AGDC 2008: Telling tales with BioWare

Senior writer Mac Walters joins senior cinematic designer Paul Marino on how the Mass Effect maker has evolved its storytelling methods in recent years.

AUSTIN, Texas--With games such as Jade Empire, Knights of the Old Republic, and, most recently, Mass Effect to its credit, BioWare is a company that has become synonymous with reaching, intricate, and immersive storylines. However, as senior writer Mac Walters and senior cinematic designer Paul Marino put it during their session at this year's Austin Game Developers Conference today, storytelling is changing at BioWare.

According to the duo, "cinematic design" is one of the biggest changes at the company in the last five years. Simply put, cinematic design is a way for gamemakers to create interactive stories by using tried-and-true filmic precepts. To better explain this point, the pair launched into an analysis of narrative, saying first that game companies other than BioWare finally seem to be coming around to the fact that narrative can no longer be ignored, as it gives players a compelling reason to play a game.

Using Vicious Cycle's hit Puzzle Quest as an example, the duo illustrated the point that cinematic storytelling can help get the player more in touch with the gameworld. Walters noted that while the Bejeweled-style gameplay itself is quite addictive, it was the quest progression and dialogue moments that set Puzzle Quest ahead of other games of that ilk.

Breaking down BioWare's process of cinematic design, Walters noted that it is built on six fundamentals. The first is writing, which provides the dialogue as well as narrative in general. Audio--which encompasses voice work and music--then provides another immersive layer, followed by setting, or key locations in a game. Camera, which provides a filter for the scene, is an integral tool in conveying emotion, and digital actors provide yet one more layer of cinematic design, thanks to their ability to express emotion through their faces. A hallmark of BioWare storytelling, player choice rounds out the design philosophy, as it allows players to choose the parts of the narrative they want to pursue as well as how it will unfold.

Walters and Marino then delved into the history of cinematic design. In what they called The Dark Ages, this design style had its roots in writing, primarily with text-based adventures. Here, game designers relied upon the player to set the cinematic stage, filling in the blanks due to technology constraints. The highlight of The Dark Ages, for Marino and Walters at least, was an early 1990s Amiga game titled Another World (aka Out of this World). With this game, designers were just beginning to meld writing with a filmic visual style, they said.

Another World and other games like it gave rise to the early-'90s Renaissance period, in which designers began to scale back the text and convey more through technology. Examples of games that took advantage of these techniques include such classics as Myst, Wing Commander, and Rebel Assault. As Walters noted, the industry was both imitating and innovating during this period--taking sensibilities from the film world and riffing their own creations for what works well in interactive properties. Valve's Half-Life was another "watershed moment" for cinematic design, noted Walters.

The Renaissance transitioned into the period which the industry is currently in: The Golden Age. For BioWare, this period is defined by the "push" and "pull" forces, both of which are balanced on the fulcrum of the studio's six basic tenets outlined above. The pull is exerted by players, while designers and writers provide the push, a concept that the duo clarified through a variety of examples.

While designers craft and provide context for the narrative, it is the players who want to be in control of the story through the choices that they make. Gameplay then, noted Walters, combined with crafted events, is what guides the player through a narrative. However, it is the story elements imbued into the narrative by the designers that give weight to player choice and provide key plot points that evoke emotional reactions. As part of this concept, the duo said that the audience wants to play a game, while the designer wants to tell a story.

A balance also must be struck between what the audience expects and what the designer wants. While the writer may be interested in creating the best narrative, players are struck with the here and now, judging the game for whether it is drawing them in, pushing them away, or just boring them.

As for cinematic concerns, Walters noted that BioWare's philosophy has evolved to convey more emotion and less exposition, to reduce dialogue and increase emotive scenarios. "In the not too distant past, most of what we wrote was visible to the player," said Walters. "Now we push toward something like a script. A lot of the words are moved behind the scenes."

Marino then closed out the presentation, showing a variety of cutscenes from Mass Effect and its downloadable expansion, Bringing Down the Sky. The cinematic scenes portray the power of the camera, with Marino saying, "the camera is the strongest ally or weapon in our arsenal. It is a pathway to the emotions of the player." Marino also noted that it is important to use cinema as a reward, giving players the payoff of seeing a compelling scene.

