In Mass Effect 3 you save the entire galaxy from ancient, implacable robot squid. Such is the scale of potential destruction we barely have words which adequately describe it: apocalyptic, genocidal and biblical are inseparably connected to our pale blue dot and its inhabitants. How can Bioware top that? By not even trying.
The defining moment of Mass Effect 3 wasn’t the execrable, binary-choice finale, but the humane story which led there: parting words with nuanced characters you spent 120 hours adventuring with; solemn musings about missed relationships. After the flash and bombast of the End of All Things, the quiet moments resonate. That's what I want from Bioware's next game - be it Mass Effect 4, Mass Effect: Andromeda, Mass Effect: 4ndromeda; whatever.
I completed Mass Effect, but still lost, somehow. My romantic endeavours were fumbling and disastrous. In the first game I hooked up with handsome probably-racist Ashley; lustful self-destruction which had me stumbling through mawkish poetry and pretending believe in God. Understandably, she ditched me in the second game. Next I tried a Lawful Good liaison with Samara. We bonded over a mutual enthusiasm for the violent administration of justice, but our passion was smothered by age, circumstance and a five thousand sutra justicar code. We shared a kiss and stared into space, lulled by the thrum of the Normandy's engines.
It never got any better than that. When the final battle of Mass Effect 3 came, my Commander Shepard woke alone on the last shitty day of humanity. I found Tali and Garrus snogging in the engine room, and felt like the only dateless person at the prom; that moment in the nightclub when the music stops and the lights come on and everyone else is knotted together like shagging dogs, but in space, with doom squid, and lasers. Honestly, it was more poignant than I've made it sound.
To put it a different, more gallant way, only Mass Effect gives me that feeling of noble solitude. That final battle was given meaning by having someone to lose – or, more accurately, having someone to lose me. I was jealous of other, more seductive Shepards, who faced armageddon with gravelly reassurance from Garrus or unsolicited Tennyson from Ashley. It didn't stop me. The connecting thread here is that since the fourth game can’t go any bigger than the eradication of all sentient life in the galaxy, why not go small instead? Replace the Reapers with romance. Make it a tale of exploration, discovery and interaction – perhaps even a prequel detailing mankind’s tentative steps towards the stars.
There has to be fighting. In the trailer for Mass Effect: Andromeda, the protagonist pulls out his pistol after looking at some maps. Maps. It's stupidly premature, like applying sunscreen while you're packing your suitcase, but it's also far easier than portraying a rakish intergalactic love affair in a two-minute trailer.
Bioware has worked hard to improve the combat in Mass Effect, but their true talent is still storytelling. Violence should be tempered with seduction; there's room enough for headshots and holding hands (or tentacles.) Whatever happens, Mass Effect 4 would be a richer experience if it measured success by the relationships you make, rather than the lives you end.