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.