Mass Effect is pure candy for the OCD gamer. Set in an epically expansive sci-fi universe, the Bioware franchise (two games so far, with a third on the way) allows you to play through a storyline that feels at times like a grown-up version a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Your character, Commander Shepard, can be a man or a woman, and you guide the character in practically infinite directions. You can play through the game several times without ever having the same experience. And it’s a long experience: it took me about 30 hours to beat Mass Effect 1 just once. (I have a very forgiving girlfriend.)
So I’m a little bit nervous about the news that Legendary Pictures is looking to make a movie out of Mass Effect. There’s reason to be excited. The look and feel of the games is breathtaking: the epic expanse of Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels, an enjoyably untrustworthy cast of characters that wouldn’t be out of place in the Mos Eisley Cantina, all set to a synth-tastic soundtrack that sounds like John Carpenter mashed with Blade Runner. There are epic battles in space and tense standoffs on distant worlds. So far, so Hollywood.
But! The genius of Mass Effect is in the story details. Little decisions have surprisingly big consequences. Main characters can live or die depending on your choices. Obviously, a movie can’t replicate the infinite-variable aspect of the games. But part of what makes Mass Effect such a brainteaser is that, very often, there are no right answers. The decisions in Mass Effect aren’t constructed on a simple Good vs. Evil divide. Even side missions function as mini-morality plays. You’re often forced to choose between unsatisfying diplomacy and bloody warfare, between following bad orders or breaking important rules.
That’s a level of moral ambiguity you don’t often find in blockbuster films not directed by Christopher Nolan or Steven Spielberg. And you have to expect that, in the process of translating a hugely expansive game narrative into a two-hour movie, the filmmakers will probably favor the spaceship fights over the tense moral standoffs. What do you think, PopWatchers? Could a Mass Effect find a way to nestle some ethical quandaries in the midst of the zap-battles?