The “Mass Effect” video game series is one of the most popular of all time. Bioware’s saga of Commander Shepard and his fight against the brutal Reapers began in 2007 and has continued through two sequels, spawning numerous downloadable content packs, including the “Citadel” story DLC slated for release on March 5.
Since joining the creative team with “Mass Effect 2,” Mac Walters has been one of the writers at the forefront of the “Mass Effect” universe. Not only did Walters serve as a writer on the acclaimed sequel, he was the story lead for “Mass Effect 3” and has written four different miniseries based in the “Mass Effect” universe for Dark Horse Comics. While the game allows players to discover a rich science fiction universe of diverse locales and characters through the eyes of their own Commander Shepard, Walters’ miniseries give fans a chance to experience that world through a different point of view.
At Emerald City Comic Con, Dark Horse announced Walters’ return to “Mass Effect” comics with “Mass Effect: Foundation,” an ongoing series — the first in “Mass Effect” comics history — and while the comic’s subject is hush-hush, it’s sure to continue expanding Bioware’s universe.
CBR News spoke exclusively with Walters about his plans for the series and the challenges in writing both comics and games. He also looks back at the controversial original ending of “Mass Effect 3” on the one-year anniversary of the game’s release.
CBR News: Mac, so far you’ve added four miniseries to the “Mass Effect” mythos spanning all the way back to the release of “Mass Effect 2.” “Foundation” will be your fifth entry into “Mass Effect” comics. What can you tell us about the story behind the series?
Mac Walters: We worked on the “Homeworlds” series last year, and in a lot of ways, what I wanted to accomplish with that was an homage to the characters that people knew and loved from the “Mass Effect” universe. If you’ll recall, I tried to incorporate feedback and story thoughts from some of the writers here at Bioware who specifically worked with the characters we’d be doing that with. By and large, I thought the response for that was great. There’s always going to be somebody who loves Tali or Garrus, and they want to know as much as they can about those characters. It wasn’t a risk — I don’t think Dark Horse felt it was a risk — but it was definitely a different way to go about it. We weren’t telling a four-story arc across a series; we were really telling individual one-offs, trying to tie them together thematically. I really enjoyed working on it. It was a different way of approaching the storytelling, really focusing on characters. Of course, at Bioware, we’re always very character-focused.
When we started talking about what we could do in the future, we said, “Well, obviously, something that’s character-based could work.” Rather than going into an area where we tell brand-new stories in a universe that people know already, maybe we could find ways of fleshing out some of the stories that we’ve heard hints of already. At a high level, that’s where we thought about going with “Foundations” and that’s where we went with it.
This will actually be your longest series to date, with 12 issues planned so far — a full year’s worth of story on a monthly schedule. What kind of adjustments have you had to make to pace the story over that amount of time?
Part of the reason I was able to commit to doing such a long one is that — in the past, we would say, “Okay, let’s think about doing four issues. Do we think we can handle that?” Obviously, at some point in that process, we’d be falling into full production cycles at Bioware and things would get pretty crazy where I’d be trying to get my deadlines done for “Mass Effect” the game and I’m also trying to get deadlines done for Dark Horse. But with the wrapping up of the game last March and moving into DLC, I thought, “Okay, maybe this is an opportunity where maybe I can spend a little bit more time and do something a little bit more ongoing before we move into full production on whatever comes next.” That never works as well as it seems. [Laughs] I’ve already found myself — Dave at Dark Horse will tell you — I’ve already missed a couple of deadlines because I just got swamped on things that I wasn’t expecting to get swamped on. But by and large, it’s worked out really well.
The challenge for me is that this is the first series that I’m scripting all myself as well. While I have scripted some of the shorter ones before — I scripted the first one in “Homeworlds” — it’s not more work because I don’t have to review my own work, which is nice, as opposed to somebody coming in and scripting it, I have to review it and back-and-forth. But it’s different work. It’s kind of fun to be fully creative, but the trick is always — in my job, anyway — to be creative in a span of time that allows me to get my creative juices flowing. I think that’s probably the hardest thing for me. Some days, I literally have to say to everyone, “I’m not coming in today. I have to write Dark Horse.”
With the announcement of “Foundation” and the upcoming release of the “Citadel” downloadable content for “Mass Effect 3,” it seems like the perfect opportunity to tie the two pieces together. How are the two connected, if at all?
We’ve consciously tried to make sure there will be some connections. Without getting into the details, I think the simplest thing to say is, as I said before, we are very character-based in the way we tell stories. We believe the best stories come from having strong characters. If you were to look for what ties them together, I think that would be a good place to start.
