Adapting and expanding from movies or TV shows is one thing. Video games are another kettle of fish. Roger Ebert once started a debate as to whether or not video games are art. Regardless of where you stand on the issue, you have to admit adapting a game to a book is a unique challenge. First of all, you need to have a world that is fleshed out and interesting enough that a book is even worth anyone’s while. Then things get complicated.
I’m going to look at two different games with two different approaches, strengths, and weaknesses. First up, Mass Effect. There are several Mass Effect novels currently, as well as a comic mini-series, but the most important are the three main books written by Drew Karpyshyn.
When adapting a video game to a book you can’t just novelize the game’s story, but this is doubly true for Mass Effect because it’s an RPG, and everyone plays the hero, Commander Sheppard, differently. Some play him as a virtuous paragon, while others play her as a ruthless renegade. The fact you can choose your gender and backstory doesn’t make things any easier.
So the books avoid the game story altogether, offering only general references to major events in a way that is applicable regardless of how things turned out (and therefore never conflicting with your version), as well as making any references to Sheppard vague and gender-free.
Instead, the books look at the world around the games with their own unique stories. Revelation, for example, covers the backstory of a major secondary character in the series, Captain Anderson. In the game you learn that he and the main villain, Saren, had once worked on a mission together—one that went all to hell.
This book is about that mission, which, it turns out, ties closer to the events of the first game than one might have expected. Seeing Seren and Anderson interact is quite interesting, especially if you know where they end up later on. It’s no “origin” story by any means, but it does offer more understanding of the characters, and how they ended up on their respective paths.
The other books, Ascension and Retribution, focuses more on Kahlee Sanders, the scientist that Anderson rescued in Revelation. She is the one constant of the series. But it also gives attention to other major background characters, such as the Illusive Man, a Machiavellian antagonist of the second and third games.
The books offer tantalizing looks at the larger universe, but also face the interesting challenge of explaining game mechanics in a way that doesn’t feel silly. For example, everyone runs around with personal energy shields, allowing you to absorb ungodly amounts of incoming fire before you start to take damage. Then there’s Medi-gel, which is an instant heal in the game. Add to that the fact that the body count is greater than every Stallone movie combined, and you have a situation that would just look silly if you tried playing it straight—on paper or on film.
But really it’s not all that hard to adapt, because we accept the reverse all the time. Look at any Star Wars video game and compare it to the movies. How many bad guys do the good guys really kill? How many direct hits could someone actually take in the movie as opposed to the games? We accept a certain exaggeration of these things, because keeping it “real” wouldn’t make for a very fun game.
So in the Mass Effect books, personal shields exist, but are treated more like a Kevlar vest than a personal tank. Medi-gel is not an instant fix, but can be a lifesaver. Combat is gritty and doesn’t involve hundreds of bad guys swarming the heroes en masse. The books achieve the level of SF “realism” you would expect, while never ignoring the lore of the game.
And there is loads of lore. The strength of these books is that the author, Drew Karpyshyn, was also the lead writer for the first two Mass Effect games. His understanding of the story world comes through in the writing, and is a boon in its favor. He ensures a consistency of voice and tone. It’s far easier to feel the game and books are linked, because Drew has a sense of the big picture, far more so than someone brought in from the outside would.
He’s also not afraid to take chances with his characters. In Ascension, one of the main characters is autistic, which is never an easy thing to write. In Retribution, he kills off a major character early on, the difference being it takes most of the book for that person to actually die.
The Mass Effect books achieve what they set out to do—expand upon the story and lore of the game, give people something more to absorb while waiting for the next installment to come out, answer some questions or just breathe more life into the world, without contradicting anything that happened in the game. In that sense it’s no different than the Star Trek books I talked about last month.
Next month we round this out by going from an SF game that’s all about the story to one that has no story at all.
Originally Published in KODT #229