You already knew that Mass Effect is quite possibly the most important science fiction universe of our generation. But how did Mass Effect develop into such an important game? As we eagerly await the third installment of the trilogy, it's interesting to learn more about the creative choices that led us here.
So here are 10 things you probably didn't know about Mass Effect — via the game's executive producer, Casey Hudson. We were lucky enough to have breakfast with Hudson last week, and he spent nearly an hour filling us in on the weird secrets and surprising backstory of Mass Effect. Here's what he told us.
Minor spoilers ahead...
1) The game wasn't originally called Mass Effect.
The original codename for the project was "SFX," short for "Science Fiction X." And they used that name for so long, everybody grew attached to it, and didn't want to change it. "We went through a naming process, and people kept saying, 'Why don't we just use SFX?'" says Hudson. But he and the other creators kept resisting using that name because it seemed like they were too attached to it — and the clincher was the fact that SFX was already the name of a long-standing magazine.
Instead, they chose Mass Effect from 10 different possible names, because it related to "the dark energy that we used to drive a lot of the technology. It inspired things about tipping points and being able to influence large things, and it was a name that we didn't hate. That's kind of how you know when you've got something," says Hudson.
2. They considered having multiplayer all the way back in the first Mass Effect
One of the biggest controversies about Mass Effect 3 is the introduction of multiplayer mode for some of the game's segments. But according to Hudson, they considered including multiplayer in the first game, because it was the end of the xBox cycle, and "by then, it was pretty rare to find a game that was single player only." They tried really hard to develop a multiplayer component, but at the same time, they were trying to figure out "what the Mass Effect experience was about." And in the end, having other heroes running around took away from Commander Shepard's experience — so they cut the multiplayer stuff out of Mass Effect 1. They also tried to introduce it for Mass Effect 2, but it didn't work there, either. Finally, it was able to fit into Mass Effect 3 because of the huge, sweeping galactic war storyline.
3. One Mass Effect storyline was scrapped for being too similar to Star Trek.
It comes with the territory — any time you're doing action-adventure storylines in space, people are going to compare them to stuff that's come before. Some people accused the first Mass Effect of being too similar to Babylon 5 just because it had a space station, says Hudson. But when the similarites become too great, they do have to change course. In particular, there was one storyline that had to be killed, because lead designer Preston Watamaniuk said it was "exactly like this particular race in Star Trek," according to Hudson. Watamaniuk has an encyclopedic knowledge of science fiction media, and tends to raise the alarm if they get too close to stuff that's already been done.
4. The big challenge in conceiving the first Mass Effect was keeping it simple.
Originally, there were too many layers of complexity, and too many plot twists, in the storyline for Mass Effect, and it needed to be reduced to its essentials, as Hudson explains in a quote that should be required reading for storytellers in any medium:
People usually think that you start with a simple idea, and the challenge is building out. Actually, what usually happens is, the first thing you put to paper starts out too complicated. There are too many themes, and it's not very cohesive. Like solving a math equation, you have to collapse things down and find things that cancel each other out, and make it smaller and smaller until you have the E=mc2 of storytelling. Something elegant. With a lot of our early stories, we would have the Saren character from Mass Effect 1, and at one point he was going to bring about the return of these ancient machines. But he had an army, and his army were organic creatures. It felt like you had this guy, and he's organic, and he has an army that's organic, and he's bringing back the machines. So, maybe what it should be is that he has a machine army, and the things that you're fighting are generally different species of machines in Mass Effect 1. We started collapsing things down.
In Mass Effect 1, initially, we had a series of three huge twists. You have to think about, "What is the huge twist moment?" and make the others [into] information that you learn [instead]. You have one massive twist and another massive twist, and you have to figure out which one is the point of the story, the big revelation, and weave the other ones in as information so that you can really shape the story experience.
The actual earliest ideas for Mass Effect had to do with "another species, or maybe gods" who had created humanity, and "we find out we are built to serve them." Some of this stuff did end up being used in the story of the Reapers, who are harvesting organic civilizations.
5. The over-arching theme of organics versus machines shaped all the story choices.
Once they had arrived at the notion of telling a story about organics versus machines, that became the "key theme," says Hudson. And that theme, in turn, "answered whether storylines were part of the main arc or smaller things. Stories about the Geth and the Quarian, the cautionary tale of creating artificial intelligence." Thus, the story of EDI in Mass Effect 2 becomes more important, because she goes from being a shackled to an "unshackled" A.I.
