In less than a month, BioWare's wildly popular Mass Effect sci-fi role-playing series will come to an end. At least, as far as we've come to know it. While Mass Effect will undoubtedly live on in some form or another, the primary trilogy players have immersed themselves in is on the verge of conclusion. The story of Commander Shepard's role in the war against the Reapers will conclude, and the Shepard fans have spent hundreds of hours building into the Paragon or Renegade or something in-between that you yourself willed him or her to become will perhaps ride off into the void of space, never to be heard from again. Or, maybe not.
Whatever the fate of Shepard and crew turns out to be, the end result almost pales in comparison to the journey that's gotten them there. When Mass Effect debuted back in late 2007, it's safe to say that, for as hotly anticipated a game as it was, few could have foreseen the fervent fandom that cropped up around the franchise. From the various DLC offerings to the myriad universe novels that have popped up in the last several years, people seemingly can't get enough of this space-faring world BioWare created. Undoubtedly, going into Mass Effect 3, those who have become particularly attached to their own Shepard are viewing this upcoming conclusion as bittersweet.
For their part, the developers at BioWare and the always convergence-minded folk at EA are doing their damnedest to ensure players have every opportunity to milk Mass Effect 3's story for all it's worth. In addition to another very lengthy single-player campaign, BioWare recently announced the Galaxy at War mode, a four-player cooperative campaign that, while an entirely optional experience separate from the main game, nonetheless entices players to complete it in service of both experiencing another side story in the Mass Effect story line, as well as contributing to a "Galactic Readiness" rating that plays into the single-player campaign's final battle.
And just this week, BioWare announced even more ways to experience the fringes of the Mass Effect 3 story via iOS. One way will be via a new Datapad app, which includes a whole host of codex entries for people to browse through, including detailed histories on the events of the previous two games, as well as some minor integration with your current Mass Effect 3 game. The other is Mass Effect: Infiltrator, a combat-oriented game from IronMonkey Studios that puts you in the role of a Cerberus soldier named Randall Enzo, who has been tasked with hunting down a variety of extraterrestrial species so that his Cerberus overlords can study them. It's a completely separate campaign that focuses almost exclusively on the combat stylings of Mass Effect (as translated through the touch-focused gameplay of an iOS game), and once again, completing this story will factor into your Galactic Readiness rating in the main game, provided you sync the two up with your EA Origin account.
I saw both of these apps, as well as a 45 minute demo of Mass Effect 3's second mission, during an EA press event just a couple of days ago. Rather than give you a spoiler-heavy blow-by-blow of everything that took place in said demo, I will simply say that its Mars setting made for quite the intense battleground, and a solid introduction for series newcomer James Vega, a hard-ass soldier played surprisingly well (at least in the few scenes I had with him) by Freddie Prinze Jr. Suffice it to say, the action was great, the story took some intriguing twists and turns, and lo and behold, those 45 minutes more or less flew by like mere seconds.
I also had the chance to talk with Mac Walters, the lead writer of Mass Effect 3, about all of the above. Walters was on-hand at the event to unveil both the Infiltrator and Datapad apps, as well as debut a new trailer (which everyone will apparently get to see next week sometime). In talking to Walters, I definitely got the vibe of a man as conflicted as the fanbase. It's understandable, given that he and so many others at BioWare have essentially lived and breathed Mass Effect for years of their lives. Seeing it come to this conclusion has to be both exciting and perhaps just a bit sad.
Still, Walters was nothing if not enthusiastic in talking about the upcoming iOS side ventures, the newcomers to the cast, the unfortunate story leaks that occurred some months back, and what it is, above all else, that he hopes fans take away from the series as a whole.
Giant Bomb: You guys are just about done now, right? Ready for submission?
Mac Walters: Yeah, we're pretty much done right now. We're just waiting to hear back, waiting to make sure nothing's going to stop [the submission process], yeah.
GB: The new iOS stuff is pretty interesting from the perspective of someone who might be interested in trying to wring the most out of the Mass Effect 3 experience possible. How did that stuff come about? Was that something generated internally? Did EA just come to you and say, "Hey, what about if we do this?"
MW: I think a lot of it was generated by wanting to do something like Galaxy at War. It came from Casey Hudson (Ed: Executive Producer of the Mass Effect series). He knew he wanted that sort of immersive experience you could get from doing things like the iOS games, and also incorporating multiplayer as this Galaxy at War mode that we've got. And then after that, it was just about finding out who was interested in helping to bring it about.
GB: In the case of IronMonkey, who also did EA's iOS Dead Space game, what was the process like in terms of putting that together? Is that game something that was written out internally and handed off to them? Was it more of a collaborative process?
MW: From very early on it was Casey, myself, and their team talking about the story. As much as possible when we work with another party like that, we want them to...especially because they were very excited about working with the Mass Effect universe, we were like, "Well, what do you want to do?" And then there will be a list, and we'll say, "Well, you can't do that, and we know we're going to be doing this in Mass Effect 3 so that doesn't work. But how about something like this?" And that's the way it's worked, with the back-and-forth. At key points they'll be like, "Well here's the whole script, take a look and let us know what you think." And we'll go through the process again, but it's really more about letting them solve problems on their own than saying, you know, "This is what you should write for this."
GB: As for the Datapad app, who is that more geared toward? Is that designed to be something of a catch-up tool for newer players with the codex?
MW: Probably the most inclusive thing on the Datapad app is the codex entries, which of course are available in the game. The ones in the game will be tailored to your experience and open up as you play the game. While we wanted to add other ways to access the universe, we didn't want you to necessarily feel like you HAD to have them. They had to be optional, but they also had to feel useful in their own right, and fun, just like the Infiltrator game, which is amazing.
