Mass Effect Deserves Better Than Rehashing Its Past

We don't need to mangle the universe to go home again.

Let me preface this by saying everything that follows is based on speculation circulating online. It’s a frustrating position to be in to talk about these things, but from the looks of it, BioWare’s marketing of the next Mass Effect is thriving on being just hazy enough to say nothing definitive — but with just enough clues regarding what the future holds that theories are going in wild directions. And those directions make me more uneasy about Mass Effect’s future than ever before. 

Similarly to what I asserted a year ago when the game’s first teaser trailer was unveiled, I don’t think we can actually glean anything of substance from the teaser image BioWare released this week as part of N7 Day, the annual fan day to celebrate the Mass Effect series. Usually, the day is chalked up to promoting new merch. But last year saw the reveal of Mass Effect: Legendary Edition, so it’s fair to expect BioWare will start using the day for more substantial announcements in the future. While the studio didn’t give much concrete info about the next installment, it did share this new art:

There’s a lot to unpack here. The ship we see is notably not the one we saw former party member Liara T’Soni with in the original teaser; instead, it seems more in-line with the ships we saw as part of the Andromeda Initiative in Mass Effect: Andromeda. There’s also the crater at the top that forms a silhouette that looks distinctly like a Geth, a group of synthetics who were potentially a casualty of the Reaper War in the original trilogy. There’s even what appears to be a Geth corpse partially buried between the ship and the crater. It doesn’t really tell us anything beyond the Geth likely being involved in the next Mass Effect game — but that on its own raises many questions.

We know based on Liara’s appearance in the original teaser that the next game will, in some way, take place in the Milky Way — or at the very least feature characters we know primarily from that galaxy. If the implication here is that the Geth will play a role in the next game and this will be set in the Milky Way, then it could nullify the consequences of one of Mass Effect 3’s possible endings. At the end of the original trilogy, Commander Shepard had to choose between destroying the Reapers, controlling them, or synthesizing them with organic life. Picking the “Destroy” ending over “Control” and “Synthesis” implied the eradication of not only the Reapers, but also all synthetics. 

But between navigating social media, checking forums like Reddit, the unofficial BioWare forums, and having conversations with friends and colleagues, I keep seeing attempts at reconciling a universe in which both this art and the “Destroy” ending are possible. There are theories circulating that this game can take place after a canonized Destroy ending in which the player will look for a way to revive the Geth. There are also interpretations that synthetics simply persisted through sheer willpower despite being shown to not have survived. Both scenarios — and any of a similar vein, for that matter — effectively undo all the sacrifice Shepard, and the Milky Way galaxy at large, had to contend with for making this decision in the first place.

Faced with vague descriptions, some sides of fandom will look for the simplest explanation to get more of a franchise they love — and if they must break its philosophy to do it, they will. The insistence that Mass Effect should concede to a specific canon is often rooted in the belief that BioWare can’t possibly write a story in the Milky Way that could work in any of these three different galactic states. That premise is, in and of itself, flawed. Because if the state of the galaxy as it pertains to Shepard’s final decision isn’t at the crux of a new game’s story, those ramifications can act as set dressing rather than being foundational to its premise. Are the Reapers alive? They can exist as backdrops in the world and result in altered dialogue. Are they dead? They’re gone altogether. Regardless of what it is, Shepard’s ultimate choice can have a great impact on the universe without preventing a smaller scale, otherwise-disconnected story from being told. 

At this point, I can only offer broad solutions because we still don’t know much of anything about what the next Mass Effect game entails. But in the pursuit of an easy, digestible explanation, some would rather BioWare just pick an ending and keep putting out Mass Effect games. If they believe a story that works within the boundaries of all three endings doesn’t exist, they would rather BioWare simply not try — or that the developer should follow the specific parameters these fans are most comfortable with, regardless of whether it contradicts how someone else experienced Mass Effect (both the original trilogy and Andromeda) over the past 14 years. When that resignation faces new content that seemingly counters those preconceived notions, it’s how you get wild, lore-breaking theories that have little basis in what’s actually presented.

