BioWare Montreal producer Fabrice Condominas revealed recently that they have begun work on Mass Effect 4 and that the protagonist will not be Commander Shepard. Furthermore, he goes on to say that the protagonist will not be “Shepard 2” or “a soldier in the universe.” Fan reaction is mixed, as many decry the lack of closure at Shepard’s story in the most popular ending of Mass Effect 3. This statement that the protagonist will not be “Shepard 2” also leads to multiple interpretations. Since Shepard lacked many universal traits and was mostly defined by the players choices in-game, does this mean that the new protagonist will lack that degree of player input, or will the new protagonist just have significant differences in backstory and role in the galaxy?
As for possible new antagonists, with the Reaper threat dealt with, another question arises: what threat could possibly follow? Escalating beyond a timeless, innumerably vast, and virtually unstoppable force of destruction such as the Reapers could easily stretch suspension of disbelief to the breaking point. Going in the other direction and downsizing the conflict’s scale avoids the problems escalation might bring, but has brought new problems in practice for BioWare. One of the complaints about Dragon Age II was how the reduced scale made it feel more like a side-story than a true successor. That said, many other reasons kept the fan community from enjoying Dragon Age II, so such a change in scale may not be an issue as long as the rest of the game pleases gamers. With discontent with the endings still high even after the Extended Cut, BioWare will have a hefty task in appeasing the fans.
The ending controversy aside, the vast galaxy-wide differences between outcomes in each of the endings creates problems for a possible sequel. BioWare would have to essentially make a completely different game for each ending. The only way around this problem would be to canonize one of the endings of Mass Effect 3. In such a case, players that chose one of the other four endings will likely be quite displeased, especially considering how much BioWare plays up the importance of choice in their games. Should they decide to canonize a specific ending, the “Red” ending appears to be the natural choice because reliable data collected over the past months from the BioWare Social Network, the community itself, and elsewhere shows that the vast majority of players picked it. Fans of the other endings may end up displeased; but trying to please everyone typically ends up pleasing no one, especially in the arts and entertainment industries.
Should BioWare decide that the prospect of a sequel is just too messy, they could follow Halo’s example and go with a prequel or a story concurrent with the original trilogy. However, this route has problems of its own that would need addressing. Unless BioWare chooses to take a marketing risk (which EA will almost certainly veto), any Mass Effect game will have a human protagonist or at least several humans in the party. The backstory of the Mass Effect universe very clearly shows that humanity has been part of the galactic community for such a short time that still-living characters can remember when aliens were mere myth. This does not leave a large span of time for stories to take place. Having the game take place in a previous Reaper cycle has the problem that every cycle before Shepard’s failed, making any player character doomed from the start.
Out of all the possible paths BioWare could take with the next Mass Effect game, a prequel or side-story appears the most likely. Comments by community managers such as Chris Priestly and content developers such as Mike Gamble indicate that BioWare has no plans to further change the endings at this time. Combined with the statements by Priestly and Jessica Merizan, respectively, that the popular Indoctrination Theory remains a “valid possibility” with the current endings and that the Extended Cut “neither confirms nor denies IT,” it appears that BioWare’s plan to deal with the controversy is to try to keep everyone happy by staying ambiguous. Hopefully, the rest of the Mass Effect 3 DLC cycle should clear up some of the ambiguity. Either way, as long as players get a game with a customizable protagonist and are offered a high degree of meaningful choice, people will probably buy Mass Effect 4.