Massive spoilers to follow.
Think what you want about the end of the game (and I’m firmly in Devin’s camp with that), there’s no one that played Mass Effect 3 who wasn’t moved by the level on Tuchanka. The quest to bring Eve and Mordin to The Shroud in order to possibly cure the genophage and free the Krogans from their certain doom as a race is easily one of the most memorable in the game. It’s also the first one that makes you realize just how intense this game will be. There's simply no such thing as an easy decision.
Senior Designer Dave Feltham offered an exclusive chat to talk about the creation of that level and of course I jumped at it. He was joined by Senior Writer John Dombrow and Senior Artist Boyd McKenzie, the trifecta behind this stunning campaign.
As I admired the wall of the meeting room these Seniors were sitting in (a massive mural of the Illusive Man in his chair) I let them know that I had spent a few hours roaming Youtube for playthroughs just to see all the ways it could have unfolded. You have no idea how badly it could have turned out...
So how did this level come about in the first place?
John- Way at the beginning of the development of Mass Effect 3 they decided that the genophage, along with the Geth/Quarian issue, would warrant their own campaign. The genophage would be a two part thing and it was a matter of trying to figure out what that story was. So we started with the very basic concept of “How are we going to cure the genophage, how are we going to pay that off?” And we just built from there. I started thinking about the best way to tell this story that was full of all these complications and finally decided to center it around a female Krogan, which was a character we’ve never seen before. So that became the background of the first mission which is where you rescue her from the Salarian homeworld. Then the big payoff is on the mission on Kochanka, where you actually get her help to cure the genophage. So once we had that notion that it was going to end there we had to work out some mechanics of how we were going to actually distribute this cure. That started to flesh out this epic journey, as we called it- we didn’t want curing the genophage to seem simplistic, like land, hit a button and you did it. It had to feel epic both in size, scope, combat, gameplay and story.
I remember going to Boyd and saying that if the art can support this notion that maybe the Krogan once were something grand, they weren’t always these nuclear rubble dwellers, and I think Boyd knocked it out of the park to show that there used to be this grander culture. I wanted all these themes that the players would be dealing with in making this decision.
Dave- So pretty much we had the rough idea from the lead writer Mac Walters saying we want something about curing the genophage. That was about it. Then John sits down and figures out the outline and starts pulling in level design as terms of what kind of experience do we want. It absolutely has to feel epic and different than we’ve done in any previous missions or anything else we’ve done, it has to stand out because it’s the end of a storyline. And then we pull in Boyd and it starts blossoming out from there, pulling in other departments.
John- We felt like we had a core of a good story here but had it not been for Boyd really understanding how to make that artwork feel epic and for Dave and all the technical complexities involved- giving us that awesome Reaper fight- everything involved- none of that would have happened. It’s both art and science and working together.
One interesting thing was that we knew we wanted to cure the genophage, roughly had that worked out, and it was just a question of what was going to be the big moment at the very end. That thing that emotionally hits you. So separately to the development of this mission another senior writer named Patrick Weekes was responsible for writing Mordin- he created him for Mass Effect 2. He knew he wanted payoff for Mordin, and I remember going through this giant list of ideas. He scribbled out ‘some sort of noble end for Mordin’- that’s about all he knew. And as I’m processing how we’re going to cure the genophage I come across that and I’m like alright, there we go, a noble end for Mordin. Cause we’ve already got this tower and the cure and an elevator and suddenly I realize that Mordin’s going up that elevator, now we know! So I ran with it to Patrick who loved it and got excited. Patrick helped out an awful lot with that final sequence.
Dave- So John came to me saying we’re going to make Mordin die. And I’m the biggest Mordin fan. So I knew that that works, because I would be devastated.
John- Mordin curing the genophage was his noble end but we still wanted that choice in there somewhere, which we didn’t have. Later on we hit upon the fact that if the player doesn’t want to cure the genophage, there is this option if you’re Renegade to shoot and kill Mordin- if you’ve seen that on Youtube.
I have, and I was distraught.
