(Warning: Mass Effect Series Spoilers, especially Mass Effect 3. You have been warned.)
When I proofread the column from last week, I had realized something. While I did much to outline the problems in the Mass Effect series and its choices, specifically how they did not significantly influence events in Mass Effect 3, I only outlined the problem. I did not spend time demonstrating possible solutions. This week's article will be dedicated to that. I am going to assume that you read the previous article, or at least have familiarity with the three Mass Effect games and the outcomes depicted in the second and third game of the player's decisions. As such, I will not be explaining the decisions, the backstory, or the consequences (or lack thereof) of any of them in any significant detail. Fixing this problem might seem like a grand undertaking, but the reality is that Bioware already laid down a great framework to work with. Truthfully, the problem with choices having no influence on the plot only needs a series of small, minor fixes in order to work. While this does not do much since the game is already released, it will serve as a good lesson to those who are writing their own tales in the gaming industry.
First off, let us talk about the decision to save or kill the Rachni Queen is the first game. Here is how I would have written the outcomes to those decisions: I would keep the consequences for sparing the Rachni Queen the exact same. The side-quest is already pretty well-written for this choice. However, once the player has made the decision of whether or not to save the Rachni Queen a second time, there should be an aftermath to that decision reflected in the gameplay. Choosing to save her a second time should result in not only a slight drop in Ravager enemies (indoctrinated Rachni), but there should be some places (only one or two) where the player has the option of having Rachni soldiers fight with them, beyond the increase in war assets. This would make sense as the Reapers would have access to the Rachni still under their command and would still have the capability to indoctrinate Rachni, albeit to a significantly lower degree. Also, since the player saved the Queen twice now, she should be grateful enough to lend a hand in as many ways as she is able. She is no fool and knows that the galaxy is at stake.
Choosing to leave her to die if you spared her before should have an even more dramatic drop in Ravager enemies than if you choose to save her again. The reasoning behind this is that the Reapers would still have access to the Ravagers they already possess. However, with the death of the Queen, they are unable to make more Rachni to add to their forces. Not doing this quest would leave the game as, because the Reapers will still have control of the Rachni Queen and her hoards.
If the player chose to kill the Rachni Queen in the original game, then that should have dramatic effects on the world. Since the Rachni would have been unable to make any more of themselves, the race would have died out or come very close to it by the beginning of the third game. This means that there would be no Ravagers in Mass Effect 3. However, it would also mean that there would be no chance of adding the Rachni to the player's war assets. This way, the player's choice takes effect and it feels like they changed the world. Furthermore, it means that neither choice was “incorrect” as both have their pros and cons. Players who replay the game continue to agonize over which choice they will make, determining whether an easier time playing through the levels is worth having a harder time in getting a strong enough fleet.
Building on this theme of choice and consequences, the decision to save or abandon the Council in the original Mass Effect needed to have more weigh in the overall plot. If the player saved the Council in the first game, then they should be much more receptive to him/her. While they dismiss Sheppard's claim that the Reapers are coming in Mass Effect 2, the fact that Sheppard believes this should cast doubt in their minds. (Anderson even implies that they are scared and unsure in the second game if he becomes Councilor.) Anxious, they begin to order their respective peoples to prepare defenses, expand research on weapons/defense systems, boost military recruitment and training, etc.. When the Reapers invade, these advances should not be enough to repel the Reapers, but the races will be able to hold there against the Reaper forces long enough to evacuate non-combatants and world leaders to safer nebulae of space because of them. When Sheppard approaches the Council for aid, they would be more receptive to Sheppard's call for assistance. They would send preliminary forces to aid Earth, but still need Sheppard to assist them with the problems on their worlds before they could mobilize their entire armadas against the Reaper forces. When doing missions on the council race's home-worlds, there should be slightly fewer enemies because they would have been better prepared to thwart attacks from both the Reapers and Cerberus. However, abandoning the council should have the same ramifications that it does already. The new council should not trust Sheppard since he/she left the previous council to die, making it more difficult to sway them. Doing it this way allows the player to once again give meaning to his/her choice without making that choice wipe out hours of gameplay.
