It’s never easy to tell a story in a video game. There are so many things to keep in mind and everything can’t always be a contributing factor to the plot in the most direct way. That deadly cockatrice you took down in Witcher 3 or the case of the missing wife which brought you face to face with a werewolf were pretty cool but aside from “Geralt is a Witcher and needs to earn a living”, it wasn’t exactly the most direct connection to the main plot of finding Ciri (you know, his daughter, someone who should take priority over everything else). Scarecrow is getting ready to release fear toxin into Gotham? Boy, we better deal with the Manbat or race on some Riddler courses to save Catwoman. Don’t even get me started on games which don’t even try to make sense with their stories like Call of Duty and Destiny (yes, The Taken King has a better story than Year One. No, it’s still not all that clear at the end of the day).
This isn’t to say I hate the story-telling in video games. In fact, I love being able to explore the world of the Witcher and dealing with the engrossing adventures of Geralt while tackling the main quest. In a way, the novels themselves are very similar in plot structure – there is a central plot with smaller sub-plots surrounding its narrative centre. One could bring up the lack of comparison that’s possible between video game story-telling and that seen in movies and novels but that’s not the point.
"The time is ripe for something different. Mass Effect: Andromeda can’t simply just be your character trying to make alliances and finding a way to unite the universe against a common foe."
The point is to look into Mass Effect: Andromeda, Bioware’s next big action RPG, and examine how it can redefine the story-telling that’s not only been rote for the series but for gaming in general for a while.
Mass Effect 3 had a very strange way of going about its plot. You were meant to gather support to help fight the Reapers back on Earth. It wasn’t too different from recruiting various allies and completing their loyalty missions in Mass Effect 2 to defeat the Collectors (though you didn’t have to exactly recruit everyone to really embark on the suicide mission). Nor were these much different from having to garner support in Dragon Age: Origins to defeat the Darkspawn. Dragon Age: Inquisition was a little different, we suppose, though it still saw you working to garner support and expand the Inquisition.
This particular story-telling method isn’t ineffective – in fact, it’s given us some of the most memorable plot-lines in gaming. Miranda’s twin sister and the terrors she faces; Thane’s short life-span and trying to reconcile with his son; Mordin’s noble sacrifice; the first battle with Corypheus and the retreat to Skyhold; the final battle with the Arch-Demon; and of course, the controversial ending to Mass Effect 3 are only some examples.
That being said, the time is ripe for something different. Mass Effect: Andromeda can’t simply just be your character trying to make alliances and finding a way to unite the universe against a common foe. And if it is, then it has to be done in a new way. If not, then we simply face a situation similar to Fallout 4 which stuck to the same quest and plot structure to carry the game. Was it awful? Not at all. Is it something we expect after X years in development and with so much hype, technology and AAA production value driving it? No.
"Perhaps in this day and age it’s just unrealistic to expect a revolutionary new form of story-telling in video games like Mass Effect. You can experiment to your heart’s content with games like Her Story and Undertale but how do you possibly apply those principles to the Mass Effect universe without alienating its fans?"
There’s no easy way to decide how Mass Effect: Andromeda should go about its story. Should it go full open-world sandbox and allow players to craft their own narrative? Should it lead players down a multitude of curated scenarios? Should it approach quests like the Witcher 3 does, balancing scripting and personality with memorable sub-plots? What could Bioware possibly due to redefine story-telling with Mass Effect: Andromeda? There are plenty of ways to go about it and the developer could even pick and choose various practices to cull together some new way of advancing the plot.
Perhaps in this day and age it’s just unrealistic to expect a revolutionary new form of story-telling in video games like Mass Effect. You can experiment to your heart’s content with games like Her Story and Undertale but how do you possibly apply those principles to the Mass Effect universe without alienating its fans? The last time Bioware experimented with its story-telling and offered a conclusion that fans didn’t agree with it earned them near universal hatred. However, Mass Effect did manage to present a third person shooter/RPG title with a comprehensive story and universe to explore. Considering the stories in some games with higher budgets these days, Mass Effect was ground-breaking in retrospect.
Mass Effect: Andromeda does possess the ability to start something new which fans may not expect at all or predict the direction to. This does create the unenviable balancing act of trying to tie things back to the original Mass Effect trilogy while trying something new but if it means we don’t get the same recruitment drives from before, it’ll be good enough. If there’s anything that the current state of gaming has taught us, it’s that we’re both blessed and cursed with the potential for story-telling greatness. Mass Effect: Andromeda could be the next great story told but will it be by the standards of video games or general-story-telling? Only time will tell and we can only hope Bioware is up to the task.