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Interactive Narratives: Talking KOTOR and Mass Effect with Drew Karpyshyn

Matt Gardner

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Interactive Narratives: Talking KOTOR and Mass Effect with Drew Karpyshyn

That loving feeling

Ah, Liara. For my Male Shepard, ours was the doomed romance that would span the destruction of planets, survive suicide missions, even my own death. For many, romance options have become something of a hackneyed business -- Obsidian have shied away from it in Pillars of Eternity -- and more and more we are able to see the cogs spinning and the cold, hard reality of these branching, emotional narratives reduced to obvious quest flags. I asked Karpyshyn if he had any thoughts on the matter in terms of game narratives and exploration of romantic connections between characters.

"It's always difficult to keep something fresh when players see it over and over," he said. "When we first introduced romances into BioWare games, they were pretty awkward and clumsy. But most players had never seen anything like them before, so they seemed amazing. Now, I think the romances are written much better and have more emotional impact, but players are a bit jaded. They actually expect the romance options, so we aren't giving them anything "new". Of course, I haven't worked at BioWare in almost two years, so it's possible the teams there have come up with cool and interesting ways to draw players in for the next games they are working on. Ultimately, however, I think it comes down to making a character people bond with."

It's a position that I'd disagree with to a certain extent. For me, Baldur's Gate II actually had some of the most meaningful romantic interactions seen thus far, and better yet, those relationships could be affected by your character's behaviour in unrelated missions. Best of all, Bodhi turns up near that end and kidnaps your love interest, and you have to decide if you want to tackle a rather lengthy side quest to get them back. There was less of the "pick this option, give this gift, have sex,..." procedure that now seems to be de rigeur. BioWare have certainly improved in terms of inclusion -- offering up a wider range of romance options, but in many ways I can't help but feel that these have come at the cost of deeper, more nuanced relationships, particularly in Mass Effect.

That all being said, though, the writing that was there, combined with the cinematic framing, the exceptional voice work, and an investment of 90+ hours made the final parting a moving experience indeed.

Interactive Narratives: Talking KOTOR and Mass Effect with Drew Karpyshyn

Ownership and entitlement

Speaking of which, I had to ask Karpyshyn for his thoughts on ownership and entitlement when it came to a narrative series beloved by a huge fanbase. As I put it to him in my email, we've seen it with Conan Doyle, when he brought Sherlock back from the dead; we see it today as impatient readers insensitively ask George Martin if he'll finish A Song of Ice and Fire before he dies; and we saw it, of course, with the massive fan backlash to Mass Effect 3's ending. When does an IP "transfer" from creator to consumer, if ever? Can an author ever be wrong?

"I'm not sure I should speak on this," came the reply, "as it is a touchy subject and I wasn't involved in ME3 at all and I haven't even played the game yet, so I don't have a specific opinion on that. I think authors can make mistakes, and in my opinion it's up to the author if they want to address fan reaction or not. Obviously, fans who are invested in something feel like they deserve an ending they appreciate, and I think creators have to walk the line of doing something new and unexpected versus delivering on the implied promises set up throughout the course of the project. But sometimes fans can go over the top, and I think you have to weight each specific case differently."

At the time of the furore, Karpyshyn said much the same in a length blog post on his personal website.

Of course, some of you are also pinging me to find out what the “original” ending of the series was when we started planning out the trilogy. Sorry, but that’s not something I’m even going to attempt to answer. The collaborative creative process is incredibly complicated, and the story and ideas are constantly evolving as you go forward. Yes, we had a plan, but it was very vague. We knew we wanted to focus on some key themes and bring in certain key elements: organics vs synthetics; the Reapers; the Mass Relays. Beyond that, we didn’t go into detail because we knew it would change radically as the game continued to evolve.

A good example of this is Cerberus. When we wrote ME1, Cerberus was basically a throw-away group of pro-human radicals: a name we dropped for some side missions to play the role of villain. We didn’t even have a concept of who was running them, and we didn’t think they were that important. Obviously by the time of my Ascension novel and ME2, that had changed radically. The Illusive Man and Cerberus became central to the story and themes – that never would have happened if we had nailed everything down and refused to make changes to the story.