Staying on that track of a character-based approach, Dark Horse has said that the story will feature a strong female character. While I know you can’t spoil anything, how does writing this character compare with writing some of the other female characters in the series, like Liara, Aria and Tali?
Interestingly, I’d say one of the differences was that the concept for this character came about through the comic first. We don’t do that too often. Feryn from “Redemption,” who later appeared in the “Lair of the Shadow Broker” DLC, he first showed up in the comics. The interesting thing is, when you take a character and you make a story that in the comics at least focuses on them, the main difference is — we have these strong characters like Ashley Williams, Aria T’Loak — they’re all experienced through Shepard’s eyes and Shepard’s experience with those characters when we deal with them in the game.
In the comics, that’s not the way. We can say, “This is their story.” I remember that was one of the things I enjoyed most when we first started telling the stories with Liara in “Redemption.” It could just be about Liara and what she’s going through without having to filter it through Shepard. A lot of these tell a story that’s a little more personal, a little more intimate for them and allows you to delve a little deeper into the character and how they would react in a specific situation, as opposed to the game, they may have to tell you how they’d react to a situation or how they reacted to situations in the past. Here, we actually get to witness it. I think that’s the fun in developing this character. She started in the comic world first, so I was freed up to focus on her story and her journey and her background completely.
With “Foundation” as the fifth “Mass Effect” series under your belt, how do you think your comic storytelling has improved and evolved since “Redemption” in 2010?
The trickiest thing for me — I think very visually anyway, that’s just the way I think. That wasn’t the hard part, but I think the hardest part is that as a writer in RPGs, I use words and dialogue a lot to express what I want with the characters. What that can do, obviously, is constrict or take away from what the artist is trying to do in a given panel or page in the comics. Sometimes what I need to do is back away and go, “You know what? Maybe I just need to describe a scene and let the artist have at it and have fun with this moment,” as opposed to me trying to have a wordy dialogue back and forth. I’ll be honest, that’s something I think is ongoing. I’m still working on that.
I think the thing that I’ve been most thankful for, specifically Dave [Marshall] at Dark Horse, but everyone I’ve worked with there. I always ask for feedback, but they’re always good at pointing me to good examples and say, “Hey, you could work on this or work on that.” I’m very much of the mind that I always like to be challenged and I always like to be growing. Anything they can do to help me improve that, I’ll just keep working on it. We’ll see. It’s definitely been, like I said, a different challenge scripting consistently and finding that creative space. In doing “Foundation,” it’s made me more aware of the demands on the script when you have it every month — here it is again, here it is again. Now I’m actually on the hook for the words again, which is kind of fun actually.
The last time we spoke with you, “Mass Effect 3” had yet to release. Obviously the game’s ending had a somewhat mixed reaction with fans, but it’s coming up on a year after the initial launch of the game. With that distance and the ability to look back, is there anything you would have done differently in terms of the way the writing team chose to end the game?
Regarding the ending, and I kind of said it before, we released the Extended Edition endings and they obviously added a lot to it that the fans were looking for. I think that, hindsight being 20/20, we set out to make the best game we knew how as we always do. I think given the timeframes that we had to deliver it, we delivered on that. Even when you look back on it now, like you said, to take time and look back over the year, the game is still rated at a 93 on Metacritic. People love the story, they love the characters, and while people had issues with the ending, many people have understood — sometimes with the help of the Extended Cut — where we were trying to go with that. But I still feel we delivered on the story that we always intended to and I’m very proud of the progress and all the work the team did to get there.
One of the major revelations of the fan reaction to “Mass Effect 3’s” ending was that video games are a much more story-driven medium than they were even 10 years ago. As a prominent writer in games that has the benefit of comics experience, how do you think that trend has effected the video game medium?
There was a time that I remember — 5, 10 years ago — where people started to recognize the importance of story, but we didn’t necessarily have the tools, or we hadn’t necessarily trained people to implement that properly — I don’t necessarily mean at Bioware, I mean in the industry in general — to understand how to intertwine things like fun and gameplay with story. That is an ongoing challenge, I think. Now you see games coming out and it’s kind of fun because you start seeing how some people are just taking story to the Nth degree, like “The Walking Dead” series, which is critically acclaimed for a lot of the choices and decisions that you can make in it. It really is like interactive fiction. That’s the path they’ve chosen to go, but even at the other end of the spectrum, you look at “Portal.” I remember when “Portal” just came out and everyone latched onto the cube and anthropormophized it. People are hungry for characters and something to tell the story. I think what we’re going to see in the future, hopefully, is that there isn’t a formula to apply story or characters to a game and that we recognize as an industry there are times when you need to apply as much effort to developing character and story as Bioware does if that’s appropriate for your game, but there are other times when you can go story-light and people will infer it.