GB: You've got a number of new characters joining old ones this year, including Freddie Prinze Jr. as James Vega. How did he get involved with the project?
MW: The cool thing with Freddie was that he's actually a huge fan. He's played both Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 two times through each, both Renegade and Paragon. Like, he knows it, he gets it, and he was super excited to be a part of it. You can tell in the performance. He brought James Vega to life in a way that was just incredible.
GB: Another interesting casting choice is G4 and IGN correspondent Jessica Chobot as reporter Diana Allers. It's an especially interesting casting given that you're using her likeness in the game as well as her voice. As you haven't often done actor likenesses in the game previously, what was the inspiration in doing so here?
MW: We don't do it very often, though we did it before with the Miranda Lawson character and Yvonne Strahovski. I think that was something Casey envisioned. He thought she'd be perfect for that role. And it's kind of cool because she is one of those people from the game industry that you recognize. So it's like, "Oh, hey, there's that girl I recognize from TV!"
GB: I guess the potential concern there is that seeing someone you recognize from the TV in that context might pull you out of the experience a bit.
MW: It's something you always have to pay attention to, but I don't think it was ever a real concern. For us, it always comes down to the story first. So it's like, "Hey, this is the character we need you to be," and it's the same with any of the voice actors we get in.
GB: With the introduction of these new characters, not to mention the fact that in Mass Effect 2, depending on what choices you made, there were certain characters that could have lived through to see the conclusion or ended up dead, one can't help but wonder if or how you could potentially bring some of those characters into the Mass Effect 3 story in a meaningful way. Like, were you able to factor those characters into the plot should they have survived? And if so, how did you manage to do that without breaking the flow of the narrative?
MW: The thing we knew we wanted to do, from very early on, was to say, "We're going to tell an amazing story, regardless of whatever choices you've made before." So that was the first thing, tell an amazing story first. But as much as possible, the more important the character was in the past, the more you'd want to see them in Mass Effect 3 as well. So that factored into what level of involvement they would have in this game. If you're looking at bigger characters in Mass Effect 2, they're going to have a bigger role in Mass Effect 3.
And of course, therein lies our challenge. How do we tell these possible stories, maybe even create a mission around a character who may or may not be there. But by and large I think we've done a fantastic job of doing it. I'm really proud of the writers. They've taken that challenge, and it's been a lot of planning and a lot of rewrites [laughs], but I think we've pulled it off. And not even just from the previous games. The idea was to incorporate anything from all of the lore. So we've got characters from the novels coming in, and other people you've probably heard about throughout the Mass Effect universe, they should show up in some form in Mass Effect 3, because we really want to tie up those narrative threads.
GB: What would you say was the biggest overall challenge in writing Mass Effect 3?
MW: Biggest challenge by far was...it was kind of twofold. One, we really wanted to be able to present this game to new players, so we had to go back and ask, "Okay, how do we tell the story in a way that's fun for existing fans, and fun for newcomers." And a lot of times what that means is you have to branch it out, like you've got to tell not necessarily a different story, but tell it in a different way. That was probably one of the initial challenges.
But then also, when you're talking about dealing with fans, how do you tell an amazing story that can branch in so many different ways. I've played through the game like seven times now, and there are still parts of the game I haven't seen, at least not without cheating, you know? There are just huge parts of the game I can't get to yet because it's that massive, it's that expansive. So obviously tracking all that, planning it all out, and dull as it sounds, even just making sure all the logic works. Like oh that person's alive but that person's dead, so we have to account for all of that. And just tying all of that together into one cohesive story that is phenomenal.
GB: A while back it was learned that the story of Mass Effect 3 had leaked out onto various Internet forums. How did you guys handle that? Did you ever look at making changes to the story content to try and combat that? Or was it more about just saying, "Forget it, we're not going to let this mess with our plans?"
MW: It was pretty disheartening for the team, and for the writers especially. You know, it's kind of like someone just broke into your house and started reading all your journals. That's pretty much what it felt like. But as far as making adjustments, we haven't done anything. For one thing, the content that went out wasn't really in a form...you still had to piece things together. And some of that stuff had been cut, changed, or whatever. So we couldn't let something like that change what we had set as a course two years ago. So we just dealt with it and kept making the game. It was more about just encouraging everyone that "Hey, what we've made is something fantastic. Don't let anything that you're seeing out of that get you down."
GB: Speaking more on the grander scope of the entire series and its culmination in Mass Effect 3, what's the one thing you most hope players will take away from the overall experience?
MW: I think I want people to feel like they really have lived Shepard's story. And in concluding Shepard's story, that it does feel fulfilling. And in a way that I think nothing else ever has. If you're a fan of Star Wars and that first trilogy when that ended, sure, you felt like you wanted to get back in that universe. But the difference here is that you've lived it, you've experienced it, you've been a part of it. And of course you can go back and play it a different way to see how that turns out.
I just hope that in the end, there are lots of different ways people can talk about their Shepard's story, and how it's different from other people's.
GB: Do you know yet what's next on your plate? Are you head down on Mass Effect content for the foreseeable future, or are you starting to get a sense of what your next project might be?
MW: Right now, one of the things I'm focusing my efforts on is really looking into the future of narrative in games and interactive narrative. The Mass Effect series was always about baby steps, evolving the series a bit at a time. Now, I, and I think it's fair to say a good portion of the leadership team is too, we're thinking in terms of "How do we revolutionize with the next step?" And we're really so early in that process. Our brains are still pretty numb from the time spent on Mass Effect 3. But that's really the thing I'm looking forward to in the future. Sitting back, and soaking it in, saying, "Wow, that's what we made. What's next?"