So I don’t like to say “here’s what we originally were thinking” because it gives a false and very distorted impression of the process. Mass Effect was the creation of a huge team, with contributions coming in from many people at many stages of the project. Some things I liked ended up getting cut, some stuff I wasn’t sure of worked its way in. That’s the nature of the beast with collaborative works, and I think in the end it makes the final product stronger. But talking about the changes after the fact feels like I’m sitting on my throne and proclaiming, “That’s not what I would have done!” It’s easy to sit on the sidelines and say “I would do this or that”, but it’s very different when you’re part of the process, working with multiple ideas, trying to piece it all together and still hit your deadlines. Anyone who wasn’t part of the ME3 team is an outsider – even me – and whatever they say about the creation of the game is just unsubstantiated speculation.

Interactive Narratives: Talking KOTOR and Mass Effect with Drew Karpyshyn

Looking ahead

Times change, people move on, and the fluid collaborative process shifts to accommodate those changes. Karpyshyn himself left to work on SWTOR, before departing the games industry entirely to work on a trilogy of dark fantasy novels, and going from being involved in a huge development team effort to penning an expansive work on his own. As someone who's seen the extremes of both -- large-scale collaboration and intimate solo authoring -- Karpyshyn is well-placed to draw comparisons between the two.

"Writing games is a very collaborative process," he explained. "BioWare uses a team of writers who all work together, and we also work with the artists and designers to make sure the story and game fit. Because of that, you need to be able to let some ideas go and be open to new ideas that aren't yours - there is a lot of give and take. Writing a novel is a much more solitary experience. You have nobody to bounce ideas off of, and you pretty much sink or swim on your own. But, you also have complete creative control, which you don't get when working on a game dev team of 100+ people."

There's a real hunger for swords and shield fantasy with a bit of bite to it and a vast moral spectrum of myriad greys across pretty much every narrative-driven medium these days. I asked Karpyshyn why he might think that is, and how it feels to have build something from the ground up all by himself.

"I think the proliferation of "dark" fantasy with morally ambiguous characters is a bit of a reflection of the cynicism of our modern times. The innocence of a character like Frodo or Samwise in Lord of the Rings almost seems naive now. Audiences are well aware of their own faults and failings, and we expect to see that in our heroes now, too. Having said that, I think it's possible to go to far in the other direction and ignore the good and nobility that exists inside us all, as well. With Children of Fire, the first book in my Chaos Born trilogy, I have plenty of dark, grim moments and my central characters are far from perfect. But I also have many triumphant moments, and I make sure to show acts that are noble, kind and admirable. Ultimately, I think there is optimism in my novels, though it's often a struggle to get to the happy ending.

"As for creating my own universe, it was both gratifying and exhausting. In Children of Fire, I had to work hard to balance the story I was telling while also introducing this vast world I had created. With The Scorched Earth, the second book in the series, I was able to fall into more of a rhythm when it comes to character and plot because the fundamentals of my world are already well established. Of course, I keep adding to this world - in the Scorched Earth fans will finally get to see the warrior culture of the Clans in the Frozen East up close. But it's a lot easier to add things onto an existing structure than it is to build that structure up from nothing."

I'll be taking a closer look at certain narrative aspects of Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect over the coming weeks along with a whole bunch of other games too as part of this ongoing series, as well as speaking to more writers and developers, so make sure you put Wednesday 6PM in your diaries. In the interim, I'd like to say thanks to Drew for taking the time to respond to my emails and answer my questions, as well as for his part in creating several of the finest story-driven games out there. The Scorched Earth, the second book in the Chaos Born trilogy and sequel to Children of Fire, is now out in the US and UK. You can find Drew's personal site here.

Add a comment2 comments
ClouDtheStrifE  Sep. 25, 2014 at 08:23

A spoiler alert in the beginning of the article might be helpful (I stopped reading halfway through as I feared there might be Mass Effect spoilers as well - I still have to play ME2 and onwards).

MattGardner  Sep. 25, 2014 at 12:23

A spoiler alert in the beginning of the article might be helpful (I stopped reading halfway through as I feared there might be Mass Effect spoilers as well - I still have to play ME2 and onwards).

Apologies for that oversight, have added one now!

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