John- Everyone here was like “WHOA!”
Yeah, it’s a pretty brutal moment.
John- Then we knew we had the dynamics of a really interesting choice. I wanted it such that that decision was layered in. That’s why right at the beginning of the mission you’re being offered a secret deal, and I wanted that to lay on the player. Some people reveal it as fast as they can and don’t even know it’s a choice!
Dave- We were just talking about my stepbrother who played it,I asked him if he revealed it on the truck and he said “There was another opportunity to reveal it!?” He had no idea. We wanted to do that throughout the whole level, constant misdirects. You have that in movies when you get to that point in the middle of the second act where you think it’s this way and then BAM, it goes another way. If you look carefully at the level it’s actually a three act movie with an epilogue. We wanted to set that up with tons of misdirects in there to keep you on your toes the whole way through, and that was in everything that we did. The same with the actual design of the levels to keep the player on his toes..
Boyd- I think for the mission in general it was one of the first ones that a lot of people have said that Bioware’s not screwing around anymore, people are going to get fucked up. It happens so early in the game that I think people weren’t sure what the tone was going to be and there’s such a big ending for that kind of campaign, that someone can die that way, it made them realize that the rest of the game was going to be about.
Absolutely. It feels like it could be the ending to a lesser game, really- it feels like it has a complete arc.
John- Putting the game together in its early stages and we started to see how this was going to end, we knew how say the Geth/Quarian campaign was going to end. And we knew that if that was the end to a campaign then wow, this whole game is going to rock.
It was a little weird for me because I played Shepard as a Renegade in the first two games and when I got the third copy for review they sent me a PS3 version and I had to start a new character.
All three- *groan*
Yeah, and I decided to go with a female Shepard because I’d heard so much about the voice acting. And I don’t know if it was because I was playing a female Shepard but I decided to be a little bit kinder and gentler so I went Paragon with her, and I had no idea of how bad it got for that Renegade. The one thing that hit me is that Shepard’s just kind of a dick throughout the first two games. He does some horrible things but I don’t think he does anything on that level. Watching him shoot Mordin is one of the hardest things I’ve ever seen, definitely one of the darkest moments in the game.
John- Patrick had a big hand in that, being that it was his character. He was all for it. He brought this character to life in 2, continued it in 3, and basically he felt that this was all-out war, the galaxy’s at stake- this is what it means to be a Renegade. Because you’re right- the past two games maybe you were a bit of a dick to somebody. But it’s like- this it the fate of the entire civilization, it’s going to come down to these hard choices.
Boyd- I watched an interview with George R.R. Martin, the guy who did Game of Thrones, and he always gets ragged on a lot about how many people he kills off. And he used to be in the military and after that experience says “War is hell, people are going to die. You can’t make everybody come out of it completely intact.” It’s the same thing we were trying for.
John- That was very much part of this mission. There are many paths- you got one, but if you killed Mordin in Mass Effect 2 there another guy named Padok Wiks who takes over that players will have less of a connection to, and might be more willing to shoot back. If you didn’t save Wrex in Mass Effect 1 you get his brother Urdnot Wreav who’s more of a tyrant in the making.
Dave- And that’s one of the complications of designing a level because we knew that it was going to be all these choices, but people who have never played the other games who come in and play this, we had to make sure that in the two parts of curing the genophage that there was that connection with Padok/Mordin and Wrex/Wreav without being able to have them in your party. We had to do all kinds of tricks with narrative, all kinds of tricks with banter. One of the very first designs we talked about was like the snake- you know, when you’re doing this path and Wrex just comes in and out. Which was essentially what we were doing- Mordin keeps coming back into the gameplay without actually being in your party.
Boyd- They never go away. They’re just kind of barely around but you never want to separate yourself too far.
John- Yeah because if we did then the whole ending is shot. It’ll be complete shit.
Absolutely, there would be no connection to the characters.
John- Part of us wishes that you could see where your twists matter. If I killed Wrex then I’m stuck with the tyrant. If I destroyed Maelon's data in Mass Effect 2 then Eve dies here. Did you know that?
