During PAX West 2018, Anthem’s executive producer Mark Darrah and lead producer Mike Gamble presented a panel on the game focusing on how story works and then made themselves available for interviews afterward. We spoke with Darrah and Gamble about what makes Anthem a BioWare game, how story moments fit into a game all about shooting things with friends, if you can truly play alone, and whether or not Anthem technically exists in the Mass Effect universe.
Earlier today you said, “Single-player is kind of a bug, not a feature,” when you were talking about the unique way Anthem delivers story in a multiplayer environment. Can you tell me what you meant by that quote?
Darrah: If I want to play by myself I choose to play by myself. Not that I am forced to play by myself. In a perfect world, if all games could have all features, role-playing games would be able to be played multiplayer. You could bring your friend in and experience the story together, but if I wanted to play with myself I could do that. That’s what I mean. It feels like a restriction. I am stuck with it whether I want it or not in a single-player game. And multiplayer games are actually the same in the other direction. I am stuck with multiplayer whether I want it or not. In a perfect world you want that blended kind of experience.
And that’s what you want with Anthem? A blended experience?
Darrah: Yeah. I don’t know that we’re getting fully there from a single-player perspective. You can play it single-player, but I don’t think we get you all the way there, where you can play with the exact number of people you want, between zero and many. Definitely the game is best with three other people. You can play it by yourself, but I think there is more exploration to be done in that space.
Gamble: And that’s the meta within the game. Blending between Tarsis and the open world. That was important to us. We want you to be able to go into Tarsis and do a thing, have reactions and have story, and then blend that into cooperative gameplay should you choose to do it, or should you choose to do single-player. That actually was important.
With Tarsis, do you expect teams that want to stick together to be waiting on one another while they each separately go through their story moments?
Darrah: Really, a lot of the experience was designed around a more casual grouping experience. In that case, you’re coming together and breaking apart more and it’s a mixture. But if you’re going to form a group and you’re going to stick together for a long period of time, then when you’re in Tarsis, and everyone else is in Tarsis, and everyone is like, “Yeah, we’re ready to go!” and you’re like, “Buuuuuut, I just want to go do one more thing…” – one of the things we wanted to do was remove that social pressure of feeling like you’re being rushed all the time, and I think we do a pretty good job of that most of the time. But I think for that first party, long-form group? Yeah, that’s still there. There will still be someone on VoIP going, “Hurry, hurry, hurry!”
Gamble: And that is okay, because usually if you’re in that kind of party, you know the three other people.
Darrah: And you can say, “Shut up, Tim! I just want to talk to this person!” There are no randos in that case. The party will naturally disperse after a mission so that pressure goes away.
Let’s say that Tim that is bugging you and you say, “Screw it! I will back out of this story moment and start the mission!” Is there a potential to miss any narrative when you do that?
Darrah: You might miss a small part of a beat. Most likely what you’re doing is you’re choosing not to advance one story thing that you can do later. The one-off point would be if you’re in a really deep conversational moment, everything hinges in this one conversation and the radio comes on with someone screaming, “Hurry, hurry, hurry!” – you could miss that one specific conversation if they’re yelling on top of it.
But mission three won’t totally disappear because you’re friends are like, “We have to do mission four right now!”
Darrah: No, that’s not how it is going to happen.
Gamble: It will be pretty obvious. There will be different icons for different things that you can do. If there is a role-playing conversation, for example, it will have a different icon. When you’re all back at Tarsis you can say, “I am actually going to save that for later.”
Darrah: You’re not going to accidently fall into an RP conversation when you’re grouped up with your friends. Either you’re going to be in a group that is okay with that, or you’ve decided you don’t care anymore and you’re going to start that conversation chain despite the fact that they’re going to push on you.
So, just to be totally clear – and you’ve answered this a little bit already – if I want to play Anthem single-player, I can see the whole story and play every mission without ever talking to another human being, right?
Darrah: You can see the full story by yourself. In free play there will be other people in the world with you, but there is nothing holding you together, and you’re not going to hear them chatting over VoIP or anything. They’re essentially NPCs from your perspective and maybe they could help you out. There is not much they can do troll you in that situation.
You won’t be able to do strongholds or and of the elder game content because that will be forced four-player.
Gamble: Well, you can do some of the elder game content… you just can’t do strongholds. Strongholds are the one thing you cannot do because they are balanced for four.
But you’re not missing any major story by missing out on Strongholds?
Gamble: They are story-associated.
Darrah: You don’t need to do them to get through the main story.
Gamble: There is a reason a freelancer team would have to go into the field and shoot all these things in the face and be heroic, but it’s not critical to the main story.
You want decision-making to be more binary than compared to previous BioWare games. You said you were doing that to bring in a wider audience?
Darrah: It’s not so much to bring in a wider audience. My concern is… the game itself is bringing in different people and we don’t want to throw them into the deep end of BioWare conversation choices. We want to give a simple A/B choice to give them agency, but not give them a bunch of agonizing decision-making every time they talk to somebody.
Are you hoping to attract a non-RPG audience?
Darrah: It definitely is much more in the action space. It’s what the game lends itself more to. For that traditional RPG player, I think there is a lot here to like, but from a gameplay perspective it hits on different motivations and different experiences.
Gamble: It’s not supposed to exclude RPG players, but like I said earlier today, it is a very different game than Mass Effect or Dragon Age, purposefully. One of the innovations behind Anthem is the ability to talk to people and form relationships, and you can’t do that in other games like this, so we still wanted to double down on it, but we felt like we didn’t need the entire dialogue wheel with six different choices to give the player some agency.
But for those hardcore, long-time BioWare fans, are they going to get a Bioware game out of Anthem?
Gamble: How would you define a BioWare game?
