Even if you’ve never played the games, I’d be surprised if anyone reading this hadn’t at least vaguely heard of ‘Mass Effect’. But for those of you who have never picked up a copy, ‘Mass Effect’ is a science fiction epic combining the best elements of role playing and third person action topped off with the finest writing, graphics and voice acting the medium currently has to offer. While gamers eagerly awaited ‘Modern Warfare 2’ for the delights of shooting terrorists, fans of ‘Mass Effect’ have been salivating for the second game (just released this past month) to learn the next part of a truly gripping story. ‘Mass Effect’ is seen as a truly great piece of storytelling, not just for a videogame, but any medium be it television, book or film. If you think about it, the line between narrative in videogames and that of other mediums has become so blurred now because they have the ability to possess the epic scale and production value of movies (hiring film composers, writers and actors) while having the luxury of being able to tell a story as long as they want and craft a mythology deeper than anything a single film (or even trilogy) could achieve.
So why even attempt to screw up ‘Mass Effect’ by making a series of films out of it? Studios are always snapping up the rights to make movies out of current, critically acclaimed games and usually nothing becomes of them. On those rare occasions where the movie does get made, the filmmakers try so hard to service the fans and follow the game’s storyline, I think, because they believe the excitement you have playing it will simply translate to the other medium. But it never does of course. Watching a film adaptation of a videogame holds the same thrills as watching someone else playing one (credit Ebert & Roeper in their review of ‘Doom’ for that canny observation) and not the exhilarating blast of blockbuster entertainment it should be. Also, by adapting a videogame, you are seemingly creating a film which only fans of the material will be excited about but at the same time are bound to be disappointed by because they already know the story backwards. Why should ‘Mass Effect’ be any different? Because this is one franchise which has that extra special trick up its sleeve; one which actually makes a film adaptation viable. But first, for those not in the know:
‘Mass Effect’ takes place in the year 2183. The galaxy and all its boundless variety of species and cultures have been able to achieve space travel and explore beyond the confines of their home planets due solely to a mysterious race known as the Protheans, who vanished without trace 50,000 years previously leaving nothing but their technology. Their most significant legacy being the ‘mass effect’ fields; devices which operate in space as, essentially, high tech slingshots allowing instantaneous travel between solar systems. In the case of the human race, a small Prothean ruin was found during an excavation on Mars. But once humanity leaves the confines of its own solar system it discovers, not a universe of uncharted world ripe for colonization, but a thriving galactic community of alien races who have managed to unite and thrive perfectly well without them.
In the coming decades, humanity is viewed with both ostracization and curiosity in equal measure by the other species and tries desperately to obtain a larger role in shaping the future of galactic events. Its chance comes when a human colony on a remote world called Eden Prime is attacked by a race of sentient machines called the Geth. Arriving just in time to save the day is Shepherd, a commander with the human Alliance Military with a reputation for survival in the most impossible of situations, and his being picked for this mission is more than just coincidence. Shepherd is being considered as a candidate for the Spectres, an elite special force charged with the task of maintaining peace and order in the galaxy and bestowed with the power and authority to go anywhere and do anything, and his performance on Eden Prime will be the test. Things go to hell when Shepherd’s evaluator Nihilus is murdered by a rogue Spectre called Saren. Not only is Saren commanding the Geth army but the attack on Eden Prime has been orchestrated solely to gain possession of a recently discovered Prothean beacon.
After saving what he can of the colony, Shepherd has larger problems to deal with. The Prothean beacon burns nightmarish images of death and destruction into his brain; either a projection of the past or a prediction of the future. As Shepherd and the Alliance follow what little clues they have to track down the rogue Spectre, it seems at least clear that Saren intends to turn that nightmare into a reality. With a vacancy to fill, Shepherd becomes the first human Spectre and, armed with the finest ship in the galaxy the Normandy, and the finest crew, begins a trek across the stars to save the universe from Armageddon and prove humanity’s worth.
