After the player has spent 13 hours creating their character and 7 more settling on a name, it’s time for the actual game to start – which means that it’s time to (re)introduce them to the universe of Mass Effect.
For those new to the series (a significant group – the last numbered sequel came out eight years ago), this means easing them into the setting and helping them find their feet without overwhelming them with side quests and codex entries. For those who have played the previous entries, it means showing them what’s changed, and what the effects of those changes are.
So what HAS changed? Like I said in the last entry, I don’t want to write out Bioware’s entire story, just come up with an example – a template. A lot of my choices are going to be arbitrary, and (hopefully) therefore flexible. My first arbitrary choice: 100 years have passed since Mass Effect 3, simply because it’s a big round number.
As for what’s happened in those hundred years, the series already has a tool we can use: “domino” worldbuilding, explained here by Shamus. Basically, domino worldbuilding uses a chain of cause and effect to determine what a setting element’s broader consequences would be – for example, the Krogan were uplifted to fight the Rachni, then became a problem themselves due to unchecked population growth, leading to the Salarians and Turians to develop the genophage, leading to the current state of Tuchanka.
In the same way, we can speculate on what the effects of the Crucible going off and the mass effect relays going inert would be. Let’s list a few:
1. A refugee crisis: The effects of the Reaper attack on the Milky Way were far-reaching and devastating. Entire planets were reduced to rubble. Then, to top it all off, significant numbers of non-human species were stranded in Earth’s solar system. Between all the destruction and all the new mouths to feed, things would have gotten pretty hairy. Not only that, but certain species – Turians especially – have specific dietary requirements (“normal” food is toxic to them) that would be logistically difficult.
This is the dark side of Mass Effect 3‘s ending (of course, being attacked by giant space robots rarely has a light side). You would expect political, economic, and social strife is such a situation, and (probably) a widespread breakdown of institutions, with new ones emerging to replace them.
2. Technological regression: The economies of the council races were most likely deeply intertwined after centuries of coexistence. Suddenly removing the mass relays from the commercial equation would be something like if, on Earth, all overseas container shipping suddenly stopped. The effects would be enormous. Advanced economies tend to be interconnected. While studying supply chains, I learned that the lithium in my cell phone batteries probably crossed the Pacific Ocean 4-5 times during the manufacturing process on its way to my pocket. There would be similar dependencies in Mass Effect.
This doesn’t mean that everyone reverts to using rocks and clubs overnight. Knowledge hasn’t been lost (or at least, not that much of it), just access to education, key resources, and manufactured goods. But you would expect a post-Crucible Earth to be in a more hardscrabble, desperate state when it comes to technology.
3. Cultural tensions: Several different alien species – none of which are accustomed to living in such close proximity – would have been dumped into a crowded Earth all at the same time, competing for limited space and resources. It would be inevitable for mutual blame and bitterness to emerge. Each race and political faction would have its own halfway-convincing story about how this whole Reaper mess was all everyone else’s fault. Contrasting the hostility would be those trying to make diplomatic efforts to keep everyone together.
These wouldn’t be the only three changes, of course, but they would be three major ones, and ones you would want to introduce the player to fairly early. These introductions should take care with their pace. We don’t want to drown players in codex entries or expect them to read reams of backstory, not now when many of them are still trying to figure out which button does what. Instead, put them in a situation they can get a handle on.
I’m going to describe this situation with a very specific phrase: Deep Space Nine.
I generally always played Mass Effect games as a Paragon, which meant that I played them as a Captain Picard simulator. In fact, many of the moral conundrums the series threw at me reminded me of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Mass Effect wasn’t unlike that show in its setup: the Normandy, much like the Enterprise, was the advanced, prestigious flagship; Shepard, like Picard, has to manage a diverse and talented crew while periodically making thorny ethical choices. The quests lent themselves to an episodic structure similar to that of a TV show.
It makes sense to me for a continuation of the Mass Effect series to be more like a Commander Sisko simulator: one that also features difficult decisions, but is a bit darker and more desperate, and asks for a bit more ruthlessness from its protagonist. Note that Deep Space Nine was never Mad Max – yes, it was darker, but only by Star Trek standards. I don’t want to turn Mass Effect 4 into some depression-inducing bummer – the hopeful, inclusive character of the series should remain. But, for the sake of variety, it should be a little dingier.
The player won’t start out as Commander Sisko, of course. Humbler beginnings are called for here. If we follow Bioware’s usual five-act structure, now would be the time when the protagonist joins some sort of secretive, elite organization, like the Jedi, SPECTRE, or the Grey Wardens. That part of the formula can remain, but whatever the player joins – be it SPECTRE, N7, the Systems Alliance, or something else – it should be diminished compared to its presence in the original series. So yeah, maybe our hero is still an N7, but no one outside of our small group even knows what that means anymore. Ours should be a small, penniless faction – that will make our eventual victory that much more satisfaying.
As a last request, our story should be specifically linked to Shepard’s. For better or for worse, Shepard hagiography is part of Mass Effect. Making Shepard’s story significant within a hypothetical Mass Effect 4 will serve to make it seem connected to previous entries in the series, and is also a convenient campaign hook.
That brings us to the campaign, and what it will look like. The campaign should feel like a natural extension of the setting, and next entry will cover how.
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