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Archive for December, 2010

In this final part of the Critics Circle’s week-long series, Mac Walters espouses his views on the Illusive Man. Who is he? How did he come to be? Was his creation really inspired by The Smoking Man on The X-Files? Read on!

HG: What is the overarching role of the Illusive Man in the comics?

MW: He will do anything for the sake of humanity in the game, even the horrible things sometimes, if that’s what’s necessary. But he’s a very gray character. What is his moral stance? Can you trust him? But as the name suggests, we didn’t give you a lot of hints about who he is. The comic was a chance for us to go back in time and discover how he got to be the head of this massive organization, Cerberus and what established his pro-human world view. So we find out about the key points in his life that made him what he is in the game. We have this character who is cerebral, clearly very powerful, but what was he like as a young man? Did he get out? Was he rough and tumble with a gun?

HG: In essence, he’s you and he’s me. This guy really in a sense is EveryMan because we all have what he has in us. But he’s also like the Smoking Man from The X-Files, and the Virtuous Man as well. Or are people just riffing on what they think you’ve been inspired by?

MW: I’m sure it’s a bit of both. We’re all riffing on something and our ideas are based on our experiences and what we’ve seen. But we wanted him to be very unique and iconic, even down to the stage we always witness him on. What is that sort of sleek, black room he sits in with his chair while he has his drink and has a cigarette?

Casey (Hudson) even had some people in real life to riff on, the people at a party someone instantly gravitates to because they have a strong presence. Plus, we’re fleshing out his back story. But because of his nature, he’s never going to be the kind of character that we’re going to learn too much about in the game.

He’s not the kind of guy that will hang out with you and have windy conversations about his past. So the comic gives us a snapshot of what happened back in time. But not too much. When the comics starts, he’s already in his thirties. So what did he do before that? What was his childhood like? We want to leave that open to people’s imaginations or for further story telling in the future.

HG: So what can you tell me about Mass Effect Evolution?

MW: It’s a new series of four comics, the first of which will hit in the first quarter of next year, and then, one issue a month for four months.

HG: What can you tell us about the plot?

MW: We’re not saying too much at this point. But if you’re familiar with the universe, you’ll see people and places that you’re familiar with. But they’ll be in situations you won’t expect to see them in.

HG: What about the Illusive Man?

MW: We’ll see him in a more active role that we’ve ever seen him before. We’ll tell a little history about the First Contact War. So we’ll know a bit more about these guys, the Turians. We’ll know more about humanity’s first step and then misstep into the Mass Effect universe and ending up in war with one of the powerful species there. Through a person that we know now is so knowledgeable and has a wealth of information at his disposal, what was the universe looking like to him as one of the first humans to explore it?

But each of the mediums has its own flavor. I worked with the Dark Horse people to make sure this wasn’t just a good Mass Effect story. First and foremost, it was a really good comic book story.

-Harold Goldberg

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In this portion of our week-long Q/A, Mac Walters waxes on about the Mass Effect comic. How does it distinguish itself from the videogame? And how is it like the videogame. Mac tells you, right here.

HG: When you look at Mass Effect as a comic in particular, do you always look at what readers want today in comics generally?

MW: The comics kind of serve two purposes. If you’re a fan of the game already, it’s a way to explore the universe in a way you couldn’t in the game. Mass Effect Evolution actually takes us back in time almost 30 years. We’re probably not going to have a playable version of the game that’s 30 years in the past. On the other hand, you get people who haven’t experienced Mass Effect at all. That’s where the Dark Horse expertise becomes so key.

HG: How so?

MW: I’ll say, here’s the story I want to tell. And they’ll say, you’re pushing too much into a territory than an outside person wouldn’t understand. In the first comic, for instance, I was a little too referential in telling our story as far as what was going on. We changed the start of it so that it opened up in a way that shows an awesome blue alien kissing ass.