The next re-write that I would do would be to the effects of the choice of who gets to be the human Councilor: Anderson or Udina. The biggest problem with this choice is that the game negates it and makes Udina councilor regardless, but that is not the only flaw. Still, the groundwork here is solid, and only requires a few tweaks to have meaningful consequences. First off, I do not think that the scenes in Mass Effect 2 need changing. They are pretty well written and diversified depending on who is Councilor and whether or not the Council was saved. However, they should have more effects in the game. For example, if Anderson is Councilor, then it should be possible to abandon Cerberus altogether and join up with the Alliance in Mass Effect 2. The missions do not change, except the player receives Alliance funding and the mission briefings/dossiers can be given to Sheppard through Admiral Hackett or Anderson. (We can explain this away by saying that there are Alliance spies in Cerberus.) In the third game, Anderson (like the other Councilors) divides his attention between politics and saving Earth. He will slowly spend more time focusing on Earth and begin to leave the political bureaucracy to Udina. Udina can still betray everyone for Cerberus, but with Anderson as councilor, he will have significantly less influence and as such, Cerberus will not be as strong of a force as it is in the current game. Furthermore, once Sheppard arrives on the scene and reveals that Udina is a traitor, Anderson will be there to either make Udina answer to these accusations or order Kaiden/Ashley to stand down. Anderson will then move to Earth to help lead the fight against the Reapers in the end game. Making Udina councilor should leave all the events in Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3 the same, since the sheer scale of Udina's betrayal would be highly dependent on his position. I would try to write a way to make the choice of Udina as Councilor be equivalent in terms of pros and cons, but Udina is clearly shown to be the “wrong” choice to make. Seriously, no one would choose Udina for any reason besides that they wanted to see what would happen. This guy is a complete jerk and in no way was he ever to be trusted. I am trying to be impartial, but it is harder than you would think.
Lastly, I would probably make some major changes to the Geth-Quarian conflict depending on the choices the player makes in the second game regarding advising the Quarians and the Geth decision. This is further compounded by the fact that it is possible for the player to completely skip these decisions. To facilitate this, I will make the current scene with the war being fought as the default scene for skipping these choices, leaving room for variation with the death of Tali or Legion. If the player advocated peace with the Geth, then I would dramatically change the scene. I would have the Quarians and the Geth be in the middle of peace negotiations when the Reaper invasion begins. When the Reapers attack, then the two sides agree to at least a temporary truce. However, the Reapers have set up a barricade at the Mass Relay to prevent their fleets from leaving the cluster. (The Normandy would be able to escape using its stealth drive.) The fight would then be about defeating the Reaper forces in the area so that the two forces can escape and provide support on the fight for Earth. The missions do not change, except that the player will now be going up against Reaper hoards instead of the Geth. However, if the player did not take part in Legion's side-quest, then Heretic Geth would also be mixed in with the hoard. If the player blew up the Heretic Base, then there would be fewer Heretic Geth because not all the Heretics would be blown up at the base. If the player re-wrote the Heretics, then the Geth who are on the players side will be strong enough to aid the player (at his/her behest) and will contribute more to the fight to reclaim Earth.
The player choosing to encourage the Quarians to fight the Geth should also result in a similar scenario to the one that is already in the main game. The only exception I would throw is that Legion and the Geth will be more hesitant to trust Sheppard, since Sheppard helped incite this war. The player would need to do additional tasks in order to re-gain Legion's trust. Until they do so, it would be impossible to side with the Geth or arrange peace with the two races. Furthermore, it will also lock the player out of the Geth Consensus side-quest until he/she achieves a good reputation with the Geth. Re-writing the Heretics should add to the Geth forces fought during missions and destroying the Base should result in a reduced number of enemies to kill. It should not be impossible to side with the Geth after advocating war, but it should be much more difficult than it would be if the player either advocated peace or did not do anything.
I am not saying that these solutions are perfect. Far from it. Admittedly, these re-writes approach bad fan fiction at times. This is more to prove a point. The point is that it is entirely possible to take player choices into account when making the game beyond simply referencing previous events in dialogue. Those choices could have been used to alter the experience in a series of small ways that, when combined, add to the total replay value of the game and make the player feel like they truly had an influence on the world and its inhabitants. Implementing systems like this would, no doubt, require much effort on the part of Bioware. However, if they were unwilling or unable to put this effort into the game, then they should have though about that before marketing the game based on choice and consequence. But again, I am being too harsh on the game. There is much to be lauded about the Mass Effect franchise. The characters, world, and lore are all very detailed, deep, and well-written. Bioware has nearly perfected the gameplay of the franchise as the series went on. Lastly, they did what many developers fail to do and made the players feel attached to world and truly care about the people in it. That is no small accomplishment by any means. That why writing things like this hurts. It saddens me to think about all of the wasted potential of the franchise. I love so many things about it, but it is at its core, deeply flawed.