In closing, the two noted that it is important to reveal the narrative in a cinematic way, but to give the player the agency to decide the outcome.

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64 comments
Vote_For_McCain
Vote_For_McCain

I love Bioware and anything they make. Can't wait for Mass Effect 2.

Mightswipe
Mightswipe

Question about how your decisions will carry over to the sequel: If you want that to happen, you have to keep the last save file (from the first game) on your memory device, right? Is that how the sequel knows what to do with your story? (Forgive my lack of technical console knowledge if the answer is 'obviously' yes.) If so, then if you have a save file for, say, two different characters, the sequel will give you the option of which character/save file to choose to continue the story?

prpearljam25
prpearljam25

ctg867....Just because you don't play computer games dosn't mean other people don't. I've known about Bioware for along time... Played all their games back when they were with Interplay... Namely Balders Gate, Icewind Dale, and into the future they created with Neverwinter Nights. All those games were huge hits and sold well. The fact that Bioware survived and continue to thrive after seperating from Interplay by making hit after hit is testament enough that Dragon Age will be huge. I'll buy it...along with millions of other computer gamers. Bioware took a chance on consoles and scored big with hits such as kotor and Jade Empire as well as Mass Effect but they're true medium is the PC. Besides that they're big enough now that they can juggle production on more then one game at a time which is why they have a hit game every year or two vs every 4 or 5 like other companies. The majority indeed....like the 10 million that pay to play WoW play in on a 360 or PS3.

Star-Killer
Star-Killer

@Mightswipe, there definitely will be a sequel to Mass Effect but no release date has been mentioned I for one can't wait to play any game Bioware has lined up since i'm sure it will be awesome

TheHappyCamper
TheHappyCamper

Wow, ctg867...just, wow. You have left me damn near speechless. Let me see if i am understanding your point correctly: You are actually hoping that Bioware fails because they arent working on something you want, and instead have opted to create a new IP? I mean, i agree that the Mass Effect DLC was a little weak; and i am a huge fan of both KOTOR and Jade Empire. But to want something not to sell just because it's not farmiliar is just retarded. If you think about it, Mass Effect, Jade Empire, and KOTOR all started off as something new and unfamiliar. But guess what, you took a chance on them and they were awsome.

jlh47
jlh47

@CMakaCreative: Bioware's announced that it's going to be a trilogy and that each choice you've made in the previous games will carry over to the next so don't worry.

CMakaCreative
CMakaCreative

I hope ME2 carries over some of the decisions you've made in the first one. I doubt it but one can dream, like, I released the Rachni Queen hoping to either, get her help in a future battle or kill her in a more heroic way but neither happened. It would be cool if their was concequences for my actions in the first game that carried over to the next game.

Pete5506
Pete5506

I love BioWare sotrys, cant wait for them to make more

7guns
7guns

For gaming industry to expand they would have to invest on good and engaging story.

ctg867
ctg867

Well since BioWare under delivered big time with the Mass Effect DLC, and they choose to do a spiritual successor (Dragon Age) to a game that not many console gamers have heard about (Baulder's Gate), rather then getting into full speed on the things that the majority actually give two craps about (Mass Effect 2, Jade Empire 2, Kotor III), let's just say I'm not too crazy about them at the moment. Me thinks I'll be the only one laughing when Dragon Age fails to make the top ten first month or sell anything close to a million copies worldwide during it's lifespan.

ktwq
ktwq

Hope BioWare will continue to produce games with very engaging stories.

Mightswipe
Mightswipe

So is it definite that there will be a sequel? If so, when is it estimated to be released? Mass Effect is a great game! Here's hoping for Mass Effect 2 soon!

sabazios
sabazios

Errr, alright then, that's a heavy-handed ABC of interactive audiovisual storytelling. Would have been interesting in the late 90's. Video games have started evolving into their own art form now. They're a bit stuck aping movies, like early photography aped painting; but it's time to move away now, guys.

nteger
nteger

Okay, the Reapers are really more like the Necrons from WH 40K and the Rachni are a helluva lot like the Buggers from Ender's Game. There are many, many things that don't necessarily seem original, but the way Bioware decided to portray everything and the way they pieced it all together was outstanding. Besides, this is Science Fiction; there's not a whole lot to think about that hasn't already been thought about in some way or another. It's all about presentation!