6. Some of the new characters in ME2 and ME3 were designed for you to hate them at first
It's inevitable that the fans are going to hate new characters, because they take away screen time from old favorites and there's always the potential for a "Scrappy Doo" situation. Witness the fan hostility towards James Vega, the new character voiced by Freddie Prinze, Jr. But Hudson says Bioware counted on fans to start out hating some newly introduced characters — like Jack, the tattooed girl introduced in ME2, plus Miranda. The fan hostility towards those characters was part of their story arc, says Hudson:
Miranda is the cheerleader that people don't like at first because she's too perfect. Jack is the outsider that people have a negative reaction to, and nobody takes the time to get to know her. So she builds up a shell and acts like she doesn't want you to know her. There's some interesting truth to that, and it's a character arc that extends backwards outside of the game to your first impression of them when you see them online.
7. Seth Green improvises a lot of Joker's dialogue
Along with some of the other great actors who work on the game, Green will often read the lines as they're written on the page, and come out with a take that's really close to what the Bioware folks wanted. And then he'll ask if he can try something different, that might be closer to what he thinks Joker is trying to do. And a lot of the time that second, ad-libbed take is what ends up getting used. Green is "great at performing what's on the page, but then he can do amazing ad lib stuff as well," says Hudson.
8. The game's developers spend a lot of time looking at Mass Effect fan-art on Deviant Art
Hudson says he hasn't read much Mass Effect fan-fic, but when he's working, "sometimes I'll open up a window on DeviantArt and go through the Mass Effect fan art." And he says it's more than just idle curiosity that has him flipping through fan-made images — "going back to Star Wars, I've always thought that the things that people draw are the things they remember. You can't draw something you don't remember." So when he looks at fan-art on DeviantArt, it tells him "what designs resonate with people, or what moments resonate. It shows what people are interested in and what worked for them."
So what does he see a lot of on DeviantArt? The Shepard-Garrus romance. As you might already know, Garrus wasn't originally going to be a love interest for Shepard, because Garrus is an exoskeleton-wearing alien. But the fans demanded it, so Bioware added a Shepard-Garrus romance in ME2. Says Hudson:
It sort of culminates in a really sweet scene where Shepard is forehead to forehead with Garrus, with the blue fish tank in the background in this beautiful little scene. That seems to be one of the most duplicated moments in fan art that I've seen-many, many recreations of their particular Commander Shepard with Garrus. It's really neat to see a scene like that obviously meant a lot to people.
Image by Silberfeder on Deviant Art.
9. They always planned Mass Effect as a trilogy — and there are no plans for a further continuation right now.
You might already know that Mass Effect was always conceived as a trilogy, actually. Says Hudson:
The nice thing about a trilogy is that it's more than one, so you know you've got a few games to look forward to, and there's something big that's going to happen. But, it's also finite. You know that there's an ending, and you know when the ending is coming. You can look forward to it, and you can get excited, and when the ending comes, you can be satisfied with a conclusion to things.
And he insists that Bioware has not had any discussions about continuing the Mass Effect universe past the third game, "not in any detail." The focus is all on giving people a satisfying ending to the series, and supporting Mass Effect 3 for the next year. After that, "we'll see how things go."
10. They considered having a different actor be the voice of the male Shepard.
If your Commander Shepard is a dude, then you're hearing the voice of Mark Meer coming out of his mouth. Originally, Meer's voice was just a temporary fill-in, doing some demo stuff "to help us work through the prototype process," says Hudson. Meer is "a theater actor in Edmonton, that we had used for other demo stuff for previous games," but the developers fully intended to hire a different actor to go back and re-record Shepard's voice. In the end, though, having the voice of Shepard be local to Edmonton was a huge advantage, since they didn't know how much "redo and scratch track and iteration" they'd need to. Meer got to become the permanent voice of Shepard, because they decided, "Let's give someone local a chance," says Hudson. Plus they realized, "He's doing a really good job, and he does have this Harrison Ford, everyman-kind of voice." Also, Shohreh Aghdashloo was originally going to voice Liara's mother in the first game, but she wasn't available — so instead, she became the voice of a Quarian admiral in ME2.
Additional reporting by Jennifer Griffith Delgado.