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Mass Effect: Andromeda Cathleen Rootsaert Interview

  • Written by Gamespot

The latest in GameSpot's documentary series explores the story behind Mass Effect: Andromeda and developer BioWare Montreal. As part of this video feature, we travelled to Boston and spoke to various members of the development team, ranging from studio executives and writers, to designers and creative directors.

While some of these interviews are featured in The Story of Mass Effect: Andromeda, a great deal of the material was unused. In light of this, we decided to publish each of the interviews in full and make them available to anyone interested in reading more about the development of the game and the studio.

The interview below features Cathleen Rootsaert, one of the lead writers on Mass Effect: Andromeda. Further interviews are available through the links.

Mass Effect: Andromeda Interviews

GameSpot: Can you introduce yourself and talk about your experience with Mass Effect as a franchise?

Cathleen Rootsaert: Hi, my name is Cathleen Rootsaert. I'm one of the lead writers on Mass Effect Andromeda, and I started on Mass Effect with a tiny little bit of the Liara DLC on Mass Effect 2 and then I went on as a writer on Mass Effect 3.

What were your kind of first experiences with the characters and the universes in Mass Effect? When did you first come to it? Or did you start off as a fan before you started working on it?

I started as a casual fan, I guess. When I first came to BioWare, I actually worked on Star Wars: The Old Republic, and I was playing the [Mass Effect] games. I'm a big Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic fan, so I knew BioWare's work really well. [But] I actually wanted to make the move--I just loved the Mass Effect franchise so much that I wanted to be on it. And so I actually applied from inside the company. I applied to [Mass Effect creative director] Mac Walters and said, "Please, I want to be a writer on ME3."

What was it about the characters and the universe that attracted you and made you want to write for Mass Effect?

What I love about Mass Effect is that it's about humanity, right? It's about us. It's about humanity finding all of these other races and our journey to make our place. I think on Earth, we're the kingpins here, right? So the idea that out there, there are the Asari, the Turians; that there may be other races that have known each other for years--I just think it's interesting to watch humanity struggle and to write humanity's struggle as we try and find our own place in the future.

What was it like to see how passionate the fanbase is about the small things, such as characters' places within the universe or how they deal with their own personal struggles--be it a racial struggle or a health struggle or a mental health issue, or whatever?

I think that's what takes it out of the realm of being just pure hardcore science-fiction. It has a basis in emotion and in our own personal struggles. The thing about the writing team at BioWare is, we do bring our own background into what we do. So, very often, I'll be writing this character and, [if, for example] my grandmother just died--what can I bring from that personal human struggle or that personal human experience and emotion? There is place in this game, in this universe, to bring those human emotions and experiences into it, and that's really what I love about it.

How does that make you feel, to know that people are looking to these characters to find something deeper?

I think part of it is that people spend a lot of time with these characters; you've read a book, right, where it's over and you're just devastated because you're never gonna get to hang out with those characters again? And I think that, in a way, we have those same touch points, in a way that a movie doesn't. When people come up to me and they say, "Kaiden was my friend," or "Garrus is my buddy, and I just love spending time with Garrus," when I hear somebody say that they're playing the Mass Effect trilogy for like, the third or fourth time, it's because they want to spend time with those characters. And I think that that's really unique, in terms of an art form, and it's really kind of a blessing. It's very lucky to be able to create those experiences for people.

Do you think characterization and story had been done to the same scale before Mass Effect? Do you think those are the core of the franchise?

I think it's a core of what BioWare does, not just the Mass Effect franchise. I loved KOTOR and I played the heck out of that game because it was kind of something new at the time--that kind of in-depth hanging out with characters that you could piss off and who would give you shit for a long time. So I think maybe the ground started to be broken back then, and that we've just tried to evolve.

When we approach writing these characters, we take the player experience into account. And I think that that began years and years ago in BioWare and each time we go to a new game, we try to hone that just a little bit. Now it's sort of more, "What's the experience about? What's the emotion of the moment and how do we get through that?" And so we're always trying to hone the player experience to make it better and to keep moving ahead. I mean, I don't know if I should say this, but I feel like we were innovators and now there are a lot of people who are copying us.

Well, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. And I think you can't help but call BioWare innovators in that.

Some of your fans are obsessed with one character or another--do you feel a responsibility to write these characters for not only their own sake and for yourselves, but also to satisfy your fans?

Well, absolutely. I mean, we always do take fan response into consideration. I mean, you can't help but, right? It's everywhere. You open your laptop and it's like, "Garrus is awesome!" is at the top of your Google search or whatever, right? So you can't help but take that into consideration, but at the same time, I think it would muddy the waters--if you try to please everybody, you're gonna end up making milquetoast characters that have no soul, right? No spark to them.

So, as much as we want to take into account the fans--and we do feel pressure, absolutely we do feel pressure--we make them ours, first. And then we put them out there hoping that we've created a character that is full and fulfilling and that it will continue to be loved.

