A Mass Effect TV Adaptation Must Be OK With Disappointing Fans
How do you adapt a title where each player has a unique experience? By disappointing a lot of people.
Picture a galaxy, a little like our own. It has all the same planets from our home system, yet encompasses so much more. In fact, humanity is just a speck in the ocean.
There are blue tentacled mono-gendered diplomats, hyperactive amphibian-looking scientists, and hovering monastic jellyfish — to name just a few. And you can befriend, antagonise, even fall in love with the space-faring humans and aliens that inhabit this galaxy.
Now picture thousands upon thousands of people just like you, also experiencing this vast galaxy for the first time.
Each fork in the road you navigated, they arrived at too. And many of them took a different turn — creating their own unique experiences, yet navigating the same story.
Now imagine being assigned the almighty task of concentrating the culmination of millions of players' 150-hour experiences into a single representative narrative. How would you strike the balance between not alienating newcomers, whilst trying to please loyal fans who all took a different path, met different people, and formed different relationships in this vast vast universe?
That’s the exact conundrum that will inevitably face the team fated to produce the rumoured Mass Effect TV series over at Amazon Studios.
And the realisation they’ll have to come to if they have any hope of doing right by the fans… is to not be afraid to disappoint them.
Rebuilding Commander Shepard
Within a narrative the scale and sheer length of the Mass Effect series, there’ll always be the debate over what’s canon and what’s not.
I understand the admitted obsolescence in discussing the idea of “what’s canon and what’s not” when it comes to a narrative that is branching by design. It’s worth looking into what the Mass Effect community considers canon when mapping out what any prospective writing team may take their cues from.
A portion of Mass Effect fans seems to have decided that Shepard’s default attributes are the canon depiction: John Shepard, white, male, typical soldier training, earthborn. He’s even featured on the box art of every game in the trilogy — adding a fair amount of legitimacy to this idea.
With this in mind, it seems likely that producers of the series will at least use the official marketing art as their template. And with rumours swirling about Henry Cavill’s involvement in a potential Mass Effect series, that likelihood gets all the larger.
Considering that 68% of players chose t’o play as a male Shepard, as opposed to the 32% who chose female Shepard, perhaps this would be the most utilitarian option. Essentially upsetting the least people by going with the option that most players chose. But the most popular choice is rarely the most interesting.
An exciting prospect could be to take cues from the writers of 1979’s Alien and write the role completely unisex; only adding a gender when the strongest actor is found, regardless of who they may be. This is the process that gave us one of sci-fi’s most enduring heroes, Ellen Ripley.
And if Amazon’s take on Shepard even has a fraction of Ripley’s strength, complexity, and character then they’ll have succeeded. It’s also important to note that had the decision been made to write the character as gendered, Sigourney Weaver may not have got the chance to deliver a truly genre-defining performance.
Another contentious issue among Mass Effect fans is the ranking of the numerous squadmates Shepard can recruit throughout the trilogy. There are a whopping twenty full-time squadmates across the original series, each with their own complex backstory, unique personality, and character development to explore.
Simply put: unless each individual game in the trilogy is going to account for around five whole seasons of television, then some companions will inevitably have to be relegated to either supporting or guest roles. There simply would not be enough time to give each character the development and spotlight they deserve.
On top of this, in a typical Mass Effect playthrough, there’ll always be a couple of squadmates you hardly ever take with you. This will only be compounded in a series without the benefit of 150 hours of gameplay. If all potential squadmates are recruited to travel on the Normandy, to put it bluntly, they might not have anything to do in the show's runtime.
It’s not unlikely that characters with less direct involvement in the overarching narrative, like Kasumi Goto or Zaeed Masani, will be relegated to specific arcs or episodic guest roles. This doesn’t mean they won’t be important characters, it just might not be in the same way we’re used to seeing — and that’s okay!
Saying Goodbye to Some Friends
If there’s one thing the Mass Effect series is known for, second to romance, it’s death. Your favourite squadmates and most cherished friends can be swiftly and mercilessly dispatched as a result of any number of lapses of judgment or unforeseen consequences.
The slightly macabre task that faces the team working under Amazon Studios is deciding who to kill and who to save.
Mass Effect 2’s infamous Suicide Mission would have nowhere near the same punch if not even one major character died. And the original Mass Effect’s most famous mission needs at least one squadmate to go up in a blaze of glory to effectively sell the gargantuan stakes of the conflict Shepard and their crew face.
And if they’re aiming for gut-punching emotional resonance it might just be a fan-favourite character fated to meet their untimely end.
At the end of the day, for a compelling story to be constructed some cuts have to be made. And while the end-product might not be exactly how some fans imagined it, the team working on the Mass Effect series can still make something out of this world but in doing so they shouldn’t be afraid to make the renegade choices.
Fans should be able to recognise that choices have to be made, cuts have to be made and, inevitably, characters have to be let go — one way or another. The original trilogy will always be there to experience their own personal journey across this vast galaxy one more time.
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