The Shepard is dead. Long live literally anything else, please.
Posted on Sunday, November 18th, 2012 by T.G. Corke
MASS EFFECT IS SHEPARD (AND THE NORMANDY)
When you think of Mass Effect, whatever your first memory or instinct happens to be, you can almost guarantee that Commander Shepard and his various squad members are at the centre of it. Even if the actual event in question is not directly about them (perhaps it’s Primarch Victus sacrificing himself or the tragic reveal in Project Overlord), all of the key sequences play out through the observation and interaction of our protagonists. You’re not going to remember Mass Effect for the scene where Saren and Benezia had a brief argument to themselves – you’re going to remember directly influencing one or both of them to commit suicide to end the effects of indoctrination. Likewise, you’re unlikely to care about what two faceless NPCs were doing during a cutscene of a Collector attack, but you will engage in a conversation between Garrus and Tali, even if it has nothing to do with stopping the Reapers. In short, Shepard and his team are the currents through which the player ingests the story of the Mass Effect series.
This is part of the reason why I and I assume many others were so bought on the premise of a trilogy. As well as allowing a series-long story a large but, crucially, limited timeframe in which to be told, it also had the potential to show a surprising amount of restraint by giving the player just enough time with a set of characters they grew to love, but pull the plug before anything had the chance to stagnate. In an era of sequels galore and a tendency for media and entertainment franchises to outstay their welcomes (COU*Simpsons*UGH), the thought that BioWare would stay true to their word and round Mass Effect off at the third instalment was hugely refreshing.
So, naturally, a fourth game was inevitable.
Not only does this make BioWare look completely dishonest (which I’ll discuss in greater detail later), but it leaves them in a hell of a predicament for any future games. Despite the fact that the ‘multiple’ endings had literally no variation aside from a palette change until the Extended Cut was released, there was paradoxically too much to make a sequel practical, even if set millennia into the future. Every one of them, plus the new option in the DLC, has to result in a completely different landscape in Mass Effect 4 to give them even the slightest importance, and each of these would come with vastly divergent plot-points. Considering BioWare couldn’t even deliver a coherent set of ending choices to the franchise, the idea that they could deliver an entire game based along this decision is frankly a misnomer. I have no faith that BioWare could follow through with this, and even less faith that EA would allow them to.
It also has other feasibility issues. For one thing, it would require players to replay the final two hours (or at least the last, painfully slow and confusing ten minute sequence) of Mass Effect 3 in order to ‘unlock’ variations of Mass Effect 4. It would raise the question of which ME3 ending is the default option for the foundation of ME4 – and considering they all come across as definitively final and potentially very bleak decisions, it’s not exactly a welcoming starting point for a new series. The only other options would be to set the next game so far into the future that Shepard’s choice no longer matters – which, again, would essentially mock the player for ever thinking they had any impact on a choice-based RPG series – or to retcon the ending completely, which they could have done in the EC but allowed petty stubbornness to cloud their judgement. And of course, it brings up the dilemma of who the hell can operate as the primary antagonist of the new series. The Reapers are no longer a threat, whatever choice you made with the Crucible, so how do you top two-kilometre long cybernetic behemoths that shoot lasers from their eyes and harvest all life every 50,000 years? Do they just go for “bigger is better” and have 10-kilometre long monsters that shoot acid? Or do they focus it on their original creators?
And don’t even think about a prequel, folks – that actually invites more headaches than a sequel. You’d essentially have only two choices of narrative focus: either a previous cycle’s war against the reapers and battle for survival, or a smaller war that took place without reaper involvement (e.g. the First Contact War or the Morning War). The problems with both should be pretty obvious – a game about a previous cycle can only end in one way. Death. We already know they have no chance of succeeding because the previous games told us this, and therefore there’s little to no drama or tension in the war itself. It’s inevitable, preordained failure for the protagonists. This is fine if you’re watching a film, especially one that’s based around a historical event. It’s a far harder sell when you’re actually tasked with being in the shoes of a side you know from experience and prior knowledge has literally no chance of making it out alive. The second option holds the threat of diluting the magnitude of the series as a whole. A war between races would be a huge deal in any other context, but it’s difficult to make that same argument when the central conflict until this point has been that of a united galaxy trying to fend off and defeat a horde of celestial leviathans beyond the comprehension of any organic life form past or present. These individual interspecies battles have been seen as nothing more than spats that needed to be resolved or mediated by Shepard for the greater good, no more than pieces of a larger puzzle. Thus, the idea of basing an entire game around one of these comparatively minor and petty encounters comes across as a significant step backwards for a Mass Effect game.
But the big problem with any of these possibilities is that the most important aspects – Shepard and his squad – are not involved in them. Instead, BioWare seems to be betting the family china on being able to create a cast of characters every bit as enjoyable as what we had in the previous trilogy. If that’s the case, it calls into question even calling the game ‘Mass Effect 4,’ since it’s essentially a totally new IP in the same universe. I realise that numbering in the videogames industry has become almost obsolete – the impending ‘GTA V’ which is about the 12th game in the series is clear evidence of that – but in the case of Mass Effect, we currently have a consistent, clearly-defined trilogy. Calling a reboot ‘Mass Effect 4’ if it has only a tenuous continuity of the previous trilogy’s etymology is a hugely cynical and potentially damaging move – long-time fans of Shepard’s story (those who are left, at least) could be annoyed that the fourth Mass Effect game isn’t Shepard’s fourth game, and newcomers to the series will see it’s the fourth instalment and doubt whether they want to invest this late in the game, unaware that it’s effectively a fresh start. For some others, myself included, it just comes across as banking on a golden goose when its head is already under the axe.
By calling this game ‘Mass Effect 4,’ and insinuating that it is somehow a continuation of a series that has already reached its climax-point, BioWare is now in a hugely disadvantageous position. If it fails to produce a narrative of comparable quality to 98% of the first three games, and a set of characters and conflicts to match, then an already-damaged series runs the risk of plummeting into permanent irrelevance. BioWare has to be absolutely sure it can deliver another range of new and individually-complex characters, and their own interpersonal relationships, that fans can get behind as much as they did with Liara, Joker, and the rest.