Interview: Shawn McGrath Clarifies “Mass Effect” Comments, Talks Journey And Journalism

Shawn McGrath’s comments at the recent GamerCamp have prompted much discussion of late, mainly because of his statements about Mass Effect, and in particular, the way the game tried to convey the story, and the linear way the plot developed largely regardless of your actions.

I caught up with Shawn recently (he was literally just getting a whiskey, at about 6 in the morning – although he later points out that that’s his ‘bedtime’ drink, and he’s not an alcoholic) and chatted about his quotes, and the subsequent online debate over just what he was meaning. You may well have missed the fallout, but he wasn’t hugely happy with how things had been portrayed.


TheSixthAxis: OK, so, tell me what’s happened in the last few days. I hear you don’t like Mass Effect.

Shawn McGrath: Ha ha I don’t! But that’s hardly the crux of my issue.

TSA: It’s not?

SM: I was talking about a linear story not fitting particularly well within an interactive system. I suppose I was a little too combative with the language I used, but it was a very quick interview, and I was really high on cough medication – I was very sick! I definitely prefer to speak in such a way that is more conducive to a constructive discussion, and that wasn’t a good example. That being said, the way in which the interview was picked up by other sites practically guaranteed there wouldn’t be a useful discussion. For example super imposing a screenshot of my game with one of Mass Effect, or titling the article: “guy who made Dyad calls Mass Effect worthless”, etc.

TSA: Do you think you were unfair to Mass Effect?

SM: Not in the content of my argument, but I guess in the way I phrased my argument. I had just played it because I was trying to work on my points, and it was recommended to me as an example of good story in an interactive system. I think it’s a poor example, hopefully people who disagree with me can find better examples – hell I can think of many better examples.

TSA: Your point seemed to be that regardless of what happens in Mass Effect, the outcome is still largely the same, and that’s all wrapped up in a plot that’s hardly likely to win any literary awards.

SM: That wasn’t my point, that was an example to illustrate my point. My point was regarding branching stories. I’ve further developed my anti-story ideas into 3 separate ideas.. well 2 and a half.

TSA: That branching stories can never really exist on a computer?

SM: Well, they can exist, and in fact they do; they exist in Mass Effect, it’s just not very granular. I said a much better example is “Home” by Benjamin Rivers, but, to get to the scale of the Mass Effect world, and to the degree of granularity that I would deem acceptable, it’s an extremely difficult computation and data problem.

TSA: It’s unlikely to ever be “there” in a large scale game?

SM: I think we’d have to solve the AI problem first.

TSA: Surely the difference then is that Home is a much simpler 2D title? It’s easier to account for the choices a player may make? Simpler visually, and in terms of AI at least.

SM: Right, but that’s kinda central to the idea. Doing something with the branching granularity of Home in a world as large as Mass Effect is currently impossible, and is unlikely to ever be possible – at least until we solve AI. You wouldn’t have to solve AI to get to Home’s level, but you’d have to make a lot of text, and I think it’s a really bad approach to making a game.

TSA: Have you ever tried One Chance?

SM: I haven’t, no.

TSA:: That gives the illusion of choice, on a very small scale. Basically you invent a cure for cancer, but realise that the cure is actually going to kill everyone. You have 5 days to try to save everyone. It’s tragic, but the outcomes are there and possible because it’s so refined and small in scope. Games like Mass Effect will never get to that stage.

SM: Well they may, I don’t want to try to predict the future… but even if they do, I don’t think it’s particularly interesting.

TSA: Why not?

SM: One of the issues I brought up was the argument of a story being told through a protagonist’s eyes, and how in a game you are the protagonist. Telling a story through someone’s eyes means you aren’t the protagonist in the game. The protagonist is just an avatar that you control, which adds a level of disconnect between you and the underlying game system and I think it’s worthwhile to figure out how to remove that layer.

TSA: In what sense? So that the player is you, or further abstracted?

