A complex stratagem has allowed the pro-human group Cerberus to wrest control of the space station Omega from Aria T'Loak, the de facto ruler of the lawless colony. But in "Mass Effect: Invasion" #3, shipping this week from Dark Horse, Aria begins to fight back to reclaim what's hers. "Invasion" marks the third "Mass Effect" miniseries based on Bioware's hit video game and written by the game series' lead writer Mac Walters and John Jackson Miller with art by Omar Francia. Dark Horse has also released exclusive digital comics and produced an in-game comic for the Playstation 3 version of "Mass Effect 2" to catch new players up to speed since the first game in the series was not released for that platform. "Mass Effect 3," the final installment in the trilogy, ships in March 2012 for PC, Xbox 360, and Playstation 3.
CBR News caught up with Walters to discuss expanding the "Mass Effect" universe, the challenges of maintaining continuity outside the games, possibilities for the upcoming film adaptation and connections between "Mass Effect: Invasion" and "Mass Effect 3."
Any discussion of the "Mass Effect" universe must take into account the branching aspect of the game's story, and this poses special challenges when branching out into other media, including novels and comics. But Walters said the proprety's massive, passionate fan base gives the creative team a gold standard to aim for. "We have very passionate fans. We have fans that are very much aware of all of the details of all of our IPs, our stories and our universes," Walters said. "They will catch anything that we miss, right?" Walters added, laughing.
Walters touched on the massive undertaking even keeping track of all the game's stories is when describing a recent tour of the Bioware offices for European press. "I was showing them one of the tools we have where we track all the states. I was able to fill a screen with just one of the plots from 'Mass Effect 2.' Of course, now we're on 'Mass Effect 3,' we're tracking all the states from all the plots in 1 and 2 and going forward," the writer told CBR News. "It's just so complicated. Eventually, we're going to make a mistake, we're not going to be able to cover everything -- and it is such a big world, too. It's a big world so you want to do everything, but you can't please everyone all the time.
"I'd rather have passionate fans that sometimes get upset that we didn't get it quite the way they wanted than there to be no fans or apathetic fans."
The complex continuity of the games maintains an internal consistency by allowing players to use save files from each game to establish the starting point for its sequel, but for comics, the same story reaches fans who may have experienced the game very differently -- even at the most basic level, players choose whether Shepard, the main character, is male or female. Walters said the process for checking available story options for the comic is similar to what's done for each new game, with the team confirming whether or not certain characters and situations might arise at different junctures. When making the comics, if there is a potential conflict, "we either avoid it or we generalize it." "A good example is in the first comic, 'Redemption.' They were recovering Shepard's body but at no time did we see whether Shepard was male or female, had blonde hair or dark hair, and we didn't get into the details of their exploits," Walters said. "Even at the end of [the digital exclusive comic] 'Conviction,' with James Vega, there's a shot of Shepard in shackles in N7, but again you can't tell what Shepard looks like there. We make those compromises.
"I know in the novels it was interesting because Drew [Karpyshyn] was working with Anderson -- Admiral Anderson at the time, but after the first game you could have appointed him to the Council or you could have appointed Udina instead," Walters continued. "We just kind of assumed that, regardless of what his role was, he would often be off having these adventures. In the end, Drew just tried to never reference exactly what had happened in that case," he added.
For the upcoming "Mass Effect" film, currently set up at Legendary Pictures, dodging Shepard's gender is likely not an option. Walters noted the movie is still early in the development process, but whatever direction is taken with it will be a true "Mass Effect" adventure -- even if it necessarily contradicts some players' continuity. "Depending on where they go with it, if it's anything like a retelling of the stories we've told in the games, then I guess some license will have to be taken," Walters said. "And if it's Shepard's story -- people keep pinging me with, 'Oh, Shepard should be this person, Shepard should be this person;' in the end it's going to be a Shepard, and it might not be your Shepard, but it's still kind of cool that they're telling the story of Commander Shepard in general."
