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To Prequel or Not To Prequel: The Future of Mass Effect
It appears as though Mass Effect will be moving beyond its original trilogy (what I predict will be called the Shepard Arch—it has much more personality that “the original trilogy”) and entering full-fledged franchisedom.
It was inevitable; we all knew it would happen given the series’ success. The question that remains is: which direction will the franchise take? Such a question was posed by executive producer Casey Hudson who asked on twitter if we would prefer to see the next Mass Effect take place before or after the Shepard Arc.
Now before I get into the meat and potatoes of Mass Effect’s future, I have to say one thing: posing a question about the direction of a franchise on twitter is a simple, brilliant strategy. First, asking for feedback adds a much needed air of transparency around the franchise. It gives the appearance that they are taking into account what we, the players, want most for Mass Effect. It suggests that they are truly listening to what we have to say, that it matters, and that we’re involved in the creative process.
This dovetails nicely into the next point that Mr. Hudson’s tweet accomplishes: it generates interest. Because we feel involved with the creative process, we are more likely to pay attention to the development of the next Mass Effect game. The more attention we pay, the more interest we generate; the more interest we generate, the more anticipation that builds, and the more anticipation/hype, the more likely we are to buy the game. This article really is a prime example of that early interest being generated. Would I be speculating without being lead to do so by Mr. Hudson: probably not. In fact, the direction of the Mass Effect franchise really was the last thing on my mind until his tweet (I originally wanted to write about academia and video game—article still forthcoming—but couldn’t resist writing about Mass Effect).
Now to get to what most of us probably don’t want to hear: I have a hard time believing that what we say really makes that much of a difference. Those involved with the series already have a firm idea of what they want to do, where they want to go. This is merely an attempt to create buzz and build back some of the goodwill lost through the whole Mass Effect 3 ending fiasco and the backlash against Bioware. And if there is any franchise that needs to rebuild some of the gamer goodwill, it’s Mass Effect. So bravo from a PR perspective—it really is a brilliant move.
Moving on now to the real topic of this article, I’m not all that sure that a prequel is the right direction, but the fact that the word prequel is even being mentioned makes me think it is a strong possibility for future Mass Effect games. That said, one more important question needs to be asked: just how far back do you go?
Do you go slightly back to, say, humanity’s first foray into using mass relays—the very beginnings of humanity establishing a galactic presence? That certainly seems to have the makings of a new trilogy right there. It maintains a strong tie to the Shepard arc and encompass all sorts of events mentioned in past Mass Effect games (which keep in mind are chronologically after this new set of games), and could include (or end at) say the First Contact War. Or do you go even further back to events that predate a human presence, events like the Rachni Wars, Krogan Rebellion, or Geth Wars? Any one of these events could encompass a new trilogy, and what adds to the appeal of these three latter options is the possibly of playing as, or even choosing, an alien species.
The problem, however, with these possibilities, and prequels in general, is that they often become hamstrung in their own rigidity because we already know what has happened. The franchise’s backstory is already laid out before us in our handy dandy in-game codex. Those major events I just mentioned: we already know the outcomes, who won, who lost, the consequences. While I have no doubt playing through some of these events would be interesting, I can’t help but think that it’d be taking the easy way out. The portrait already exists, pre-drawn; it only needs to be detailed.
Besides being a paint-by-numbers approach, prequels also present another significant hurdle that is difficult to overcome. Because we already know the endings, extra emphasis and care must be placed on character design and development. Simply put: there is no room for uninteresting, static characters (cough, James Vega, cough) to hide. Creating worthwhile characters to begin with is no easy task, but with the plot seemingly predetermined, there is that much more pressure to be on point and to deliver characters worth becoming invested in.
One way Bioware could overcome such hurdles would be to examine those aforementioned events in such a way that it forces us to re-examine what we think we know, perhaps through some sort of new perspective that creates a cloud of ambiguity. There is lots of room here to enter post-modernist notions of history that fit nicely with contemporary literary mores, but it’s a tricky area that can alienate players given Mass Effect’s already established canon.
A sequel also presents numerous risks, but there is a lot more that can be done narrative-wise. Because the canon is already in place, a Mass Effect prequel doesn’t leave much room to play with it. With a sequel however, we aren’t as married to the franchise’s canon to try to carve out a narrative as with a prequel because, well for obvious reasons, it doesn’t quite exist yet. A sequel, for all intents and purposes, presents an uncharted narrative-space ahead to navigate. Sure, the foundation, and aftermath, of the Shepard Arc serves as a canonical starting point, but where you can go from there really is anyone’s guess.
Some of you might be wondering about a glaringly obvious omission from my list of potential prequel settings. I did not forget about it, but I purposely failed to include it with the others because I think it exits in a class above any other possibility, a setting that merits strong consideration. Out of any prequel possibility, I think the best options would be to go as far back as the Protheans or even further.
Yes, we already know that the Protheans were wiped out by the Reapers, so in a sense it suffers from the same pitfalls of any other prequel. Yet there is a certain allure that exists because it is so far removed from any other events. For as much as we know about the Protheans, there is still so much that we don’t know, and we know even less about Prothean precursors (which is why the precursors are also a strong possibility. Who knows how many cycles the Repears have been wiping out species, but if we start going back to other cycles, the developers will not be as confined to established narrative canon. There is enough room to carve out a unique narrative that doesn’t merely rely on past canon but rather adds to it. So if we are destined for some sort of Mass Effect sequel, either a Prothean setting (or something prior to Prothean Civilization) or bust.
But enough about what I have to say, it’s time for you to chime in. What would you rather see as a Mass Effect Sequel or Prequel?