Mass Effect 4 is one of the most anticipated role-playing games but we know almost nothing about it. We don't even know the game's title yet. We're just calling it ME4 for lack of a better working title.
Maybe the only confirmed detail we have about Mass Effect 4's story is that it won't star Commander Shepard. Beyond that, we don't have a clue how BioWare will continue the series. They've got an entire galaxy and millions of years of history to draw on for the next game.
Here are a few different ideas that BioWare could use for Mass Effect 4 and beyond. None of them are perfect but each could make a great RPG.
The idea: The Reapers have wiped out all organic life in the Milky Way Galaxy many times over before the events of the Mass Effect trilogy. BioWare could craft a new game around one of these previous cycles. The main character would be a member of some long-forgotten race trying to stop the Reapers' genocide - and ultimately failing.
Why it would work: Setting Mass Effect 4 before the dawn of mankind gives BioWare a nearly blank slate. They can create an entirely new set of alien races and characters for this earlier era. This time period also enables them to keep using the Reapers, a memorable and fearsome set of villains.
Why it wouldn't work: A blank slate is a double-edged sword. Creating a game before mankind or most Mass Effect races exists means that the game will have only minimal connections to the rest of the series. Why make a Mass Effect game that makes little use of the thousands of years of established lore built up from games, comic books and novels?
The idea: BioWare could make a pre-mankind story feel a little more familiar by using the time period of the Protheans, the race wiped out by the Reapers in the prior cycle. Mass Effect games covered the Protheans' backstory in detail. In ME3, players met Javik, the last surviving member of the race, and recruit him to their party. The player will serve on the front lines in the Prothean Empire's (unsuccessful war) against the Reapers.
Why it would work: We know enough about the Protheans and their war that a game about them would feel like true Mass Effect. The actions of Javik and the scientists on Ilos had a direct effect on the story of the original trilogy. BioWare wouldn't just be working with a clean slate; they'd be creating a prequel with firm ties to the other games.
Though the Protheans were the dominant race in their era, they were many other species within their Empire as well. It would still be possible, then, for players to assemble a diverse group of heroes for their journey.
Why it wouldn't work: While no one likes the Reapers, the Protheans aren't exactly likable either. They're arrogant, war-like pricks who finally found a race they couldn't subjugate. Are we supposed to feel bad for them?
I'm also not sure that BioWare would want to make a game about a successful harvest by the Reapers. It might be a little too dark for what EA considers one of their major franchises. It seems more likely that Mass Effect 4 would set up a brand-new set of games rather than simply lead back to the old ones.
The idea: The Spectres were saving the galaxy long before Shepard joined their ranks. The main character is one of the first agents invited to the organization, founded right before the Krogan Rebellions. He or she must perform secret missions on behalf of the Council to maintain order throughout civilized space.
Why it would work: The Spectres are practically the Jedi of Mass Effect. It's hard not to center Mass Effect 4 around them. They have the skills and resources to save entire planets or species. Spectres also have much more freedom than members of conventional militaries so they're able to do the sort of galactic wandering that Mass Effect games are all about.
Though Shepard belonged to their ranks, we really don't know that much about the Spectres. There are said to be dozens of active Spectres so there are plenty we haven't met yet. What's more, they existed for centuries before the trilogy began so there are plenty of historical conflicts that BioWare could use for the cloak-and-dagger story.
Why it wouldn't work: Shepard was the first human Spectre so a game about the earlier Spectres would force players to become an alien, probably a salarian or asari. I'm not sure that BioWare would make a Mass Effect that didn't have a human hero - or that takes place in a time period where humans aren't part of the galactic community yet. Salarians and asari just aren't as relatable as humans and they don't offer the same level of visual customization. I mean, c'mon, they don't even have facial hair.
The other problem with a game set mere centuries before the first Mass Effect is that there's no big bad to worry about. The krogan are fierce warriors but they seem mundane after three games, especially compared to the Reapers. The only foe that could measure up to the Reapers would probably be something BioWare invented just for this game. That would create a big story problem because if something as big as the Reapers came through just before the trilogy, everyone should still be talking about it during those games.
The idea: Players fought against Cerberus in the original Mass Effect trilogy but in Mass Effect 4, they become part of them. The game focuses on the pro-humanity fringe group's exploits during the time of the first three ME games. The player leads a team of Cerberus operatives in protecting mankind from all threats at any cost.
Why it would work: A Mass Effect 4 starring Cerberus would give BioWare the opportunity to bring back many memorable characters from the trilogy, like the Illusive Man and Miranda Lawson. In fact, this idea gives them the chance to use almost every character from the other games. Unlike the previously mentioned prequel ideas, this premise doesn't try to reinvent the wheel. Instead, it builds directly on the established storylines to create a fuller image of the battles against the Reapers and their allies.
Why it wouldn't work: The big problem with a parallel story like this is Commander Shepard. While I'm sure Cerberus operatives did plenty of interesting things throughout the galaxy, they pale in comparison to Shepard's deeds during these years. Unless BioWare does some serious retconning of the established story, Shepard's the one who saved the galaxy time and time again.
This premise basically turns players into Forrest Gump: they might witness big events and even play some role in them but in the end, they're bit players. Maybe this will result in a more grounded, human narrative than the Shepard trilogy but it could also end up feeling like an expansion pack rather than a full-fledged game.
After The Crucible
The idea: In one of Mass Effect 3's endings (SPOILER ALERT), Shepard stops the Reapers' invasion by taking control of them. His body disintegrates and he becomes an A.I. that leads the Reapers in rebuilding the galaxy. However, an unknown enemy now seeks to take control of the race and use them to complete their original mission: the extermination of all life.
Why it would work: If BioWare creates a Mass Effect 4 set before or during the original trilogy, there's no chance that players' choices from the first games will have an effect. Why not go forward in time with ME4, then, and let us see the continuing ripple effects of choices made from the other games?
Even if ME4 doesn't import save files, it's still a chance for player to reunite with characters they've grown attached to over the years. Shepard may not be the star in this journey but that doesn't mean players couldn't recruit Garrus and the gang for another suicide mission against the Reapers and whoever has hijacked them for their own ends.
Why it wouldn't work: The problem with making a game after the events of Mass Effect 3 is that BioWare would have to pick one of the endings of that game as canon. There's not really a way to make the plot of ME4 compatible with every ending. Designating one ME3 ending as the official end while discarding the others might piss off fans - moreso than ME3's endings pissed them off in the first place.
The disadvantage of this specific post-ME3 idea is that it keeps all of the existing characters. While that's a selling point, it could also be a hindrance. BioWare would have to split their time between introducing new characters and continuing the stories of returning ones. Maybe it would be better for them to just start with a fresh cast so they can keep the story tight and focused.