Games like Mass Effect or Dragon Age with lots of decisions and character-building. Are they going to satisfied by Anthem?
Gamble: I feel like they will be, in terms of the character arcs and how they all kind of conclude. But again, you’re not going to get a crit path filled with life-or-death fate choices that you make on the crit path.
You’re building the game to not have a conclusive ending. Is that fair to say?
Darrah: There is a conclusion to one major part of what is going on.
Darrah: But you’re right…
The Death Star does get destroyed.
Darrah: Yes, the Death Star gets destroyed, but the Empire is still around. That’s a perfect metaphor.
Is it harder to tell a compelling story that doesn’t have a concrete finish line?
Darrah: You know, you would think it would be, but actually no, because you want world conflict to continue in any game – in Mass Effect, in Dragon Age – you want that world conflict to continue, otherwise if everything is perfect, that’s it. Series over. Never tell another game ever again.
Gamble: This was Mass Effect 1. Reapers are still coming, but you stopped Saren.
You made a joke about facial animations this morning. What is the approach to facial animation in Anthem and how has it been improved over Mass Effect Andromeda?
Darrah: We had used a specific piece of technology up to and including Andromeda that we’re not using anymore. Part of it is just paying more attention to it and making sure it’s tuned properly and giving it specific attention.
Gamble: Also, Andromeda has hundreds of characters. It’s a volume problem as well. Tarsis does not have hundreds of characters. The example I used in our panel is, it’s Downton Abbey, where you don’t have a massive number of characters. You have enough and those people are hopefully very interesting.
Darrah: They talk more, but each character has a certain amount of effort required to set them up to talk, to move their face properly at all, so we have much fewer characters that, on average, talk a lot more, where in a Dragon Age or Mass Effect you have tons of characters that say one or two lines. There basically is nobody in Anthem that only says one or two lines.
Gamble: There is also the technology thing, where we are reaping the seeds of technology decisions that were made five years ago at BioWare and within Frostbite and those kinds of things, and we’re starting to really get the rewards of that investment.
What is being worked on right now. Is the finish line right there? Are you just cleaning things up at this point?
Gamble: The best way to put it is, all the component pieces are starting to come together. Like into the holistic game experience. To give you an example, you’ve got the teams that are working on the missions; you’ve got the teams working on Tarsis; then you’ve got the writers who have written all the plots; then you have the character artists who have made all the characters; and now it’s all coming together where you can see that nice through-line so you we can play a full set of quests, get the reward, get the consequence, and come back to Tarsis, XP, new gear, new weapons – there are so many different systems and they are all coming together. And that’s what you want at this point in the game, because you are able to spend the rest of development going, “Oh, we can make this better, and this better, and de-emphasize this, and make this more important.” That’s exactly where you want to be as opposed to getting to the end and each area has finished their thing, but you don’t have a sense of how it all fits together.
So, there is a version of the game you can play from beginning to end?
Gamble: Oh, hell yeah. In fact, again we said this in the panel, every week we have Anthem Fridays where the whole team plays the game together, obviously in groups of four, and everyone goes through a new set of missions together and we all talk about it later at the water cooler.
What you showed this morning, in terms of conversations with people, was head-on characters standing still making eye contact with you. Are you going to have walking and talking conversations?
Darrah: Yeah, we do. What we showed this morning? That’s our worst-case conversation, but we do fully animated people moving around, three and four-person conversations where they are a lot more elaborately staged. In the first video you saw Faye moving around, stuff like that. We definitely do, do that.
Anthem does not take place on Earth.
Anthem is the planet?
Darrah: We have not named the planet.
Okay. The planet of Anthem…
Gamble: The planet on which Anthem takes place.
Is it within our universe? Could you jump on the Normandy, fly a billion light years, and reach that planet? Or is it an alternate universe?
Darrah: Well… that’s not really a question we have answered.
Gamble: We didn’t design Anthem to be part of a BioWare continuum universe.
Darrah: I would say that, the way the Anthem of Creation works means that connecting Anthem to other BioWare games is actually a lot easier than it was in the past.
Gamble: It is actually theoretically, in the I.P., possible to have the entire Mass Effect universe within a Shaper Storm.
I look at Dragon Age, and to me that’s clearly alternate universe. Magic exists there. Magic does not exist in Mass Effect. Mass Effect is sci-fi. But Anthem seems to float somewhere in the middle.
Darrah: That’s right. It definitely does. It’s science fantasy so it sort of exists more in that Star Wars-style where there is technology, but there is also some other crazy thing that maybe it is technology, maybe it’s magic, maybe it’s… whatever. It’s something beyond that.
Gamble: But the citizens within Fort Tarsis, Antium, and the larger planet – there are no space-faring folks on this planet.
You don’t ever leave the planet.
Gamble: Right. But what you do play in the game is just a small area of that planet. It’s not the whole thing.
Darrah: One thing as well, from an I.P. perspective, is that the way the way that people refer to things in the world is through much more of a fantasy lens. If you found a big mutant bear in the modern day or in Mass Effect, you would probably call it a big mutant bear, but here they call it an Ursix. Things are named as if they are part of the world from a fantasy perspective. You don’t have reality distortions. You have Shaper Storms. Everything is kind of looked at through a different lens. People have been experiencing this for hundreds of years. It has become the vernacular. There is not this sort of scientific attempt to explain things.
People are not casting spells, right?
Darrah: No, people are not casting spells.
But there is something that almost looks like magic that they can’t explain.
Gamble: That is very much the Anthem of Creation. There is a force that permeates through all things that can be channeled that you really can’t explain, but there are a few folks who try and study it – those are the Archanists. There are a few folks who try to harness it, capture it into weaponry. It’s a thing that people know exist, but they don’t understand how it works.
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