Interview: Mass Effect 3 writer Mac Walters discusses the challenges of interactive narrative and his love of Downton Abbey.

I’m going to admit something here. I really don’t like Star Wars. Here’s the thing: There are certain stories that work well as videogames, just as there are stories that work well as movies or films. Space operas, with their seemingly infinite room for expansion, endless idiosyncratic planets and funny-looking aliens, and waves of lore and technobabble, make more sense to me as games.

This is what BioWare must have realized when it created Mass Effect in 2007. Intergalactic interactivity is to a film saga as those touch-everything science museums you loved as a kid is to your high school chemistry class. The series is approaching its final chapter with Mass Effect 3, which is due out on March 6. Mac Walters, who began his career as a writer for the original Mass Effect and now leads the team of nine writers for its final act, talked to us recently about his history with BioWare, the challenges and rewards of crafting interactive narratives, and the similarities between a space opera and “Downton Abbey.”

Where were you before you came to BioWare? Did you always know that you wanted to write for videogames in particular?

It’s funny to go way back-I was never one of those kids who knew I wanted to be a doctor or anything like that. Even in university I wasn’t sure what I wanted to be quite yet. But there’s one thing I do remember distinctly, and that’s way back when getting a copy of the original Bard’s Tale. On the back of the cover it talked a bit about the developer and what they did. I thought that was pretty amazing, and that that was something I’d love to do.

People who were supportive of me, people I grew up with, often said that writing-especially writing for videogame-are you really gonna make money at that, etc. So it was more of a dream, but it was nothing that I actually pursued. I ended up working in IT and management for several years before having my own business back east. And lo and behold Ray [Muzyka] and Greg [Zeschuk, co-founders of BioWare] came to talk at a small business conference. I just happened to talk with them, and the thing that struck me most about them was that these were two guys that knew a lot about business. Having come from the business world myself, this was what was so surprising; it wasn’t so much-I knew their games were amazing, but they were also quite savvy in their business acumen. And for me that was it, that was the last barrier. It was like, “No, these guys are running a smart business, and why shouldn’t I?”

Have you ever done any other types of creative or dramatic writing?

Nothing that I published. But all of my elective courses in university were always around Greek or Latin literature. I took a lot of the 18th century literature. That was was what I enjoyed. I wrote for fun; I’ve done lots of different things but they’ve always just been for my own enjoyment prior to this. This is the first time I really went out there and made a job of it. And it’s been great! I mean it’s also been a learning experience, I’m still learning.

How is this type of writing is unique for you?

Well at its core, telling a narrative is just telling a narrative. But there are definitely really distinct challenges that come with telling interactive narratives. Obviously if you go too far one way and you give too much freedom of choice, then the story just breaks down; it’s very difficult to maintain a narrative thread. If you go too far the other way, well then you’re just watching a movie. Not that there’s anything wrong with watching a good movie, but the beauty of interactive fiction is that it offers more than that.

One of the things that’s interesting about Mass Effect 2 is that your gameplay choices affect how many of the characters survive during the final battle-how well you prepare the ship, whether you complete certain character quests, things like that. How do you balance the completionist tendency of a gamer who wants to complete every quest, collect every treasure, fill every bar up 100 percent-with the need for drama and tension in the story itself?

Part of what you have to start to do as a writer in those instances-and it’s not just with the big choices, it happens with the smaller choices that you encounter on a mission-is that you want a certain dramatic tension in it. With multiple outcomes, we know the drama isn’t going to be as high or as peaked in certain instances of that, but that’s the joy and the curse of giving player agency.

You have to come around to the side of the player. So, I would love it if you played it this way and experienced it this way, but you are choosing to pursue this path. And that’s your choice-clearly that’s what you want your game experience to be. And so we want to craft that player experience to be as whole-heartedly appropriate to the choices that you’ve made. So in those cases maybe the tension does come down, but maybe there’s more of a sense of heroism in it, the sense that, “Wow, I really did pull out all the stops and made this work perfectly.”

