BioWare's five year mission to boldly rebuild a beloved series
On Wednesday 22 February, there was a curious, disbelieving buzz in the studios of the video game developer BioWare in downtown Montreal. That morning, NASA had announced the discovery of seven Earth-sized, potentially life-harboring planets orbiting a dwarf star called Trappist-1, around 40 light years from Earth. Many at BioWare – home to the beloved Mass Effect series of sci-fi role playing games – felt that the timing was a little too good to be true. Some employees suspected NASA was punking them. Others wondered if there was a BioWare-NASA cross-promotional campaign they didn't know about.
On Tuesday 21 March, BioWare will release Mass Effect Andromeda, which happens to center on an interstellar quest for habitable "golden" worlds beyond the Milky Way. The start of a new chapter in the series, Andromeda begins at the pointy end of a one-way, 634-year journey to a new galaxy, transporting players 2.5 million light years away from Earth – somewhat farther out in the cosmic neighborhood than Trappist-1.
Ten years ago, the first Mass Effect was hailed as the game that "Does For Games What Star Wars Did For Films". It was that rare blockbuster event in gaming whose impact transcended the medium, a pop culture phenomenon in its own right: James Gunn, the director of the exotic planet-hopping Marvel film Guardians of the Galaxy, has cited the series as among his "biggest inspirations."
Also a fan: NASA visualization scientist Robert Hurt, one of the Spitzer Space Telescope project artists behind the official illustrations of the Trappist-1 system. "When I first played Mass Effect and I first walked up to the galaxy map, I was actually kind of surprised," Hurt says. "It actually looked like the Milky Way, based on what we know in astrophysics. And I was really struck by all the thought that went behind the exploration element – they were taking things into account like the age or the temperatures or the sizes of the stars, the distances between planets and stars, planets with liquid, or volatiles, or rich in heavy elements or that were very dry and didn't have an atmosphere. I actually became one of those players of Mass Effect who reads every single description of every planet in the game, just having fun finding out all the little astronomical tidbits in the background of the universe."
Mass Effect takes its science seriously. It's a rare game that inspires elevated discourse on general relativity versus quantum mechanics while treating gamers to authentic imagery from the Space Shuttle and Hubble Space Telescope. The name Mass Effect itself alludes to one of the foundational ideas of the series – a distortion of spacetime that allows for efficient interstellar travel.
Andromeda well and truly carries on the series' commitment to scientific credibility: as part of the research process, BioWare initiated meetings with the European Space Agency and crew members of the Mars-500 mission ("Those guys lived the story we're trying to tell, so they're a primary source of knowledge," says producer Fabrice Condominas) and special care was taken to calculate a realistic length of time for the journey to Andromeda. "We can show you the math," studio director Yanick Roy assures me.
Lately, Andromeda creative director Mac Walters has spent his leisure time reading books such as Max Tegmark's Our Mathematical Universe and Brian Greene's The Hidden Reality. He was as excited by the recent Trappist-1 announcement as anyone.
"I was just like – what?!" he says. "It kind of felt like, that can't be real. But there's certainly a synergy with what we're doing with the game in Andromeda and what's happening in real life. The fun thing with doing something fictional is getting to ask, 'what else?' and 'what if?' on top of what's happening in the real world. We're exploring Andromeda in a time when people are once again looking at the stars. It doesn't feel like since the '60s have we had such a renaissance of stargazing and that wanderlust of what's out there."
It's early March and the BioWare Montreal studio is noticeably quiet; after five years of development on Andromeda, several team members are already off on vacation. Those left behind are fine-tuning details in the manner of painters applying ever-finer brushstrokes to a gigantic canvas. "When you go to that level of rich, believable detail," says lead designer Ian Frazier, "even if the player doesn't notice or recognize it, that depth registers on almost a subconscious level."
That the games go to the trouble of getting space right, for example – in a way that only a small percentage of players will fully appreciate – is a point of pride for Walters. Andromeda is the first Mass Effect game in which space has been carefully modeled in volumetric 3D.
