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Recently I've noticed an influx of blogs pertaining to the next Mass Effect game. Well, that and "Halo vs. Mass Effect" blogs, but that's another story. I wanted to weigh in (again) and add my thoughts to the firestorm of fierce opinions regarding the elusive and alleged Mass Effect 4, whether it will be a reunion for fans, or ruination.
No, not James Vega. I mean the current situation. The one in which the series has been left in the wake of its endings. A lot of different people have add their own ideas on how to move forward with the series, and the (implied) far-reaching impact of the different endings. I'm not saying that the poor writing displayed in the anticlimax is the problem. With or without the Extended Cut, the problem remains the same: the next game will have to deal with the consequences of Shepard's final decision. The differences in the endings will all have far-reaching consequences that a sequel can't aspire to surmount.
Now, I know that may sound hypocritical, but let me explain why it isn't. When the ending hit the fan, the biggest criticism volleyed against it was the similarities in the endings, and how that didn't match up with BioWare's promise of "wildly different conclusions". The defence against this was that they thematically different, and that change was implied. Whilst this may be true on a larger galactic scale, the same can't be said of the relationships between characters, and considering this is a very personal game in which the central mechanic is the dialogue wheel, thematic difference doesn't matter much.
The trouble with this is that implying change doesn't really mean anything. In any narrative, it's better to show than to tell. What was shown was largely the same footage with a few minor tweaks and variations. Thus, it's easy to understand why so many were upset with their options. Are they wildly different? Well, sort of. However, the narrative failed to take that extra step by showing the player, and that extra step would have gone a long way. Some, but not all, of the consequences of each choice needed to be addressed in that story, in order for it to be complete. An ending however, needn't be too long, it just needs to show us more than a hint. It needs to sate the curiosity of the player. A sequel however, would be in thick of that change, and that's the biggest problem a Mass Effect 4 would face: dealing with the different outcomes.
As I've said, a proper ending needs to give us just more than a glimpse, but doesn't have to deal with too much, naturally because the resolution and denouement is usually relatively short compared to the rest of the plot. A sequel on the other hand, is in the midst of it. An ending needs only to tread the waters of change; a sequel must dive into the deep.
Consider the insane amount of variation one game would need just to account for the four endings. It's boggling. In one ending, all the races in the galaxy die. Every single character would have to replaced in the sequel in that case. In another ending, the Reapers stay and help repair the damage they caused. The presence of Reapers in the galaxy would cause huge ripple effects throughout the plot, and to simply brush that aside in other playthroughs would be a daunting, if not nigh impossible task. In another ending, the Reapers and all synthetic life forms are destroyed. That's gonna require some working around as well.
First, a little background. The biggest offender is also the most ridiculous ending in the game: Synthesis. First, a little background. With this ending, the writers decided to abandon logic and intelligent thought. We're expected to believe that somehow, this machine can spread Shepard's "essence" throughout the entire Milky Way galaxy. Of course, it's never mentioned what the hell that even means, but I'm guessing everyone in the Milky Way is now part human. I'm not sure how this works exactly, but I'm pretty sure it would be this and/or this. No matter what it is, I certainly don't think there's enough of Shep to go around. Even if they were broken up into the tiniest particles of matter, there wouldn't be enough Shepard to install circuitry in every single organic life form and download new software for every sentient synthetic creation in the galaxy. Anyone with two brain cells to rub together should now that this is a fundamentally broken idea with utter disregard for any of nature's laws, but it also has larger implications for a potential sequel.
Consider the ramifications of this. Because the Crucible can supposedly affect every single organism and sentient construct in the entire galaxy, the entire game would be radically different in a Synthesis playthrough. Too different, I'd add, for one developer to handle. Given BioWare and EA's track record, I'm certain they won't be able to handle it.
However, the sheer magnitude of Shepard's decisions in the third game make it nigh impossible for a sequel to account for all of them. Consider the fact that in one playthrough of the trilogy, Shepard is capable of bringing a whopping four species to extinction (kill the Rachni Queens, Sabotage the Genophage cure, Choose the geth and let the quarians die, then pick Destroy). How can BioWare weave those races into the narrative without making their roles minor? I don't expect much from the rachni, but what about the krogan, quarian, and geth? They're a pivotal part of this universe, and if they can be so easily removed, then they aren't going to be important. If they have a large enough role, it will be impossible to replace or remove them entirely.
The nature of Mass Effect 3's ending was meant to be a conclusion to the universe. The writers themselves said that because this was the end to the trilogy, they could go to more extremes, whereas the previous two games had to be largely contained. They did this because if the choices were too far-reaching, it would be interfere with the writing of the next game. That's a very reasonable and sound strategy. You set a definitive end so that you can do whatever you want, and more importantly, try to give your fans what they want as well. It's why some stories should have a definitive end, and not go on to catch sequelitis and live on forever as a cash cow being Milked for every possible penny with no regard for the integrity of the art and artist. Mass Effect followed a specific story arc, and now that it has come to a close, there isn't anywhere we can go with it as a result. Let sleeping dogs lie (actually, don't, that's a great game) and let us (try to) remember it fondly for what it was: a universe built around Shepard, their crew, and their exploits and struggles against the Reapers. Another story set in the same universe can't really top that, so anything we do won't really have the same impact. The people of the Milky Way are free at last; leave it that way.
Of course, all of this is assuming that BioWare actually stays true to their mantra and makes our choices matter. Given what we saw in Mass Effect 3 and Dragon Age II... well, it's not gonna happen. Considering all the complications I've listed above (and that only scratches the surface), it's far more likely BioWare will do one of two things: establish their own canon, or sneakily retcon the player's actions. If these two things sound the same, it's because it is. BioWare has a nasty tendency to retcon, and it wouldn't at all surprise me if every single choice we ever made was made irrelevant, all because the writers felt like it.