How has experiencing the last two games as a player influenced how you’ve gone about writing the third game in the trilogy?

It’s really in those moments between games, when I’ve had time to think about it as a whole, that I’m able to think about it as a final product. I remember in ME2 coming away and one of the first things I said was “I really want to get inside Shepard’s head more.” I wanted to know more about what Shepard was going through-having been rebuilt from scratch. So in Mass Effect 3 we want to make it so that you can have the option as Shepard to talk about this stuff. Of course you still get to choose what they feel about what’s going on, but that’s one of things we wanted to add in.

What is your sense of who Shepard is as a character at the bottom of all the different choices you can make for him or her?

Well the trick in this is defining that set of parameters which is true in every case of Shepard-male, female, whether they’re earth-born, if they’re ruthless or a war-hero. And at the heart of that, what it really comes down to is this is a professional soldier who’s seen a lot, and of course now has seen even more than when the Mass Effect series has begun. From there you let the player’s choice influence it-are they gonna be more of a hard-ass soldier, are they gonna be more of a caring soldier, are they interested in the crew, or do they just see the crew as tools to be used?

In Mass Effect 3-this is the fun of interactive narrative-there’s two sides to whether or not Shepard can expose more of himself talking about this. The first is, he can choose not even to engage it. If someone comes up to you and ask how you’re feeling, you can just say, “I’m fine, let’s go, why are we even talking about this, let’s go kill some more guys.” You can have that Shepard. And then on the other side, if you do choose to talk about this, within that you can say, “I’m thinking about the war back on Earth, it’s really getting to me.” Or maybe you’re thinking more about a particular character depending on your history.

So the player becomes the conduit for Shepard’s internal life in these stories.

Yeah, exactly. I mean at the heart of it, that’s player agency, right? It’s not agency in what I do, it’s agency in who I am. Who is my Shepard?

One of the things I noticed when I first watched the “Take Back Earth” trailer was the striking similarities with the famous Lyndon B. Johnson “Daisy Ad” from his presidential campaign. Are allusions like that intentional on your part?

Obviously with the world that we created there’s the basic distinction as a sci-fi universe in the future. There are certain things that hold the world up for what it is. But what I love about Mass Effect is you can really draw from anything! I encourage that from my writers-if you’re writing a character for this narrative, obviously it’s got to fit in the context of what we’re doing in the Mass Effect universe, Galaxy at War and Mass Effect 3, the themes of survival at any cost.

Once you realize that yes, sure, the Reapers are here, the galaxy’s ending, and that’s driving everything, the actual things that these people are going through are much more revolving around things that we can relate to here and now. They’re worried about family, or they’re excited about a new opportunity. I’m honestly drawn to anything with amazing writing, amazing characters. Right now I’ve been watching a lot of Downton Abbey—I love the writing, and obviously there’s been a lot of people talking about it lately. But just all the intrigue in it! Watching it, I’m reminded of all the political crap that Shepard has to deal with. And that’s an example of something that obviously has nothing to do with the genre, but it’s still something I take inspiration from.

What are some other games whose writing you admire? Are there any other types of stories you’d like to pursue after Mass Effect 3 is finished?

I’ll be honest, right now I have a stack of games that’s up to my knee that I haven’t played because I’ve been so busy with Mass Effect 3. So I’m excited to see what other people have been doing while I’ve been making a game. But I do know that between Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3, one of the things I looked at was-I don’t know if I’d call it the writing, but the cinematic style and delivery of Uncharted 2 really drew my eye. I look at that and say, “Wow, those are some very compelling people.” I’m happy to sit there and watch what’s going on in that scene-I don’t even need interactivity in that scene because it’s so well done. And that was part of the game that I really wanted to strive for in Mass Effect 3 as well. And so I’m looking forward to playing a lot of other games as well. I’ve seen a bit of other ones out there-things like L.A. Noire, they had some interesting ideas of what they were doing for things like facial capture. Who knows where that could go.

Yannick LeJacq