We will now get down to brass tacks.
Let’s do the bad news first:
- The ending of Mass Effect 3 offered the player three primary options for defeating the reapers: destroy, control, and synthesis. It’s not clear what the exact consequences of each choice are, but the three are mutually incompatible outcomes regardless. The effects they would have on the game world are so big that anyone trying to make a sequel would almost have to make three entire seperate games to account for the three separate game states. And that’s just the three “main” endings – trying to account for the gajillion sub-endings is most likely impossible.
- For a series that likes to remind audiences that their choices matter, this is a tricky issue. It’s a tradition in Mass Effect to import your saves from the previous games into the new one. Reasonable or not, some people are going to expect to see their choices in the original series reflected in the new game.
- The ending destroys the Mass Effect relays and strands multiple species on unfamiliar planets in a way that would make survival an immediate and alarming problem. This particular element has been since been half-retconned into clarifying that the relays are only “damaged,” but there would still certainly be a desperate situation in the short-term.
- The primary antagonists of the series – the Reapers – are gone, and you’re going to have to find new ones. (By the way, don’t pull a Star Wars and just bring them back to life. Together, we can do better.)
Those are some pretty big problems. Especially the first two. If we can lick those first two, we can salvage this thing. Here’s how: stalling and retconning.
Mass Effect 4, if it’s ever made, should be set a significant amount of time after the events of the original series. By “significant” I mean anything from 50-200 years or so, though I’m open to flexibility on the timeline. But whatever happened in the immediate aftermath of the Crucible going off should happen offscreen.
Instead, the player will be someone born on Earth after all that. Said Earth will in some kind of post-apocalyptic state, either mild, severe, or medium, depending on what tone you want. What happened to the Reapers, exactly? No one knows. They used to be flying around and blowing everything up, and now they’re not anymore. They say someone called “Shepard” defeated them somehow, but there are a hundred conflicting stories.
Stalling in this way accomplishes several things.
- You avoid a long exposition dump right at the beginning. No one likes those.Okay, very few people like those.
- If you write carefully, you can leave it ambiguous which ending happened. For example, don’t have any synthetic or partly-synthetic life forms enter the story for as long as you can manage.
- You can make a clean break from whichever characters you want, but it also leaves open running into Liara or maybe a getting-too-old-for-this-shit Garrus or something.
- When a setting moves forward in time, it can make it seem more real. The Fallout series did this from one to two to New Vegas. It also leaves the intervening time as open space for quest/character hooks.
- Got some crazy idea that would need fifty years to be plausible? Now you can put it in. The gap between Mass Effect 3 and the hypothetical Mass Effect 4 is your canvas. Go nuts.
- It’s a perfect excuse for whatever mechanical changes you want. Personally, I recommend deciding that thermal clips are once again not a thing, but that’s just me.
- Thanks to the events of the third game, all the setting’s various species are well represented on earth, meaning you can bring them all back. I know someone still has those old Hanar models saved somewhere.
The action of the main quest can involve sorting out the truth from the stories, and discovering what exactly happened. And, when the time comes that you can no longer write your way around which ending the player picked, you limit the effects of that choice to certain limited and manageable parts of the game.
For example, the main quest involves a mission in an area full of leftover husks. If you picked destroy, there are a bunch of husk corpses, colored red. Maybe some somehow survived and are hostile. Control, and the husks are blue, and controlled by an NPC or something. Green, and the husks are NPCs themselves. This way, the player’s choice in the previous game is acknowledged, and you don’t need to move heaven and earth to do it.
That’s a deliberately oversimplified example, but hopefully you get the idea. The question of “what did your Shepard do in the original series” can itself be transmuted into story content for the new game. That’s what stalling gets you. But stalling alone is not enough – it’s like the jab that sets up the right hand. The right hand – the knockout punch – is retconning.
If you don’t already know, “retcon” is a term meaning “retroactive continuity.” It’s when you change something already established about the setting, like retroactively deciding that Klingons actually had forehead ridges all along.They do not discuss it with outsiders. When retconning, the scalpel is preferable to the bazooka, and I mean to take a scalpel to one particular thing: the Crucible.
As a refresher, the Crucible was the giant space doodad that did in the Reapers. It was jointly designed by multiple pre-Prothean species and then the Protheans themselves, and finally built by Hackett in a Manhattan project-style massive endeavor. It’s an enormously complicated machine, built under desperate wartime conditions, and it’s not clear exactly how it works. Therefore, it’s entirely plausible that it wouldn’t quite work right.
A crucible that didn’t quite work right is a technobabble get-out-of-jail-free card. Player chose the “destroy” ending, but you want a quest that has them dealing with Geth? The Crucible didn’t quite work right. Some of the Geth are still alive, possibly changed somehow. The Crucible as presented in Mass Effect 3 is more or less space magic, so it can do anything. I don’t mean that it broke entirely. It should still mostly have done what it was supposed to do, or the player’s choices in the original series won’t be validated properly. But it’s a gajillion year-old space machine. It could easily have gone a bit on the fritz.
And so, by using our twin weapons – the fourteen-inch socket wrench of stalling and the sock-full-of-batteries of retconning – we can bludgeon Mass Effect 3‘s ending into something resembling submission long enough to have a functional main quest. Now, you might be thinking that with all the stalling and retconning, the main quest is going to suck. Well, it might – that’s always a risk. (Though in future entries we’ll try to mitigate that risk, and maybe even make it good.) But the thing is, this is Mass Effect. It can have a bad main quest and still be a good game.
In fact, that’s how it usually works out. In this genre, the “main quest” often only accounts for a about one-third of a typical playthrough, if not less. And of the three original games, only the first one had a good main quest. The second had that business with Harbinger and the human Reaper, and the third had the Crucible and, of course, the Catalyst. But the second and third games were still reviewed well and enjoyable for most of their runtime, because they had good characters and side content. That pattern even mostly held for Andromeda, which, for all its rushed qualities, still had characters that weren’t too far off the Bioware standard.
I can personally see a game like that – assuming it’s not rushed and crunched into existence – comfortably getting 8/10 reviews with the occasional 9/10, which is more or less what the original Mass Effect got. You can build a second trilogy out of that. This is a deep setting, with plenty of potential left.
What exactly does this 8.5/10 game look like? Fortunately Bioware has a reliable template for making these things, and certain parts of it still work. Next entry will wrestle our campaign hook into a five-act structure that will seem reassuringly familiar.
 Okay, very few people like those.
 They do not discuss it with outsiders.
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