Whenever you have fans like that, or whenever you have people that feel passionately about something, there's always the danger, I guess, of disappointing them. But you need to try and create something real, right? And love the fact that they feel passionate about it. I mean, that's a gift, that's amazing.

What was the feeling after finishing work on Mass Effect 3's DLC? Were you excited to work on Mass Effect again with Andromeda or were you like, "I don't know if I want to go back there again?"

Oh my god, so excited. Seriously. The thing is, the writing ends sooner than the game comes out, generally speaking. So your wheels are already turning--our wheels are always turning about how do we take this and make it better and what kind of character can we create? Things like ... People loved the Turian female who was in the Omega DLC, right? And so we're like, "Okay: squadmate." Right? Those are the kinds of things that you start to get very excited about. The challenge, of course, and maybe other people have talked about it, is that we had an ending on Mass Effect 3 that we couldn't pick a canon for, right? We had to create something for players that preserved their ending they chose in Mass Effect 3 and [at the same time] allowed us to start something fresh and new.

How did you feel about starting fresh and new? Were you excited to move on, or were you wishing you could carry on working with those characters you were invested in?

Oh, of course. Any time that you put something out there, probably you guys know as well as writers, you put something out there and then you just find all the things you'd change if you could go back, right? So that exists for us as well. But no, I think [the idea that you can create new characters] was hugely exciting.

It's a bit intimidating, though, as well because for example, one of the writers on the team, he was just like, "I don't even know where to begin to create the next Liara." Liara evolved over the course of three games. How do you start and create something fulfilling for players who are used to a Mass Effect 3 experience? But basically, [it's like] Mass Effect 1, where you're laying out these people and their experiences for the first time. And you're hoping that they work for people and that they like them.

How did you approach doing that?

Coffee, liquor, pastries ... I don't know! We have a writers' room where we bounce things off each other to begin with. Everybody on the writing team came up with three characters that they thought could be squadmates. So that left us with something like 15, 20 potential squadmates, and then they went to the lead writer at the time, who was Mac Walters and then Chris Schlerf, and they looked at them all. And then we got back in the writers room again and we gave each other feedback and decided which ones we thought were the most compelling and balanced. Also, gameplay [helps]. They're like, "We want to have an [electromagnetic] ability, so can you find us a squadmate for that?"

Did you feel like you could maybe have elements of past characters in these new ones so they could sort of spiritually live on in the new team? For example, Cora is basically trained by Asari commandos, which makes her this awesome mix of Miranda, Samara, and I guess Liara as well.

I would say that it's more a function of the IP that's been created by this multitude of writers over the course of ten years leaves us with these things that we can find, right? Like, "Oh, Asari commandos. I know, I'm gonna make the human squadmate, we're gonna make her someone who trained with the Asari commandos." And so there's always that place where we can kind of dig and find things that other people have mentioned, or something that always piqued our interest to take pieces of the universe and then put them into these squadmates.

When you're building a new set of characters, do you think, for example, "We need to find that spirituality of Thane again in a new character?"Are you thinking about replicating the things that people kind of hooked onto in the original games, or are you thinking like, "We'll just make a character" through your complicated process and if it happens to fulfill a role, then you'll allow it to?

I would say no, beyond gameplay saying they need a squadmate with an electromagnetic ability. No, we start with what we think is an interesting character, and then sort of write a backstory to them. I mean, religion, for example, is something that we do consider, but it's not about balancing what people liked or didn't like in other games, in past games or in Dragon Age games or whatever. For example, [new character] Suvi has a spiritual side to her, but it wasn't a reaction to Thane having a spiritual side. It was more her backstory and having a diverse cast of characters. I think that so that they can have things to conflict about, to converse about, and in turn, people who play the game can have things to converse about or talk about.

It's more personal than [fulfilling archetypes]. [Sheryl, who wrote Suvi] decided she wanted to go down that route. So the writers do have a personal take. And it's not about reflecting what they personally believe and then putting out, because that would be obnoxious, it's like--I don't know, Zaeed loved guns, and so the writer loved guns. No, it's not anything about that. It's about being able to craft the character as the writer wants to.

In the past, Mass Effect has often addressed issues affecting people in the real world at the time--for example, the progression with sexuality and same-sex marriage. Do you feel a pressure to address those kinds of things, be it the political climate or health issues, or whatever?

I think because we're creating a game about people, essentially, we can't help but think about the challenges, the struggle, the joys that humans have. And that sometimes goes out to things like the environment ... it's the same sort of territory that Star Trek tread as well, right? The idea of the overpopulated planet where people had to die at a certain age because there was no room. We do go those routes, but on the other hand, we started writing this game years ago, and there's no way that we could have predicted the challenges about immigration and those conversations that are happening right now. And so, I don't even know, I wonder what sort of conversations that will spark. We were very conscious in creating the game that the Milky Way races come into Heleus, but they don't just settle the planets they find, right? There is a diplomacy. They understand that there are people here already and we need to deal with that and talk to those people.