By the way, I’ve just described the set up of the first game, never mind the trilogy, never mind the twists and never mind the tons of side quests and tons of characters that you meet. Like adapting any book with a huge story (see my piece on ‘Dune’), it won’t do to try and condense every plot point, every alien species and every set piece into the film. And it certainly won’t do to split the first game into two or three films by itself. It’s dramatically unsatisfying and expecting a hell of a lot from an audience to keep faith and pay to see all three (and that’s not even mentioning Mass Effect 2 which I’ll get to in a moment). Some moments from the game will not make it to screen, some characters will be removed and some entire species of alien will become little more than background wallpaper. In order to make the adaptation work, you have to pick a strong theme and then choose the story points from the game which support it.
The theme of ‘Mass Effect’ is quite simply about humanity learning its place in the universe once it realizes that it isn’t the most important thing in it. Personally, I’ve been used to so many science fiction stories set in the far future involving a galactic community where it’s the human race that discover and unite all the other alien species. The suggestion seems to be that the rest of the universe is populated by lawless, primitive and untamed species that will destroy each other unless the human race teaches them (by example, ha ha) to live in peace and harmony. It was refreshing to find a story where it’s the other way around. And before you start thinking that the other species blindly hate the human race for no reason other than it is dramatically convenient, then look again. While some species have been waiting patiently for decades to be accepted on the galactic council, the humans are accepted far more quickly, not because they are well liked, but because their resources are needed. Even if humanity is accepted fully, will it be because of their worth or because of the need? Regardless, Shepherd’s actions start to change the perspective of the human race by the other species and, by the end of the story, the character has become the ultimate symbolic representation of the best qualities and the potential of the human race.
Mass Effect isn’t just about theme but about character. Shepherd and the crew he recruits to take down Saren aren’t just a bunch of galactic do-gooders with no personality. In fact, in the film version I see each member of the crew as an extension of one part of Shepherd’s personality, adding depth to his character and justifying the presence of all the others:
Kaiden Alenko – a human lieutenant with the Alliance, implanted with biotics which give him unique combat skills (and occasional migraines). A straight shooter who always follows and never questions his superiors. Kaiden represents the order and discipline which have dictated Shepherd’s career.
Ashley Williams – a human Alliance soldier who is rescued from the Geth on Eden Prime and comes along for the rest of the ride. Thanks to certain actions of her father which threaten to forever tarnish the family name, and her inability to handle Eden Prime by herself, Williams is utterly focused and determined to prove her worth. Ashley represents the same focus, drive and passion in Shepherd.
Liara T’Soni – an Asari (an all female race each bestowed with a special unique talent – most of them involving eroticism in some way) scientist and daughter of one of the main villains. Having studied the Protheans for most of her life, she provides most of the exposition to our heroes about what Saren is really after. She also, if the player pursues it, provides a romance for Shepherd. Liara represents love, friendship and companionship; everything Shepherd fights for
Garrus Vakarian – a Turian (same race as Saren) security officer/detective desperate to break free of the rules, regulations and politics which he feels make his job as a peacekeeper impossible. As such, he is envious of Shepherd’s Spectre status which allows exactly that freedom. Garrus represents that blurred line Shepherd must walk given he is charged with preserving order in the galaxy but having the freedom to do it by any means necessary and the inherent temptations that come with that; temptations that lesser individuals would give in to.
Tali’Zorah nar Rayya – a Quarian, the race who created the Geth for manual labor and were then exiled from their homeworld after the machines revolted. Now her people exist as a flotilla of ships in search of either a new home or reclaiming their old one. Tali, like all Quarians at some stage, has embarked on her ‘pilgrimage’; a quest to find something of great value which will improve the quality of life for the entire species. Tali represents the little fish in a big pond trying to make a difference.