StegrShmil
StegrShmil

Sweet! Can't wait for Mass Effect 2.

Holdwick
Holdwick

Very cool, these guys are brilliant and Mass Effect is an awesome game and I can't wait for the sequel!

Threesixtyci
Threesixtyci

That all great and all.... but when are they going to patch their PC version of Mass Effect? The game is almost unplayable....

XtremeDude09
XtremeDude09

There are two mass effect novels. I only read revelation. Plus Generalpsycho is right although it must have been used in something before. Heres to ME2 and KotORIII. (MMORPG or RPG)

GENERALPSYCHO
GENERALPSYCHO

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

GENERALPSYCHO
GENERALPSYCHO

In Mass Effect, the Reaper says that they destroy all organic life at the peak of their civilization. This is entirely different from the League of Shadows which destroys a city at the peak of their decadence. Whereas one civilization is climbing to the peak of greatness the other is throttled by crime and malevolence. Raz A Ghoul is attempting to cleanse Earth of crime while the Reapers are simply killing all organic life and taking all resources. Mass Effect has an entirely different story from Batman Begins. Either way total annihilation is a recurring theme that can take many forms.

ParisSun
ParisSun

Mass Effect did have weak side missions. Many of the planets were all the same. I would rather have a small amount of planets with variety (see KOTOR) than a bunch of planets with nothing on it but the same base that's the same format as other bases and ships. KOTOR gave you interesting side quest that affected your crew members and were off the beaten path. I loved Mission's side quests and Bastilla's side quests. It would be so nice to get KOTOR 3 with the same visuals as Mass Effect. Here's hoping Mass Effect 2 is a great leap above Mass Effect. BTW I did enjoy Mass Effect, but not as much as KOTOR. I still play KOTOR and KOTOR 2 today.

Razoroo
Razoroo

Mass Effect 2 or gtfo

Ra-Devil
Ra-Devil

jdr589 .... what? No, seariously, what?? Do you have any idea how many times the theme of, "we've come to bring your corrupted society down," has been played out? Or how many times it's acutally happened? It's not an uncommon story, and you can't use Batman Begins and it's lead villain Ras' Al Ghoul as your example of a taken idea. Plus, the idea behind the Reapers is a little different. They arise to destroy ALL civilization, not just a city here, or a town there, they annihilate everything... I know that's nitpicking, but dammit I'm gonna nit-pick.

HardcoreBunni
HardcoreBunni

I really enjoyed Mass Effect, but I believe that a lot could be improved. Mako combat was pretty bad until you got used to it-after you're used to it was only boring, many of the bases on planets were exactly the same, same for the spaceships and mines, and after a the first couple of hours, you always have an absurd amount of money to buy the best guns and armor around which makes the process of upgrading the armor and guns not so satisfying. Storywise, I think that the Saren should have apeared more often in the game since he is the bad guy who you're supposed to WANT to kill, I think that there should have been more main story missions and finally I think they should have improved the quality of the sidemissions: some of them were pretty lame like the pregant lady who was having an argument with her brother in law, or the mission where you have to run around searching for the A.I.. I have high hopes for Mass Effect 2 and I hope that Bioware do not make KOTOR III into a MMORPG.

necronaux
necronaux

Deep, emersive stories are a must for any good RPG, especially if they effect the outcome (e.g. extreme opposites in first KOTOR). I hate the ones that end up all leading to the same ending (e.g. Deus Ex: Invisible Wars... great game, but no matter what path you chose you got to the same end point (with one final chance to change sides, resulting in 4 possible, different endings)).

