With the ending in Mass Effect 2, there were so many different variables and possibilities for the outcome and what could happen. As players reached the end, they started comparing notes and trying to figure out how it worked. A few months after it came out, we ran a chart in the magazine that showed the layout of how to get the different endings and how things happened. Is that same type of complexity built into the ending of Mass Effect 3?

Yeah, and I’d say much more so, because we have the ability to build the endings out in a way that we don’t have to worry about eventually tying them back together somewhere. This story arc is coming to an end with this game. That means the endings can be a lot more different. At this point we’re taking into account so many decisions that you’ve made as a player and reflecting a lot of that stuff. It’s not even in any way like the traditional game endings, where you can say how many endings there are or whether you got ending A, B, or C.

It’s more like there are some really obvious things that are different and then lots and lots of smaller things, lots of things about who lives and who dies, civilizations that rose and fell, all the way down to individual characters. That becomes the state of where you left your galaxy. The endings have a lot more sophistication and variety in them. It would be interesting to see if somebody could put together a chart for that. Even with Mass Effect 2’s...

Yeah, I remember looking at the Mass Effect 2 chart and thinking that it still seems like there are so many variables that it’s difficult to set things up for trying to get a very specific outcome. I loved that about Mass Effect 2. In fact, every time I think of those tons of choices you’re building on from the previous two games – it seems to me that there’s never been anything this narratively complex in games previous. How do you balance that? How do you handle all of these different possibilities and choices from back to the first game?

It’s narratively complex, but the other part of what’s really neat about it is it’s not just a system. It’d be a lot easier to develop something like this if it were built more as a system, and you saw characters that technically did things and responded to different situations, but what’s really cool is when you see that a character remembers something that you did, and their feelings are hurt. It’s really high fidelity digital acting. All these things play out with extremely high production values for where we’re at in the game industry. That’s something that I think is really cool. That’s a lot of what we’re doing right now, just getting in as many of these last little magical moments for characters.

That’s exactly what I mean. I can’t think of a series where I’ve had this experience where one of the reasons I’m most excited to go into the third game is just to see these characters who I’ve been building a relationship with for so long and to see how that finally plays out.

And it’s amazing how passionate people are about these characters and how much they worry about whether they’ll get to see certain characters and get to spend enough time with them.

To me it kind of speaks to – there’s always this debate going on in the game industry about narrative versus focusing on just gameplay. Some people say it’s the gameplay that’s most important and narrative always comes second. Certainly gameplay in Mass Effect is great, but I think the whole arc of the series – assuming that everything plays out in Mass Effect 3 – is something you can point to as proof that narrative in games can be really meaningful and important. This is not an experience you could have had in any other medium, in any other way and felt this connected.

I think gameplay is certainly key, but the way I would look at it is that the reason you care about gameplay – whether it’s the inventory system or combat or exploration or whatever – the reason you care about it is the narrative. Arguably, you don’t need a great narrative. Great gameplay can still make for a fun experience. But what we see in Mass Effect and the way people respond to it is that – for example, when you’re modding weapons, you think differently when you’re giving that weapon to a squad member that is your love interest, that you just had a conversation with and you think she likes you. That makes giving her that weapon have a little bit of a different meaning versus putting it all on the stats and numbers.

Another thing that stuck out to me in what I’ve played of Mass Effect 3 so far is the tone. The Mass Effect series has always had a sort of darker, sci-fi, gritty feeling, but this game strikes me as not just dark but sad and very somber.

I guess one caveat is that the stuff that we show typically at this point is not the stuff that people remember our games for. It’s not what people will remember Mass Effect 3 for. We’ve got missions for people to play, but I think afterward what people will remember it for is the emotional experience and the fun that they had with exploring their own ship and walking around it and coming across conversations with unique characters – these little things that you get to do. There’s also the emotional journey of the story. Those are the things that I’m most excited for people to try out.

Yeah, when we got to the Citadel during my demo just now, we loaded up a different save. I was a little bit disappointed. I kind of just wanted to walk around the Citadel and talk to people and see what was going on there.

The Citadel is really big in this game. It’s bigger than it’s ever been, in terms of stuff to do. But yeah, it’s those moments where there’s fun and silly, neat stuff to explore. Once you get out into the missions, it returns to seeing the face of the galactic war. What we’re doing with Mass Effect 3 that’s a little bit different than what we’ve done before is exploring the idea of getting the player to understand and feel what Commander Shepard is experiencing versus just reacting to other characters.

We end up exploring some spaces that maybe have never been done before. Because interactive storytelling is still kind of new, there are neat things to try. One of the things we’re trying in Mass Effect 3 is the idea that we can let you feel something that is part of that character’s experience versus strictly getting you to react to things that you see and experience. We’re trying to tell a little bit of the story Shepard would feel and seeing if the player feels that as well. You saw that on the Earth mission, and you see it throughout the game. It’s insight into how Shepard feels. I think that’s going to be one of the things people remember.

One of the few criticisms that I saw thrown around for Mass Effect 2 – and I should note that I did not view this as a problem, but I know that some people did – was the lack of a distinct bad guy or a real face to the enemy the way you had in Mass Effect 1. The final boss fight in Mass Effect 2 kind of comes out of nowhere. Is that something that you’ll be changing in Mass Effect 3? Is there a more specific villain or is it still just kind of the general threat of the Reapers?

In the first one we had Saren. In the second one, we wanted to introduce some mystery into who’s doing what, and that was supposed to be the Illusive Man. In the third game, yeah, I think we’re introducing a clearer target for Shepard, a clearer foil.