Urdnot Wrex – a Krogan; the nearest ‘Mass Effect’ comes to a substitute for Klingons. They are not ruled by codes of honor but are a race bred for war, conquest, and expansion it seems. Thanks to excessive breeding which threatens to overwhelm the galaxy, the other species conspire to manufacture a selective virus known as the Genophage which all but stops further Krogan being born and drives their race to near extinction. Wrex represents the warrior brought up in a field of combat and tragedy and how you almost lose your soul because of it.
The main reason though that Mass Effect can work as a film series, is not its potent themes or strong characters. Even having those, if the fans know every beat of the story before it happens because the film is so slavishly loyal to the game then they are bound to leave disappointed. We may say (and I’m sure I’ve been guilty of this in the past) that these adaptations should stay as true to the source material as possible but what we really mean is that we want to be taken on a cinematic ride containing the look, style and feel of the game we love but featuring the unexpected thrills and twists we get from films we know nothing about before seeing them. The main reason Mass Effect can work is because, by the very nature of the type of game it is, the story is not set in stone.
Mass Effect’s strongest selling point amongst countless other RPG and sci-fi games is the ability for the player to take control of the story. As Commander Shepherd you have to make countless decisions during the course of the game. Some are simple choices (get paid by a lowly criminal to do a slightly underhanded deed or turn them in to the authorities). Some have real weight to them because they play very much on the character relationships you have built with your team by that point. In the penultimate set piece of the first game, Shepherd and his team land on a planet housing Saren’s base of operations. As it turns out, Saren is working on a cure for the Genophage which has been systematically exterminating Wrex’s race, the Krogan. The choice for the player to destroy the base (and the cure) is non-negotiable but you must choose how to deal with the understandably distraught Wrex. Several possible conclusions follow Shepherd’s tense stand-off against the Krogan warrior. You can use your charm to diffuse the situation and get Wrex to agree with your position. You can kill Wrex in cold blood, without hesitation because he clearly cannot be trusted. Or you can buy time while Wrex aims for you only for him to be shot in the back by one of your more loyal crew members.
If the film’s writing develops enough time to explain Wrex’s situation (not to mention just spends enough time with him as a character) then the confrontation in the movie will contain all the tension of its source material as even the gamers in the audience will not know how the scene is going to end. It isn’t even as though one particular ending is clearly the most dramatically satisfying. If Wrex allows Shepherd to bomb the base and destroy the cure then it allows his character to show the greatest demonstration of strength and trust imaginable; an alien willing to sacrifice the survival of his entire race to help the human who has earned his respect. If Shepherd kills Wrex without hesitation then it adds that touch of gray to his character and brings up the question of how far our hero is willing to go to save the galaxy, how driven he is, and how he may save humanity but lose that very thing in the process. And if Wrex is shot in the back before he can make his choice, the audience is left to speculate whether he would have pulled that trigger.
So because of this multiple choice story, the filmmakers themselves have the luxury of choosing from multiple outcomes and providing their own unique version of the story for the movie. The audience, including even the most ardent fans of the game, will not know how things will turn out. It is important to especially emphasize this point as Mass Effect is a story about real characters in real jeopardy facing impossible odds to save the galaxy. You rip the engine right out of it if you already know who will live and who will die. With a game like this to adapt, there is no set answer and everything is up in the air. As the player even has the option to completely customize the look of Commander Shepherd, the filmmakers don’t even have to worry about conforming to fan expectations of casting an actor who physically looks exactly like the character, because there is no set look. For the purposes of this article, I have been referring to Shepherd as male but can be played in the game as a female. It makes no difference to the story, nor should it. One of the great twists the second game throws at the player is the ability to import the character they created in the first game, and then completely rebuild it from the ground up into something different. Which brings me nicely to the recently released (and totally kick ass) second game and how it could make a great movie itself.
