Where Should Mass Effect Go Next?
What do Star Wars and Star Trek have in common with their video game lovechild Mass Effect? The idea that their stories live on through time and space, that there are always more stories to tell, that these stories could at any time take us to uncharted territory.
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away the Star Wars Expanded Universe branched out from the beloved original trilogy of films and began to tell the stories of our favorite galaxy through books, comics, video games, and animation. At first, the stories expanded on the original heroes, the ones we were forced to leave behind after the Battle of Endor as Ewoks danced through the night. We got origin stories for Han Solo and Lando Calrissian. The Empire rose again under the command of a cunning Chiss named Grand Admiral Thrawn. Boba Fett shot his way out of the sarlacc pit. Luke Skywalker even turned to the dark side!
Since then we've gotten memorable series such as Knights of the Old Republic (video games and comics), New Jedi Order (my favorite SW book series), and the Thrawn Trilogy.
Star Trek has also been expanded quite a bit through countless TV series, books, comics, and movies (most recently, Star Trek Into Darkness).
An expanded universe allows these classic franchises to live on, evolve, and go places fans could've never imagined. Basically, you have a lot of space to work with...in space.
Believe it or not, it's a pretty exciting time for Mass Effect, which ended its first video game trilogy last year and has already expanded into books and comics. Although another video game is undoubtedly in the works, the possibilities are endless for the franchise in terms of new stories, characters, and threats to the galaxy.
Recently, I read "Evolution," the third ME comic book miniseries starring Jack Harper, the man that would become the Illusive Man. Although the story itself is a pretty standard origin story (we find out why his eyes ended up looking so creepy in the games), something struck me about the storyline. Halfway through, Jack starts quoting the legendary science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke (2001: A Space Odyssey) and I started thinking about this story as an homage. It has monoliths, talk of evolution, experiments, philosophy, the idea that there are things beyond the reaches of science in the universe. All of a sudden, it was Clarke telling a story in the ME universe!
How would you define ME's place in the science fiction genre? Is it a space opera or hard science fiction? A space fantasy? Planetary romance? A coveted space western?
The answer is all of the above. We have monoliths, Prothean archives, and the genophage (hard scifi). Biotic powers are basically the Force (space fantasy). Characters are constantly exploring new planets (planetary romance). Who can forget the Krogan and their passion for dueling (space western)? And who ended up being Commander Shepard's love interest (space opera)? There's something in Mass Effect for every scifi lover in the galaxy!
A series this multi-faceted deserves A LOT more stories. Let's take a look at what could be done with each subgenre:
1) Hard science fiction: One of the things that have always interested me about this series is its nods to science. While there isn't all that much science involved with Star Wars, even Mass Effect's title is a reference to the greatest scientific discovery in the game's galaxy: the mass relays. There's also the theme of evolution vs. extinction. How far are you willing to go to save your species? The very last decision you make in ME3 forces you to choose whether your species will survive (fusing with the machines) or die (allowing the cycle of destruction to continue). How many heroes have had to make this decision? Who are the ones that came before? We know now that the cycle of evolution and extinction has continued for millennia. Will we have a chance to explore it a million years before Shepard? The storyline provides a clean slate every fifty thousand years. Build us a new galaxy!
2) Space fantasy: I need more biotics in my life. My first Shepard didn't have any powers since I pictured him as a pure human soldier. Instead, I let Kaidan do all the Force choking (seriously, biotics are the FORCE mixed with blue food coloring). But once I let Kaidan blow up in order to save my main squeeze, Ashley, I decided that in the second game Shepard should get some biotic powers, which I blamed on the Illusive Man's dastardly plans for continuity's sake. I realized how much fun it was to make Cerberus thugs float around in the air like idiots while my teammates shot them down. Give us a story about biotics. Remember how cool that little side story about Kaidan's biotic academy was? We got to see how these biotic powers could corrupt people (the dark side). Then we met Jack in ME2 and saw just how far biotic experiments could push someone before they went mad. This isn't strictly the stuff of space fantasy since there is some "science" behind it, but it sure beats midi-chlorians...
3) Planetary romance: In ME1, there was a lot of focus on exploring uncharted planets. You would get dropped down from the Normandy in that terrible Mako ground vehicle in order to investigate ship carcasses, life signs, and other landmarks. Unfortunately, the Mako was such a useless vehicle that BioWare ditched the planet exploration thing altogether and brought us boring space mining instead. We want more exotic planets. I think that at some point Mass Effect only focused on developed planets with cities and large populations. Give us a story where we crash-land on a desert planet and have to fight huge acid-spitting sand dragons in order to survive. How epic would it be if you were running out of water and oxygen and were forced to choose who in your crew would live and die? Surely, we'd get another Kaidan to sacrifice himself in order to save the hot soldier chick...But the planetary romance is so much more than landing on a strange planet. It's about showing us its beauty and its horrors, taking us to place we've never been. Show us the animal and plant life. Introduce us to the wonder of new planets...Ewoks, basically.
4) Space opera: Or perhaps the aforementioned planet is populated by two kingdoms at war with each other. You are the prince of one kingdom and she is the princess in the other. You are both star-crossed lovers thrust into a planet-wide conflict that will never allow you to be together. You make a run for it into the stars, escaping on a rusty trade ship, but the ship is suddenly hijacked by Batarians, those damned alien pirates! Suddenly, you and your lover must run from all sides. What do you do? The solution isn't heavy on the science. This genre focuses on melodrama (a play on "soap opera"). Remember how dragged out Ashley and Shepard's goodbye was? That "see you on the other side" thing is just what this occasion calls for.
5) Space western: Probably the most bad ass of the scifi subgenres and what better aliens to play out a space western than the bad ass Krogan? Some of the best moments in ME took place in Tuchanka, the Krogan homeworld (ruins). We're always down to dig deeper into Krogan history and culture. The rough, dry landscape is perfect and so is the Krogan's affinity for gun play. We'd love to fight as Wrex during his early Clan Urdnot days. Grunt.