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BioWare's Mac Walters

The developer's managing editor talks about the evolution of storytelling and the importance of emotion

One of the most talked about titles of 2007 was the story-driven action RPG Mass Effect, from Canada-based studio BioWare - now a part of Electronic Arts. One of the most intriguing aspects to the game, other than the branching and absorbing dialogue sequences, was the overall story arc that allowed the player to tread a path between paragon and renegade.

At GDC Paris recently GamesIndustry.biz took some time to talk to BioWare's senior writer and managing editor, Mac Walters, and get his thoughts on the evolution of storytelling in games, and the blossoming importance of emotion.

Q: What's your view on the evolution of storytelling in games in the past decade or so?

Mac Walters: Game narrative and storytelling has become a key focus for numerous studios these days. Many games coming out now rival other forms of media for their ability to tell compelling and exciting stories. As proud as we are of our accomplishments, there is much more we can do.

We set a very high bar at BioWare; you don't have to look hard to find otherwise strong games on the market that would've jumped 10 points in their ratings if more effort had been put into storytelling. Although most game producers will agree that narrative is important, the industry is still perfecting the best ways to deliver top-tier stories - that's what makes this time so exciting.

There's still a lot of untapped potential, and the landscape is evolving every year. I'm always fascinated to see new and exciting ways of using narrative, both in the games BioWare produces and those from other developers.

Q: How has technology enabled the player to tell his own story more?

Mac Walters: In a lot of ways. Toolsets like Neverwinter Nights literally allow players to make their own story-based mods and share them with the rest of the world. There's a lot of great user-created content out there.

At BioWare, we tap that talent pool from time-to-time in our search for new staff. Beyond the mod community, the big sandbox games coming out are another great way for users to develop their own stories. These huge explorable worlds make great backdrops for people to live out whatever adventures they enjoy.

Q: How has the portrayal of emotion changed over time?

Mac Walters: This is a big area I've been paying a lot of attention to lately. In the not-too-distant past, all we had to work with was a few pixels that roughly composed an entire character on the screen. We relied heavily on dialogue, and - if we could get it - voice acting. Occasionally we could use simple animations to let players know a character was angry or sad, but game-makers were limited by technology.

Skip ahead to a game like Mass Effect; we now use digital actors that are amazingly close to the real thing. They can deliver emotions with highly accurate facial expressions and gestures. Fantastic voice-over work is present in every line. The cinematic presentation is extremely polished. The musical scores are phenomenal. In short, we've got everything at our disposal that motion pictures have.

Naturally, we're still perfecting the ways to utilise all this to best effect. One of the biggest adjustments for writers is adapting to this new cinematic world. Our dialogue has shifted; in the past, we wrote more like a novel, where everything, including emotion, was expressed in the written lines. Today, we're aiming for a more cinematic experience where actors are allowed to, well, act.

Q: How important is the aspect of emotion to BioWare games?

Mac Walters: It's crucial. Our mandate at BioWare is to create the best narrative-driven entertainment. Expressing emotion through that narrative, especially through our digital actors, is a key way of doing this. It's one thing to create an exciting new world that no one's ever explored before, but it's not enough to just create the space. We want the player to feel something about that place, to become attached to the characters and events. We want the player to care about what happens. That's impossible without conveying, and transferring, a strong emotional experience.

What's your view on something like Beowulf - does it bear any comparison to games? Does it bridge the gap between film and games in a way? How do you feel they managed with respect to telling a story and conveying emotion?

As a movie, I thought it was great. I felt similarly about the Final Fantasy The Spirits Within. But I judged them solely as movies - trying to directly compare them with video games is akin to comparing books and film, or plays and television. As much as they might borrow from each other, they need to be examined within the context of their own genre.

Movies and games share a great deal, more and more every day. While there will always be comparisons, there will also be vast differences. A movie is a linear experience. The director and actors are telling you a story, and the viewer is along for the ride. In games, the story is lived and controlled by the player - that's the key difference. We can, and should, borrow from each other as much as possible, but we do our industry a great disservice (and vice versa) if we strive to emulate each other exactly.

Q: How do you think controller technology evolution can help the story and emotive aspects of videogames?

Mac Walters: This isn't a topic I've thought a great deal about, but I do think we need to focus on perfecting story and emotion using the controllers we've already got. I'm sure there are some amazing controller technologies being planned, but I feel we've got our hands full just trying to get it right with a mouse, keyboard, or gamepad.

Q: What about casual gaming - is there room for story there? Or doesn't it matter?

Mac Walters: Certainly - story can be added to almost any game. What's important is determining the level of story required for a particular product. Often, the story is simply a means of stringing together an otherwise random set of experiences and gameplay. Having a story arc, an obvious beginning and an end, can add a lot to a game, even a casual game.

Gameplay often answers "what" and "how" questions, but story can offer answers to the "why"? Why is it important that I get the red square in the blue box? Why does what I accomplished in the last level matter in this level? Story can give the player a motive beyond achieving the highest score (which, in some ways, is a story in itself). Is story necessary? Not always. Can it make for a better experience? Of course, as long as it's implemented appropriately.

Q: How do you approach the challenge of even slightly open-ended games and the exponential rise of possibilities that brings?

Mac Walters: Open-ended games are a great way to allow players to tell their own stories. Some games - Grand Theft Auto IV, for example - do a great job of allowing a player to create a unique story while weaving in a compelling narrative for the player to follow.

Of course, for every game that's succeeded at doing this, several have failed - it's a very difficult balance. If you offer no story, no clear start and end, people may get bored or lost. Too much story can make players feel that they're being railroaded.

At BioWare, we try to offer the player as many meaningful choices in our games as possible. This gives a player a sense of control over events, and it encourages people to find their own versions of the stories in our games.

Mac Walters is senior writer and managing editor at BioWare. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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