What do games such as Mass Effect, Neverwinter Nights, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire all have in common? They all have incredible stories that are so captivating that long after the game has long been completed, we are left wanting more. Canadian author Drew Karpyshyn is no stranger to great story telling. In fact as a New York Times best selling novelist and lead writer for the critically acclaimed Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect games, one could argue that he is one of the best story tellers in the business.
I recently had opportunity to ask him a few questions.
BW: First, congratulations in winning several ELAN awards. I know they are well deserved.
Recently while on vacation, I read your novel Mass Effect: Revelation. The highest tribute I can pay to this novel was that while I was laying on the beaches of the Dominican Republic, surrounded by fine women in very fine beach attire (or lack of beach attire), I could not tear myself away from your book. Once I started reading Revelation, I could not put it down. To say that the novel was a page turner would be an understatement. I was completely fascinated by the world and the characters brought to life by your words. That was just a long lead-in to my first series of questions relating to Mass Effect and Mass Effect: Revelation.
Mass Effect: Revelation introduced us to David Anderson and Saren. You did a superb job at developing and humanizing the two characters that when I finally meet the in-game version of Saren and David Anderson, it felt more like a reunion than an introduction. I could not help but wonder if the characters were modeled or revised to fit your description, or did you base your description on pre-defined characters?
DK: This is a bit of a chicken and egg thing, because I was working on the book and the game at the same time. We had a general idea of what we wanted in a main villain (Saren), and we also had established Anderson as your mentor character. But the details were intentionally left open so we could flesh them out in the novel.
BW: How much influence (if any) do you, as a writer, have on the final look and feel of the world and/or the characters in a game?
DK: Writers at BioWare have a tremendous amount of input. I become involved in the project from day 1 and I'm there right up until we ship. The other writers came onto the project a bit later in the schedule, but even they had significant creative control over their own worlds and characters.
BW: While we are on the subject of creative control. I have to ask this question. There was a great deal of unnecessary controversy surrounding the "sex" scene that was part of the Mass Effect game. Was this scene your idea? What was your reaction to this controversy?
DK: The scene wasn't specifically anybody's "idea" - it just evolved as a natural resolution to the romances available in the game. The scene itself is very tame (about what you'd see in a PG movie), so I found the reaction both humours and sad. It was funny, because anyone who actually took 2 minutes to watch the scene in the game or on YouTube realized it was a controversy about nothing. Yet it was sad, because several major media outlets jumped on the story and attacked the game publicly, spreading lies and misinformation. Of course, once they saw what was really involved in the scene they quietly let the matter drop. It would have been nice to see apologies that had the same amount of media play as their initial attacks, but I guess that was too much to hope for.
BW: To change the subject a bit, the story in Mass Effect: Revelation preceded the events of the first Mass Effect game. Will the second novel, Mass Effect: Ascension also act as a setup for the events of Mass Effect 2?
DK: Yes, Mass Effect: Ascension will have a similar relationship to the second game. The novel will introduce some important characters for ME2, and it will also help build the universe of Mass Effect by expanding on people, places and events that are only touched on in the game.
BW: It is a well know fact that Mass Effect will be a trilogy. Are there any plans for a third novel that will precede Mass Effect 3?
DK: Nothing official yet, but I would suspect somewhere down the road this could happen.
BW: I sure hope so. I believe Mass Effect would make an amazing movie. Has this idea even been proposed by anyone?
DK: There's always interest from Hollywood about any creative property, but so far we don't have anything locked in yet.
BW: You have penned a few Star Wars novels (which I have not read at this time but they are on my reading list). In the Star Wars universe, you are just another author, among a huge cluster of authors, but in the Mass Effect universe you are the only star. Did this change the way you approached the novel and/or the game?
DK: No - as an author working in a collaborative setting (Mass Effect was the result of an entire team working together) you always want to be respectful of the original material, while at the same time you want to bring something new to the experience.
BW: Did you have more creative freedom with Mass Effect universe as opposed to the Star Wars universe?
DK: (I kind of answered that one above - ME is a collaborative effort, so you always have give and take with other team members.)
BW: On your website, you joke that you are an arrogant Canadian (one of the select few). In real life, are you more similar to Saren or David Anderson?
DK: I'm not really like either one - I don't have Anderson's nobility or conviction, and I don't have Saren's obssessive ruthlessness. I'm actually a pretty boring character, so I don't like to write about people like me.
BW: Are there any of your own works that you would love see in a made into a game?
DK: Right now I have enough involvement in the games industry through my Mass Effect work; BioWare is a full time job for me. Down the road it might be interesting to see another of my books tie into a game world, but for the time being I'm happy where I'm at.
BW: In an interview for a Polish website, you indicated that you were a novelist before you started writing for games. How are the two mediums different? Which do you prefer?
DK: I can't say I prefer one over the other. Novels give you greater creative freedom and control, but you're always working alone. With games you get to collaborate with incredibly talented, creative people and in the end you come up with an amazing experience that is greater than the sum of its parts.