You immediately wonder, who is she? What’s she doing? That doesn’t necessarily demand that I know anything about the Mass Effect Universe. Yet I think it makes people want to find out more about who this character is and maybe pick up the game. So we center these comics on interesting characters.

HG: And what does Dark Horse tell you about art? Where your eye goes in a video game is so different than where your eye goes in a comic.

MW: Fortunately, I’m working with a very talented scripter, John Jackson Miller. Especially for the first one, it’s me going, Here’s a high level story of about 20 pages for four comics. It was up to him to say, no, break that down, scene by scene, panel by panel in all of that. I was pretty much the newbie. You try to keep it to a single action per panel.

And try to keep it to one idea per page. It was so different from what I was used to in telling the story. I love it. But one of things that transfers well is that Mass Effect is a cinematic game. So when I think of a conversation, I’m not just thinking about the information revealed. I’m also thinking about what happens visually in the scene, about what’s happening in graphical and visual terms.

HG: In a sense it’s just as much conceptual work as the game because you have to keep thinking about what moves the story forward and what moves the eye forward.

MW: I’m a pretty harsh editor and I worked with a great editor at Dark Horse, Dave Marshall. You don’t want to do too much, just the essential thing to move it along. The action has to keep moving.

-Harold Goldberg

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Today, Mass Effect’s Mac Walters continues to speak about the craft of writing, giving you a look at the complete writing process for the series which takes place at BioWare’s lair in Vancouver

HG: You’re writing up to 30,000 lines of script per game. How do you manage that?

MW: It’s up to me as the lead writer. Because it’s interactive media, I like to say, I can write a couple of lines of dialog fairly quickly. But there’s a whole bunch of characters downstream from me who have to do something with those lines. They have to give it voice, stage actors and build the models for it. So that’s the kind of accountability that we as writers have. And if you write too much, it’s going to get cut. Or you’re just going to anger a lot of people.

You try to figure out what scope a mission should have and sit down with the lead designer and producer to find out how many missions we want in a game. We ask, are they 20 minute missions, 40 minute missions? Then, my writing guys provide the right content. But they’re very free within that realm of that sort of box we want to put in there. So I’ll say, here’s the story and please fill in the blanks.

HG: Can you take me through the whole writing process?

MW: We have a sort of narrative review process where most levels will start out just as a pitch, like a one-line raiser, maybe a short summary of who’s involved and what’s going on. Then it goes on to a player experience document, which is only about half a page. But it says, this is what happens in my mission. After that’s approved, we meet with cinematic designers to see what they could help us with. That’s when it becomes a really collaborative process when we say, step by step in a very detailed way, this is what happens in this mission.

Once that’s all done, then they actually start writing the dialog. So it can be two to eight weeks before you actually start writing. I often tell my writers, the thing that makes our writing as good as it is is not that any of you are Hemingways, it’s that we iterate, iterate, iterate. We’re willing to let our babies go if we need to.

HG: And that good writing trickles down to even the more minor characters. Which of these do fans like?

MW: Emily Wong, Conrad Verner. They loved the fact that he would follow you around in a kind of humorous way. A lot of times it’s the hard to find characters who have something fun or unique for you. That’s one of the beauties of doing a trilogy. We can actually react to what fans like and do something else with them.

HG: Gus Mastrapa said that if you’re not playing the female commander in ME2, you’re not getting the full experience. What do you think of that?

MW: I think the key with all of what we do is that there’s preference. Some of the romance lines are only available if you play as fem Shepard or male Shepard. I encourage people to try them both and see what they like.

HG: I’m sure other media inspires you. What have you read or watched that you might riff on in the next Mass Effect?

MW: By and large, I encourage that – to think about things that the writers are already familiar with. A lot of times it’s things that are happening or things that they’re interested in. A lot of times with speculative fiction, with just a little twist, those kinds of things will fit. Almost any news story you’d see on the Internet today, can with a twist fit in our universe extremely well.