Most of us fans have probably just finished their first playthrough of ‘Mass Effect 2’ by now and as I watched the even more powerful and emotional story unfold, the theme of a potential film adaptation crystallized in my mind even stronger. In the second game, Saren and his Geth army have been defeated, their end game being to bring about the return of a race of hyper advanced machines called the Reapers. Though Saren is gone, the Reapers are still out there and waiting for the right time to strike. As Shepherd and crew patrol the galaxy waiting for the next sign of trouble, trouble finds them, not in the form of the Reapers but a new enemy called the ‘Collectors’ who attack and harvest other races for unknown but certainly unpleasant purposes. In a devastating assault, the Normandy is destroyed and Shepherd is sucked into the vacuum of space, dead to everyone who knows him. But Shepherd’s body is recovered, not by his own people but by a group of pro-human interest terrorist radicals called ‘Cerberus’ (who you would have had a lot of fun shooting in the first game). In Shepherd’s absence, entire human colonies have been taken by the Collectors and, with humanity’s (and only humanity’s) best interests in mind, Cerberus believes the commander has the best shot at stopping them. Now fully backed by an organization he can’t fully trust and returning to a world that has forgotten him, Shepherd must recruit the best members of every species in the galaxy, earn their trust and lead them into the lair of the Collectors for a seemingly un-winnable mission.
What I found the most fascinating about this story was the thematic potential not found in the game but which could be easily be put on screen to make a cracking second chapter. When Shepherd’s body is retrieved by Cerberus, the objective of their efforts is to bring him back to life just as he was, in both body and soul. The theory goes that if the reanimated Shepherd is anything less than the hero and leader people remember, the mission to defeat the Collectors, and in turn the Reapers will fail. Because Mass Effect 2 is a game and not Philip K Dick novel, you don’t get to ponder the implications of this. Once Shepherd realizes that he has been reconstructed, brought back from the dead and is essentially an experiment, maybe it causes a crisis of confidence in himself. All great leaders have to believe they can pull off what they are trying to achieve and Shepherd is no exception. But what if Shepherd’s genetic material (looks, skills, personality) has been chosen and coded into him by someone else, and is no longer his own? All the good he has done, all the people who he inspires and everything he fights for doesn’t count for shit if he is simply a puppet in a pre-programmed body and mind, acting out a script for Cerberus who need that body as a symbol of everything good about the human race. Is Shepherd really his own man capable of choosing his own destiny?
The struggle for individuality is the driving theme of ‘Mass Effect 2’ as such and it is present not just in Shepherd but elsewhere as well. The Collectors are eventually revealed to be the highly mutated Protheans who weren’t exterminated by the Reapers but forced to become their puppets and removed of their own individuality. Miranda Lawson, the Cerberus scientist who brings Shepherd back to life has herself been genetically engineered to be the perfect woman and faces the exact same dilemma as her experiment. The Geth actually join Shepherd’s team this time around in the form of Legion, a physical being with its own voice but merely part of a hive mind, incapable of independent thought. It seems quite deliberately symbolic (and quite touching to boot) in the climatic fight against the Collectors that an entire race of beings and their will to fight back is represented by one physical body. The same can be said of the representatives of the other races Shepherd recruits for the mission. In Mass Effect 2, the stakes are much higher than humanity proving their worth. It is a story of every species taking a stand.
Hopefully you Mass Effect virgins out there can see the clear potential of this franchise on the big screen. I haven’t even mentioned how the game creators, clearly influenced by the defining science fiction films of the 1980’s, have taken the best elements from each one. Mass Effect contains the operatic scale of the Star Wars trilogy, the intimate family of characters we remember from the Star Trek movies, the weaponry and technology of Aliens, and the futuristic cityscapes of Blade Runner. It represents the very best of commercial science fiction and maybe it would be better suited for a television series. Certainly the production value of American television drama is nothing to stick your nose up at today. I suppose I want Mass Effect on the big screen because I love movies and I want good movies to be made. And since I can’t convince some people that the first Mortal Kombat is actually a perfectly fine film, the quest for a good videogame movie goes on. If you make Mass Effect the movie, I think the search would be over.