challenges or writing inside established worlds, the differences of good and evil, and what is to come for both of these major BioWare properties. 


Newsarama: So Drew, you've kind of become the guy who expands universes, first with Star Wars then with Mass Effect. What was the process like for the Mass Effect novels; was that something you wanted to do internally, or was it something that they came to you with?

Drew Karpyshyn: I think it was something we kind of thought we might do right from the start. When we were doing the initial planning, making this universe, we realized it was so rich and diverse we weren't going to be able to get everything we wanted into the game. The game had to be focused on the primary story, which started as the Geth and quickly escalated to the reapers, but there's so much other stuff going on in this Galaxy! Different species, different worlds, we wanted to explore and it was ripe for other media, comics, books, stuff like that.

It seemed like the way we could best give fans that depth at first was with the prequel novel, so we settled on Mass Effect: Revelation, the prequel to the first game, the backstory of Saren and Anderson. Depending on what story path you take in the game, that's hinted at by Anderson as well.

Nrama: Saren in particular, in the game you get this one little glimpse of the hero that he was, in his final moments, so reaching back, was that one of the primary goals of Revelation, to show what he was like as a Spectre badass? 


Karpyshyn: I think it was! I think that's one of the things; when you get to Mass Effect 1, he's very much fallen under the influence of Sovereign, he's not the same as he was. He's been changed in dark and disturbing ways… not to say that he wasn't already a dark and disturbed individual before! But his initial motivations were always to fulfill his role as a Spectre. he was sincere in always wanting to do what it took to keep the galaxy safe, to keep the Turians safe. He had to deal with humanity as a potential threat to his species.

So we felt the book was a good way of seeing how he was before, and in doing so get a sense of how powerful and dangerous the indoctrination process can be, how it can twist people who are very strong-willed and seem like they should be in control of their own destiny. They can fall under the sway of the Reapers.

Nrama: Now indoctrination, that's something that we touch upon a bit in the games, it's a major plot point of Mass Effect 3; why was that something that needed to be expanded upon outside the games?

Karpyshyn: Well I think one of the things you want to understand about indoctrination and that I tried to get across in the third book, Retribution, in particular is that it's more than just mind control, it's something beyond that. In some ways it's sort of an evolution into a new existence. It brings with it certain benefits! 


Nrama: So is it more of an assimilation?

Karpyshyn: Sort of an assimilation, sort of an ascension, sort of an evolution of the organic and synthetic hybrid. But obviously with a dark undertone. The thing we wanted to get across is that it's not just a thing that's done to you, it's something that happens to you. It progresses and grows, and there are benefits to it. You know, Grayson became extremely physically strong, powerful in biotics. With the Illusive Man, this is something he has been studying because he sees the potential of getting the benefits without the drawbacks.

Again, I'm not trying to spoil anything… things are never exactly what they first appear. [Mass Effect 3] is more than just "Oh, Cerberus was indoctrinated the whole time." It's a complex story that you can see the roots of in the novels.

Nrama: We found it pretty interesting that Kai Leng, who was a standout character in the third novel, came out of the game development; how did that play out?

Karpyshyn: You know, it was kind of a simultaneous thing. We were looking for interesting characters; concept artists love doing concept stuff, and Mass Effect has a strong visual style. Leng was a character that fit in with both stories, he fit as someone that could start out very simple, just the muscle, the hit man, the "cleaner," but then becomes something else. He embodies Cerberus's beliefs, he's very pro-human, and he's doing horrible things to other species.

So it fit into the game that was coming, the overall story, and it fit well with the story we wanted in the book.

Nrama: Your characters tend to evoke a lot of emotion. The characters in the Mass Effect games obviously are meant to evoke emotion and have real relationships, the characters in the novels almost moreso because you're getting deeper into their minds. Do you feel like it's easier to really create a character that can be hated, or really create a character that can be loved? 


Karpyshyn: I think it's probably easier to create a character that can be hated. But what I like to do, what I take a bit of perverse pride in is creating a character that a lot of people hate, but a lot of people also defend.

If you look at the feedback from the fans, there are people that say "Well Saren was a bad guy, but we kind of see where he was coming from." It's a little harder because he's not human, but Cerberus… there are people that argue that the Illusive Man is right! They say he's just doing what needs to be done.

Similarly with my Star Wars stuff with Darth Bane. I have people saying "I totally understand why Bane went to the Dark Side, it totally makes sense." I don't think you ever want to make an evil character who is just evil.

Creating a character someone loves is always difficult. There's not an easy way to do it, because if they're too earnest in liking you and it doesn't feel natural, then it's just awkward. Then they're that creepy stalker. So having a character that has a real connection with the player or reader because they love that character, that's a little trickier. That's one that I think at BioWare we do a good job with it, but it's always difficult. It always takes us a little longer to get the right feel, the right chemistry, and the right tone.

Nrama: Now obviously you've been working on major franchises for awhile, but is it still a kick or a shock to see people lining up day in and day out at conventions to get a glimpse of what's coming?

Karpyshyn: It's one thing to hear the sales numbers, and I get feedback on my website, and the boards and see people's passion. You understand it on a cerebral level, but until you get to a show and see the people, the lines, the crowds, the people in costume; it really makes you understand on a different level, it's a more emotional feel. It gives you a crazy sense of pride and joy to know that these people care so much about something you put your life into. It's awesome. I try to get to as many conventions as I can because I love to get that back and forth with the fans, get that energy from them. It makes it so much easier to do the things we do, knowing that people react so strongly to it.

Nrama: You mentioned Darth Bane, and you're actually coming back into the Star Wars universe now with the next Old Republic novel, right? 


Karpyshyn: The next Old Republic novel, I'm very excited about it, it's called Revan [Newsarama Note: at this point we both cackled with glee for a moment, and our incomprehensible excitement has been edited from the interview text]. And as the name would suggest it deals with the continuing story of Revan from the Knights of the Old Republic games, which set the stage for what Revan had done.

After the events of the first KOTOR game, as we learn in number two, Revan kind of left the galaxy; there were rumors he was going to try to seek out the "true Sith." Much of his memory had returned, but there are parts that hadn't, and he's trying to figure some of these things out.

That story was left open-ended. So now we finally get a chance to tell people what happened during the exile, see some other characters from that series, and people will be able to see how that dovetails in with The Old Republic game that we're working on now.

Nrama: So these events that are taking place a few hundred years earlier than the new game are going to affect the world of it?

Karpyshyn: They do! There's definitely a strong impact of what Revan does and what happens to him and what he experiences, that whole story. It leads up to what you'll experience in the game as a player of The Old Republic MMO.

As I said, it's very much; it's sort of like the first Mass Effect novel in that it's background that helps flesh out what's going on. If you don't read the Revan novel you'll still understand the story of the game, but this will add a new level to it. 


Nrama: Is there a particular thing about Mass Effect 3 that you're really excited about?

Karpyshyn: Well, I have to be careful. The really interesting thing for me about Mass Effect 3 is that I have not been directly involved on the game. Mac Walters and I were co-leads on Mass Effect 2, and it was always a trilogy, we had the broad strokes planned out, and I'm excited for fans to see that.

But the details, some of the new companions, the specific twists and turns, things like that, I have not been as involved in those discussions. So the thing I'm most excited about is actually playing it as a fan! I don't know it backward and forward like I did the first two games. So I'm going to be able to be surprised, and experience things like "Wow, that's brilliant, I never would have thought of doing it that way," or "that character is awesome, I love that this happened!" So for me, that is the thing I'm most excited about!

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