"Most people aren't going to pick up on that," he says. "And maybe it's not something you can put your finger on. But there is an internal consistency that you want to strive for in any fictional endeavor so that it creates a believable world. We always wanted Mass Effect to be based in reality. Though obviously if we just think of something really cool we'll try hard to find a scientific explanation for it."
Game development is an inherently collaborative endeavor. A single level in a Mass Effect game features the combined efforts of a level designer, a level artist, a writer and an animator – together with the separate efforts of the voice actors and performance-capture actors – collectively enhanced by the efforts of a visual effects artist, a lighting artist, a sound designer and composer. At the height of development on Andromeda, the core team working on the game was around 230 people, split between Montreal, Edmonton and Austin, not including testers in a dozen different locations and the BioWare localization teams based in Madrid.
Asked about the reception the package received, Walters chuckles. "Well, they hired me," he says.
That said, it helps to have someone at the highest level to organize the collective vision. Over 12 years, Walters has developed an intuitive feel for the essence of Mass Effect and the ideas that drive it, graduating from lead writer on Mass Effect to senior writer on Mass Effect 2 and 3, and also writing extensively for Dark Horse's Mass Effect comic series. Most recently, he's occupied a role something like that of the "Pathfinder" Alec Ryder at the start of the new game, tasked with rallying and leading the team through terra incognita towards a new beginning.
"It's in his DNA by now," says senior writer John Dombrow. "He knows this IP like nobody's business."
In the early 2000s, Walters' job application to BioWare – he was increasingly disillusioned in his professional life, working as a small business consultant – was a playable module he had designed using the studio's own programming toolset. There was an introductory cinematic, plus three bound chapters he'd written of a gritty, Tolkien-inspired backstory ("like Game of Thrones but probably not as well written," he says) and a detailed map of the world. He also designed the box and the disc art.
Asked about the reception the package received, Walters chuckles. "Well, they hired me," he says.
These days, Walters' office is a shrine to the franchise he helped build, dominated by a two-foot-tall Reaper, one of the deep space-dwelling machine monsters of the trilogy. The figurine's pride of place is partly a tribute to the inventiveness of former BioWare executive producer Casey Hudson and Mass Effect art director Derek Watts. "It's a great reminder of how hard it is to come up with something original." It's also a clue as to how prominently and permanently the game looms in Walters' mind, even to the point that it's impaired his ability to muster the imaginative energy to enjoy other people's fiction.
"I do find it actually very hard to even go to the movies. I have to engage with it, I have to believe in it and I have to give that time, but I can't. I'm already devoted to this one fictional giant world. I find it makes things very difficult. Halfway through I just start thinking about Mass Effect."
Probably the most revolutionary aspect of the Mass Effect trilogy was the centrality of player agency. Over the course of scores, even hundreds of hours of gameplay, the player's choices meaningfully and profoundly affected the unfolding narrative and development of character. It was a gaming experience that cultivated one of the more uniquely passionate and invested fan bases in the medium.
When Mass Effect 3 was released in 2012, with an apparently less-than-satisfying ending, that very fan investment expressed itself in indignation and outrage. Hellfire was unleashed on message boards; petitions demanding a new ending were circulated; one especially chagrined player filed a false advertising complaint with the Federal Trade Commission and encouraged others to follow suit. A shell-shocked BioWare repentantly released "an extended cut".
Speaking with team members five years later, the word "heartbreak" comes up more than once. "People worked their asses off for months," says producer Fabrice Condominas. "On a personal level, it was tough to digest."
Coincidentally or otherwise, throughout the development of Andromeda, discussions about doing right by the fans were an almost daily occurrence.
"Almost every conversation, every debate, that's at the heart of it," says level designer Colin Campbell. "‘What is the way to get what the fans want the most?' I enjoy that debate. There's very little ego in that."
"The fan community is tremendous and a little intimidating," says fellow level designer Jessica Campbell. (Colin and Jessica are married.) "But I think it's actually one of the driving factors for a lot of the people who work here. It's fuel for us to keep moving."
Walters copped his fair share of fan vitriol for ME3, but if he's burdened by a sense of grave responsibility this time around, he doesn't show it. He might be just another keen gamer when, a few minutes after we first meet, he picks up a controller and says, coolly, "I'll give you the whirlwind tour."