SM: That’s exactly right, the player is you, and when you’re controlling a player, you aren’t the player anymore. I think that’s a massive step backwards in terms of what games were doing before, and is the wrong approach moving forward.

TSA: There are very few games where the player is you, though.

SM: Well, that’s not true… in old arcade games, you’re the player. It’s when we tried shoehorning story into games that we created this disconnect. I’d like to return to where we were, then move forward in a different direction. That’s what I tried to do with Dyad… it didn’t move particularly far forward but that’s what I’m thinking about now.

TSA: I think, personally, that the issue is with ‘forced’ stories – ones that continuously break the 4th wall because the character doesn’t do what you’d do.

SM: Right! that happened to me so many times in ME2 (and not so much in ME1). In ME2 Shepard would say something that referenced knowledge that I didn’t have. It was really jarring.

TSA: Some games can have avatars and still tell a successful story. Journey, for example. Or Unfinished Swan, because the tale is in the telling, not on screen with stupid prompts.

SM: Yeah, I think Journey does a pretty good job, but I claim you are the avatar, not you are “controlling” the avatar – it’s an important distinction. I have some quarrels with certain aspects of what Journey does, but I think it’s definitely one of the better examples of moving in what I consider to be the correct direction. Journey and Shadow of the Colossus share the same problem in this regard I think: there’s no choice with how you end the game, or how you even hit certain milestones in the game. I think they worked extremely hard to limit those milestone choices – Journey especially – and I really respect their direction, but they aren’t there yet, not even close.

TSA: You mentioned that Dyad tells a story. I think that’s a fairly abstract story. At least in the traditional sense.

SM: It definitely is!

TSA: Let’s be honest, people want a story with a defined beginning, middle and end. And by that I mean plot development, character interactions, and so on. I’m generalising, of course.

SM: Sure, people can want all sorts of things! I don’t think anyone’s done interactive storytelling very well yet… and I don’t even know what ‘very well’ would be yet. So it’s pretty hard for people to want something that doesn’t exist! I’ve been thinking of how to do it for a few years now, and basically the only thing I’ve been doing for the last 4 months is thinking about this problem and I’m nowhere near an answer.

TSA: Do you think there’s a market for something truly new in that sense?

SM: I dunno, I don’t think about that when I consider what’s interesting for me to spend my time on.

TSA: Take the recent stuff with BioShock Infinite – it seems the general populace just wants the lowest common denominator.

SM: Yeah, but I think that’s true for everything. The larger your population sample, the fewer things people have in common, therefore there’s fewer interesting things are that appeal to everyone. So I think that’s a tautology.

TSA: Neither you nor I (or anyone) really knows where storytelling should go. I guess it’s more important to a publisher to get people into a game rather than the story. What I mean is, perhaps most don’t really care.

SM: Yeah, it’s a touchy subject. Humans are generally attracted to stories about humans, and then further things that they can personally relate to, so I think anything that tries to do anything fucked up will find a fairly small audience, but I’m okay with that. I don’t make things with an audience in mind, I just make whatever I think is interesting.

And with that, Shawn returns to his whiskey.



  1. Really interesting interview. I’ll be honest, to begin with I felt he was just talking for the sake of being different but when he stated even he doesn’t know where storytelling needs to go to meet his hopes, he made a lot of sense.

    Still, I do like a beginning, middle and an end.

  2. I think for all the hype Mass Effect receives I would expect it to be fantastic but it just isn’t. Its a very shallow story that forced Bioware in to linearity. Enough said really. At least one person agrees that its not up to much as everyone I come across seems to be hell bent on loving the game believing it to be the best story ever… oh dear.

    I agree storytelling and games have a mixed future. I think that especially in the way gaming culture is heading for. Annual releases increasing, the next gen promising to cost the price of a small country next to the somewhat ailing economy. The still tight focus on studios relying on people learned in programming and the rest of the team to create a story as opposed to appealing for professional writers/directors (I mean young people wanting to implement story as opposed to established directors who are in film and should stay in film).

