It’s now been a year and a half since BioWare wrapped up their Mass Effect trilogy in epic — if controversial — fashion. Most of the game was action-packed, emotionally gripping, and well constructed, but the actual ending of the game led to a lot of vocal outrage from players who felt it removed the element of choice that was so inherent to the series, instead reducing the possible endings to three variations on a theme. BioWare eventually released a “director’s cut” of the ending that provided more closure for the events and characters of the trilogy, but there’s no question that BioWare has a lot to consider as it works on the early stages of a fourth Mass Effect game. One thing is certain: don’t expect any more of Commander Shepard.
In a new interview with Complex, Mass Effect writer Mac Walters shared his thoughts on the future of the franchise, the expansive universe beyond the games, and the lessons learned from Mass Effect 3. First off, no, he didn’t drop any major hints as to what to expect from Mass Effect 4. That’s not surprising, since BioWare has Dragon Age: Inquisition in the barrel first, so it’ll likely be another year or so before we hear anything tangible on the ME4 front. Walters tells Complex:
Well, I can’t get into details, but the idea is that we have agreed to tell a story that doesn’t relate necessarily to any of the Shepard events at all, whatsoever. Beyond that, that’s what we’ve been deciding for awhile. But throughout it all, one of the key things is that it has to be Mass Effect. It can’t just feel like a spin-off. It has to feel like a Mass Effect game at its heart, at its core. Just without the Shepard character or the Shepard specific companions.
I’m all for moving on from the story of Shepard and the Reapers, as much as I enjoyed living those adventures. The greatest strength of the Mass Effect franchise is the rich, compelling universe BioWare has created, and we’ve barely scratched the surface of it so far. Even though it’s much younger, the Mass Effect universe has just as much narrative potential as Star Trek or Star Wars, it’s just a matter of deciding which story to focus on next. It’ll also be interesting to see when they set the next game (or series of games). While irate fans complained that the three endings available in ME3 weren’t different enough, they still contained some very specific details that would make setting games after the trilogy challenging, to say the least.
And about that infamous ending, how does Walters feel about it all these months later? When asked, he references one of pop culture’s most powerful recent events, the series finale of AMC’s Breaking Bad. That show ended the story of Walter White in a way that’s been almost universally loved, a far cry from Mass Effect 3’s reception. Walters suggests that, while elements of the show’s ending could have been — and were — anticipated long before the finale itself, viewers there had no say in how it would end. You were left with the ending the storytellers wanted to tell, and you either liked it or you didn’t. But with a game like Mass Effect, player choice was crucial and integral to why people loved the games. Walters says:
I think that’s one of the things we really underestimated, which was how much ownership people would take over a character that they could do that. You know, you’ve been given free choice to make all these decisions with this character, with the fates of millions of people, and then, you don’t get to choose your own fate. And I’m not saying that our decision was wrong or right. I think we just underestimated the impact that would have on certain players. To be fair, I get people, especially at the Cons, who will say, ‘I loved it. It was heart-wrenching, but I felt it was right for my Shepard.’ And to me, that’s why it was the right path. But because there was no choice, it was going to be right for some people, and for others, in the middle, and other people were obviously very upset about it. In hindsight, I don’t think there was anything we would have changed about that, but it is a really good lesson learned.
I have to respect that. I wasn’t one who hated ME3’s original ending(s) but I could definitely understand why some people did. That being said, the “director’s cut” ending was an improvement, but I can also understand why BioWare didn’t knuckle under to fan pressure and release a fundamentally altered version of the ending. Even in an interactive medium like games, there has to be some divide between author and audience. The freedom of player choice aside, the people making the game are still trying to tell a particular story, for good or ill.
If you’re craving more of the Mass Effect universe during the long wait for news about the next game, you can check out Dark Horse’s 13-part comic series Mass Effect: Foundation, which Walters writes.