BioWare is a leader in role-playing games, but the company became famous for its stories: complex, branching narratives told through increasingly cinematic techniques, where players can form extensive relationships with their sidekicks and make weighty decisions about the fate of their world. From the traditional fantasy of the Baldur’s Gate series and Neverwinter Nights to the martial-arts pastiche of Jade Empire and the revelatory Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic—which gave George Lucas’ franchise a bigger shot in the arm than the latest batch of films did—BioWare has spent the decade refining the marriage of big cinematic moments to the genre’s usual fighting and looting.
With two recent hits under his belt, BioWare co-founder Greg Zeschuk spoke with us about the studio’s latest titles, Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect 2; about learning to write for digital characters; and about how to handle sex, love, and morality in videogames.
The A.V. Club: Seeing your evolution from Baldur’s Gate to Mass Effect 2, it’s fair to say that making cinematic games is one of your top priorities.
Greg Zeschuk: Absolutely. That’s been a pretty active intent on our part. You go back to the Baldur’s Gate days, we literally had 32-pixel characters strutting across the screen, and we’d have a couple lines of voice and a lot of text. On one hand, it’s a reflection of the evolution of the technology. On the other hand, though, I think it’s a reflection of our aspirations. We’ve always felt that the medium can get more and more cinematic, and I think when it follows the convention of film, it grows more and more compelling. There’s a hundred years of knowledge and learning in that space that we can then apply.
AVC: With Mass Effect, you hit an interesting balance with the protagonist: Commander Shepard has a role, a name, and voice actors, but the character is also a blank slate: You can control Shepard’s appearance, gender, and behavior. How did you choose that approach?
GZ: Yeah, I mean, that itself was a bit of an evolution. With Mass, we said, “Let’s reflect the fact that you can be almost anyone, do almost anything, but…” In our minds, we always felt the character was iconic. Shepard always meant something important. It’s almost like you push the rock over the top of the hill and start it rolling down, but then where it really goes is the player’s choice.
AVC: On the other hand, coming after Mass Effect, it’s strange to go to Dragon Age, where you have more control over the character you create, but because of that, you’re left out of the voice acting. As you’re watching the cinematic dialogues, the protagonist can’t talk, and the other characters can’t identify you by name.
GZ: Actually, that was very, very purposeful. It was the concept of first-person vs. third-person narrative. First-person is, we don’t actually present the voice. In your head, you would actually speak the voice and give it substance. So consequently, Dragon Age isn’t as impressive to watch, I think, because it doesn’t flow like a movie flows. But it’s still very compelling to play. And for some people, it’s more compelling to play it that way than with the third-person narrative of watching Shepard.
AVC: Starting with your Dungeons & Dragons games, you’ve always had an alignment system that would rate all the choices a character made as good and evil, or lawful and chaotic. Dragon Age broke from that by ditching the moral scale, and Mass Effect also has a different system. Do you feel you’ve outgrown the good vs. evil scale?
GZ: When the Dragon Age team came up with a system which… For so many years, it’s been “Okay, you got +1 this, but -1 that…” On a very specific scale, that was a metagame itself. Playing the morality game was a metagame. We sort of further prompted that by giving you prizes if you get the maximum, right?
I think at the extreme level, it’s non-productive. It’s really transparent, and gamers are smart. They see right through it. Actually, with Dragon Age, I really liked the system the team came up with. It reflects what was important about the game, and that was the character relationships. It didn’t really matter what the world thought of you, but it mattered what the person standing next to you thought of you. And I thought that was a very meaningful thing that fit the game very well, because it was a lot about those relationships and taking them to a more realistic level. You had to carefully decide who you’re hanging out with, carefully determine which actions you want to take, who’s going to be pissed off as a result, and who’s going to be happy with you.
In Mass Effect’s case, that’s not exactly what it’s about. It is about Shepard, and it is about what the world and the universe and the galaxy think of Shepard. The Paragon and Renegade [scale] really fit the Mass Effect franchise. At a very high level, Mass is a different experience. Mass isn’t meant to be quite as gray and complicated. It’s meant to be more like, you’re the action star. You’re a thinking man’s action star, or thinking woman’s action star, but you’re an action star, and it’s a big, big, bold production. And so it has a different sensibility. I wouldn’t want it to be overly complex. You almost want the bold, dramatic actions.
AVC: Starting with Baldur’s Gate II, your games have also become well-known for the romances that the player forms with other characters in the game. With Dragon Age, the gay sex scene made the news. People are scared that their kids will just all of a sudden end up in this situation in a tent with the bisexual elf, and that’s not really at all how it works.