WORLD BUILDING IN ANOTHER GALAXY
The term "word-building", as applied to the hand-crafting of elaborate made-up universes, is rarely as apt, or as literal, as it is for the Mass Effect games.
Every planet in the games comes furnished with a plethora of astronomical data: orbital distance, orbital period, equatorial radius, atmospheric pressure, surface temperature, mineral composition. From there, BioWare's designated demiurges apply layer upon layer of detail on the landscape: anthropology, architecture, biology, climate, ecology, geography, geology, technology. Particular attention is lavished on the lore, history and biological quirks of the various species that you mingle with or get menaced by: the metabolically hyperactive Salarian; the mind-melding, ambisexual Asari; the aquatically originated Angara, new in Andromeda. (Singular: ‘Angara'; plural: ‘Angara'; adjective: ‘Angaran'. Linguistics is also the subject of heated discussion behind the scenes.)
The abundance and density of meticulous writerly detail is likely what author Nicholson Baker had in mind describing Mass Effect 2 as "novelistic" in the New Yorker. "There were discussions about the quality of the primordial ooze the Angara crawled out of," lead writer Cathleen Rootsaert told me.
The awesome combination of massive scale and minutiae suggests that Mass Effect is a relative of the sort of fiction that captivated Walters growing up: The Lord of the Rings, Terry Brooks' Shannara series, Isaac Asimov's Foundation series. He says, acknowledging the cliché of it as a formative text, he was "literally the perfect age" – seven years old – when Star Wars was released in 1977. "We went to this theater, in a northern Ontario town, and they even had, at the start, a disco ball to try to get people into it. The fact that I still remember that? It had such an impact on me."
But, he says, as a self-described "space nerd", he was actually more into science fact than science fiction. One of the things that transfixed him most of all was the map of the solar system on his bedroom wall. "Seeing the planets all laid out, side by side like that? I would stare at those worlds and imagine what's happening there."
His first introduction to games came courtesy of a primitive computer his math teacher uncle brought home. "I was gone for, like, weeks. That was it." He became an avid gamer on the ColecoVision, and still remembers when he realized that video games were made objects, flipping over his box of 1985's The Bard's Tale and noticing a list of people who'd worked on it. "I still remember thinking, ‘That is a thing I would love to do,'" says Walters. "Then life ensues."
After a few minutes spent hot-footing through Habitat 7, a craggy planet strewn with bioluminescent flora and ravaged by electrical storms, Walters gestures to the floating rocks looming over the horizon. "There are huge issues going on with the magnetic flow of energy," he says. It turns out to be the least of the planet's worries.
The most significant difference between the trilogy and Andromeda is that, where the stakes were once universe-endingly high, the new emphasis has shifted to open-world roaming and exploration. The player controls one of two wide-eyed recruits, Scott or Sara Ryder, who can scan and learn more about whatever planet they happen to find themselves on, with environmental storytelling playing a big part. "It's not just about being a space marine and solving the galaxy's problems by shooting things."
There's plenty to discover. Even the game's creators are continually surprised, stumbling across something they themselves may have deposited there years ago. "You find little pockets of things and think, oh yeah right, I remember this," says Rootsaert.
During development, Walters described the feeling of space he wanted to conjure as being akin to his own experiences of scuba diving. "Everything is foreign down here. There's a real sense of wonder, as well as, ‘I don't belong here, this is dangerous.' And yet the reward of going to that place where you're not supposed to be and don't belong is part of the thrill."
Two artists in Edmonton specialized in vegetation, hand-placing greenery in the various biomes like interplanetary Johnny Appleseeds. True to the spirit of the game, even the ground underfoot is the product of effortful expedition: teams of artists were dispatched to Iceland, Hawaii and Moab and Goblin Valley in Utah to gather photogrammetric data on other-worldly landscapes. "We don't have the budget to travel to other planets," says Roy.