I've heard some interesting alternate solutions, however. Amongst them, I've heard people saying it might be a good idea to set the game in an entirely new and unexplored galaxy, with new races and characters. I've also heard people say that they could easily set the game in the distant future, at which point our choices wouldn't matter. I don't really need to go into how that completely invalidates our choices, but there are other complications. In order for this to work, the Reapers have to be gone from the galaxy (either left or destroyed, no matter what you did), and Synthesis... wears off. The problem with this is inherent. If you twist events (even if it's both possible and plausible) to the point where multiple decisions all lead to one outcome, that's not player choice. Don't be fooled by a couple lines of altered dialogue. Player choice should impact more than the script; it needs to have an affect on the plot. Look, it's right there in the title! If our decisions don't have a massive effect on the course of events, what's the point? Having no choice at all is always better than the illusion of choice.
All interesting ideas, but it leads me wonder: is this still even Mass Effect?
Same Game, Different Name
Maybe there's a way everyone can win. What if BioWare made a spiritual successor to the Mass Effect trilogy, instead of a direct sequel? On the one hand, a lot of people (myself included) are saying that a sequel will run into some serious complications. Others want more Mass Effect, and for good reason; The Mass Effect trilogy was, ending notwithstanding, a hell of a fun ride. However, many of these people also concede that Shepard's story has concluded. I'm certainly not bating my breath for a Garrus cameo. However, what makes this universe so special?
First, let's break down what makes Mass Effect great. What is it that people like about this game? Is it for the hot blue alien chicks? Nah, that's Star Trek's thing. Is it Blasto? Close, but no. Is it the tight controls and responsive cover-based shooting mechanics? Not really; Gears of War and Uncharted are much better shooters. Thing is, Mass Effect isn't, or at least shouldn't be a shooter anyway. No, the real reason people play Mass Effect is for this baby right here:
People play it for the story. People play Mass Effect to immerse themselves into an amazingly diverse universe with interesting characters and lore. Mass Effect is a story-driven series, one based on the idea of player choice over the course of multiple games. BioWare has already taken this idea and applied it to its successful Dragon Age saga, so why not take everything that makes Mass Effect so much fun, and drop it into an entirely new IP?
Sometimes, writers get good ideas, and desperately want them to fit in their narrative. I get that. We could imagine a million different directions for a story to take. Thing is, those ideas don't always fit. When they don't, you have to exercise discipline and patience by saving those ideas. Take them and combine them with your past experience and knowledge for a different story. When you try to shoehorn an interesting idea for its own sake, you end up taking away from the narrative. It's OK to leave a narrative be, and understand when it's finished. There will always be other stories to tell; it's part of the natural evolution of being a writer. Take a look at F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Winter Dreams" and compare it to The Great Gatsby. Both are iterations of the same ideas and themes. As a writer, he took what he knew, and expanded upon it with what became his magnum opus. Just by looking at these two works of fiction, we can see how he gradually improved as a writer, and he did this without connecting those two stories. Both stories are complete; the plot of one can exist without the other.
Another Mass Effect game doesn't have to be a sequel involving the same universe and locations, it can be so much more. Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest are all series with similar styles of gameplay and other elements (i.e. Chocobos and Slimes) carried over. For the most part, each main entry into their respective series takes place in a different universe, with new characters, new lore, and new places. Those stories are self-contained and don't require further elaboration. Case in point: Final Fantasy X was a great game. Final Fantasy X-2 on the other hand....
So what if BioWare did something similar? I would love a spiritual successor to Mass Effect in the same way BioShock is a spiritual successor to System Shock. When one examines BioShock very closely, it doesn't bring a whole lot to the table that we haven't seen already. Vita-Chambers are just improved Quantum Bio-reconstruction Devices. Andrew Ryan/Atlas/The Thinker is just another incarnation of Shodan. The wrench... is still a wrench. The writers took those old ideas and applied them to an entirely new story, blending them with a few other groundbreaking ideas. In the end, it makes for a wonderful story. It doesn't need to in the same universe as System Shock 2, or even carry the same name. Plenty of people are ignorant to BioShock's lineage I'm sure, but that didn't stop it from selling like hot cakes and winning countless game of the year awards. It's the son of the System Shock series. Sure, it carries some of it's fathers' genes, but it's independent now; it can tell it's own story. It's the refinement of those ideas, not an expansion of them. Let's see Mass Effect do something similar. I like the idea of Mass Effect, and whilst its universe is certainly enthralling, I don't feel like I need to explore the Milky Way any further, now that so many of its secrets have been divulged. I want to see those ideas and mechanics evolve, but in a different story.
In the end, there will always be those who love Mass Effect forever. Most won't care if our choices are cheapened, our decisions made meaningless. That's the problem with sequels: they can retroactively make a story worse. Consider the impact the ending to Mass Effect 3 had, and how deeply that hurt fans and their view of the trilogy. Another sequel could undermine Mass Effect even more, and it's already been hurt enough.
Sure, we could be blindly optimistic about it. Who knows? Maybe Mass Effect 4 will be everything we want and more. It's just not likely, and I honestly don't see BioWare and EA pulling it off.
There will always be some short-sighted people who merely want to experience the story, free of objective analysis. They'll love it no matter what, and their love is undying. I'd argue that you can enjoy your games and criticise them too, that you can still love them on a more personal level whilst being entirely honest about them. I believe a true fan loves something for what it is, and not what they want it to be or wish it was. A fan is someone who always wants what's best. A fanboy just wants more.
Or moar, as they would probably spell it.