Reinventing the (Dialogue) Wheel
Non-linear storytelling is nothing new in the realm of interactive entertainment. The early years of role-playing video games lifted components from tabletop RPG's so the desire for choice-based stories was felt from the get-go, and with AAA developers leaning into such mechanics in recent years it's almost become an expectation. Alternate endings, binary choices and dialogue options tailor the experience to the player, and often heighten the enjoyment to be had knowing that the story unfolding is specific to the player's tendencies.
However, devising and creating an air-tight, engaging and believable story is immensely difficult when the writers have to allow for the player to inject their own spin on the tale. What was once a process of careful storytelling is now a frantic game to plug holes in a story to ensure that the carefully constructed tale doesn't lose all tension when the player decided to pop off to save a cat from a tree. The alternative is to lock the story into an immovable and unchangeable affair, and while there are plenty of exceptional games that succeed by using this strategy, a galaxy-wide RPG series without any player agency seems like a waste of a good opportunity.
Surely a conundrum that Bioware acknowledged, Mass Effect takes the best pieces from each narrative philosophy to create a compelling story that allows players to alter small but significant aspects of the core story. The picture is always the same, but the way it's coloured in will vary from person to person, and though Mass Effect 2's 'suicide mission' can see the untimely demise of any and all crew members, the fundamental structure of Mass Effect 3's quest to save the galaxy will remain.
Such small changes to the core narrative are more often than not provoked by a flick of the dialogue wheel, offering speech selections of how Shepard should best handle a situation. From sassy dismissals to heroic and confident assertions, Shepard's personality and relationships with fellow crewmates are given a layer of uniqueness and complexity with an incredibly simply gameplay mechanic. Never does the dialogue wheel get in the way of the series' many combat encounters, nor does it slow a game's pacing in any way. The emergence of the dialogue wheel is far more exciting than its simplistic mechanics deserve, as the opportunity to converse with any of the series' interesting side characters is a constant highlight.
From seemingly inconsequential dialogue choices filling the paragon or renegade paths to essential decisions of who to save and who to leave behind, the Mass Effect story will always be centred around the fight against the Reapers, but saving the Rachni Queen, sparing Wrex on Virmire, assisting Tali on the Migrant Fleet and romancing Liara (the ONLY right answer) nudge the story in a direction that makes it feel unique to each playthrough.