"You think of a rock as just a rock," says senior environmental artist Scotty Brown. "But there might be little tiny pebbles embedded within the cracks of the rock, or different kinds of grass of different colors. A lot of artists here have learned that those subtle details you don't think about are actually very important." A couple of years ago, the team was alarmed to discover one of their more distinctive rocks appear in someone else's game, Star Wars Battlefront – whose artists, it turned out, had also been sent on a scouting mission in Iceland. "It was a very good rock," says Brown.
For all the intrepid spacefaring going on, the Mass Effect series is grounded in relatable human drama at the intersection of space opera and soap opera. (Natalie Dormer from Game of Thrones and Kumail Nanjiani from Silicon Valley both lend their voices to characters in the new game.) It's only right that, just as the planetary landscapes have gotten more impressive in Andromeda, the mindscapes have gotten deeper and richer too.
When they weren't crafting story arcs, building lore and devising codex entries, the writers churned out some 70,000 lines of dialogue (ME3 contained around 48,000). Where the trilogy operated on a more simplistic binary psychology, Andromeda allows the player to choose from up to four different tones in character interactions (Emotional, Logical, Casual, Professional). For writers and level designers alike, it was exponentially difficult keeping track of the logic of a single conversation, let alone a character arc – but well worth it, Walters says, for the sake of more organic storytelling and more nuanced, persuasive characters. "We're not all white versus black," he says. "Some of the best characters are gray: you can't pin them down."
Likewise, there are more kinds of relationships available for the player to pursue – hetero, gay, bisexual, hot and heavy, slow and steady – which in turn have consequences on other relationships. Video game romancing has also come a long way since the days when, as Frazier put it to me, "you'd push the flirt button ten times to see the sex scene."
Walters, who has a Master's of Psychology, says he's always been drawn to the "delving into the psyche", which informs the writing in the games. "One of the things I often tell people, in writing, it's not about trying to come up with a unique character with a quirky affect. It's putting a relatable character in a foreign, unique situation – and seeing how they react," he says. "That's where the psychology comes in handy. And that's where the most interesting storytelling comes from."
A fascination with what makes people tick was in no short supply on the Andromeda writing team. "We're all armchair psychologists," says Rootsaert.
For the first time in a Mass Effect game, full performance capture was used – a nine-month process, allowing actors to perform together and play off each other. There are more interactive cut scenes and, in general, the storytelling is intended to be more seamlessly cinematic. "It's all about getting to that next level of fidelity," says Walters. This level of ambition has not come without some challenges, though. A 10-hour trial of the game was released on March 16 through EA's subscription-based Access program on Xbox One and fan response on social media crystallized around these performances specifically. The animation of certain characters and the appearance of graphical bugs has prompted GIFs, memes and YouTube compilations of the more distracting issues, which include characters walking strangely and weapons being fired backwards. Few of the problems are any different than those seen in other games of the same genre – games like Skyrim or Fallout or any other huge, dialogue-heavy experience where you can customize your character.
IT'S NOT MASS EFFECT 4
Displayed prominently on one of the studio walls in Montreal is a vast laminated poster labeled "Story Wall v2.1": a tangle of intersecting arrows, sections that double-back or branch off into other sections. It looks more like the frenzied markings of a conspiracy theorist than anything resembling a conventional narrative.
But, if it looks daunting now at the completion of the project, that's nothing compared to the blank slate of five years ago.
For starters, there was never really a serious possibility of the new game being a mere sequel to the trilogy. "Pretty early on the decision was made," says Walters, "‘No, we don't want to make Mass Effect 4. We want to do something brand new.'"
ME2 and 3 were simultaneously constrained by, and had the luxury of building on, the foundation of the first game. For the skeleton crew of five or six writers tasked with starting over, it was equal parts intimidating and liberating – a return to the blank slate and free-for-all spirit of the first game. For his part, Walters had first realized the boundless storytelling possibilities when working on the Mass Effect comics. "There was such creative freedom in that," he says. "It was just sort of… wow. There are a ton of stories, literally thousands of stories we can tell in this universe. Andromeda was an opportunity for us to go back to our roots, start a lot of that world-building over again. A chance to stretch the imagination muscles."
"That was a fun time in the writers' room, bouncing around ideas," says Dombrow. "Everyone's got a lot of ideas that have probably been percolating for a while. Anything's possible and no dreams have yet been dashed."
