Mass Effect 4: Of Paradoxes, Illusions of Choice and Brave New Worlds

Defining the “old” that must be thrown out for the theoretical “new” isn’t easy.

Posted By | On 01st, Jun. 2014 Under Article, Editorials


Mass Effect 4. It’s easy to underestimate the importance of that name especially after the controversy that dogged Mass Effect 3. While the final name will be something else entirely, it will indeed be the continuation of the original trilogy that helped put Bioware on the AAA blockbuster map.

The controversy that defined Mass Effect 3 essentially centred on choice or the lack thereof the same. It was theorized that the series was more about the illusion of choice – one was led to believe their actions would affect change when eventing was pre-empted from the beginning. Shepard’s journey into the darkness of indoctrination began from the first game in small bits, eventually culminating in an emotional battle for the fate of his well-being, taken as synonymous with the fate of the universe.

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"Bioware was chastised for going out of bounds with Mass Effect after the third game; is the solution to stay in bounds for Mass Effect 4 onwards? That doesn’t seem like the wisest way to go about things."

The ultimate emotional choice at the end was deciding how we as players ultimately wanted to feel about the ending. Did Shepard die? Was Shepard victorious in the battle against himself – a far greater battle since he/she was viewed as the bastion of incorruptibility that the Reapers could never touch but indeed did? Where to next?

The “next” part essentially bugged people. Big battles need big resolutions and for better or worse, Mass Effect 3 eventually received its resolution. Nevertheless, there wasn’t much resolution to the illusion that Bioware had created. If anything, there was abject criticism that any developer would want to give us anything other than a big, fat happy ending (with some accolades thrown on top).

Mass Effect 4 will be taking a different route, employing “meaningful” choice that will actually have an effect on the end game. The problem isn’t whether we can get invested in a brand new cast and universe of characters – loosely tied to Shepard as they may be – but whether we can invest in another trilogy-style story-telling session that will need to be different. Bioware was chastised for going out of bounds with Mass Effect after the third game; is the solution to stay in bounds for Mass Effect 4 onwards? That doesn’t seem like the wisest way to go about things.

When it comes to gameplay, it’s likely we’ll continue in the third person/action RPG framework constructed earlier. Further refinements may see a less stiff movement pattern, a further refinement of those SWAT-rolls and quick cover ducking along with smoother animation transitions into special abilities.

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"For Mass Effect 4, a single-player narrative will suit the game best. There is an immediate shortage of compelling single-player stories these days, especially in the realm of pseudo-RPGs."

On one hand, Bioware could easily expand on the multiplayer concept from the third game and create a Tom Clancy’s The Division-like MMO based on space exploration and survival. Then again, this would essentially be Bungie’s Destiny so there seems to be very little point in creating the same. Besides, there’s far more hype centred on the $500 million dollar MMO shooter that could wind up as Bungie’s next magnum opus.

For Mass Effect 4, a single-player narrative will suit the game best. There is an immediate shortage of compelling single-player stories these days, especially in the realm of pseudo-RPGs. Sure, eventually games like Assassin’s Creed will sate our desire for an open world narrative but that’s not what games like Mass Effect do. Mass Effect 4 will have to be pointed and focused. It’ll have to be old school but somehow do something different to compel us to explore it further.

This brings one back to the so-called “hooks” in gaming. This doesn’t mean every game must now feature some gimmick to attract a player, pretending to be new while really just re-presenting the old in a shinier package. It means there has to be something compelling in the game to attract the player within the first few minutes of playing it. Luckily, Bioware is an expert in creating such hooks.

The first Mass Effect drew us in with its concise, mature story-telling and RPG mechanics. The second created a shocking opening and eventually segued in some new action elements. The third went full action RPG and created a world that had begun to fall apart.

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"Mass Effect is a web of paradoxes and hypocrisies that delivered one of the most unique narrative experiences in the past decade..."

The fourth Mass Effect will need to work to establish a new, fresh groundwork without being too obvious to the original. It will need to immediately jolt the player without making them like it’s a cheap tactic to get one interested in the action for the next 15 minutes while the remaining game is a slog. How easy would it be to cop-out and do a straight action title with Frostbite 3 destructibility and set pieces? It could turn out to be the most difficult thing possible but it won’t feel like Mass Effect.

What is Mass Effect though? As stated earlier, it was a collective delusion of choice masquerading as a meaningful journey, an action title masquerading as a character development saga, an RPG masquerading as an action game (and vice versa) and a tale of civilizational decline masquerading as a science fiction story of good versus evil. Mass Effect is a web of paradoxes and hypocrisies that delivered one of the most unique narrative experiences in the past decade, and arguably one of the most compelling stories of all time despite the controversy surrounding the ending.

This could be why Mass Effect 4 will seek to distance itself from the same. It’s healthier to create a whole list of new paradoxes to shape a game rather than trying to adhere to the old ones. Whether this was result in a compelling experience or not remains to be seen. At this point, crafting a new universe and characters feels secondary to defining the boundaries of the name they’ll need to live up to.


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  • Aaron

    Arguably one of the most compelling stories of all time? WAT

    Let’s relax a little bit.

