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Science, art and creative storytelling collide in sci-fi video game design

Enter a new era of storytelling as the power of the critically-acclaimed Frostbite engine brings the visuals, action, emotion, and worlds of Mass Effect Andromeda to life like never before.

It’s human nature to feel a pang of wonderment when looking up at the night sky and envisioning the vast worlds that exist beyond Earth’s borders. What’s really out there? And which of those small, brilliant dots might support life?

Some people get to do more than wonder.

In the world of science fiction, artists and storytellers tackle the wildest "what if" conversations and breathe life to them. In EA Games’ latest installment of the Mass Effect series, Mass Effect: Andromeda, for example, a veritable universe of possibility becomes reality through stunningly designed gameplay.

"People working in science fiction are curious, and generally tend to be dreamers. They take what is known and use it as a jumping-off point to play in the unknown," says Colin Campbell, a game designer at BioWare and lead level designer on Mass Effect: Andromeda. "We get the chance to wonder aloud how humanity will proceed in the centuries to come. What will we discover? What kinds of challenges will we encounter? What solutions will we create to face them?"

We spoke with Campbell and several of his colleagues about what it’s like to work in their chosen professions — and how a game like Mass Effect goes from concept to story to immersive gaming experience.

The process

Bringing a fantastical world to the screen is a highly collaborative, involved process. There’s not so much of a by-the-book procedure as there is a web of interconnected creativity; story ideas inform decisions about art, cinematics, etc. and vice-versa.

"We work closely with pretty much every team on the project," says John Dombrow, a senior writer at BioWare. "We’ll often draw inspiration from the concept art for environments or characters that our artists are dreaming up in their exploratory phase and then work those into our narrative brainstorming sessions."

Roots in scientific fact and research are also paramount for believability, particularly when it comes to the life-sustaining abilities of the game’s "Golden Worlds."

"Mass Effect has always been grounded in real science, which we then extrapolate to theoretical science in order to accommodate the story we’re telling," Dombrow says. "We do our best to have reasonable, scientific explanations for everything in our game."

The development process starts at a high, conceptual level. Details are added in layers, beginning with the story premise and basic decisions about the look and feel of the game’s environment. There’s no set, templated time stamp for production—though it takes months at a minimum for a polished product to emerge.

"The Golden Worlds are a culmination of systems, gameplay, art and narrative that all come together from across the game in one level," explains Campbell. "Creating one of our alien planets is a massive undertaking."

The first step is to pull together a "level team," which includes a person from relevant departments such as writing, art and design. These individuals become the primary developers for the level from conception to ship. Every member of the team must be an open-minded and possess a talent for problem-solving.

With a few high-level constraints in mind — where the level falls in the game’s critical path, etc. — the team submits a pitch, which receives a few rounds of feedback from leads and peers, as well as concept art renderings that visually hint at the end result. This stage is where most major changes to the overall design generally occur — but the team is careful not to spin its wheels here for too long. Even with temporary art and a rough storyline, "controller in-hand" gives the team the bulk of its most useful feedback, explains Campbell.

As the level continues through the production process, there are various checkpoints for feedback, review and revision.

"Very little is built in isolation, and we’re constantly content-balancing, iterating and updating as new things come online," Campbell says.

The changes become more granular as the game evolves. Sometimes, teams move between projects, letting one "chunk" sit for a period of time and coming back to it later. These breaks, explains Campbell, provide vital perspective.

"Finishing one of these planets requires learning what the game is down to a second-to-second experience, and we can’t be that intimately in tune with the player experience early in development. Going off to other parts of the game lets us understand it better, learn some things and bring all of that back into the next phase of development," he says.

People working in science fiction are curious, and generally tend to be dreamers. They take what is known and use it as a jumping-off point to play in the unknown.

It’s important that the team receives plenty of space (no pun intended) to let the creative juices flow.

"We find that teams do their best work when they know what’s expected of them and are given freedom to find their own paths to that goal," says Campbell.

"A good rule of thumb is if the developers making the planet are excited about it and find value in creating it, players will also have fun playing it," he says. "One of the things [all team members] share is the challenge of creating the best possible player experience they can. What’s so exciting about this is that it’s such a complex problem with no single roadmap to success."

Creative Inspiration

In crafting the Golden Worlds, the game designers drew on inspiration from some of their most beloved sci-fi franchises.

"We’re all big fans of the earlier ’70s/’80s science fiction films. They were inventing a lot of new styles and concepts from scratch. It was a potent time for new design that really helped shape our current sci-fi culture," says Joel MacMillan, an art director at BioWare.

In particular, the Alien trilogy and Blade Runner served as inspiration for the characters, levels and VFX designs of Mass Effect. One crucial element, says MacMillan, was the desire to capture a sense of realistic culture and life within a futuristic sci-fi setting.

"We ended up leveraging a lot of the uncomfortable and odd shape-play [from H.R. Giger’s work on the Alien franchise] in the Kett environments as well," he says. "The functional industrial design that Ron Cobb brought to Alien and Aliens was great at grounding the franchise in a believable/relatable world that contrasted nicely with the ‘Giger’ element. We tried to bring some of that into our levels… a sense of ‘human’ familiarity, as well as cool functional design."

Science fiction wasn’t the only genre to inspire the look of Mass Effect. The designers also drew from the landscapes and frontiers of Sergio Leone Westerns, particularly the integration between architecture and set items with natural landscape. Even elements from newer franchises — the vivid colour patterns and designs from Guardians of the Galaxy films, for example — inspired some of Mass Effect’s aesthetic.

Real-life and traditional art also played the role of creative muse, says MacMillan.

"Brutalist and Neo Brutalism was a source of inspiration for a lot of architecture. We found some impressive and ‘otherworldly’ Yugoslavian and Russian sculpture that acted as the initial launching point for a lot the Remnant visual design. Pre- and post-war Russian mechanical design was used as reference for some Kett designs, level and props."

Narrative

I love being able to imagine, extrapolate and explore themes and ideas that resonate with the hopes and fears we have today.

On the storytelling side of the equation, drawing inspiration is tricky. Creating narrative for a video game is an entirely different animal than writing for film or television. Mass Effect, for example, employs what Dombrow refers to as a "branching narrative," where player choice is inextricably tied to how the story unfolds. Writers must keep the player experience in mind as they brainstorm various plot paths.

"A movie or TV show has one set path through the story from start to finish, whereas a BioWare game can have multiple paths," he explains. "A movie can allow an audience to know more than the protagonist does — like a cutaway to a ticking bomb inside the building the hero’s about to enter… or maybe the protagonist has some secret plan for foiling a villain, but the audience doesn’t grasp it until all the pieces fall into place at a point when the filmmakers choose to reveal it."

This type of plot doesn’t work in a game, Dombrow explains.

"We always have to write for what the player actually knows and is experiencing. Then we have to factor in the question: Is it fun to play? Because ultimately it’s a gameplay experience we’re creating — not just telling a story — and the writing has to support it, not overshadow it."

Despite its challenging nature, Dombrow describes the narrative development process as extremely rewarding — and also just plain fun.

"I love being able to imagine, extrapolate and explore themes and ideas that resonate with the hopes and fears we have today," he says. "I don’t think there’s any doubt that humanity’s future is tied to venturing out into the cosmos — it’s something that goes very deep into the root of who we are and what we could become. So it’s very satisfying being able to imagine what that future might look like. Plus, you get to romance a whole bunch of aliens along the way — who wouldn’t have fun with that?"