In the Mass Effect trilogy, Commander Shepard was already a hero. No matter which origin story players chose for their Shep, male or female, the commander had already demonstrated bravery, resourcefulness and, above all, the ability to lead.
That's not exactly the case for Mass Effect: Andromeda.
"This is a story about becoming a hero," creative director Mac Walters told Polygon at E3.
"What are you doing here? This isn't your home."
The details of Mass Effect: Andromeda, the next entry in BioWare's ambitious, space opera-esque series, have largely remained obscure. It's not "Mass Effect 4," but it is a game that builds on the concepts established by the trilogy: exploration, exotic worlds and relationships. The developer's most telling look at the game so far arrived at Electronic Arts' E3 press conference.
Walters, referencing the trailer shown, had one big thing to point out: a younger cast of characters seen on-screen. Where players pick up Mass Effect as "a hero who then became a legend," Walters said, Andromeda focuses on characters who are far greener.
"We've probably all experienced at one point in time where we kind of felt like a fish out of water," Walters said.
In the Mass Effect universe, that concept is pushed to the nth degree. Mass Effect: Andromeda is no exception. You're not just an unfamiliar face; you're an entirely different race in a totally new place. Walters calls the game the story of a stranger in a strange land.
"People are kind of looking at you and going, 'Well, who are you and what are you doing here?'" he said. "This isn't your home. The only way that works is if we really make that an integral part of the story, and the story of the characters that you meet when you're there."
Over the course of our interview, there are a few ideas at play that Walters mentions: stranger in a strange land, "I am the alien," becoming a hero. These ideas date back to the earliest days of the project, he said, when BioWare was thinking about how to pursue a "hero's journey" kind of tale.
"we look to the stars as humans. It's something that's kind of in us"
"It would be very easy for us to go in and, you know, be the typical space marine who goes in and doesn't really recognize the impact that they're having on everything that's happening there," he said.
"What we want is someone who — I mean, it is a third-person shooter. What we don't want is someone who is like, 'What's a gun? I don't know what a gun is.' It's very important to us that, you know, you come ready for whatever's there, but to me it's more about, well, what experiences have they had up to that point. Has it just been training, have they actually had any live action, and most of the things we'll start talking about during the fall as well. You can imagine the difference between that and Commander Shepard."
This is something BioWare struggled with a lot on the original trilogy, Walters said — that you'd expect Shepard to know so much, and yet somehow players must be on-boarded into the universe and its workings as well.
"We're freeing ourselves up with in this game," he said. "It's new to the protagonist in the story as well, so you get to experience it with them, ask all the questions that they're probably asking as well and kind of go on that journey together."
This is true of characters within the game as well. Walters spoke briefly about how the team considered the kind of journey Andromeda's hero would experience with his or her fellows as well, and how they might form a bond.
"Think about it: alone in another galaxy," he said. "You don't necessarily have all the supports available to you that, say, Commander Shepard would have. How do they deal with those scenarios? For me, the most interesting thing about writing any character is not about trying to come up with some interesting hook for that character, but rather it's more about putting them in interesting circumstances and then seeing how they react to it. What could be more interesting than a brand new galaxy to explore with who knows what you could find with every planet?"
When asked if it's a more personal story than Shepard's journey, Walters concedes that's a fair observation. The team leaned into the more personal aspect, he said, but it's still Mass Effect. You can still expect the grand-scale of space and a driving sense of "there's something else out there."
Walters is still tight-lipped on the plot beats of Andromeda, dropping no more than hints about the state of Mass Effect's universe in a post-Shepard era. They point to fall for further announcements, when they'll have more to share on gameplay and the conflict at the heart of Andromeda.
"We're not getting into specifics right now, but you can imagine how long it would take to — even with the best technology, travel to a new galaxy — so you can imagine this is taking place quite a distance in the future," Walters said. "But there are strong ties to the original trilogy that players will recognize. "
Walters compares the original trilogy to a sort of foundational background; it's established the game's species and the general concepts and technology of the Mass Effect universe. That means new players can jump into this game with no previous knowledge of Shepard or the reapers.