GZ: No, not even remotely. [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you think there’s a better way to communicate that there’s a whole context and a lengthy relationship leading up to these scenes? Or do you think these controversies just flare up and move on?
GZ: On one hand, at a very high level, demographics are going to help us on this, because sooner or later, people who have actually played games are going to be in most of the decision-making positions in the Western world. So 20 years from now, it’s all fine and it’s all going to blow over, because everybody kind of gets it.
And secondarily, I think there’s always an agenda with these things, and so it just comes down to debunking it. It’s part of making the games that we make. We feel really strongly that we want those options available. We want people to feel that there’s something for everyone, there’s someone for everyone, there’s relationships there. It reflects the real world in our minds. So you know… On a personal level, I don’t get frustrated with it anymore. It’s part of the price of doing business, in a sense.
AVC: The first Mass Effect had some provocative scenes with partial nudity, but in Dragon Age, everyone’s wearing those little thongs. Which look really uncomfortable for the guys. Was that to dial it back from Mass Effect?
GZ: I wasn’t really part of the actual core decision-making why they wanted to do that… I guess it’s a bit of a Victorian element in the world of Dragon Age that everyone wears bedclothes. [Laughs.]
AVC: So there wasn’t like a memo from on high saying, “Okay, everybody’s got to wear thongs.”
GZ: No, no, no. I’m curious to see Heavy Rain, which is another game that has a very, very realistic character acting approach, and they’re pushing the envelope in a variety of emotional relationship-type areas. So it’s going to be interesting to see if that generates anything.
AVC: We’ve seen experiments in natural language processing and other ways to conduct a conversation in a game. BioWare’s titles continue to use dialogue trees, where players choose from a handful of options. Are you looking for ways to move past that? Or do you like them, because they’re a good way to encapsulate the most meaningful options?
GZ: The problem with natural language processing and the thing that really holds the technology back, is that when it crashes and burns, it’s horrific. I think we would be in a position to really take a serious look at it, once two things happen. Number one, it becomes much more flawless, like in terms of how well it works, how reliably it can respond, it doesn’t have any horrible failure cases. And secondarily, to get there, you need a reasonable level of processing power. The interesting thing about a dialogue-choice system is that we’ve devoted so much into all kinds of other systems for processing, and dialogue choices use zero processing. So suddenly, if you want to have a great natural language processor, you need to dial down your graphics to make it work. Once you have a demonstrated system that works really awesome and doesn’t cost a lot from a performance perspective, then I think we’ll be all over it.
But you know, the user experience is maybe a third thing to think about. How do you actually interface with that? Do you have your microphone, and you have to have voice recognition plus natural language processing working together flawlessly to actually get the key you need to open the door? And if it doesn’t work that well, then it’s not going to be fun to play.
AVC: For digital characters, you’re obviously doing a lot of research to make them more engaging and believable. Can you speak to any specific things you improved this time around, or the specific challenges you tackled?
GZ: It’s interesting, because it’s not so much a technical thing as an artistic thing. By the end of Mass 1, the writers knew how to write for digital actors. They learned when you could actually solve a dialogue problem or a story program with a gesture or a facial expression. At the beginning, we didn’t know we could do compelling facial expressions. Like, they’d say, “I’m really angry at you!” And Mass 2 benefited from that entire process.
And then from an animation/technical perspective, [it’s] a lot of faces, eye tracking, it’s general facial movement. Trying to better mimic the facial muscles. After seeing Avatar the movie, you see how far it can go to be right. But you kind of see that and go, “Oh, there’s the bar now, and how close can we get?”
AVC: Since Baldur’s Gate, you seem to have evolved from making games with detailed rules to games that are more accessible, more action-based, and not so full of stats.
GZ: In some ways, it’s a reflection of where the market’s at. Another thing is, it is our sensibility. As we’ve gotten older and our fans have gotten broader, there’s different types of things they like, and definitely action feels more accessible in the console-space. And then we do more console games than we used to.
AVC: Along those lines, as cinematic as your games have gotten, the fighting and exploration are still almost a parallel experience from the dialogue and cutscenes. Mass Effect is an action game married to an action movie. Do you want to bring those closer together?
GZ: Yes we do. I think other people have been successful. One I would call out particularly is the original BioShock, and the sense that the environment told the story and you’d walk into the room and something would happen, and you could almost conjure up an image or a sequence of events that led to [it]. That’s something we haven’t done as much yet, but it’s something we’ll probably evolve to.