Trimming the Fat: Mass Effect

Last week, I stumbled across this article from IGN regarding the challenges of adapting Mass Effect to the big screen as expressed by Hollywood writer Mark Protosevich. Just a few days before, I found myself in an interesting Facebook thread hijacking that boiled down to a discussion of what makes a good adaption of a work from one medium to another. These two exchanges got me thinking, why is it so hard for Hollywood to get stuff right? So, in response, I decided to break down the basic narrative of Mass Effect to see just how difficult it really is to condense the game’s story into a comfortable 2-2.5 hour film.

The Method

Let me be clear here: I would NOT want the Mass Effect film to be a simple rehash of the game or a condensed rehash of the trilogy. The world of Mass Effect is too big and rich for that to be the only viable way to exploit the property on film. Paragon Lost is an excellent example of how a Mass Effect movie could be done: separate and supplemental. Of course, I’m not so naive to think that the most bankable approach isn’t to simply rehash the game. With that in mind, I’m only focusing in on the most important or significant events that drive the game forward. I won’t be making suggestions on how to adapt characters or alter events from a creative standpoint – that’s the job of the director and his team of writers. What I will do, is break down the game’s narrative beats, and then I’ll make some high-level suggestions for condensing the story down from 9-10 hours of unmanageable narrative to a workable set of narrative beats that a competent writer should be able to creatively weave into a two hour film.

Galaxy Map

The Game

I’ll do this in bullet points for easier reading:

  • Intro
    • Establish Shepard’s back story
    • Meet Joker, Kaidan, and Anderson
  • Eden Prime
    • Meet Saren, the Geth, and glimpse Sovereign
    • Sets foundation for conflict
    • Meet Ashley
    • First major action set piece (every encounter is essentially a variant of this sequence)
  • Citadel (Part 1)
    • Lock in the conflict
    • Meet Garrus, Wrex, and Tali
  • Therum
    • Meet Liara
  • Feros
    • Meet the Thorian
    • Learn of the Thorien’s indocrination methods
  • Noveria
    • Meet Rachni Queen
    • Learn about Raquni hive mind
    • Confront Benezia
  • Virmire
    • The stakes are raised (Reaper invasion)
    • Shepard’s leadership is asserted (Wrex; Kaidan/Ashley sacrifice)
    • Destruction of engineered Krogen army
  • Ilos
    • Learn the solution to the current conflict
    • Learn the implications of the raised stakes (Reaper invasion is inevitable)
  • Citadel (Part 2)
    • Sovereign’s true reveal
    • Final fight
    • Resolution and setup for the future

Trimming the Fat

Ok, that looks like a lot of stuff to cover. Also, this leaves out all sorts of secondary narrative points that help flesh out the universe, like the actual missions that take place on Feros and Noveria and the many side quests that eventually play into significant events in the two sequels. However, if we look critically at what is taking place as the narrative progresses, I think there some places that could be easily stripped without sacrificing what makes Mass Effect what it is. Again, I’m leaving the ultimate solutions these problems of “bloat” to the professionals, but these are just my thoughts on where to start. Presumably, the writers that have worked on the pre-production of the film have considered these options.



The first thing that jumps out at me is Feros and Noveria. These two missions are basically the same thing: Shepard and company discover that Saren has been researching mind control. Noveria has the added benefit of including Benezia, a character beat for both Shepard (mini boss battle!) and Liara. My suggestion would be to cut one of these planets altogether, merging the main points together. Perhaps, the Normandy tracks Benezia or Saren to Noveria and, after an action set piece, discover the indoctrination component of the Reaper mystery as it plays out in the game. Whether the Thorian is used or the Rachni Queen is irrelevant, though the Rachni would be the better choice for future use in a sequel.

Squad Mates

The Intro section and the events of Eden Prime really serve similar purposes, and in the context of a film, most of the Intro could be worked into an introductory action sequence on Eden Prime. Using this route, the ill-fated third wheel that eventually is replaced by Ashley later in the mission can be replace by Ashley from the start. Or, because it doesn’t really matter which one dies between Kaidan and Ashley, one of them could be omitted from the film to be introduced later, assuming sequels get made. This option is daring, but would allow both characters to have at least one movie to be awesome alongside Shepard. Besides, both characters are adequately replaced by other squad members in the sequel games anyway – Samara and Vega are the most appropriate examples of this. It would ultimately be fine for either Kaidan or Ashley to not appear at all as it could ultimately make the lost at Virmire mean something in this movie universe without stepping too hard on players’ playthroughs of the game. Still, some folks will be upset…

Garrus and AshleyLiara should likely be introduced while on the Citadel, before heading out to Feros/Noveria. She’s a Prothean expert, the Council was expecting to have a Prothean artifact delivered to the Citadel. It would make sense that she would be present and that she would have a reason to join the crew. Garrus is integral to the character development of Shepard. The two grow together as soldiers and as friends. With Garrus already suspicious of Saren, the original plot-line that places Garrus on the crew shouldn’t be too hard to work in someway. Tali is important to the setup of the conflict, and should be included, but she may not necessarily need to join the crew this time. As a tech specialist, she would logically spend most of her time on the Normandy anyway. However, if she could add a little spice or relevance to Geth interactions, I wouldn’t be against including her. Finally, Wrex, as much as I love him, contributes nothing unique and significant to the core conflict outside of being a Krogen and the events on Virmire. He is integral to a major secondary conflict that is elevated to “primary” status in game two, and therefore should be alluded to, but not focused on. It may be best to leave Wrex out in the first film and have him cameo in a sequel, bringing up the destruction of the Krogen army on Virmire as a nod to fans.

The Finale

Finally, while on the topic of Virmire, it should be noted that Ilos could likely be removed altogether as well. The exchange between Saren and Shepard towards the conclusion of the Virmire mission sets up the stakes that Ilos only reinforces. The most important aspect of the Ilos mission is the revelation concerning the Citadel. I think it would be reasonable to simply let Saren win the race and have him attack the Citadel outright by the time his test tube army falls. Maybe we don’t learn that the goal was the Citadel the whole time until after Shepard gets back to the station with it under attack, but at least we aren’t planet hopping for small plot points that could be deduced from other revelations. The transition from Virmire directly to the Citadel also aides a transitioning ramp up in the action with the newly escalated stakes the recently revealed impending Reaper invasion implies.

And with that, I leave my suggestions to you: cut out approximately 3 planets, 2-3 major characters, and streamline or simplify the base conflict. I’m not a Hollywood writer, but I think these are reasonable, maybe even obvious, suggestions for trimming the fat and making a workable narrative framework to forge a good Mass Effect adaption. What do you think?

 Source: IGN; Images: BioWare

I'm an otaku, avid gamer, and electronic "musician." I'm forever indulging in the amazingness that is Japanese tokusatsu.

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