"We'll be re-explaining [the series' technology and concepts] in this game, but other than that, this is very much a standalone game that then takes place in a completely new galaxy," he said.
In the original Mass Effect trilogy, Shepard was a central hero around which everything was built. The character appeared almost exclusively as the same guy in trailers and ads until Mass Effect 3, when BioWare let players choose a default "FemShep" to represent the game. It was an intentional choice that is perhaps a thing of the past, Walters said.
"When we started the Mass Effect trilogy, there was this idea of it being very cinematic and movie-like," he said. "So having a singular, titular hero that people recognized, and they had the same name and the same gender and everything like that, the same look — that was important at the time.
"I think that's something we've moved away from, and we want to embrace choice and diversity with what you can do in the game. I think you can expect to see more of that in the game as we go forward. It's less about saying, here is a named character who you will play, and more this is the role that you can play and this is the way you can play it in."
One thing staying the same: Players will still control a human hero. According to Walters, Mass Effect has always been a very human-centric story. It gives the players a foothold in the game's expansive lore, something they can relate back to.
"The first game was very much about humanity coming on the scene, and then finding themselves the underdog," he said. "I think that's always been just core to the story that we're trying to tell — seeing all of this through human eyes. Ultimately we're all humans. That's the story that we're going to relate to and understand the most. It's part of the franchise, part of the IP.
"When you look for something we can all understand — you look at, even today, there's this huge desire for people to talk about or learn about exploration, whether it's talking about going to colonize Mars, we look to the stars as humans. It's something that's kind of in us. We want to travel there. Being able to recapture that from a human perspective is ultimately the best way to sort of tell that story."
Andromeda's hero is largely still a mystery. Since the game's reveal, BioWare has dropped a few hints about the character: the deliberate use of Johnny Cash's "Ghost Riders in the Sky," and a fan-spotted dog tag (among other hints). Producer Mike Gamble confirmed that Andromeda's hero will go by the the handle "Ryder" — further confirming that the character we see waking up near the trailer's end is, in fact, the game's lead.
"But you know what? In this game, we've come back and we've already seen it, and it became a core focus for the team."
The return of the Mako in Andromeda may have shocked (and perhaps even puzzled) some fans, but internally Walters said it was a non-controversial choice. Andromeda is heavy on its exploration, and the Mako goes hand-in-hand with that.
"It was one of the earliest things," Walters said, "aside from the combat itself, that we were really sort of looking at internally to say 'Well, let's do this, but let's do it right.'"
Doing it "right," he added, is everything from how the Mako handles to what you can actually do in it; where it's taking you to or from. BioWare general manager Aaryn Flynn adds that post-Mass Effect 3, the team had "a lot of notes," both internally and from fans, to work with. That expands to Andromeda's rarely talked about online component. While Mass Effect 3 was the first in the series to introduce online play, it did so in a way that tied the game's ending to how much players participated in the "Galaxy at War" multiplayer. Flynn calls the response "a mixed bag."
"I think there are some people who really enjoy the novelty of that, but others who didn't want to have to go to a different kind of gameplay mode to have an impact there," he said. "That was heard loud and clear.
"I think we learned a lot. We hadn't made an online game in a long time at our studio. We felt like we were dipping a toe in water we hadn't been in in about a decade. So we thought, OK, we're just really impressed by how much we learned in that, we want to apply a lot of that to the next game."
So, will the online component have any impact on the game's main story?
"Yeah, I wouldn't expect it," Flynn said.
Walters added that the team wants to create "more positive ties" between the two: the main campaign, and an online component.
"What could be more interesting than a brand new galaxy to explore?"
The core tenets of the game, however — branching dialogue, relationship building and exploration — will remain intact when the game launches for PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Xbox One. Although it was a "conscious decision" to move on to the Andromeda galaxy — and away from Shepard's story — BioWare still wants to recapture the unknowns of the original.
"I think ultimately again, when you looked at the first game, there's a sense that you got to experience everything for the first time," Walters said. "We wanted to be able to create that again, whether it was for a new player or for an existing player, things are gonna be new again. Given that we had sort of laid out most of the Milky Way for you, regardless of timeline or anything like that, it felt like going to another galaxy offered us that opportunity."