I found out while scouring the internet! Eve dying- that changes everything. What happens with Mordin now when he knows what kind of person Wreav is [and that Eve was the only thing holding him back]?
John- So there’s a scenario that you can convince Mordin not to go up the tower, where Mordin will live.
Does he become a team member again?
John- He helps build the crucible.
Dave- He's becomes a Galaxy at war asset.
John- You can save Mordin but you have to have killed Wrex in Mass Effect 1.
Dave- And you had to have not saved the data in Mass Effect 2, which was the mission I worked on.
Wow. I don’t know how you guys even designed something like that- there’s so many variables.
John- A lot of headaches. A lot of flow charts and diagrams. But I also have to say coming on to Mass Effect 3, having not worked on 1 or 2- I had this really rich backstory to play off. So my job I felt was to take what was great and already established and just pay it off. Really bring it to the proper conclusion. I wouldn’t have been able to do that if there hadn’t been smart people figuring out the genophage dilemma to begin with. Without all that foundation- for example we always kept female Krogans a mystery. That gave me the great opportunity to reveal her in the most important and epic possible way. So all of that- my hats off to the hard work that’s come before.
Dave- It freed us up to have to not have to explain a lot of stuff. It allowed us to just concentrate on it being this crazy journey through Tuchanka.
Now had Tuchanka been seen as a world? I only remember seeing the underground.
Boyd- In Mass Effect 2 you see it when you go back and there’s a hub area where Wrex is if he's alive. And you fight a thresher maw there.
Dave- Mordin’s loyalty in the hospital? That’s in Tuchanka.
Oh, right. [Good research, Alex!]
Boyd- That explains one of the bigger things we wanted to do differently with this one. You’ve seen the bombed-out Tuchanka and in Mass Effect 3 you go back to that a few times. If that’s all you saw the whole way through it’s a little depressing and there’s no real reason to save any of that so the art direction really wanted to try something different with water and the foliage just to show that this used to be something it could be something again. Cause what’s the point in saving a planet that’s just been nuked out?
John - A goal for this was to have art tell its own story. Because what Boyd brought to it, that’s a lot of dialogue I don’t have to write. You just need to to emerge from the catacombs and Boyd’s art tells the rest of the story.
There was actually some criticism I’ve seen online that curing the genophage doesn’t matter to the end of the game. That whatever choice you make one way or the other doesn’t pay off. What’s your response to that?
Dave- There’s tons of implications. If you screw over Wrex, he comes against you in the Citadel and you have to kill Wrex. And then you lose Wrex’s war asset which affects the outcome at the end.
John- The Krogan are quite a powerful war asset when you cure the genophage. I’d say there’s a lot of behind the scenes number crunching- it does matter.
It seems like a lot of criticism comes from people that just can’t enjoy their small part in the story.
John- Well there is also just the roleplaying aspect of it. It’s important for you to decide how you feel about the Krogan.
Dave- I think that’s what a lot of people are latching onto. It’s like- wow- I hate the Krogan all this time and this really made me think about whether I should save this species or not. They go through this journey just on this one mission and we set that dilemma every single moment that we can.
Boyd- It’s more of a personal thing. Mordin dying might not matter much to some people but it might matter a lot to some others. Just seeing that his end is important it itself. It’s really kind of what you want to take from it.
Dave - That was one of things that John and I talked about- what if you don’t have Mordin? What if unfortunately in Mass Effect 2 Mordin died and you have Padok Wiks and you don’t have that connection there- do you care what happens in the outcome? So we had to ensure that if you do have Padok Wiks that we’re sending out hooks through the visuals and everything else that happens. We make you think about the Krogan- it’s not just about losing Mordin.
Boyd- It was just all this stuff coming together in a way that works.
I love that you’re still second-guessing yourself by the end of it. I think that’s a theme throughout the whole game- you’re just never sure if what you did was right. At the very end of my game I had Wreav yelling at his soldiers saying “Remember how we win this battle because this is how we’re going to win the next!”