CMakaCreative
CMakaCreative

Console-deity, Batman Begins came out like just over two years ago. Dark Knight came out this year. Now I don't know what quote jdr598 is refering to (whether it's the new Batman or old one) but I'm positive that it's not the only time that quote has been said...I'm sure there's different variety of the same line. Besides...it still made for a good game regardless who said what first. Destroying something that has reached it's peak is nothing new.

aduana69
aduana69

hope next time we will see light sabers in Mass Effect

c_mcafee
c_mcafee

*ME Spoiler INF1DEL, Or even better, you save the rachni queen and it causes a new rachni war!

console-deity
console-deity

jdr589 are you crazy, Mass Effect was released last year Batman Begins was released this year, if anyone copied anyone it was Batman Begins not Mass Effect.

jdr589
jdr589

as I watched Batman Begins yesterday there is one point in the movie when one of the bad guys says "We tear down all civilizations once they reach their decadence"... if I'm not mistaken this is pretty much what Sovereign says... plus I believe that Batman Begins came out before Mass Effect... so basically my point is that even though I really enjoy Mass Effect the main idea of the story of the Reapers is that its a carbon copy of a movie that did really well in the box office.

GtheMVP
GtheMVP

Mass Effect is the best RPG ever made, the story is so danm engaging.

aboghannam
aboghannam

I recommend everyone to read the two Mass Effect novels and play the DLC "Bring Down the Sky".

aboghannam
aboghannam

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

mjbcfc
mjbcfc

Can't wait for ME 2. Think now that Bioware have the base of the first ME to work from the sequel can only be better! Hopefully they'll match what they achieved in KOTOR in terms of gameplay and re-playability (played KoToR about 3 or 4 times but ME just 1 and a half times, got bored halfway through the second play through). Although Knights had way way less planets than ME the exploration of them was 10x better due to how well the locations on the planet were done and the lack of barren worlds too.

hahamanin
hahamanin

@zippy yeah right fallout 3 lol

ZippyDSMLee
ZippyDSMLee

Mass Effect is a downgrade from Kotor.... *digs through quotes* "Fallout 3 will be to Oblivion what Mass Effect was to KotOR, a prettier little sister. "

Miteme
Miteme

Mass Effect was great all it needed was more building types and several more planets with a lot more happening on then. I mean there were several species in the game but only a few planets with much to do on them. Hopefully this will all be addressed in Mass Effect 2.

Beastcake
Beastcake

I've loved BioWare since the KotOR series and every piece of work they've come up with since then is a masterpiece on its own.

Vincent9mm
Vincent9mm

If anyone has read the last Mass Effect book and knows what to expect from Mass Effect 2... The anticipation is definately well worth it. I just hope that the battles in the game can match what Accension had.

bennae66
bennae66

mass effect rocked. they just need to introduce some variety to the mission buildings. i think more than 1 shape and layout of building would be a good start. maybe start with 2 different shapes? even inverting the 2 buildings to make it 4 shapes? i know im talking crazy talk tho. anyone who diddnt play mass effect wont know whatr im talking about. BUT its a testiment to how great the game was that i overlooked that one building (over and over again) and those barren worlds. (bloody atv) heres to a little more level variety and more of the same of everything else! bioware: you rock.

newb16
newb16

Mass effect 2 will be the sh*t!!!

gun_blade25
gun_blade25

It would be fantastic if Bioware's gameplay could match their storytelling. Don't get me wrong, its a fun game but its only an exceptional game because the story is absolutely brilliant. The actual gameplay is mediocre at best

INF1DEL
INF1DEL

what i really want from me2 is to be able to make choices that make a real difference later in the game. in most games where you have choices to make, the only one that really matters is right at the end. *minor mass effect spoilers* wouldnt it be awesome if you saved the rachni queen and the rachni actually helped you later in the game?

CureForLiving
CureForLiving

Well I won't argue that Bioware makes good games, and those good games contain good stories but I really wouldn't say that they pioneered any narrative mechanics.

Jedited255
Jedited255

@Helljumper, Me too! I just completed another playthrough of ME1 and i'm egarly awaiting the day Bioware releases the first trailer for ME2. Hopefully we'll get some more DLC before then to tide us over.

HellJumper
HellJumper

I have a feeling that when the Mass Effect 2 trailer is released I will definitely wet myself

grigjd3
grigjd3

Not to mention gameplay, frankfurter. About the only thing the Japanese seem to get right on rpgs is how pretty the cut scenes look, but after Mass Effect, they'll have to work hard to be on top of that.