HG: What’s really hard to do?

MW: One of the hardest things to do is humor. We always want to inject humor, but sometimes it can take away from the larger thing you’re trying to do with these big epic themes. I also encourage people to bring their own individual experiences in, their own voice. That’s how we get such varied characters.

-Harold Goldberg

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A while back, Mass Effect genius Mac Walters and I had a talk about the art of writing in the science fiction videogame series, the latest iteration of which tops many year end lists this year. About one-sixth of this five-part series was published in EGM.

But, as writing in games begins to get the attention that graphics do, I think it’s important to let Walters wax profound about both the writing within the game and the adjunct comic book series. So, beginning today, here is Part 1 of the full interview.

HG: Is the comics series something for people who don’t know Mass Effect?

MW: For the people who haven’t played Mass Effect or read the comics or novels, I think if you like a good story, you’re gonna like Mass Effect. It’s a fantastic story. The characters are interesting and fun and it’s a fantastic shooter/adventure RPG. If you haven’t played the game, you might think, “It’s an RPG. That scares me a little.” We’ve gone to a lot of lengths to make the game accessible. You can go deep into it if you want, but you’re not forced to. You can pick it up, play as a soldier, run in, fight, kill some guys and along the way you get a fantastic story and get to explore this amazing universe.

HG: But the game is such a big game. How do you go about organizing your life and your mind to do these kinds of varied and branching stories?

MW: And it gets more complicated in the sequel because it gets more complicated than in the first game. So it really is a lot of planning, more work and documents than I’d like to admit to. But I work with a team of from four to six writers. So it means a lot of meetings, not just hey, write a great story, but write a great story and keep this in mind.

It’s like, here is the main story. But if you want to do your Jack Acquisition plot, that’s great. But keep it in a certain context. All the stories can branch, but they need to come to a common end point. And you always have to look at this: what consequence does this story have on the main game? You ask, Is it too big of a consequence? Does it happen too early in the game? Don’t have the consequence happen right away. Instead, build up to it so you can deal with it fully in separate cut scenes.

HG: When you start a game, you have tons of ideas for story. Can you detail some things that were cut, but you wanted to stay in?

MW: There were whole plots of mine that were cut for Mass Effect 1. I originally came up with the whole Cerberus plot line, which has a bigger role in Mass Effect 2. You join the Illusive Man and his group. There was a whole global plot, a plot that spanned many worlds involving Cerberus in Mass Effect 1 that we ended up cutting. A few hints of that plot remained, and that’s what we built on for ME2. The plot was completely gone and the characters were gone. We built so much around the Illusive Man for ME2.

-Harold Goldberg

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Next week, I’ll begin a week long series on the writing within one of the decades great series, Mass Effect.

It’s a five-part interview with Mac Walters on the writing in the game series and in the comic book series. Mac really waxes profound throughout.

Right now, it’s time for some holiday levity.

Here’s Vikings of Yule, a Flash game that’s really difficult (in a good way).

And here’s “Santa Baby” done the Game Goddess way.

-Harold Goldberg

 

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Last week’s NYGCC panel tackled a ton of interesting topics, but there was one point in particular that resonated with me: Evan Narcisse’s comment that this year, we saw a lot of good games, but not a lot of great games. It was a solid year, Evan said, but we saw too many sequels and more than a handful of publishers decided to “play it safe.”

While I’m inclined to agree with Evan, Metacritic tells a different tale. In fact, according to the site’s game review aggregations, twenty-one games of 2010 scored 90 or higher, which seems to indicate that they were all pretty great.

Most of other the panelists and audience members agreed with Evan, as do I – this year was speckled with more good games than great ones. So how do we explain the Metacritic discrepancy? What if maybe, in retrospect, some of the 8s and 9s we gave out this year really weren’t all that accurate? What if some of those scores were inflated? What if, after spending 10-20 hours with a given game, our brains were too immersed in wonder to give accurate scores?

