Why the Mass Effect Movie Won’t Work

I’m a huge fan of the Mass Effect franchise. I’ve played through both games several times, and read both of the novels. Nevertheless, when I hear news of a Mass Effect movie, I’m always reserved in my expectations.

Bluntly, I don’t think a Mass Effect movie will work. Allow me to explain.

You lose the open world detail

When I was playing through Mass Effect 2, I had a realization that essentially destroyed any notion I may have had about a successful Mass Effect film: I realized that the primary reason why I enjoyed the game, why I found the plot compelling, and why I cared about the characters, was that I had a full, 360 degree, constant view of everything going on, and that I was being exposed to the slightest details of a fully realized world. I wasn’t experiencing a story, I was experiencing a world, in details so small, and comparatively mundane against a larger backdrop of galactic jeopardy, that my attachment to said story was because of the small moments I experienced.

After reading that paragraph, anyone who knows anything about film should know that type of “story telling” just doesn’t work in movies. I had the epiphany described above after my Shepard character in the game finished a friendly conversation over drinks with the ship’s medical officer, Dr. Chakwas. It was a remarkable character moment, where we got to see into a minor character from the first game, who has lived a long life, and has lots of reflection to share. It was sweet the way Shepard could choose relate, and befriend, Chakwas. It was such a fully realized, special moment, but it was so small, and it had absolutely nothing to do with anything in the main plot of the game. In Hollywood, that type of scene wouldn’t make it past a first draft of a script, and rightfully so, because in a movie, I’d be the first to cut it, and say that it was useless. In a movie, it is useless.

Story telling in massive role playing games like Mass Effect is fundamentally different than it is in films, or even in more linear games like Uncharted 2, or Modern Warfare 2. Story telling in film needs to be tight, lean, and trimmed to only include what’s absolutely necessary to tell the story. An old adage in screenwriting is that you enter a scene as late as possible, and exit it as quickly as possible, showing only what needs to be seen. That’s not how video game story telling works; in gaming your job is to craft a world, and let players decide what they want to see in it.

In a Mass Effect movie, we won’t get to decide what we see and hear, and what conversations are had – someone else will. Sure it will be interesting, but far from the compelling, dynamic experience of moving through the galaxy, completely in control of your own fate.

Drew Karpyshyn isn’t writing the movie

As far as I’m concerned, Drew Karpyshyn is the creator of Mass Effect. I give all due respect to Derek Watts for being the Art Director on both games, all credit to Casey Hudson as project director for both games, and credit to Mac Walters for his writing on the second game, but Mass Effect is about the universe, and no one has contributed more to that than Karpyshyn. After writing the first game, co-writing and establishing the basic plot for the second game, and after writing two Mass Effect novels, no one deserves more credit for the Mass Effect universe. Whether he has a produced screenplay or not is of no concern to me, he should be writing the damn thing. Bring in a veteran screenwriter to do a pass after Karpyshyn, and they can share credit.

Hollywood wants to adapt video games with strong plot and characters, but they want zero input from the people who actually wrote these plots and characters. It’s unthinkable in Hollywood for a video game writer (and novelist) to write a screenplay. I’m the first to acknowledge and argue that the two mediums are vastly different, but that’s why you let one person from each side contribute to the script. Have Karpyshyn do a few passes first, then bring in a second writer to craft it into a polished story for film.

Enough source material to sift through, not enough to sample from

I once heard David Hayter (X-men, X2, Watchmen) describe his frustration in years of writing the film adaptation for the Watchmen movie, and trying to get that film made in accordance with the source material. He basically said that Hollywood is used to taking a large pool of source material like Batman or Spiderman, and selecting the best pieces of it, to form the essence of what that material is about. Well with Watchmen, Hayter explained, you couldn’t do that. Watchmen didn’t have lots and lots of different source material, it was just one book. You couldn’t pick and choose which parts you wanted, it was all one story. You had to have all the plot, and all the characters, or you didn’t have Watchmen.

Well Mass Effect is in the unfortunate middle ground of those two states. With two games, and two books, there’s enough source material out there for large portions to be ignored, but not enough so that you can get the “essence” feel from just bits and pieces of it, like you can with Batman, or X-men. I agree it’s not realistic to try and jam everything that’s in the source material into a movie, but I don’t think taking select parts is going to capture the same feel as the totality of the games.

Mass Effect doesn’t need a movie. It’s established itself as the definitive science fiction franchise of this generation, without ever coming to the big screen. A movie can’t ruin what the games, and books, have accomplished, but it can certainly find a way to fall short of that standard.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *