The Cinematics of Mass Effect

By VFS Web Team, on November 20, 2007

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"1597","attributes":{"class":"media-image","typeof":"foaf:Image","style":"","title":"Screenshot from BioWare","alt":"Screenshot from BioWare"}}]]BioWare's much-anticipated action-roleplaying game Mass Effect drops today, and one of those celebrating is Game Design grad Armando Troisi. As Cinematic Designer, Armando was part of the team that delivered one of the most ambitious video game narratives to date.
For a taste of Armando's handiwork on Mass Effect (and the decision-making involved in the player's dialogue) watch the last video on this post by BioWare Cinematic Design Group Coordinator and Game Design Expo 2008 speaker Ken Thain.
We caught up with Armando to talk about his contribution to the game, the hurdles the cinematics team faced, and what it's like to be part of one of the year's video game juggernauts. Read on:
What did your role as Cinematic Designer on Mass Effect involve?
Armando: Cinematic design is a unique position not only in BioWare, but the industry as a whole. We are responsible for supporting the narrative by delivering the emotional content. We generate cutscenes, conversations, level events, and ambient behaviours to tell the story the writers have laid out. It's kind of like directing a film, except it's interactive.
When I first joined the team, I was responsible for designing aspects of the toolset and procedural systems that would support the monumental effort digital acting would demand. Concurrently, I worked out the visual design of conversations, figuring out the aesthetic of the visuals and how that would tie into an emotional experience for the player.

With the ground work done, we moved into production. Firstly, I had to nail the cinematography of in-game conversations. Working with the tools and processes we built earlier, I was able to iterate rather quickly through the thousand or so cameras in the game, bringing the cinematic presentation to life. If that wasn't enough, I was then handed the largest level in the game (the Citadel) where I was responsible for digital acting implementation. Wait, I also worked on the Prologue. It's been a long year.
[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"1598","attributes":{"class":"media-image","typeof":"foaf:Image","style":"","title":"Screenshot from BioWare","alt":"Screenshot from BioWare"}}]]BioWare's known for expansive, complex games with a heavy emphasis on story. Knights of the Old Republic set a really high standard. How do the cinematics fit in with that?
Armando: It's safe to say the cinematics were not immune to the enormous complexity of this game. All in all, the cinematic design team produced about 24 hours of continuous digital acting to support the narrative. But like all good design, it really doesn't happen overnight - the newly formed team that delivered this stood on the shoulders of giants with games like KOTOR and Jade Empire setting the framework for us. All in all, this cumulative effect has raised the bar for emotional storytelling by a whole generation. I'm excited to be part of that.

What challenges did you, personally, face?

Armando: Being a Cinematic Designer I had to work closely with every department and have a deep understanding of how all the parts fit into the end product. This 'Swiss-army knife' approach to design on a project of this size, depth and technology was daunting to say the least. Fortunately, I worked closely with some world-class developers who were more than eager to help me out.
The buzz for this game is huge - it's safe to say it's a game-of-the-year contender, right up there with Halo and BioShockand Mario Galaxy and Portal.How does that feel, as a member of the team?
Armando: Wow! It's huge. I'm so proud of what we have accomplished because I really believe in the vision. The final game is a fantastic reflection of the enormous effort and care put into crafting a top-notch gaming experience. More specifically, I'm really proud of the digital acting group and everything we accomplished in making interactive cinema a viable game feature instead of just a 'bad word'.
Can you say anything about what's coming next in the pipeline?
Armando: The best story driven games in the world. Period.