John- I actually wrote all that because I just wanted to stick it to you.
John- “This is what it’s going to be, player! Wreav’s going to war!” A lot of it too- they’re not represented here but the cinematics delivered that Reaper/Thresher Maw fight beyond our wildest imaginings.
Dave- We pretty much went in and said “We want Godzilla Vs. Mothra. See ya.” and Parrish (Ley, Lead Cinematic Animator) and his team just knocked it out of the park.
That’s just a jaw-dropping moment.
Boyd- The biggest thing from that was how many people were cheering about a thresher maw. Never thought they’d be cheering on the worm from Mass Effect 1.
John- But again without cinematic support the cure sequence, like that great shot of the cure particles drifting.
It’s a beautiful, kind of serene moment. It’s almost- well, not out of place, but it's one of the few tranquil moments you have in the game.
John- That was by design. A little pocket of hope.
Although it’s a little weird watching the Renegade version when you know that there’s nothing there.
John- We talked about that too. For budgetary reasons we can’t have two different cinematics for the cure, so what are we going to do? We changed it through music, but mostly through your guilt. If you go back to the Normandy and talk to Garrus, he will congratulate you and I just wanted the player to feel this intense guilt.
You just wanted to punish us.
John- Well that’s for the player to feel! Maybe they didn’t want to cure it- we don’t actually tell them what to feel.
Well that’s the greatest thing about this game, the choices you’re allowed to make. Do you guys have a preferred path through Tuchanka?
Dave- I weep openly- and I’ve seen it a hundred and thirty times- shooting Mordin. I didn’t play it that way in my own game. I played a female Shepard as Paragon. This game I tried as Paragon turning Renegade to see how it would feel. For the mission I told Mordin at the very last minute and let him go up and prepare it but I would show my wife both scenes, which is just brutal. And I love seeing that scene! What the conversation designer did at the end was almost a mistake. He wasn’t going to put it in and when we saw it we went “No no don’t change it!”
John- The slow-mo-
Dave- The slow-mo Renegade interrupt, making the player go “Nooooo”
And the crawling toward the console only to die before getting to it? Oh yeah, just dig that knife in there deeper.
John- Or the happier version when he’s singing his little song at the end.
See, I missed that!
Dave - Oh, really? It’s just cut off by the explosion, it’s like- oh, shit!
John - You have to be working off an import where you heard him sing in Mass Effect 2.
Ah, that’s why.
Dave- Cause you were working on the PS3.
Yep. I’m going to go through it again though, of course. I have to, I have to see my personal story. And that’s the crazy thing- it was like playing an alternate dimension version and I want to see where my character ends up.
Dave- I played Mass Effect 1 before we shipped as a male Renegade and I get that story mixed up with my actual playthrough as a female. And it’s always like- wait- I thought I saw something occur. Oh no no, that was when I was a guy. This is the universe where I’m a girl!
Yeah, when I went to the Normandy and looked at the memorial of all the dead team members I was like “No, I saved you!” I spent hours trying to save all these people and they’re all dead now. Jack was gone, Legion was gone. I felt sad- standing there thinking wait, what happened here? It was weird to be so connected to these characters.
That’s what’s so great about the game though, the fact that you have been able to build upon all these hours and hours of gameplay to bring it to this perfect conclusion.
Dave- I have a question. How did you play the arena level with all those brutes and the reaper stomping. Did you try to kill the brutes?
I tried for a while until I was getting overwhelmed.
Dave- And then what did you do?
And then I RAN.
Dave- Yes! *firstpump*
That was intentional? Can you actually kill all the brutes?
Dave- No, you can’t. The way I designed it was I wanted people to go in and say “Ok, a couple of brutes? I can handle this.” And then “Oh no, there’s another one. And another one. OH shit I’m going to run!” And it sounds like everyone played it like that.
Played right into your hands.
Dave- I’m quite happy with it.
Thanks to the guys for taking the time out of their busy schedule to sit down and talk with us!