BW: I don't want to take up all your time talking about games, so time to move on to some questions that have nothing to do with gaming.
I loved the short story that you wrote from a compilation book called Open Space, entitled "Feast of the Gods". The story displayed a sense of humour that is often not associated with Fantasy literature. I never did realize that Quetzalcoatl and other Aztec gods could be so funny. How did you the idea for this short story come about?
DK: I don't really know where my stories come from. I'm constantly thinking about ideas and kicking them around in my head. Every so often one of those ideas becomes fully formed enough for me to want to sit down and work it into a story. For Feast of the Gods, I was just wondering how people would react the first time they tried a haberno pepper, and why you would eat something like that a second time after the first experience. Given my love of fantasy and mythology, it was only natural to extrapolate this line of thinking into the Aztec pantheon.
BW: Some novelist will begin to write a book without knowing anything more than just a vague idea of what will happen in the book, and just allow the events to develop themselves, while others will have every details clearly visualized in their heads before even sitting down. Which category do you fall in?
DK: I always plan my books out in chapter by chapter outlines. This helps me stay focused on the themes and character arcs. Sometimes I will make changes as I go along, but I wouldn't start a project if I didn't have a strong idea of where I was going to end up and how I planned to get there.
BW: Do you prefer to write an entire series such as the Darth Bane trilogy, were you have time to develop an epic story as opposed to a self contained book such as Temple Hill? Which in your opinion was more difficult to complete?
DK: For me, the Bane series is more difficult because each book is a stand alone story, but it also has to serve a role in the overall narrative of the entire series. I also write each book on a seperate contract, so I don't know for sure if I've got another one coming as I work on each novel. That means I have to make sure the story feels complete, but at the same time I leave a few doors open in case I want to continue the tale.
BW: Most of your work appears to be sci-fi and fantasy in nature. Are these your favourite genre?
DK: For novels I prefer fantasy and horror, though I do read a fair bit of sci-fi as well. For movies my tastes are more broad, and the screenplays I'm working on aren't actually sci-fi or fantasy... which makes them harder to sell, as I'm already kind of typecast in the minds of most Hollywood execs. But I'm not in this *just* for the money, so I'll keep my screenplays as they are.
BW: Canadians are very well represented on the Sci-fi and Fantasy scene with great authors such as Ed Greenwood, Steven Erikson and Charles de Lint. Were you influenced by any of these or other Canadian authors?
DK: A number of authors have influenced me over the years, but right now I'd have to say Guy Gavriel Kay is the Canadian author I read most often. I really like the depth and complexity of his characters, and how he runs multiple points of view through his novels.
BW: I noticed that "Star Wars: Darth Bane - Path of Destruction" was released in September of 2006 followed by "Mass Effect" and later Star Wars: Darth Bane - Rule of Two all in less then two year period. You appear to write books as quickly as Stephen King or John Grisham. How long does it take you to complete a book from the moment when you get the first idea to the time you finish the final sentence?
DK: I usually like to have about 9 months to take a novel to completion, but often I only get about 6. I have done the odd novel in 3 months, but that's exhausting, and I usually need about 3 months to recover, so it really doesn't save me anytime. I could probably work even faster if I wasn't working a full time (plus overtime) job helping to create video games for BioWare.
BW: You have been very generous with your time, but I have to ask just a few last questions, just because my readers will want to know. Are you a gamer?
DK: Sadly, I don't have time to play games much anymore.
BW: Have you played the Mass Effect game?
DK: Yes, but only in beta versions before it was released.
BW: Do you have an Xbox Live Gamertag and are you willing to share it?
DK: I don't have a gamer tag, as I never seem to have the time to go on-line and play games.
BW: I read on your website that you appeared on the popular TV trivia show Jeopardy. I looked up your performance and you kicked butt for the first round and were leading your fellow competitors by a good margin, then faded away. That leads to my last question. What happened? Did Alex give you the stink eye?
DK: The interesting thing about Jeopardy is that 80% of the time more than one contestant knows the right answer. The trick is timing your buzzer so that your podium lights up and you get to be the one to answer. This is harder than it sounds, because if you buzz in to early you get locked out until someone else buzzes in. (They have a little light the contestants can see off-stage that comes on when it's "safe" to buzz in.) So the best players aren't always the ones who know the most; often it's the player with the best timing and rhythm. In the first round my rhythm was really strong, but in the second round I made a couple dumb mistakes and it rattled me and I lost my composure. I started getting over-eager, and I kept buzzing in too soon and getting locked out. Still, I enjoyed the experience and I'm glad I got the chance to do it.
BW: Drew, thanks once again in allowing us the privilege in getting to know a great author, a great contributor to the gaming industry and a great Canadian.
DK: Thank you, and I hope everyone will check out my website at www.drewkarpyshyn.com - It's all Drew, all the time!