Lizzunchbox from Wikia here. We've been at GDC all week, and one of the last sessions of the week was a very interesting blend of game and narrative design.

In a session entitled Emotional Journey: BioWare’s Methods to Bring Narrative into Levels, BioWare Senior Designer Dave Feltham spoke for an hour about BioWare’s process for developing story, emotion, and narrative that is integrated into gameplay.

With Mass Effect 3, BioWare hoped to find an alternative to the very common design trait of using a cut scene to advance the story, and then diving into gameplay, and then coming back out into a cut scene to keep the story going. “This worked well with Mass Effect 2,” he said.

But the company wanted to go farther. “We realized we needed to bring some of the story telling into the level,” Feltham said. The game’s designers looked at what they considered “good examples” of story-telling at the level of the, um, level—games like Uncharted 2 and Red Dead Redemption.

“In Mass Effect 3,” he said, “the whole galaxy is at war, so the play-cinematic-play cycle is less relevant. We wanted to capture the theater of war.”

Feltham, who called level design the “meat and potatoes” of a game, then walked the large GDC crowd through the high-level design process of Mass Effect 3’s very well-known Genophage level…also known as Geno02 or Priority: Tuchanka.

Here are the highlights of his talk:

For Mass Effect 3, Feltham and BioWare used a great deal of phsychological design. Examples include:

  • In the catacombs, they eliminated all combat, didn’t allow save games and purposely kept the player a little disoriented to create a sense of anxiety and foreboding. The designers initially had combat here, but they found it was conflicting with the theme and emotions for this area, and was interrupting Eve's dialogue about the history of the Krogan. To create a sense of combat, they placed a dead body at the beginning.
  • At the beginning of the level, they threw Husks at Shepard to create a sense of confidence.
  • Similarly, the endless stream of Brutes towards the end was more than just a gameplay challenge; they deliberately wanted to make the player feel scared and overwhelmed.
  • Initially, the designers used a Banshee here, but realized it worked against their over-arching theme of urgency. Fighting a Banshee was taking too long, Feltham said.
  • Going way back, the game’s main writer always wanted Mordin to “ascend to his fate”, so the end of this mission was an appropriate fit for this intent.
  • Right at the end of the game, as you prepare to take on the Reaper, play testers were finding the build up “too bleak”. According to Feltham, the designers decided to add the cut scene of the Turian ships flying overhead as a way of giving the player a little emotional boost.
  • Also right before the Reaper fight, they placed the player at a lower elevation than the Reaper to make it feel even bigger.

The initial process of designing a level starts with what BioWare calls a “narrative razor”, which is essentially a cocktail napkin sketch of the level idea, as well as what happens. Once this is done, the designers pitch the idea to senior members of the team. If approved, the concept goes to a specific writer and a specific designer.

The next phase is what Feltham calls a “playable pitch”, which is essentially a prototype built in Unreal engine that exhibits the basic gameplay and—more importantly, given BioWare’s goal—the basic conversations, the text that will fill cut scene, etc.

Finally, for each area of a given level, the design team defines themes and emotions that they can refer back to in order to guide and influence the game's design.

For [Geno02], Feltham and the game’s other designers—including John Dobrow and Boyd McKenzie—used the classic three-act structure to simultaneously tell an emotion-driven story and create an engaging level. Their structure consisted of:


1. Inciting Incident. Joker tells Shepard that they can’t just walk into the shroud, and that they have to somehow get rid of the reaper.

2. First reversal. The highway crash which feels like a bit of a setback.

3. Low point. Wreav has his moment with the Thresher Maw, leaving a much smaller party than you hoped to go into the fight with.

4. Second reversal. Here, Shepard decides to use Kalros, the Thresher Maw, to attack the reaper.

5. Climax. This is the big moment with the genophage. Lots of different climaxes here.

6. Epilogue. This is the funeral, and a big moment where Eve dies or lives, with lots of characters talking about moving forward.

“In the end, what we really wanted to do was put the player through emotional turmoil, Feltham said in closing. “Even though they may have lost companions, they knew they went through something. We felt like we accomplished our job.

You can follow Dave Feltham on Twitter @davefeltham.

Community content is available under CC-BY-SA unless otherwise noted.