While it falls outside those specific parameters, the simplest explanation for this concept art — and one that abides by Mass Effect’s central philosophy — is that it takes place in the Andromeda Galaxy.

If the scene depicted here takes place in the Andromeda Galaxy, it implies the Geth were either smuggled, stowed away, or otherwise followed the Andromeda Initiative, which saw thousands of Milky Way species migrating from one galaxy to another. The first Andromeda game didn’t feature any Geth, but it was noted their technology was used to scout out the new galaxy before the movement started traveling through dark space. It stands to reason the Geth would have been aware of this and may have sent some forces in the same direction. This would make for an interesting workaround for the possible annihilation of the Geth in the Milky Way — and, most importantly, a way for BioWare to neither canonize nor invalidate the original trilogy’s most popular ending. 

The notion of BioWare picking a canon ending to the trilogy is laughably antithetical to the Mass Effect series, but it’s one that persists with each tiny piece of information we get from this game.  It is, in my opinion, the cardinal sin BioWare could commit if it brings the series back to the Milky Way. But as I sit and look at this image without scrolling through social media or forums, does it actually communicate these various lore-breaking stories people are talking about? Or do we still know too little to even accurately hypothesize what any of this means beyond Liara being in it?

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I think my exasperation lies less with anything BioWare has actually presented and more with where some of the general public’s minds go when they see these new teasers. Theories that boil down to “how can we break the story to make the new Mass Effect in keeping with the old” feel like the least imaginative vision for the continuation of a series that has taken radical swings in the name of player impact. 

It makes me think of Final Fantasy X, which I’ve been replaying as part of Normandy FM. After playing Final Fantasy VII Remake last year, I wrote about how, by revisiting Final Fantasy X and its sequel with an abhorrent audio drama, Square Enix had undone much of the original game’s profound themes of social and religious reform. In an attempt to bolster its iconography, the audio drama brings back the game’s original villain Sin and reverts its heroine Yuna’s place in the world to one aligned with who she was before her journey. When asked why the team made these decisions, Producer Yoshinori Kitase explained it was meant to highlight how Sin and Yuna’s conflict was an important touchstone of Final Fantasy X, not unlike Sephiroth and Cloud’s in Final Fantasy VII. To me, this reads like distilling Final Fantasy X to its imagery and themes rather than honoring the actual arc of its universe. 

When I see the internet looking for ways that the next Mass Effect can retcon or diminish the impact of previous games, it feels like we as a fandom are so desperate for the familiar that we will take it, regardless of the ramifications it has for the larger universe. This is a series that was built on the foundation of your choices and presence in this universe mattering. Does it deliver on every decision you make? Absolutely not. But it still aspires to those goals to the very end. Those aspirations are what makes Mass Effect special, and why it still matters over a decade later. Is seeing the Geth again, or more broadly, the Milky Way, worth unraveling what made the series significant? 

Mass Effect: Andromeda’s release marked the beginning of a new story that takes us 600 years through dark space. It has us venture into new worlds we hadn’t previously explored while cleverly refusing to make hard calls about the decisions that shaped the end of Shepard’s journey. It was a bold choice to leave behind the familiarity of the Milky Way, and it deserved a sequel like Mass Effect 2 that fine-tuned its systems and solidified the places of its characters in this new galaxy. 

But even if this next game is somehow a sequel to Andromeda, it’s now dealing with a tether to the past as BioWare works within the confines of the Milky Way and a community so divided on what it wants in a new Mass Effect game that pillars of its core philosophy are seen as acceptable collateral damage. The larger implication feels like Mass Effect cannot thrive unless it sits in what’s comfortable — and that means seeing Liara again, bringing back the Geth, and possibly deciding one ending to rule them all. If all of the above is the case, it’s a sad state of affairs for a series that once asked players to light the galaxy on fire to finish the fight. And if all there is to look forward to is a sanded-down, safe, canonical vision of the Mass Effect universe, I’m not sure I want to see it. I don’t want to envision a Mass Effect incapable of imagining a future as daring as the series did when it began.