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While this talk with BioWare CEO Dr. Ray Muzyka didn’t actually take place in an elevator, we did cover such topics as elevators, the role of romance and sex in BioWare games, the evolution of dialogue trees, and if the Shepard you play in Mass Effect 2 is really the same Shepard you remember from the first game.
Special thanks to Mass Effect savant Brett Bates for tag-teaming this one with me, and we’ve also got a gameplay clip after the jump….
Brett Bates: You’ve said before that the Mass Effect series is a trilogy, and you can take one character through all three games. What exactly is going to transfer over from Mass Effect 1 if you played through that game? Is it just going to be your history and appearance, or your class and skills as well?
Ray Muzyka: Well, when you play through Mass Effect 2, the beginning of the game puts it all in perspective — obviously, you’re playing as commander Shepard, but you’re playing in a different kind of scenario than you might expect. Some pretty shocking stuff happens at the beginning of the game that puts everything else in context.
But certainly the choices you made in the first game are translated over if you import a saved game from Mass Effect 1 to Mass Effect 2. The companions you met, what happened to them, did they live or die, the end-game scene in terms of what happened to the Council, a lot of the bigger choices you make — even the smaller characters you meet along the way are reflected in Mass Effect 2.
You might think, well, are all of them going to be reflected in Mass Effect 2? Some of them are actually going to be reflected in Mass Effect 3. We have a long-term plan, we’ve always had a grand vision for this story arc, the way the story unfolds during the course of the Mass Effect trilogy.
I think fans…it’s kind of a joy of discovery as they progress through the game and see all the cool stuff. If they have a character imported from the first game to the second, it’s going to be that much more personal, that much more customized in terms of their experience. But you certainly don’t have to have imported a saved game to have an amazing experience with Mass Effect 2. We make certain assumptions and just kind of make sure it’s an awesome experience either way. But if you do have a saved game, that’s much more personal and customized.
BB: Now is it going to matter if you have a complete saved game, or if you only played, say, 10 hours….
RM: I believe it’s the end-state saved game. It’s like the auto-save from near the end of the game, that’s the one we’re importing specifically…there are all those choices at the end, too, the end stage is kind of the key.
BB: As far as other characters that were in your party in the first game, are you going to be able to recruit them to your party again, and will they have skills, armor, weapons, and things like that, or is it more bringing in the history that you have with them?
RM: We’re not saying which companions from the first game are companions in the second game. There might be some. We’re not saying which ones there are or aren’t.
There are certainly a lot more, so there’s new ones of course, too, and there’s more than in the original game. There’s more potential companions you can befriend, more companions that you can have romances with, there’s more abilities and more divergent, different approaches to abilities. Tech abilities, biotic abilities, different weapons and so on.
So I think your choices of who you bring alongside you on different away team missions or uncharted worlds, different combats, is going to materially affect the outcome of those.
BB: Speaking about choices, we watched you demonstrate a specific scene involving the krogans, which played out very differently depending on if your party member Wrex lived through the first game. For someone who has never played the game at all and is just jumping into Mass Effect 2, how did you decide how that scene was going to unfold, and is one way more ‘canon’ than another?
RM: Well if you haven’t imported a saved game it’s going to play out the way we assume it’s going to play depending on your choices. We sometimes ask you as well, “What do you remember about your past?” And you can make certain choices and decisions based on those things as well.
BB: Will the possible outcome change, then?
RM: It might change certain things, yeah. So you can either change it by importing a save, or in some cases by answering some questions certain ways. And some other ones we just make assumptions and kind of bring you along for the ride. But I guess we tried to pick a way that was fun for as many people as possible as the default choice, one that would make sense for the average person, and that wouldn’t need a lot of background explanation in some cases, too. It’s a mix of different reasons, and certainly the best reasons are fun, quality, and trying to drive an artistic vision, so whatever the outcome we’re always striving for that.
BB: How does the paragon/renegade morality system work?
RM: Essentially, you can progress both paths at the same time, you’re not limited to one or the other. It’s not a plus-minus system.
BB: You can max them both out?
RM: You can max them both out. It takes a lot of work to do that. You might have to replay the game a bit to do that, or certainly do the content, to get high up on either one. But it unlocks new dialogue options, you become more persuasive or more intimidating. It enables different things to occur.
BB: During my recent playtime, in a certain cutscene I had the option to perform a quicktime-event-like ‘paragon’ action. What was going on there?
RM: Well that’s true, we have a new interrupt system that wasn’t in Mass Effect 1. We talked about it as a goal for Mass Effect 1, we weren’t able to pull it off, but in Mass Effect 2, the fans said, “Yeah, bring it on, we want to see that.” So we put it in, and it’s awesome. It’s occasional, and it’s kind of surprising sometimes, you’ll get this interrupt on the screen and you’ll be scrambling for your controller, you were thinking you were watching a cinematic….
BB: And if you don’t hit it in time it’s too late?
RM: Oh yeah, you’ll miss it. What happened? You wouldn’t know. You have to reload the save if you want to see all the different outcomes. Everyone’s experience is unique and personalized, and you have choices that have consequences, and that’s what that’s all about.
Demian Linn: Morality systems are a signature feature in BioWare games; similarly, you consistently address sex and relationships throughout your various franchises as well. Why the concerted effort?
RM: If you go as far back as Baldur’s Gate, you know you had romances, you had friendships, you had loyalty, and you had morality and things like ethical decisions. That was over a decade ago, now. It’s always been part of our approach to our game design. It’s really just a reflection…we’re trying to make characters that are credible, real, and deep — emotionally engaging.