  3. Blimey that’s a bit heavy going, could have done with a few willy gags.

  4. That was an interesting, but slightly confusing interview. Making the player the protagonist while retaining a fleshed out character seems impossible. There has to be a certain level of role play, unless we’re talking about racing-, board- and arcade games.

  5. Fantastic interview, nofi. Shawn’s absolutely spot on and it’s interesting that I was chatting about this very topic within the last couple of weeks. We have so far to go before we have something resembling a truly interactive story where choices can be made and we all don’t end up converging at the end. A.I. is the killer, as Shawn mentions, for a game world that might be open and able to react to us in every way. However, it was good to see that it’s not always about that and thankfully we have a plethora of genres to cater for most tastes which means linear and non-linear stories will hopefully find what’s right for them and we go from there.

    Computationally, A.I. is just about getting there but do we have the power to handle good quality AI? Perhaps we’ll see on the next-gen consoles.

    Excellent stuff.

  6. Very interesting topic and some really encouraging responses that indicate, at least, that people within the industry are asking these questions and thinking about what they can do.

    The most important question though: what kind of whiskey does he drink?

  7. That interview was great stuff. Thats why I come here. Really interesting.

  8. He makes some interesting points, but surely the logical conclusion of his line of thinking is a game which is a fully realised universe where every single action has a consequence and the AI is basically at the level of a human. Mass Effect is just a point on the continuum towards this, it sacrifices a lot of choice to tell a specific story. Dyad may be further along the line but it can afford to do that by being a very narrowly focused type of game, so makes the sacrifices elsewhere in its design.

    Basically I’m saying the way ME plays out is not to the detriment of the game, I just felt like I was being pulled along on the rollercoaster, and it was ace!

  9. A good interview, however my small mind seems to believe the only reason multiple paths and multiple endings and decisions not being closely finite boils down to one thing. Disc space. You simply cannot fit all those possibilities onto one disc while sustaining the levels of graphical and character depth.

    Could you imagine how much you would have to pay the voice actors and all the developers for the extra time it would ensue? and the knock on effect of the price of the game being through the roof?

    Mass Effect and heavy Rain do a very good job with limited resources and until those resources are exponentially increased there is no hope for this mans hope.

    Good thought provoking interview though, well done.

    • In the future you might see a situation where all voices are phonetically constructed as oppose to actors delivering lines into a microphone. If we get to that point then good AI can have our world react in a very realistic way compared to what we have today. Keep in mind that plenty of trickery in the background doesn’t mean we have to have thousands of “people” living their lives on the streets of GTA (for example) and that a lot of it can be smoke & mirrors. However, when we interact with any given NPC we’ll see a huge difference in how they deal with us (or run away ;-)).

    • I agree, Roynaldo.
      To me it felt like McGrath is pissed because things aren’t where he wants them to be. He goes after ME because they tried and gamers expected more than they got. Truth is, more choices lead to more costs and they have to draw a line somewhere. Seems like a cheap shot.
      At least that’s how he comes across to me in this interview.

    • It’s not just about disc space. It’s about human resources.

      Writing five truly different endings is not just about putting five different choices near the end of the game. It requires building five different *games* within the game, each with its own story, characters, plots, situations, environments.

      A game like Heavy Rain comes close to that definition, and it’s not hard to see how ultimately limited the concept is when human resources are not infinite. Just imagine a game the size of Skyrim with the branching possibilities of Heavy Rain. Well, that’s humanly impossible, even with 500 developers working four years on it.

  10. Some nice comments here, thanks. I think Shawn’s main point ultimately was that he doesn’t think storytelling is up to scratch yet, but this all started with sites pulling choice quotes from another interview, which is hardly rare.

    • Pulling sensationalist quotes is the norm, as is deliberately misrepresenting quotes to stir up controversy – even among the biggest and most respected sites. I’m sure it’s terribly disheartening for people like Shawn (and others in similar positions) when it happens to them.

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