We saw as much with Final Fantasy VII Remake last year, where many of the original developers brought Midgar to life just as fans had always imagined it. With Mass Effect Legendary Edition, BioWare took a different approach with equal care, updating the 15-year-old-trilogy to an era of gaming where it feels right at home — even on next-gen consoles.
But why a remaster instead of a remake? Environment and Character Director Kevin Meek tells Inverse that in the early discussions “nothing was off the table” and hints that a remake might still happen one day. The decision to remaster original assets had a lot to do with game engine limitations, but an even more important factor was a dedication to preserving the Mass Effect experience for years to come.
We spoke with Meek and Project Director Mac Walters about their work on the remaster, the biggest changes with character creation in Legendary Edition, and why now’s the time for a remaster rather than a remake.
So many gamers love Mass Effect’s characters, so what were some of the challenges upgrading specific character models?
Meek: We had to find the perfect balance between updating textures while also maintaining character arcs. For Garrus it was easier than some. His character arc has a dramatic shift in Mass Effect 2 where he’s injured and his armor damaged. You have to strike that balance between making something look cooler and accidentally shifting things away.
You don’t want to push the textures so far that they become distracting, and then you’ve started to riff on top of yourself enough that you become an echo of yourself and just start amplifying everything.
How central was faithfulness to the original in your overall approach?
Meek: That was absolutely one of our main guiding posts through the whole remaster process. It was also a big factor into the remaster versus remake decision early on. Doing a remaster where we're grabbing the actual character models and textures — I know that it's kind of weird to attach emotion to bits and bytes on a server somewhere, but it means something to me in terms of nostalgia. We're polishing what was actually there instead of recreating and remaking something. If you played this game 15 years ago, that is still Garrus and that is still the Normandy.
It’s this Ship of Theseus type thing where you can change things to a certain extent, but if you just rebuild it, it's not the same ship. Staying faithful to the soul of the characters and intent was definitely foremost in all the decisions that we made.
Walters: What fans associate most with the trilogy is the term “My Shepard.” It's not because Shepard is necessarily this amazing character. It's because we allow you to be Shepard. All the choices that you make, including who you're going to let live and die, who you're going to romance, whether you even engage with anyone. What makes Mass Effect what it is are those decisions, the plots, the stories, the characters, and the way that you interact with it all.
From the get-go, we knew we're not changing that experience for people.
Does this mean we’ll never get a Mass Effect remake?
Meek: In the original discussions, nothing was off the table. One thing we found was that if we bumped it up to Unreal Engine 4 and started the process of remaking even one game, Mass Effect 1. At that point, the scope is so grand. You have to completely redo all of these designs.
Maybe in a dozen years, we’ll look back and go, “Now the time is right.”
If you open up a level in Mass Effect 1 and open the design schematics for who goes where, how does the conversations work, any one of those things is dozens and dozens of interconnected nodes in Kismet, which does not transfer over nicely to Unreal 4. Right off the bat, you have to redo all of that. And that is just a sliver of the game!
Once you start going down that path, you start thinking, “I never really liked that line anyway.” Then all of a sudden you’re rewriting dialogue. Is it still the same game? That’s a slippery slope we didn’t want to go near.
Maybe in a dozen years, we’ll look back and go, “Now the time is right.” But for us at BioWare, we’re only a few hundred people. Do you really want to focus your time and efforts on remaking something that's going to take probably just as much time as it did in the first place, if not more? Or do we want to start telling new stories that expand the universe even further?
A December 2020 teaser for “the next Mass Effect.”
Speaking of, there was a really cool teaser featuring Liara for some kind of new Mass Effect game. Are you both involved with that?
Walters: I’ll say “no comment” on that one.
Is the streamlined nature of character creation the biggest change fans can expect with Legendary Edition?
Meek: People will run into better consistency between the three. Of course in the original trilogy the character creator got built on top of itself, tweaks were made, and additional options came in through natural progression. We got the opportunity to take the final result and expand it.
Myself included, one of the things people would do is spend an hour in the Mass Effect 1 character creator to get Shepard looking exactly how you want, spend 40 hours with that character, port it into Mass Effect 2 … and it doesn’t look the same. That’s something we wanted to address as much as possible.
We also expanded the character customization options. We had something low, like six skin tones. You hear that feedback: “I can’t make the Shepard I want.” We drastically expanded the range of skin tones and hair options that support Type 4 hair, unified makeup across the board, all of these things that go a long way to making sure everyone feels like they can create their Shepard.
Walters: We talk about choice and gravitating towards the things that matter to them. If you’re into the iconic BroShep, he’ll look better, but you may not notice those big changes. Maybe you’ll focus on improvements to gameplay or environments. If you’re like me, you’re a tune-a-holic and love making so many different characters.
Continuity between the three games is really one of the biggest things. It feels like a huge epic movie with three acts now rather than three distinct movies. It’s hard to put a finger on, but it really feels different.
As fans and players, what’s struck you the most with this remaster?
Walters: It’s so expansive. Having all three titles and the DLC at your fingertips, you forget how many moments there are. I’ve been playing solid for months and am still finding things. I recently did a full Renegade playthrough, and it was very cathartic in how it exposes the paths you don’t often take. It’ll be exciting for people to experience these moments again and maybe find some new ones they didn’t the first time around.
Meek: Whether you played it 15 years ago or this is your first time, all of our decisions focused on maintaining the original experience. So if old and new players had a conversation about anything, they’d experience all the same things. Your best memories have come to fruition in a whole new way.
Mass Effect Legendary Edition will be released May 14, 2021.