Just before Thanksgiving, Deadline broke the news that Amazon Studios is in negotiations to adapt BioWare’s beloved sci-fi video game series Mass Effect for television. While no further details have emerged about the project, the announcement alone has stirred up some trepidation among fans. Like its sister series Dragon Age, Mass Effect is an action RPG that allows players to build their own protagonist and make decisions that have lasting effects on the narrative. As a result, every Mass Effect fan treasures a different version of the story and its protagonist, Commander Shepard. In order to avoid conflicting with anyone’s individual journey, Mass Effect ancillary works like comics, novels, and even the spin-off game Mass Effect: Andromeda are deliberately isolated from the core trilogy in order to avoid contradicting any player’s experience. And while continuing this tradition and telling new stories with new characters in the Mass Effect universe might be a better idea, it’s unlikely that a major studio would agree to such restraints, or spend a fortune adapting a popular property without including its most recognizable elements.
Thus, there’s concern among fans that a TV adaptation would create an ”official” version of the events of the Mass Effect trilogy that would render their own playthrough non-canonical. But, even discounting the fact that screen adaptations have always made changes to their source material (as well they should), this concern ignores what a unique opportunity a longform adaptation of a modular, branching video game narrative could be. In fact, the potential to faithfully adapt the video game while also being unpredictable could actually be the most interesting thing about a Mass Effect series.
There is No Sacred Timeline
Let’s begin by addressing the obvious — your version of Mass Effect is not the “real one,” and no one’s ever will be. You may, in fact, even hold multiple permutations of this tale in your heart all by yourself, having played as different genders, romanced different characters, or sacrificed different crew members each time. Mass Effect’s mutability is one of its most exciting traits, and to hold any one variation as sacred, even your own, is in direct conflict with what makes Mass Effect cool. While this may sound like an argument against adapting Shepard’s story for television, that would be making the mistaken assumption that the adaptation’s version of the story is automatically more “real” than yours. Far more people will see it, yes, but if a popular Twitch streamer broadcasts their playthrough of the Mass Effect trilogy, does this invalidate yours in any way?
If your worry is that a TV version of Mass Effect will become so popular that it will overtake the one with which you’re familiar, then your position is not much different from that of fans of any other novel, comic book, or other video game that’s gotten a screen treatment. A Mass Effect series will doubtlessly take its liberties that separate it from anyone’s playthrough of the game. It will already be its own product regardless of this particular game’s variable nature. Rarely has any adaptation of a story from one medium to another satisfied everyone who loves the original work — that’s the nature of adaptation. But there’s also a balance to this, as screen adaptations almost invariably lead new fans back to the source material. A popular Mass Effect TV series would only increase interest in the games, leading new players to embark on their own unique journeys through its story.
Let’s Reddit-Proof This Thing
Screen adaptations of popular novels have grown more and more painstakingly faithful over the past twenty years, accommodated by longer runtimes and encouraged by ever-louder and more organized fanbases. Studios depend on the built-in audience to help stir up hype for adaptations, which can create resistance to taking the creative liberties that are sometimes necessary when translating a story from one medium to another. As a result, a large chunk of the audience already knows what’s coming, and whether they want to admit it or not, this can take some of the fun away from the viewing experience.
A TV adaptation of the Mass Effect trilogy has no real obligation to follow closely to the events of the games, but assuming that it does, the branching narrative of the games means that the series can keep even the most die-hard fan guessing, even without inventing or drastically altering any plot points. A faithful adaptation of Mass Effect could take a variety of shapes, throw curve balls, and follow story paths that players tend to avoid because they make gameplay more difficult or are rooted in obviously disastrous choices.
Take for example, that 94% of players of Mass Effect: Legendary Edition avoid killing Urdnot Wrex before the Virmire mission. And of course they do — Wrex is a great character, and he doesn’t deserve to die. Moreover, sparing him also leads to greater rewards in the next two chapters of the trilogy. (ME almost uniformly rewards mercy, which is a positive message for an action game to have.) But, as a story beat, a brief conversation that convinces a member of a dying species to help you destroy their best hope of survival is a lot less compelling than a desperate soldier having to murder a member of their crew in order to complete their mission. If you’ve ever played through the darker version of that scene, then the echo of that gunshot probably still rings in your head. There are reasons to imagine that a TV show might follow the less-trod story path here. This uncertainty could make it thrilling to watch a version of Mass Effect over which you have no control.
Throwing the Game
While some Mass Effect devotees have replayed the game exhaustively to experience as many permutations as possible, it’s still a video game, and that means the player’s most common goal is to win, to get as close to 100% success as possible. While there’s a lot of fun to be had in trying out different decisions and finding out what happens, Mass Effect has an unfortunate flaw in that there is unarguably a “correct” way to play. Many choices win you either Paragon or Renegade points, and you have to commit early to accumulating one or the other or else be unable to complete certain missions successfully. This can pressure a player into making the choice that will lead to the most favorable outcome on a gameplay level, but not necessarily the most interesting one. It’s difficult to give your Shepard an arc in the Mass Effect games and still get a happy ending — if you don’t play as either a saint or a cold-blooded killer from start to finish, you’re going to be punished in the long run.
In a television adaptation, however, there would be no gameplay to pressure the storytellers to play out scenarios in a particular way. In fact, longform television very necessarily relies on things going wrong with some regularity. TV Shepard can play the “game” poorly sometimes, and it would only make the show more interesting. They can make mistakes, pay for those mistakes, and then recover from them; can start out as a brusk xenophobe and learn diplomacy and tolerance over time. They would no longer be a mere avatar for the player, they would become a new, more complicated character informed by the performance of whatever actor is cast. Even when it comes to romance, the storytellers don’t have to be locked into any canonical choice, but can develop relationships the way a non-adapted show might — by determining which characters have chemistry on screen.
The medium of television offers further benefits that a fan can’t get from another replay of the games, as separating the audience from the point of view of a single protagonist would breathe new life into the story. Much more attention could be given to the real stars of the show, Shepard’s crew, who could become viewpoint characters for subplots or entire episodes. The Mass Effect trilogy lets Shepard build meaningful relationships with each crew member, but the ensemble barely gets to interact with each other at all. A TV series could create a true web of character relationships in a way that the game does not. Even if Shepard is attached to a single love interest for the entire series, new pairings could emerge between the secondary characters, which would also allow for more of the game’s romance paths to be folded into the show. The ability to pull the focus away from just Shepard also accommodates more intrigue and dramatic irony. Suppose Justicar Samara gets replaced by her murderous daughter Morinth, but only the audience knows.
There are, of course, countless ways that a Mass Effect TV series could fail to capture what makes the games so beloved to fans. A screen adaptation could reduce the scale or scope of the universe, cut out non-human characters for budgetary reasons, or lack bravery and ambition in representation or romance. (Any Mass Effect adaptation in which Shepard exclusively dates humans of the opposite sex is missing a big part of the games’ appeal.) But to resist the very idea of a big-budget television adaptation of the Mass Effect trilogy for fear that it will take something away from your own experience is to do yourself a great disservice. Your Mass Effect playthrough may not be canon, but it’s yours and always will be. It’s as real as any other work of fiction that’s ever been told. What’s the harm in letting someone else play?