  • Raj

    Most RPGs are based around the Illusion of Choice and Control. This isn’t news. Unless you’re playing a game like Skyrim where you can do almost anything, Mass Effect is essentially a linear RPG where everything is pre-determined before hand. You can shape the journey and how the end plays out (fate of Shepard, Reapers, and the rest of the galaxy), but everything is foretold by Bioware.

  • Kendal Graves

    Okay, so its apparent you (the author) never actually read a majority of the criticisms of ME3. The complaints were all, or even a majority, of the ‘happy ending with rainbows and unicorns’ but an ending that flowed naturally from the story, and actually took into account the choices we made in the lead up to the ending. Sure, the choices are illusory, as they are limited in scope to what is presented in the game itself, but Bioware reneged on everything they’d said regarding the ending. That there would be no A,B,C ending. There was, and then added a D later on. No matter if you picked Red, Green, or Blue, the results were about 99% the same. Game logic established in ME1, ME2, and the DLC’s was completely ignored, only to be retconned BACK into game continuity with yet another DLC. DLC Arrival establishes when the Relay goes boom, it annihilates that star system. The entire basis for Shep being on Earth in the beginning, wiping out hundreds of millions of Batarians is tossed out the proverbial airlock. Bioware fell into the old cliche of a god in the machine to explain it all, except if you made certain choices, every piece of logic the ‘Star Child’ throws at you had already been rendered moot.

    Its easy to see the influence of EA on the series. It goes from a compelling game with a tight, well told story, to just a generic CoD clone in space. Instead of refining what had been clunky (exploring in the Mako), they just remove it in place of scan and shoot at a planet. To make the next ME special, make it more like what we were fans of in the first place, Bioware needs to make sure Casey Hudson is far, far, away from the team developing the game, and keep EA’s influence to a minimum. Bioware excelled at telling good stories within the game framework, with detailed characters that ran the gamut of race, look, color, etc. ME1 got the M rating for the story, the characters and their drives (Garrus wants to find the criminal and KILL him, not catch. Not the best moral standpoint for a cop). ME 2/3 gets the M rating because whenever a female character is on the screen it takes an extra 5 minutes of gameplay because of the slow, panning shots of that characters ‘attributes’. And top it all of by inserting a game reviewer in the game itself? Niiiiiiice.

    There doesn’t need to be a next Mass Effect. Its dead, let it rest.

  • Psygo

    No, no, no, no, no. “illusion of choice”, as if it was their master plan the whole time to make you feel powerless in the face of destiny. And expanded on multiplayer? Are you high? Multiplayer was broken and nothing more than horde mode matches that were already being done better by other games. I don’t need more IGN reporters, I don’t need broken lore, I don’t need pretentious storytellers, and I don’t need Mass Effect.

  • TerrorK

    Mass Effect 3, as a whole, was nothing but a complete waste of a franchise that had so much potential simply because BioWare and EA wanted to appeal more to the dudebro fratboy CoD player than to the original fanbase. It wasn’t just the ending that sucked: almost all of Mass Effect 3 was terrible. It made everything that came before it a complete waste of time. The series was only an “illusion of choice” because they dropped the ball so hard and copped out with ME3 so much instead of putting in the time and effort to actually give players something meaningful. And ME3 itself didn’t even give the “illusion” that its predecessors did as control and player agency was taken away in favour of complete linearity and lazy non-solutions. Instead of decent and varied consequences, we had lazy writing that shoehorned the entire narrative into becoming the same and turned everything we’d done before into an arbitrary, meaningless number.

  • Larry Asberry Jr.

    I disagree with the assertion that the entirety of the serieds lacked valid choice. The problem with ME3 was that the player had no agency in thee fate of the galaxy. The rise of Cereberus in ME2 began the demise of the series. So much more could have been done if the Alliance dismantled Cereberus after ME2.I would have purchased that DLC.

    Mass Effect would lose its identity if it moved to along a more directed style of story-telling. The choice makes all the difference. I am a massive ME fan but I would buy the next one only during a Steam summer sale if they went down that path.

    Finally, the mulkti-player (MP) in ME3 was great. I own BF3 & BF4. The player’s avatar is much too fragile in that type of MP. ME3 required strategy, and admittedly, some glitch advantages to truly conquer it on Gold and Platinum difficulty settings. ME needs co-op and team based missions with groups of 4-5 people. That, in addition to objective-based competitive multi-player, would envigorate the series.

    I can see some of your points in the well-written article. I just think removing the thing that makes the series unique is the wrong answer.

  • TerrorK

    Also, I have ti point to this:

    “How easy would it be to cop-out and do a straight action title with Frostbite 3 destructibility and set pieces? It could turn out to be the most difficult thing possible but it won’t feel like Mass Effect.”

    Aside from the Frostbite 3 stuff, that was pretty much was ME3 was. It’s all very well to say that “ME4 has to be fresh, but familiar” but the fact is ME3 wasn’t even familiar really. It was like it was trying to get as far away from the original game and the original conceit of the series as much as possible for overly bombastic action gameplay, linearity and to essentially be modern mainstream garbage. ME3 was the definition of “the rule of cool” and “style over substance” really (and the style it went for wasn’t even that great). ME3 didn’t feel like Mass Effect, and that’s the biggest thing that’s wrong with it as a whole. On paper it may have been a good TPS action game, but as the final entry to the Mass Effect trilogy it’s garbage and a failure in almost every respect.


 

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