Walters has previously likened the "Mass Effect" games to the "Star Wars" films, with the comics and novels offering a parallel to the "Star Wars" expanded universe. The depth and breadth of the "Mass Effect" universe offers similar possibilities for near-infinite expansion, Walters said -- so long as the characters remain compelling. "I firmly believe that one of the things that grounds our IP, grounds the 'Mass Effect' universe and makes it real to people, and the thing fans are most passionate about are the characters. When you go to Comic-Con, it's cosplayers and they dress up as the characters. Or even if they don't dress up, they relate to the characters, that's what they talk about when they tell you what they love about it," the writer said. "And of course they love exploration and the combat and whatnot, but it's the characters they remember.
"'Mass Effect' is Shepard's story and so we tell it through Shepard's eyes, and that is -- if you want to call it that -- the basic limitation of telling stories in the 'Mass Effect' series," Walters continued. "It's a galaxy populated by fascinating people and aliens, and the comics, the novels, all those other means, allow us to go off and tell a completely different story that maybe has nothing to do with Shepard or is only loosely tied to Shepard. So to me, that's the most obvious place you can go with something like the comics -- yeah, we can tell a different time, we can tell different characters, but really it's about seeing the 'Mass Effect' universe through someone else's eyes."
"Mass Effect: Invasion," the current miniseries, stars Aria in the midst of a battle for Omega, manipulated by Cerberus into making a disastrous alliance that results in a coup. But, Walters suggested, things might not work out so well for the usurpers. "I think the interesting thing with Aria, and you'll see it a bit in the future, is she the de facto ruler, but what we don't always see is how she maintains control of the rabble and the chaos on Omega," Walters said. "The interesting thing that happens when you take a person like Aria out of that scenario, what tends to happen is chaos returns. In the absence of that controlling force that she is, things can go south fast."
Walters prefers his characters to have both depth and a little mystery to them. "I'm drawn to characters who are morally kind of grey. The Illusive Man, Garrus, to some degree was that way, and Aria was another one that I like. While she is clearly the queen of this despicable place, she does provide a service that a lot of people aren't willing to do. She is keeping these guys under control. And it could be a lot worse," Walters said. "I think that's what we'll see going forward in the series, just what she means for Omega."
The writer also revealed Aria's story in "Mass Effect: Invasion" and her role in the upcoming "Mass Effect 3" will be connected. "We have started work -- and completed some of the work -- on Aria in 'Mass Effect 3' that ties in with the comic, and it's kind of fun seeing those scenes," Walters said. "While you don't need the comic to enjoy Aria's witty discussions, I would definitely encourage it if you're a fan of hers."
Looking ahead to the March release of "Mass Effect 3" on Playstation 3, Xbox 360, and PC, Walters said he is excited for fans to see "everything, the whole game." "Fans of the game, fans of Shepard, I really think they're going to get everything they're hoping for in this final installment to the trilogy," he said. "We're going to be able to see a little more of Shepard's human side in this, and all the favorite characters are going to be back and people are going to be able to explore, and my opinion is we've done a really good job of wrapping up and getting a sense of closure to all those relationships but also to all of the storylines we've opened up. We've got all of these threads we've opened, and now the idea is to weave them together into the final installment that we have. People who are fans of the characters and story are going to see a 'Mass Effect' that is deeper than it has been in the past.
"One of the things I'm most proud of over the course of ["Mass Effect"] 1, 2 and 3 is the characters have matured as we have matured as storytellers," Walters continued. "I'm really proud of the feel that you have when you talk to these characters now. The cinematic people have also brought up their game, as well, and the scenes and the moments on this feel on par with TV drama or movie drama. We're in the process now of reviewing a lot of it, and it's really great to see and I think the fans are going to love it."
Walters said that at present there are no plans for "Mass Effect" comics beyond "Invasion," but there will certainly be more on the way at some point. "'Mass Effect' is ending, we're going to want more. We've seen that people enjoy the comics and they're quite popular, so I don't see any reason why not," he said. "We had a fantastic time working with Dark Horse, so I don't see reason why that relationship would end or we'd stop making comics. Just as we're still planning to do more movies and more novels in the future. 'Mass Effect' is pretty popular now, so I think there will be ways to keep telling those stories."
"Mass Effect: Invasion" #3 is on sale Wednesday, December 21.