Andromeda is a game about a group of people finding refuge at a time where refugees are in a difficult position in the real world. You started writing this game a long time ago so you weren't to know that would be the case, but do the parallels, and the possibility of adding to the conversation, excite you?

I think "excite" is the wrong word. I think "interest." It interests me because, you know what, there's gonna be people on either side and everyone's gonna be yelling. Or hopefully not yelling. Hopefully everybody talks nicely to each other.

What is Mass Effect: Andromeda's story about, for you, as someone who's worked closely with it?

For me, the themes and the journey that I love are ... I like Ryder's story because Ryder is a person who is not meant to be thrust into the position that they are thrust into. Circumstances dictate that Ryder, because their father dies, has to take on the mantle of being pathfinder. [And while] they were intended to be there and kick ass, they were never intended to be pathfinder. And I think the struggle to find yourself in a new galaxy, in a position where other people are counting on you and to rise to the challenge ... I like the story about rising to the challenge and finding a place where you belong.

The squadmate Jaal kind of mirrors that as well. He doesn't know where he belongs in his family, his family's quite famous, he's got kind of the middle child syndrome and on the Tempest, traveling with us, he finds a place where he belongs. So yeah, belonging and rising to the challenge, I think those are my sort of favorite themes of this game.

It kind of reminds me of the story of BioWare. It's your story. It's the story of the studio, right? Rising to the challenge, taking up the mantle of a franchise that's beloved and trying to find a new place for it, a new home for it. Is that something you thought about?

I did just now when you said it! [Laughs] No, but it is very apt, you know? And even BioWare back in the day, taking up the challenge with the Baldur's Gate ... People loved these paper D&D games, and so they're like, "We're gonna take that up and we're gonna push that out and we're gonna rise to the challenge of making that playable for everybody on a new platform."

The team for Andromeda is almost completely new--what's it been like going from that tight-knit, close team to this new group?

It's been most interesting to see the sort of new take on this exploration content that we have never had to build before, right, and how we can craft quests that are fulfilling and interesting, with interesting characters and people, and populate those worlds. That's been really fun to do. And in terms of the team, it's been a really good balance between people who worked on the last ones and people who are bringing new energy to the franchise.

As someone who creates characters and stories, what do you think were the biggest challenges in starting fresh and leaving it all behind?

The major challenge in creating these new characters fresh is that I couldn't hear them yet. So, for example, on Mass Effect 3 when I was writing Shepard, I could hear Jennifer Hale or Mark Meer in my head as I'm writing.

One of the challenges then, is writing Ryder from the get-go, evolving the character across the game but also across a number of writers--because we all write the main characters as we're doing our missions and our quests, and not knowing exactly what they sound like. Now I could, now I know what they sound like, but at the beginning certainly, that is a challenge. And for example, in Mass Effect 3, in the Citadel DLC, I wrote Zaeed and Samara; I'd never written Zaeed and Samara before that. But I I could hear their voice. I knew who they were, I knew what they sounded like. But Liam and Gil and Suvi and Kallo ... Now I know, but when we started, I didn't. And so that's a challenge for sure.

Are you comfortable with the voices you found for these characters now? Do you feel like they'll resonate with the fans that are coming into it expecting so much from it, having played and loved the three games before this?

I have no expectations. We can't. All we can do is present people that we think are rich, deep characters and who have opinions and who love things and hate things and piss people off and embrace other things. We can only create that and hope that at least one of them resonates with somebody.

What do you hope that fans take away from Andromeda? When all is said and done, what do you hope that they walk away thinking about; what's the message you want to convey?

I hope it was fun, basically. Like, seriously, when I play the game, when I watch other people play the game, if it's fun, then that's kind of a gift in our world that can be challenging, right? I just want it to be enjoyable.

Some of Andromeda has a lighter tone than the rest of the series. Why did you decide to implement that, and how did you go about doing that?

[When] you get to Andromeda, things go ... Shit happens. It's bad. But it's not like in Mass Effect 3 where we were dealing with the end of the Milky Way galaxy. [In Andromeda] you need to start in a light place. So it wasn't like, any sort of comment on the world or what people needed. It was, this is what the story needed. It needed us to start someplace light and more fun.

When we were writing Mass Effect 3, we had a little placard on the wall to remind the writers that, "As you are writing your mission, remember that somebody's grandma is being killed by the Reapers on the other side of the galaxy." Right? So we just wanted to create something that was a bit lighter [this time round]. And who knows, maybe it'll all go terribly wrong again and it'll become very, very dark. But for now, we just want people to have fun and enjoy it. Not that there aren't [bad themes]. Like, the Kett are nasty. They're nasty bastards.

Which is more similar to Dragon Age: Inquisition, where it definitely was quite dark and upsetting at some points, but then you had characters like Sandra who loved romance novels.

Yeah. And the thing about the Citadel DLC is that three games bought us that, right? Three games of knowing those characters so well that we could place Tali drunk in the bathroom, or biotically hanging James in the air, that we could do fun stuff like that. But that's what three games bought us, and we really are starting new, in a new galaxy with a whole new crew.

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