Get your arse to Mars
Derek Watts, art director on the Mass Effect series, had the following to say while we discussed the issue of finding the sweet spot between sci-fi homage and flat out cliché. “We’re in science-fiction to do some of those clichés, and a lot of stuff that we’ve seen in movies before. That’s the great thing about going to Mars: you’ve seen it in so many other movies and you’re like, ‘Shit, now let’s go there, too.’ Or like, ‘I wanna go there, let’s do our take on Mars and let’s do our spaceship and let’s have fun with that.’”
Derek expanded on this point further in how he deals with his concept artists. “I always tell the concept artist, never be too afraid of the clichés, we’ll just take them in a new direction. They’re there for a reason. I mean, they are iconic and they do help reinforce characters. Like, the troopers have the angled eyes to make them look angry. I mean, they can’t have the happy face and all of a sudden they come out and start murdering you as well. Y’know, we put the glowing eyes on and it’s cliché in science-fiction especially, but it’s public domain. Nobody owns it.”
When we sat down with Parish Ley, lead animator on the Mass Effect series, to discuss where he seeks inspiration, he mentioned a range of sources external to the science-fiction genre. “For Mass Effect 3, we’re looking at a lot of war photography, war movies, literature. We’re kind of drawing from a lot of war imagery, a lot of photography, and then also the classic war movies as well. For Mass Effect 2 we drew a lot more from the Dirty Dozen. What you’d see in Mass Effect 2 is a lot of camera compositions where the team is all included. With Mass Effect 3, we’re going a little bit more towards, say, a general-type of imagery. You’ll see Shepard sometimes more isolated in frame, to give the idea of the burden of leadership, the weight of trying to save the galaxy is on this one guy and what that kind of means.”
And when you’re tackling the complex narrative demands of the Mass Effect series, everything has to tie back to storytelling. For Parish, his work in animation has a huge role in carrying the story forward. “We tell stories through the people that you interact with. Because only in knowing those people can you understand the world. We can have a very dry, y’know, this is what happens in the universe, this is the science behind it; but if you don’t have people there to attach to those things, it’s just empty words to a certain degree. So making those personal relationships work is really one of our big marching orders.”
Loving the player
During our studio tour, we got to visit the Mass Effect writing room: the place where all of the characters, plots and, intimidatingly, the ever-expanding narrative variables are carefully tracked. BioWare uses a number of tools to help the developers track the many twists and turns of the narrative along with the seemingly endless alternate plot points that change from player to player, depending on their choices in the first two games. Mac Walter, lead writer on the Mass Effect franchise, talked us through the tools, highlighting the complexity of the writing team’s job by filling a screen with variables relating to a single plot decision in Mass Effect 2.
Suffice it to say, we were intimidated. Considering how important the overarching narrative is in the Mass Effect series, we were keen to pick Mac’s brain about how he approached various challenges with save games being carried forward from two previous games. His response was inspiring. “We knew that we wanted to involve the key characters in Mass Effect 3. The key really was that we have to be able to tell an amazing story no matter what: whether you’re a new player, whether you’re a returning player, whether this person’s alive, whether that person’s alive. So the key really was on, ‘Tell me a compelling story first on a mission.’ When we do peer reviews, some people play it when that person’s alive and some people play it when that person’s dead, and you’ve gotta have both and make sure it feels great no matter what.”