And of course the romances are optional, you don’t have to pursue any of the romances. But if you do, if you choose to develop character relationships just like in real life, you can advance relationships into friendship, or hostility and hatred, and departure — or friendship and potentially romance.
Part of that is progressing through the various stages of romance. We try and do it tastefully; we try to do it in a way that’s fitting and in keeping with the rating of the game, so if we make an M-rated game — Mass Effect 2 is an M-rated game, so is Dragon Age: Origins — you’re going to see M-rated content. We always try and do it in a way that is appropriate, and tasteful, and that contextually, it makes sense.
If you take things out of context, as some, uh, mass-media press like to do sometimes — Fox, I guess — they can take things out of context. And certainly you can do that in movies, you can do that in other forms of art as well. But I think if you view it in context, and you view it as sort of a natural outflow or expression of developing a relationship, then it makes perfect sense.
It’s all part of the vision we have as a studio of genuine emotional engagement in the gameplay. We want people to feel something. And part of that is you can feel affection, or dislike, or hatred with the companion characters that you bring alongside you.
DL: How are you handling that in Mass Effect 2 in particular?
RM: Which aspect?
DL: How are the romance or sex scenes going to work? Looking at Dragon Age, you took sort of a baby step forward in that you can have a male homosexual relationship — I could be wrong, but I think that’s the first or one of the first games where you could do that.
RM: No, actually we’ve had it back in some prior games as well. Again, it’s this joy of discovery, if you don’t choose to play your characters in that way you’ll never see that stuff, you don’t have to see that stuff. You don’t have to see romances at all.
But you know, it’s really the personality and the choices you want your party to actually undergo…we’ve had a variety of choices in Baldur’s Gate, Baldur’s Gate 2 I believe, Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire, just to name a few, and even Mass Effect 1. Dragon Age, of course, too. Actually every game I can think of that had romance, probably, we always try to enable different choice.
I don’t want to spoil the surprise as to what’s in Mass Effect 2 — it’s up to the players to discover — but it’s the choices you make in the context of a defined character.
So Commander Shepard — you have to remember, unlike Dragon Age where there was this origin story where you got to customize every aspect of your character, you got to choose six different origins, and then all of the different background of your character was kind of up to you — in Mass Effect, it’s a little different. It’s more of a third-person narrative where there’s a pre-defined character with certain biases, certain entry points to the fiction that come with a personality that’s pre-defined.
It’s just a different approach to storytelling, basically, but we do strive for choice and consequence. And I want players to have the joy of discovery.
DL: Dialogue systems are another thing you’re constantly working on, a thread throughout your games. When do you see game dialogue moving beyond the choice of three or four set responses, how do you see that evolving?
RM: Well, if you look at all the games we’re working on, they all have different approaches to the way the dialogue flow is. You look at a game like Dragon Age, again I said it earlier, it’s more of a first-person kind of narrative. So we didn’t want to have a player voice, like an audible voice, we wanted to invest more in the responses. There’s actually a lot of stuff below the surface in terms of the multiplicity of choices you can have, including different approaches to romance, different friendships you can have, different reactions from companion characters and non-player characters that you meet in the world.
But in Mass Effect, it’s a little bit different approach to dialogue. We have a third-person narrative where you see a paraphrase of an option, kind of six different categories. You know, I’m going to be angry, I’m going to be nice, I’m going to be nasty, I’m gonna be kind of inquisitive and learn more, I’m going to be persuasive, I’m going to be intimidating, for example. Those are all sort of the general directions.
And then you see Shepard’s personality respond when you give that direction. That’s how we chose to approach it in Mass Effect. Not to say we’ll continue to do one or other, or both in different games in the future; I think you can expect we’re going to continue to try and evolve new forms of dialogue and interaction.
We do have to write it, at the end of the day. We have to script it, we have to enable…this dialogue line leads to this outcome leads to this cinematic experience. And maybe the evolution of AI will eventually allow sort of a thoughtful response by the AIs on-screen to whatever you do at any time, just by gestural input and things like that. That’d be really cool, but I think we’re a ways away from that.
For now, we still have to design it, we still have to program it, so we have to make that barrier to entry as seamless, as low as possible for the player so it’s really easy to access. You still have to design it so that there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end, and choices along the way. There’s just different ways to make that happen.
BB: I have one last question. When we started up the game there was an option for ‘Cerberus Project,’ which required Xbox Live connectivity.
RM: Oh, yeah.
BB: Is that anything you can talk about?
RM: That’s pretty cool. We’re not talking about that yet. My PR handler is shaking her head and saying, “Nope, nope, nope.” I can tell you it’s pretty cool.
DL: I’ve got one more, as well…any elevators in Mass Effect 2? [Mass Effect 1 used interminable elevator rides to mask long loading times.]
RM: Yeah…you know what we strived to do with all the loading in the game is to make it basically really fast. We’ve worked on that, I know it was a point of feedback on the first game as well. We’ve got to make sure loading is fast, and seamless, and interesting, so there’s some cool overlay graphics that kind of explain things. But the overall net effect is that it’s just very fast. It’s not intrusive.
[PS: VentureBeat’s Dean Takashi was up right after us in the interview gauntlet, and opted for an opening line that went something like this: “You might remember me, I’m the guy who had to re-review Mass Effect.” Muzyka remembered.]
Don’t miss our report from the Mass Effect 2 press event that shows how the game will interact with your save files from Mass Effect 1.