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Mass Effect writer reflects on the trilogy’s grand ambition

Discussing everything from defenestration to alien kisses

Mass Effect - a Reaper descends from above, shooting a massive space laser Image: BioWare/Electronic Arts
Cass Marshall is a news writer focusing on gaming and culture coverage, taking a particular interest in the human stories of the wild world of online games.

Mass Effect: Legendary Edition is a way to re-experience the original RPG trilogy, and it’ll be the first time some people see the games. The series hits different in 2021, but parts of it — like the romances and the squadmates — still shine.

Mac Walters was a writer and director on all three games — as well as follow-up title Mass Effect: Andromeda. He also served as the director for the Legendary Edition, which required him to sit down and replay the games for a fresh once-over. He has some thoughts on Mass Effect 1’s legacy, the clamor to fuck Garrus Vakarian, and the most unnecessary potential death in the series.

[Ed. Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

Polygon: As you look back at the trilogy, years after its original release, how do you feel about the reaction to the squadmates — especially the interpersonal relationships with characters and the romance scenarios? I feel like you can see the fingerprints of that in a lot of games today, from Triple A releases to mobile games.

Mac Walters: We really tried to push the bounds of what I would call interactive, cinematic storytelling. Everything from the fact that we patented the conversation wheel — you see something like it everywhere now, right? It’s very commonplace. But the whole goal of that was to kind of remove some of the barriers between the game and your interaction with the characters, to really make it feel like it was a seamless experience with a cinematic quality to it.

I think there was a degree to which we were thankfully successful at creating characters who ... I don’t necessarily think every character appeals to everyone, but there’s a character there for everyone. We let each writer add their own influences and nuances to it, so the characters could have their own individuality and come to life.

The importance of developing relationships between Shepard and the characters, tying all of that into the Suicide Mission [at the end of Mass Effect 2] was something we hoped would be meaningful, but I don’t think we could have imagined how meaningful it was, allowing people to explore those relationships as part of the journey towards a successful mission was kind of unique. It’s very cool to see what other people have done with it, for sure.

Something I find really interesting is the romances are all different. Jacob straight up dumps you — I think he’s the only one who does. With others, you have more of a soulmate connection. Was that intentional from the start, to have a huge diversity of relationships for Shepard and the crew? What goes into planning that out and figuring who fits where?

We knew there would be three trilogy relationships — we don’t have to call them romances — that would span, in some form, over all three games. It was planned, right from the get go, the idea that you would meet and potentially become best friends or romantically involved [with Kaiden, Ashley, or Liara] in the first game, but then in the second game it would kind of wane. Only if you stayed true to them would you be able to continue certain aspects of that.

But then, when we saw the fan desire to be able to have romance or deeper relationships with Garrus, for example, it pushed us to try even more and add even more layers to those relationships.

Mass Effect - Garrus Vakarian, a Turian squadmate from Mass Effect Image: BioWare/Electronic Arts

In the wake of Mass Effect, there were people who were like, I don’t care about Miranda and Jacob, I’m just here for Garrus and Tali. Were you surprised at how quickly players formed relationships with the aliens on the Normandy, and maybe found the humans a little boring in comparison, or was that what you expected?

I don’t know if I would go so far to say I expected it, but in hindsight, I probably should have, because as a writer I certainly gravitated to the aliens over the human characters. I got the opportunity to write Garrus and Wrex in the first one and found so much challenge in freedom in being able to partly define who they were individually, but also using them as the centerpiece for explaining their species and its role in the galaxy. It was probably a delighted surprise that people wanted those relationships so much, and then we were able to push them even forward.

Characters like Conrad Verner, and the antagonistic journalist Khalisah al-Jilan developed based how fans reacted to them. How do you think those arcs will read now that players get to see them back-to-back? Do you think the pacing of their stories will read differently without years of fan discussion and memes? Is that a positive thing, or do you think some people might not realize why a guy like Verner gets so much spotlight?

Right? Yeah, that’s a good question. I personally have found that experiencing this as a proper trilogy, with all the content there, has changed the way it feels when I play it. Before it felt like, you’re right, three distinct blockbuster movies. You think back to the original Star Wars trilogy, we had to wait three years for each one to come out, but they all had to stand on their own while you’re still frothing for the next one to come out.

But now I think it feels more like three acts of one huge momentous space opera, and there is something really kind of enjoyable about the downbeats between each act, as it were. Then everything starts to refresh and kick off again and it’s like you’re rejuvenated to go back into it. So for me so far, I’ve actually been enjoying just that, taking things through all the way at once. It takes a while, but yeah, I enjoy it.

Mass Effect - Shepard looks at a giant alien lifeform on the planet of Eden Prime Image: BioWare/Electronic Arts

What was the most surprising thing about going back and revisiting the trilogy?

Two things. One, how much there is. You can’t understate how much content is in there. With the three games, let alone the single player DLC, every time you make a change you have to test everything and man, it takes a long time. When you’re making multiple changes you realize, Whoa, there’s a lot here, and like you brought up earlier all of the different choices and paths people can take. It’s just massive.

