Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for the ending of the Mass Effect trilogy, including Mass Effect: Legendary Edition.
Mass Effect 4 has a choice to make – at least it does if, as we’re all assuming, the game is planned as a sequel to the Mass Effect trilogy. The choice the developers will have to make will have knock-on effects for the entire plot of the game, and unfortunately will impact some players more than others. In short, BioWare will need to choose one of Mass Effect 3′s ending options as the foundation on which to build their new story.
We talked a little while ago about the ending options from a narrative point of view, and I came to the cop-out conclusion that all three have points in their favour as well as drawbacks. Though the “destroy” ending is seemingly favoured by a majority of players, there are still sizeable minorities who chose either “synthesis” or “control” at the climax of the story.
Each of the three endings are very different from one another, and each would leave the Mass Effect galaxy in a very different place. I don’t see how it would be possible for BioWare to make one game that allowed players to choose which ending to canonise; the narrative consequences are simply too different in each case to allow a single story, even a very adaptable one, to be created. Unless BioWare is prepared to essentially make three games, trying to incorporate all three endings seems like a non-starter.
There’s also the question of Commander Shepard’s fate. The teaser trailer for the next Mass Effect game that was shown off earlier in the year appeared to show Liara on a quest to either find Shepard or find their remains, and if we can infer from that that Commander Shepard will have some role to play in the game’s story – whether that’s as a playable character or not – then there needs to be some realistic way that Shepard could’ve survived the events of Mass Effect 3. As far as we know based on what we saw in the game, the only way Shepard even possibly survives is to choose the “destroy” ending.
Mass Effect 3′s ending – and really the final third of the game – was undeniably rushed, and as a result we only got a very brief epilogue showing off some of the possible consequences for each scenario. But even just in those few minutes of voiceover atop static images, we can tell that the Mass Effect galaxy ends up in a very different place depending on Shepard’s choice.
I’ve always felt that Mass Effect 3 wanted to push players toward the “synthesis” ending. That’s the one that was most difficult to unlock, and if EDI’s epilogue is to be believed it seems to lead to a technological utopia of sorts, with the rebuilding of the galaxy happening much more quickly and easily, and with the possibility of life extension for organic beings.
But paradise doesn’t really make for an interesting story! Not only that, but synthesis was never Shepard’s goal; it was only introduced as an option right at the very end of the game with limited explanation courtesy of the Catalyst. The Catalyst would claim that synthesis – i.e. fusion of organic and synthetic life – had been its end goal since the beginning, which in effect makes it the Reapers’ objective too, as the Catalyst was the force controlling the Reapers. Shepard didn’t get the opportunity to hear anyone else’s perspective on synthesis before making their choice.
Setting aside that making such a monumental decision for every living being is not Shepard’s choice to make, “synthesis” also has some pretty disturbing implications. The way in which newly-synthesised denizens of the galaxy appear to go along with everything that’s happened, combined with the Reapers’ survival and the Catalyst’s comments about this being its own endgame, could be taken to mean that this isn’t really a victory at all for Shepard and their allies.
“Control” is likewise not a strong basis for building a new story. With Shepard seizing control of the Reapers and simply directing them to leave the galaxy, the Reaper threat has not ended. Shepard may be in control for now – but how long will that control last? Can Shepard keep the Reapers under their sway indefinitely, or will millennia of isolation drive them mad?
In order for Mass Effect 4 to put the Reaper War in the rear-view mirror and move on to a new story, a decision has to be taken as to which ending is the “official” one. The popularity of “destroy”, combined with the negative consequences present in the “synthesis” and “control” options, seem to make it the only practical choice.
My concern is that Mass Effect 4 might try to tell the same story in all three settings with a few cosmetic differences to pay lip-service to the ending choices but without really exploring in any detail what the consequences of those endings might be. Take, for example, my theory regarding the Leviathans. If BioWare wanted to make the Leviathans the main villain for Mass Effect 4, that only really works with the “destroy” ending. Consider that the Leviathans have remained hidden for millions of years following the Reapers’ first harvest. If a new force (Shepard) seized the Reapers in the “control” ending, from their point of view the Reaper threat still exists. Would they emerge from hiding? And in the case of “synthesis,” the Leviathans would be affected too. It was strongly implied in the “synthesis” epilogue that every species was now working together, so in such a case they couldn’t be villains.
That’s just one hypothetical example of how one story couldn’t be forced into three very different moulds for a new game in the series. We’ve seen smaller-scale examples of this within the Mass Effect trilogy itself, and Mass Effect 3 in particular seemed to have difficulty respecting players’ choices in previous games. To give two examples: regardless of what players did in Mass Effect 1 and Mass Effect 2, Liara will always be the Shadow Broker in Mass Effect 3, and Udina will always be Earth’s Councillor.
These stories were relatively minor, though, at least in comparison to the things we’re considering today! Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3 did respect players’ choices and the consequences of those choices in some ways, though, making each playthrough unique. In fact it’s this aspect of the trilogy that makes it so appealing to me and to many other players – Commander Shepard feels like a different person on each playthrough and the story is tweaked to recognise that.
But the differences in Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3 were minor. Certain characters would be missing if they’d died in previous games, for example, but there was usually someone else to take their place. Urdnot Wreav (voiced by Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Michael Dorn) would take Wrex’s place as the clan leader if Wrex died. Ashley and Kaidan were basically interchangeable in Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3. And even characters like Thane, who played an important role in Mass Effect 3 when it came to the Cerberus attack on the Citadel, were replaced by a like-for-like stand-in if they’d died during the suicide mission.
It would be impossible, though, for BioWare to successfully repeat this on a larger scale. The three ending options for Mass Effect 3 simply can’t lead to the same story because of how radically different everything about the galaxy necessarily must be in each scenario. Add into the mix that Mass Effect 4 may be picking up a story some years or even decades after the end of Mass Effect 3 and there’s been time for those changes to multiply. In short: one single story cannot be made to work in all three scenarios, and trying to do so will all but guarantee a disappointing experience for players.
Mass Effect 4 has a difficult task. Whatever BioWare chooses to do with the game’s story, some players who were very attached to the way they played the original trilogy are bound to be left upset. Because those games offered players different routes leading to different endings, there really isn’t any escaping that. The only glimmer of hope is that one ending choice is substantially more popular than others – and BioWare has been keeping tabs on that! The fact that the “synthesis” ending was not a big part of the game at all, only appearing right at the very end, and that “control” had been the preference of Mass Effect 3′s villains also seems to set up a situation in which the choice should be acceptable to a majority of fans of the Mass Effect trilogy. I’d wager that most players chose “destroy” on at least one of their playthroughs anyway.
So that’s it for today. Mass Effect 4 has a choice to make – and it’s a big one. As I see it, any sequel has to choose one ending over the others simply because the state of the galaxy is so radically different in each case that one single story couldn’t possibly fit all three scenarios. Despite my feelings about Mass Effect: Legendary Edition, I’m curious to see what BioWare has in store for the next part of the franchise – even though it’s still a few years away!
The next Mass Effect game is in early development and most likely won’t be released for several years. Mass Effect: Legendary Edition is out now for PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series S/X. The Mass Effect series – including all properties mentioned above – is the copyright of BioWare and Electronic Arts. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.