Ray Muzyka is a trained doctor who now runs a video game company for a living, who has a small but profound hope for the future of interactive entertainment: “It’s a small detail, but one of the details I’ve always wanted to have in our game [Mass Effect] is eyes that look like eyes.”
In an interview with MTV he talks about the future of storytelling in video games. It’s an issue that both he and fellow doctor and BioWare founder Greg Zeschuk take seriously. “Our mission statement is to deliver the best story-driven games in the world.” Key to that is delivering emotional moments. And one key to that for Muzyka is creating believable eyeballs.
“There has to be a couple of layers of reflection,” he said, recalling his medical days and rattling off parts of the eye and explaining how they might reflect light differently. He was feeling good about the eyes in his company’s upcoming Xbox 360 outer-space role-playing game Mass Effect, which is expected to come out in the middle of the year. He started talking about characters in the game. “They open their eyes, they look at you, they tilt their head and look you up and down, nodding their head.” They don’t even have to speak, but the player should be able to tell that they’re alive. It’s like ‘saying’: “I know whether you’re agreeing or disagreeing, whether you’re skeptical or say, Yeah I get it.
BioWare has long been a role-playing-game company, one proud not just of its storytelling but of the thousands of lines of dialogue programmed or recorded to tell its epic tales. Muzyka was suggesting that words may be a bit overrated. “Dialogue is actually not the solution to story,” he said. An emotional moment doesn’t require words. “You don’t need to have dialogue.”
Mass Effect won’t exactly be a silent game. It will be full of speech as its lead character explores the galaxy in an attempt to save it. But Muzyka says that the company is learning how to improve on its mission statement, how to make moments matter, and it doesn’t have to involve so much talking. As can be seen in a demo of the game available on Xbox Live, players will trigger their character’s part of a conversation based on a dial of emotions, not by selecting from a multiple-choice list of replies. Muzyka says the game will employ “a much less text-heavy way to convey storyline.”
He continues: “Everybody has done this when they’re younger, when they’re a new developer trying to go for a long experience and a deep experience. But now what we’re trying to do is go for not only a deep experience, a long experience, but a quality experience, a sustained quality experience. …You’re better off making a tight experience where every moment is going to be memorable.”
So what’s the tale of Mass Effect? He describes it as “Jack Bauer in space,” a reference to “24” and its morally gray hero. “You have complex moral choices to make,” he said about the game. “You’re out to save the galaxy. You’re going to have to do things that don’t seem like they’re good to do that.”
Muzyka doesn’t really talk about technical things and spends more time pondering human stuff. As a young small-town doctor in Canada, he used to be the only emergency physician on call for a 100-mile radius. He dealt with a lot of people with a lot of problems, sometimes handling problems that had nothing to do with blood and bandages.
“I did a lot of counseling in small towns,” he said. “I liked having people come in and talk about how things are going and seeing what I can do to help them. And you think about things differently if you approach it that way, you approach everybody on their own merits and have a relationship or rapport with every person you talk to. And I think we’re trying to create that feel in our games.”
Muzyka has lofty aims. When asked if there was a scene from art or life that he uses as a benchmark to indicate when gaming storytelling is working. He recalled: “Steven Spielberg’s famous black-and-white Holocaust film. In Schindler’s List, that moment where you see the little girl in the [red] dress … and then you see her later [among the dead]. For me, if you can convey emotion to that level in a game then we’ve succeeded. For us that’s our goal.”