The Mass Effect trilogy had been thematically influenced by Seventies and Eighties sci-fi – Star Trek, Blade Runner – with a final instalment bringing the narrative flavor of grisly World War II stories along the lines of Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan. By contrast, asked about points of reference for Andromeda, writers mentioned real-world historical stories of pioneering settlers, Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness, and Joseph Campbell's concept of the Hero's Journey as exemplified by Star Wars. The youthful exuberance J.J. Abrams brought to the rebooted Star Trek – as well as its gentle nods to what came before – was also a touchstone.
It's possible to view the upward, adventurous trajectory of the new game – and its young, plucky protagonists – as an antidote to the downbeat nihilism that crept into the trilogy over time. "We've learned that maybe we should focus on the journey, rather than any particular point in the journey," says Condominas.
For Walters, Andromeda was also a chance to put aside the thematic preoccupations of past Mass Effect games and contemplate more timely and relevant ideas. The latest developments and conversations in the arenas of science and tech – quantum biology, artificial intelligence, humanity's relationship with technology – factor into the new story.
Concerns were raised, he admits, about departing from the feeling of the trilogy. Newer BioWare recruits, who'd experienced the games purely as gamers, were the most resistant to change. "For them there was almost an uncomfortableness in pulling too far away," says Walters. "But this is Mass Effect – we can't go too far. We look forward. The Mass Effect franchise was built on looking forward."
It's not without some trepidation that BioWare awaits gamers' verdicts on Andromeda. For some, the fan upset of five years ago over the incongruous ending to Mass Effect 3 that lacked the satisfying closure that many were hoping for, is still a thorny subject.
"It was a specific experience for all of us to go through," says Rootsaert, carefully. "We listen to fans. We can't help but to. They scream very loudly. And it would be silly not to take into account observations that five million people have made about our game."
"Sometimes you hit the sweet spot, sometimes you don't," says Dombrow. "But I've always felt that [backlash] came out of incredible passion and love. In that sense, we were so lucky to have that deep-seated emotional response. As an artist, you hope to make a dent, you hope people are paying attention to what you do. And boy were they ever on that one."
I think we underestimated what some people had invested in those characters and the choices that they'd made
"Yeah, it was disappointing, there's no other way to say it," says Walters. "We worked really hard to bring it to a conclusion. We did what we thought was the best thing to do for that trilogy based on the vision for it. And I think we underestimated what some people had invested in those characters and the choices that they'd made, to have it come to an end. I think it was the finality of it all. People had invested a lot of time and passion into it, and that wasn't the experience they were expecting. Part of it was we'd built it as this thing where your choices matter and they carry forward, and all of a sudden, we ended it by saying, now your choices don't matter, and it doesn't carry forward."
It's easy to view BioWare's handling of the backlash – the implicit mea culpa of delivering a "new and improved" ending – as a creative surrender verging on seppuku. But Walters manages to put a more optimistic spin on the episode. There's value, he says, in engaging and growing with a vocal fan base.
"I think, you know, it's kind of amazing that games sort of have this unique opportunity that other media don't seem to take advantage of, which is this communication we have with our fans and our willingness to adapt to what our fans are asking for. Maybe it's just because it is an interactive medium, so we're just a little more receptive to that back and forth."
There's an essential humility to Walters' philosophical acknowledgment that, in a profound sense, in the end, it's the player who determines what the game is. "We don't know what this is going to be yet," he says, referring to Andromeda. "These things don't come into fruition till it's in their hands."
By all appearances, though, BioWare has crafted a story of enduring human ingenuity, resilience and wonder. As Alec Ryder tells his crew early on in the game: "We dream of exploring the unknown. Finding the edge of the map. And then discovering what lies beyond." The speech might be a tribute to the insatiable visionary spirit that animates BioWare. Certainly, one gets the sense that this is a philosophical outlook that Walters can get fully behind.
"It is very much a human-first story," says Walters. "Ultimately, it's the idea that there's something more to us than meets the eye. We don't know what it is, we can't define it, but it allows us to do incredible things."