After one and a half years, I think we can all finally look back on the ME3 ending debacle and laugh about it. Well maybe not quite, but it’s time to both move forward and take a look back at what made the Mass Effect series so great and why the fans are so passionate about it. Casey Hudson was the lunch keynote speaker on “Games and Interactivity” for the 100 Year Starship Symposium 2013 in Houston, Texas, and I was fortunate enough to attend. The symposium is more geared towards advancing technologies not just directly related to space travel, but whatever can make our lives better (and thus can be applied to space), so this really was a special panel on top of that. For the non-gamers the main takeaway was that maybe these ideas that exist and are created in video games now can be used as a “what if” on developing technology in the future. For the gamers, here is an in-depth account of his speech.
I mingled with some other attendees beforehand, and it was refreshing to be able to talk to people of so many different intellectual backgrounds who also have this great passion for video games. Casey Hudson then walked in, completely undisturbed and it took me by such a surprise I could only point out to him (since he appeared lost) that this was the area he was supposed to be in. It was a very casual environment, and I wish I had more words to say to well-known people about how much I enjoy their work. Really the person is famous because they do their job so well, and because he works in an environment that although I don’t work in directly, but is such a passion of mine, I felt awkward trying to get a photo with him. That didn’t stop other fans though, and I overheard another guy talking to Casey about how he was disappointed that Femshep was clothed in the shower scene with Samantha. (Of all the things to talk to Casey Hudson about. Dude, just let it go). Or other people were trying to promote themselves and handing him business cards. (Sorry guys, I have a feeling Casey doesn’t carry a cardholder because he doesn’t really have time to respond to every personal request people make of him).
It was a good lecture. I brought a notepad but wound up just sitting and listening to his presentation and visuals. He talked about the creation of the universe of Mass Effect – how fast travel worked, the existence of aliens, superpowers – and how all were grounded in some aspect of reality of the times. For instance in 2003 when they first started on the game, dark matter was a big topic and this entire branch of science that we hardly know anything about, and how that could be used as an idea to facilitate mass travel in the game. Same with special powers (which of course are the biotics) and how that was paralleled in real life with electric eels. It was a good look at what goes into the creation of a game universe and how these small decisions you make affect story and plot.
The aesthetics of Mass Effect were also brought up. He showed a fully-realized environment that a Mass Effect fan would definitely recognize as a city landscape in the universe, and then talked about the unified design rules that the team followed. He showed a graphic of some half-circles, then drew horizontal lines throughout, thickened the borders, and then added some dual-tones, and it became something you would recognize as Mass Effect. He brought up the importance of having a unified architecture to make it appear that there was a reasoning that everything in the universe was designed that way; things have to be somewhat familiar and yet feel lived-in. He also showed pictures of the alien species and how though they were based on humans, they had different aspects (Turian = bird, Krogan = reptile, Salarian = salamander ) just enough for them to feel familiar and yet different. And what about the Reapers? Inspired by the jungle nymph – a very creepy-looking insect that one of the directors had in a glass case on his desk. Even our favorite Shifty Cow made an appearance, with the 2 extra legs designed to make it look different (and also useful for stealing credits) with the rest of the shape similar to our farm animals now. And finally the polarizing Mako was shown, and Casey talked about how it was similar but because it had 6 wheels instead of 4, players would automatically think the world was in the future or slightly different from our time period now.
Emotions were the major highlight of the talk. Casey brought up the very early PC game from the 80s called Planetfall and how playing it as a kid made him cry because (spoiler alert) your robot companion that you rescue in the game winds up dying in the end. He showed a clip from Mass Effect 1 after the beam explosion on Eden Prime and how you as Shepard could either tell Ashley it wasn’t her fault or blame her for what happened, and contrasted the different emotional expressions in Ashley’s face in each scenario. He said this was the point in the game when they knew they had gotten the digital acting down, and you as the player could feel bad that you hurt Ashley’s feelings. I can distinctly remember this point when I played the first game too and how I felt good for not blaming Kaidan. It wasn’t until years later that I decided to see what the “yell” option yielded and then I felt so bad when I saw Kaidan frown that I went back and overrode that save. So it was interesting to see that that “smirk” you get from Ashley/Kaidan was very intentional and how you can get a real human reaction visually without any dialogue at all (learn from that, Star Wars prequels).
He mentioned how having that sort of consequence can change the way you play, and told an anecdote of a reviewer who planned to play as a jerk the first go but then shifted his playstyle after feeling bad after that scene. One of the audience members asked him about the violent effect of video games (oh I could go into this but that’s another topic for another day), but he had a very cohesive answer about how that was the point of having those sort of emotional consequences – you see the results of your actions and maybe change your behavior – and how like any medium (movies, tv, magazines), anything can be taken to an extreme. When he mentioned evolving every aspect of video games, including combat, there was another attendee who asked why there had to be combat in Mass Effect at all. He answered that there doesn’t have to necessarily be, but that the audience still has a desire for that type of game, and even chess is about “knocking your opponents out.” Early video games were still primitive as far as gameplay but are getting more sophisticated with time. He went on to talk about how games could eventually be truly open world, and while there would be violence in it (as in real life), you may not necessarily have to take part in it personally. I thought these were very thoughtful answers and while I personally don’t think that violence in video games creates violence in real life, I do enjoy the variety of video games now and how story is a lot more important than it used to be. And I can see games becoming even more varied so it’s nice that it can appeal to a wide range of people. But I feel like categorizing Mass Effect’s gameplay as “combat” is oversimplifying things; the game takes place in a time of war where the stakes are incredibly high, and fighting battles is a necessary component of that, but equally so is having building relationships through dialogue – which I think most fans will agree is just as fun.
The character of Garrus came up and how the team added him as a romanceable character after fan feedback and how it took them by surprise. The facial emotions that worked so well for Kaidan/Ash wound up working really well for the aliens who obviously were missing some human facial features. It added some relatable human depth to the aliens. The attendees I had talked to before the lecture had asked if I had seen Deviantart after mentioning that Garrus was one of my favorite characters, and then mentioned that I should check it out because the ladies really love Garrus.
Emotions also played a big part in the dialogue wheel. In Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, the main character’s lines were written out on the screen so players could already “hear” the dialogue in their heads. Because players didn’t need to hear that again, for Mass Effect as we all know, the options are paraphrased by emotion and quick reactions to what is going on in the scene.
And yes, the ending was discussed in general terms. One of the questions was if Bioware was going to take what they learned from the entire Mass Effect trilogy and apply it to the next game. A very cleverly disguised question as that probably brought the biggest laugh from the audience. Casey brought up that the Mass Effect 3 ending was probably the most controversial ending to any video game and that, much like with Garrus and reactions to other characters, the team was continually learning while they were doing things, and what they learned would get applied to future games. Maybe it’s just me, but I think especially after the feedback (and anger) over the endings and the resulting Citadel DLC, Bioware is fully aware of how important these characters are to us. Casey wrapped up the keynote by talking about how the ideas used in video games may seem fantastical, but that there are things that exist in the real world that are equally strange and wonderful. After the keynote Casey stayed around to sign posters of the Normandy SR2, which he brought for everyone. Overall it was a nice way to say goodbye to the trilogy and move forward.
“Reality is not a limitation; it’s a challenge to your creativity.” – Casey Hudson
Special thanks to 100 YSS and Casey Hudson for organizing this awesome event.