I’m excited about it because I see a lot of young writers coming up now and they’ve grown up with a much different view of story and games than I did. When I grew up, it was text adventures. My reference is probably more TV and film and books as opposed to games. Now, there’s a whole generation coming up and they actually have story in games as a reference. I’m very interested to see what they do with story and how they take it, I’m hoping, in new directions that guys like me can’t even imagine.
Video game fans are definitely becoming more hungry for story and for content, and a lot of the “Mass Effect” miniseries have given fans a rare opportunity to get a good look at the background and supporting characters of the universe. As the handler for both the game and the comic, how much of this mythology has been set in stone since the original “Mass Effect” and how much is developed specifically for the various miniseries?
Generally speaking, everything has been — except for the examples I mentioned earlier, like Feryn or this new character — a lot of times they are set, not in stone, but certainly set in motion for the games. We are here to make the “Mass Effect” games and the DLC that goes along with them. That’s our primary goal. Whenever we do an ancillary product like the novels or comics or animation series we did with James Vega, those always have to blend with the universe as seamlessly as possible. So, as much as we can, we always try to make sure that myself or Casey [Hudson] is involved in the process intimately so that they don’t come off the rails and feel like something that’s tacked-on, or just added in there like we slapped the “Mass Effect” game on it. We want it to feel intertwined with the lore we already have there, with the characters and the backgrounds that we’ve already created. By and large, everything has been set in motion for the games and for the purpose of the games. But because it’s such a huge universe and because it’s so expansive, you can imagine that there’s just thousands of stories that you could start to tell and probably as many other stories that we know a little bit about, but we don’t know all the details about and we’d love to know more about. I think that’s the beauty of comics for me. As an example, the Joker comic — we know Joker became the pilot of the Normandy, but how did he become the pilot of the Normandy? You can tell that story and show it from Joker’s perspective.
I’m shying away from the term “set in stone.” We certainly set things in motion, but there’s a lot more we can do with it.
It’s interesting that you talk about seeing these characters from a perspective other than Shepard’s, but Shepard is the protagonist of the game. Considering that every player’s Shepard is arguably different, there would be a huge stumbling block in including Shepard in any of these comics. Is there a chance you would want to write a Shepard-centric “Mass Effect” miniseries? Even if something like that were to move forward, do you think it would even be possible?
I don’t know how you’d do that. The problem is you can’t even go back to a young Shepard because it could be male, female; you don’t know the background — I don’t know. I think people inferred so much and put so much of their self into their Shepard that I can’t imagine it every actually working in a way that would feel true to the game and to Commander Shepard in any way. The only way you could do it is say, “Yep, we’ve got default Shepard. Here’s a story.” Some people would enjoy it, but I think a lot of people who played the game would go, “Yeah, it was okay, but that’s not my Shepard,” and they wouldn’t associate with it. You might as well write a story of Conrad Werner being Commander Shepard and sending him on an adventure at that point. It’d probably be more fun.
While the recent “Homeworlds” series focused on squad members from “Mass Effect 3,” many of the “Mass Effect 2” squad members got brief missions in the final game of the trilogy. Considering the ongoing nature of “Foundation,” are there plans to revisit those characters and check in with what they were up to following the final mission?
“Foundation,” as you might have guessed by the working title, is that it’s the foundation. So we’re going to go back and look at some of the — we’re not necessarily inventing new stories, we’re going to go back and look at existing stories. Based off the response to the “Homeworlds” comics, people can look forward to some of their favorites showing up again, maybe even characters that haven’t been touched on before.
Beyond “Foundation,” there’s been a lot of big news in gaming lately with the announcement of the PlayStation 4. Are there any developments you can tease about happenings in the “Mass Effect” universe moving forward, especially in light of these next generation announcements?
I think there’s already been mentions of the Montreal studio working on potential “Mass Effect” stuff. Obviously in the industry, we’ve known that Next-Gen is coming for a while now, but didn’t necessarily speak up about it. We consider all of that as we plan any future game, whether it’s a “Mass Effect” game or not. I can’t say I have anything detailed or fun to tell you, I’m afraid.
I’m very excited to see what the fans think about “Citadel” coming out. I always tell people that we are developers, but we’re also fans working here. One of the mandates I set forth for the team when we started working on “Citadel” was, “This should feel like wish fulfillment not just for fans, but for developers. What have I not explored that I’ve been missing?” Really, just throw it out there and see if it works. I think there are going to be a lot of things in “Citadel” that fans are going to truly enjoy and love and remember. Enjoy!