“That’s not how it happened in my story!”

Immersion and Expansion in the Multi-Media Serial of Mass Effect

What Happens Next: The Mechanics of Serialization. University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, NL, 2011.

This paper was my first foray into analysing video games and I choose to start with something very near and dear to my heart, Mass Effect. Below is a slightly updated abstract of the paper.


When the Canadian game developer Bioware released Mass Effect in 2007, a role playing game set in a futuristic science-fiction setting, Seth Schiesel reporting for the New York Times found it surprising that the project director Casey Hudson chose to praise the game’s realistic face animations and the corresponding close-up camera angles usually associated with cinema. However, the team at Bioware was adamant that since their game gave the players the power to decide over the outcome of hundreds of events, the emotional involvement of the player was paramount.

This paper focuses on the relationship between the Mass Effect video games and the three subsequent novelizations by Drew Karpyshyn, lead author of the first game. The novels Revelation (2007), Ascention (2008) and Retribution (2010), while following their independent storylines, occasionally borrow characters and refer to the events and mirror the timeframes of the games.

Mass Effect games and novels, sorted according to events.

Mass Effect games and novels, sorted according to events.

Video game novelizations like the Mass Effect series are often dismissed as mere marketing devices only of interest to hardcore fans. However, their interaction with the games themselves can be revealing into the nature of serials in general and video games in particular. The apparent effort of Drew Karpyshyn to separate the events of the novels from the game is of particular interest to this study. Since both for publishers and fans, the novels are attributed a secondary role to the games and therefore gamers’ own, unique, version of events are “the canon”, the interactive story space of Mass Effect represents a unique look into a condition under which a serial is supposed to sustain itself. 

Building upon the fact that it is a common sentiment among reviewers and fans of the games to not revisit a poor decision in the game to achieve better results, this paper will start by investigating the possible place of the novelization for such an audience. Then, by drawing upon the latest literature on both video games and serialization, the unique conditions presented by Mass Effect franchise will be analyzed with further implications for the future of serialized narratives.