Take Super Mario Galaxy 2. It’s the highest game on the list, ranked 97 overall. In fact, it’s the one of the best-rated games of all time according to Metacritic – beating out BioShock, Baldur’s Gate II, Half-Life II, and a host of other classic titles that often come up in conversation when gamers discuss the greatest games in history.

But do people really think Super Mario Galaxy 2 is one of the best videogames ever? Sure, it was a lot of fun to play, but looking back, does it even come close to achieving the kind of transcendent experience that StarCraft (88 on Metacritic) or Metal Gear Solid 2 (96) can offer? Hell, I can barely even remember which levels were in Super Mario Galaxy 2 and which were in the first.

To me, Super Mario Galaxy 2 was just another good game released this year – not a great game, but a good one. Several years from now, I can’t imagine anyone replaying it and thinking “wow, this is one of the best games of all time.” Could it be that when some reviewers played through Super Mario Galaxy 2, they were enamored by the game’s charm – which is pretty damned alluring – and had trouble staying distant enough to grade it fairly? It’s happened to me, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

Look, it’s okay to enjoy playing games – we wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t love gaming. But as game reviewers, we have a responsibility to be honest and critical with our scores – there’s a big difference between a fun game and a great game. And if every fun game is worth an 8 or a 9, how do we grade the great ones?

It’s essential to try to balance immersion with critique – to stay fair while also staying fans. If we want to be able to talk about games on any sort of critical level, we have to stop tacking high scores on every fun game that comes along. We have to recognize what games are great – and what games just seem to be. We have to reward innovation and lambaste lazy design.

Let’s make scores mean something.

-Jason Schreier

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I’ve always been drawn to Guerrilla Games’ Killzone series. While I’m not the biggest fan of the military shooter (whether it’s set in a sci-fi universe or in the present day), there’s something compelling about Killzone that rustles up the team spirit in me as a single player.

Maybe it’s the dark soul of the game.

At a recent event in Chelsea, Hermen Hulst, Guerrilla’s game director, showed off the new science fiction thriller which hits stores in February. There was a lot to crow about – an impressive plastic gun designed by Guerrilla and a more perfected 3-D technology, which Hulst first unveiled to the public this summer on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.

It wasn’t the gun or the 3-D that intrigued me most. I was most interested in gameplay and story. Earlier in the year, I’d seen the wicked, wild living winter waters level which the team unveiled at E3. The water seemed to have its own angry personality as it swirled and whipped and pooled. It was the most fascinating, fear-inspiring transmogrification of water since water was a character in BioShock.

With Hulst leading the way with the controller, I was taken through the land of Helghast where Rico, the tough protagonist, meets the Mawlr, a 250-foot high mech that’s wreaking havoc on the miserable world below. Dealing with it (along with enemies on the ground) gave me a God of War feeling. It’s David and Goliath, Guerrila Games style.

Hulst was also proud of the voice acting work, and I agreed with him. What wasn’t clear in the half hour I was shown was what a new writer has brought to the table in terms of depth and witty dialog.  The brilliance of the writing wasn’t immediately apparent, certainly not in the way that you say “Oscar-worthy!” when you view the first moments of Aaron Sorkin’s The Social Network. But maybe the brilliance of the writing is something that needs time to unfold as you play the game. Time will tell.

When handed the controller, I moved carefully through a level so as not to get killed. The artificial intelligence is Killzone is unforgiving, and you don’t ever want to die with other gamers leering nearby. It’s embarrassing. Slow and stealthy, I moved through, always with trepidation, but never dying. Enemies shot at me from above. Sometimes, they dove over me, making a graceful but evil human arc, still shooting. The speed with which I played was annoying to the Portuguese TV team that was waiting to play the game and to speak with Hulst.

It doesn’t matter.

The key is not simply to never let them see you sweat.

The key is to never die.

-Harold Goldberg

 

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