The other really interesting surprise for me was Mass Effect 1. I struggle to go back and play any game I’ve shipped because all I can see is the bugs. It’s very difficult for me to turn off the developer head and get back into it. Even when we were working on Andromeda, and I wanted to re-experience the trilogy, I was like Oh, man, this is a slog.

So it’s been a while since I’ve been in there. When I started playing, I was like, I can’t believe what we pulled off. You know, back in 2007 when it came out ... we were building it in 2004, 2005, right? And all this physics, gameplay, just everything we had been able to achieve. As clunky as it was in some things, I was just like, Wow, amazing.

I’m very lucky and fortunate that I now had the opportunity to go back and revisit Mass Effect 1 and take some of the lessons learned from 2 and 3 and apply those to 1 so we can get those rough edges off and let the amazing things we did accomplish shine through.

Looking back, I think fans are still debating things like Is Ashley a xenophobe? Or, What’s the right decision for certain missions? Do the conclusions fans come to based off the games ever surprise you? Did fans ever take theories and run with them, or interpret the writing in a way you didn’t expect?

I think a great example of that would be something like the indoctrination theory. I never planned for it. Never thought about it. But I love that the world and the IP support people to make theories like [indoctrination theory] and pick apart the writing to say, I actually believe this. To me, that’s just great.

I do love that people have their own spin on the games, because ultimately some of my favorite storytelling is where I’m left with room for my imagination. I’m left to fill in some of the blanks myself, that sense of mystery and things we can debate as people who have experienced a story together.

To me, I don’t know whether we have intentionally set out to make those spaces and to what degree it came about, but I love that it’s there. I think, looking back, it’s certainly one of the things that made this series so popular because people could apply their own experiences and imagination to it.

I feel like Renegade takes a little bit of time to find its feet, compared to Paragon. There are times in Mass Effect 1 where Renegade is knocking people out and being a jerk to people around you, and then there are times where it’s more of a pragmatic, ends justify the means worldview. How did Renegade come together, and how do you think it comes off now with the benefit of hindsight?

That’s a really good question. So, I would call these “narrative mechanics.” You know, whether it’s the Interrupt system, or Paragon or Renegade, they do very much evolve over time as we figure out what works and what doesn’t. I remember by Mass Effect 2 we started doing much clearer definitions — the design and writing teams could say, ‘if you go past here, that’s too Paragon. If you go past here, that’s too Renegade. Try to keep it in these bounds with certain examples.’ So it became a little more predictable as you went on with the series and you would know what was going to happen.

That said, I think some of the … I don’t want to say cringeworthy, but man, there are some really hard Renegade choices. Recently, I did a trilogy, full Renegade playthrough [for the first time], I’m not going to take any Paragon choice options. And whoa, man, there are some choices in there that are really challenging as a human just to make. I don’t think we’d have the data, but I’d love to know how many people took them, because they’re set up to be like … I don’t think I could ever do this, even as a Renegade player.

Like on Virmire, when Wrex confronts you, I actually wrote that scene on Virmire. I had forgotten how brutal killing Wrex was. A lot of the time, people don’t want to take those options. Even when they say they’re Renegade, they take the Paragon choice [at story points]. So, how well did it hold up? I think it did. If you’re not having doubts, and questioning [your path], then I think we did it wrong. So the fact that people still aren’t sure about some of the choices, I think that means we did it right.

Mass Effect 3 - Shepard attacks a husk with her omniblade Image: BioWare/Electronic Arts

I do remember in Mass Effect 2 the Renegade interrupts were always a lot better than the Paragon interrupts. The Renegade interrupts were always like, ‘see you next fall!’ and then you’d shove a guy out a window. That was great.

That was actually our very first interrupt we did; we prototyped it on that level. I don’t know if it was the best, but it’s funny that people do call it out a lot.

With Mass Effect 2, you’re assembling characters for the suicide mission, and I think some of them — like Jacob — get a lot of flack. I read him as a restraining force on Shepard to balance out the space pirates, and bringing him on a Renegade run where you’re throwing people out of windows is really funny. I’m curious — when you see characters people don’t like, do you try to improve that for the future? Or is that intended, like you don’t want everyone to see every side of every character in their crew?

Oh, yeah, that’s 100% intentional. It goes back to what I was saying, which is that you want to write a character so someone will hopefully gravitate towards [them]. But if you try to write a character that everyone gravitates towards, you’re going to fail. I mean, it’s not just that you’re gonna fail, but how substantial is that character going to be? How meaningful can a character be if they appeal to everyone?

There needs to be something there that you have to work with, that challenges you. And if it challenges you so much that you’re like, No, I don’t want to deal with that, that’s fine. That’s your choice. It emphasizes choice, I think. In my Renegade playthrough, I was like, you know what? I’m going to lone wolf this. So I collected people, but I didn’t talk to them much, and I knew what that would mean. It was a disaster at the end.

But the interesting thing about that is the choice even to engage with the characters or not is a choice, right? That that can obviously have impact in the gameplay, but also just lets you express, you know, how you want to play the game and how you want to interact here and, and so having a few characters who you’re kind of standoffish to and others that you gravitate, that’s the intent 100% all the time.