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Canon Choices Have No Place in Mass Effect

After over a decade of respecting (nearly) every version of the universe, some fans want Bioware to pick theirs.

N7 Day in the time where no details about the next Mass Effect are public has become insufferable in a very specific way. While this year was different, with the announcement of the Legendary Edition remasters lighting a fire under the series’ name for the first time in about three years, we’re still left in a limbo state about what the future of Mass Effect looks like. A sequel to the Mass Effect: Andromeda story would be the simple and natural next step following the 2017 spin-off’s multiple cliffhangers, but that game’s mixed reception has put Bioware and its fanbase in a weird spot. Not because there isn’t a simple, obvious direction for the series to go, but because fans who didn’t like Andromeda and have an attachment to the original trilogy are emboldened in the idea that they must not want anything else, and are willing and eager to dismantle a franchise’s entire philosophy to get it.

Every year since Andromeda launched and questions of what’s next for Bioware’s science fiction franchise have been raised, there’s a surprisingly high volume of people requesting that the studio pick one of Mass Effect 3’s endings and crystalize it as the “real” one and continue from there. It’s something other franchises have done, like Infamous: Second Son taking place after Infamous 2’s good ending, so to someone on the outside who hasn’t played the Mass Effect series, that might not seem too egregious, but this is a franchise that has been about the personalized experience in a way that basically no other video game has attempted to replicate. Mangling that so some people with an inability to let go of a story that said all it needed to say eight years ago is antithetical to that notion.

[Full spoilers for the Mass Effect trilogy follow]

Let’s break down the endings in question. Mass Effect 3 can end in one of four possible ways depending on the choice the player makes in its final moments. As Commander Shepard, we decide how to utilize a device called The Crucible, which was iterated on by several cycles of life in the Milky Way over millions of years to end the Reaper’s harvesting cycle.

We can:

  1. Destroy all synthetic life, ending the war with the invading Reapers while also committing genocide by killing the Geth, an allied force. The final scene reveals Shepard survived. The Reapers are gone, but the implication is that the damage done in the process leaves the galaxy in the most precarious state in terms of recovery. 
  2. Shepard uploads their own consciousness into the Reaper’s network, controlling the synthetic race, ending the war, and using their collective power to help rebuild the Milky Way.
  3. The Catalyst, the AI that created and controls the Reapers, suggests that Shepard can add their energy to the Crucible, which, when dispersed, will merge synthetic and organic life under a new framework, allowing everyone to reach a level of understanding and end what it believes is the need for the Reaper’s harvest. 
  4. Shepard can refuse to do anything on a principle that each sacrifice is too great, the Crucible will be shut down and the harvest continues. Everybody dies.

I’m not here to weigh in on whether or not Mass Effect 3’s ending is good or not, or advocate for one in particular. Merely here to illustrate just how different the state of the galaxy is for each of these choices. While detractors from the ending would like you to believe the only difference between each ending is the color of the beam that the Crucible fires, that’s incredibly disingenuous when you talk about the way the Mass Effect universe is forever changed by the choice Shepard makes. That decision is the final word the player gets on who their Shepard was, what their values were, and what they were willing to sacrifice to see the end of the war.

Mass Effect 3 goes to great lengths to not impose any ideology or motivation on the player for picking any way forward, as this choice is one made by actions, rather than by picking an option on a dialogue wheel. Destroy is activated by shooting a conduit, Control by interacting with a terminal, and Synthesis by walking into the light. We as players internalize our reasoning for why we choose what we do, and because Shepard doesn’t vocalize their thinking, the final choice of Mass Effect 3 is the one decision in the series that puts no barriers between us and our avatar. Whether you liked the way the game wrapped up or not, understanding that it’s the final actualization of an idea Mass Effect had aspired to is crucial to understanding why Bioware creating a canon ending for a new game is not only tone deaf, but disrespectful to the gravity of what we did at the final fight over Earth.

The Mass Effect Archives, where players choices are documented for any future Mass Effect game.

While Bioware’s never released statistics, anecdotally, it’s probably safe to say the Destroy option is the most popular choice. Over the years, I’ve found that most people who say “just pick an ending and keep going” are ones who assume their ending is going to be picked and want to play as Shepard again, while simultaneously ignoring that a non-insignificant amount of the player base also left the galaxy in a way that meant Shepard wouldn’t be part of it. Their impact would be felt, but there’s no scenario where Shepard gets to go about their lives in a universe where the Reapers are under their control or they sacrificed themselves for synthetic and organic unity. Do I think Bioware is even considering this? I don’t think so. I hope not, at least. But it hasn’t stopped it from being a regular talking point, or even voice actors for characters in the original trilogy rallying fans around the idea of bringing Shepard and company back in some fashion.

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Keep in mind, this is a series that went to an entirely new galaxy to avoid canonizing a final choice. Mass Effect: Andromeda is set 600 years later, following a group of people who missed out on the war entirely. Even within the text, the game straight up says that the entire Andromeda Initiative’s migration through dark space was to avoid that ramifications of that war. The reveal feels both meaningful in the grander Mass Effect lore while also feeling somewhat meta, like it’s acknowledging that this change had to happen to avoid the galaxy shaking ending of the Mass Effect trilogy. In the confines of Andromeda, the information on what happened to the Milky Way is so scarce, protagonist Ryder doesn’t even find out if humanity or any of the other alien races these people left behind are still alive. All the information they have on the invasion was that it happened, they don’t know if or how anyone they knew and loved survived. Through careful writing, Mass Effect: Andromeda acknowledges the wider lore of its universe without stepping on the toes of anyone’s version of Commander Shepard.

There are a lot of sides of Mass Effect discourse that I think have poisoned it over the years, whether that be the Suicide Mission-driven perception that there’s a “best” ending that can be obtained by outsmarting the system, or, of course, the feelings of resentment toward the franchise for the perceived blow of the ending. But choice and acknowledging it (with uh, a couple glaring, but relatively benign exceptions that, while unsatisfactory, didn’t outright undo what the player did) has been at the core of what this series is about, and the insinuation that being respectful of everyone’s experience is somehow not a value worth preserving is probably one of the wildest things I’ve seen in my years being inundated in this series.

Mass Effect: Conviction obscuring Shepard’s face and gender to not disrupt any player’s canon.

It would have been so much easier for Bioware to create canon choices between each game, instead it created systems that let you import your story and your Commander Shepard each time, ensuring your character and the impact they made on the universe mattered. It would have been so much easier to just call the “commit genocide on an allied force but Shepard lives” ending the real one and not have made Andromeda at all. But Bioware has made calculated efforts over the years to ensure every player’s experience is valid, whether it be in sequels not claiming one version of the universe over another or extended universe content always referring to Shepard in gender-neutral ways. The studio is even still making good on some mistakes it made on that front with the remasters.

I don’t think Bioware will go this route. I don’t think after over a decade of doing everything in its power to not make one set of choices the “true” story of Mass Effect that the studio will throw that away to appease a subset of the fandom that won’t let go. But every time I see this talking point brought up, I wonder how anyone plays through all these games and thinks that maintaining the validity of everyone’s experience is something negligible, instead of paramount to what makes these games as special and important as they are. But I do know one thing: I don’t want to play a Mass Effect game that canonizes their view of its universe, just as they shouldn’t have to play through one that canonizes mine.

About the Author

Kenneth Shepard

Kenneth is a Staff Writer at Fanbyte. He still periodically cries about the Mass Effect trilogy years after it concluded.