Bioware struck gold with the Mass Effect series, delivering a setting and characters that have fostered an intensely passionate fan base. So, it’s no surprise that Legendary Pictures has been working to adapt the game into a major motion picture. But how will they go about creating the screenplay? And how can they succeed where other game adaptations have failed?
To figure that out, we’re going to have to look into how to structure the film. A typical two-hour film has a first act (30 minutes), a second act (60 minutes), and a third act (30 minutes). When you look beyond that initial breakdown, however, you’ll find that mainstream films are actually comprised of 8 sequences of about 15 minutes each. There are many exceptions to the rule, but it’s more or less the lay of the land.
What happens in a film sequence?
Think of them as the chapters in a book. Each one has a beginning, middle, and end that leads to a moment of change in the story and sends our characters off in a different direction. If you take a close look at some of your favorite Hollywood films you’ll start to notice these sequences everywhere.
So, how do we turn Mass Effect into a movie?
Mass Effect, like most traditional movies, has eight main story sequences (Eden Prime, The Citadel, Liara’s Dig Site, Feros, Noveria, Virmire, Ilos, and the Citadel finale). However, the game has 40 hours to develop those, while we have two and a half hours tops. So, we’re going to need to do some trimming.
Is there a way to adapt Mass Effect without cutting anything?
As a film? No. The best way to adapt the story without cutting anything would be as a premium cable show. At the moment, the powers that be are aiming to make a movie, so we’re here to see how they could effectively do it. This is not to say the following story is the only approach for adapting the material, nor is it probably the story we’ll end up (hopefully) seeing on screen someday. It is simply one possible way to translate Shepard’s first story from one medium to another.
Among the changes made to adapt the story, you’ll notice that Feros, Noveria, and Matriarch Benezia have been cut. Some tweaks to Wrex, Shepard, and some other characters have been made in order to get everything to line up in a film. If you’re curious why these changes were made, check out the Q&A section after the story.
So, break down the overall structure for your Mass Effect film.
We’re going to do this sequence by sequence, giving a description for the events in each one. Because this movie has a lot to establish in terms of character and world building, we’re going to assume each of these sequences is a little closer to 20 minutes than the normal 15.
What Shepard are we using?
To deliver the biggest emotional arc for the character, we’re going to use the “Sole Survivor” background, where the character survived a massacre that wiped out their entire squad. Our Shepard will start the movie as the second officer of the Normandy, and will be perfectly happy there, because being in charge means you have to make the big decisions that can get people killed… and this version of the character has seen too many people die already.
Shepard is also a soldier with only regular combat abilities, as in the end the character’s biggest role will be making hard choices and utilizing the talents of the Normandy’s crew to accomplish their mission.
One last question: Is the Shepard in this story male or female?
Shepard could be either gender. It would have no impact on the story either way. However, most of the best screenshots for the game are for a female Shepard, so you’ll mostly be seeing her in the visuals.
Now, let’s get started:
“In the year 2148, explorers on Mars discovered the remains of an ancient space faring civilization. In the decades that followed, these mysterious artifacts revealed startling new technologies, enabling travel to the furthest stars. The basis for this incredible technology was a force that controlled the very fabric of space and time.
They called it the greatest discovery in human history.
The civilizations of the galaxy call it…”
Sequence 1 (Eden Prime)
COMMANDER SHEPARD awakens in the dark, the sounds of war in the distance. Rubble pins Shepard to the ground, making escape impossible. Still, Shepard tries, clawing at something to pull free… but then stops. That something is a body.
Shepard looks around in the darkness, realizing its full of nothing but bodies and rubble. The sounds of war grow closer until FIGURES appear: human soldiers there to rescue Shepard’s squad… but they’re too late.
FIVE YEARS LATER: Shepard is still alone in the dark, this time in the barracks of the SSV NORMANDY, a human ship captained by the Turian NILHUS, who holds the rank of SPECTRE: an elite intergalactic agent with authority that supersedes even the law.
Shepard and KAIDAN ALENKO attend a briefing from Nilhus and his first officer DAVID ANDERSON. They view footage of a massive ship (which we will come to know as SOVEREIGN) attacking the human colony of Eden Prime. When they arrive on the garden world of Eden Prime, they find the colonists transformed into mindless creatures: HUSKS, biomechanical zombies seemingly born from the mind of H.R. Giger. Machine creatures called GETH attack the last surviving colonists: a band of human soldiers.
Shepard, Kaiden and Nilhus manage to save one soldier: ASHLEY WILLIAMS, who only knows that the enemy have advanced on the PROTHEAN RUINS dig site, an excavation studying an ancient and extinct race that has left their advanced technology scattered across the galaxy.
Nilhus, Shepard, Kaiden, and Ashley make their way to the dig site where they discover the Geth’s commander: A Turian named SAREN, whom Nihlus recognizes as a fellow SPECTRE.
Saren is advancing on a particular Prothean artifact: a damaged BEACON.
A firefight ensues and Nihlus is killed. Shepard takes the initiative to attack Saren while he’s seemingly entranced by the beacon, but is caught in the same effect: visions flood Shepard’s mind with cryptic images of an extinction event.
Ashley and Kaidan lay down suppressing fire, forcing Saren and his Geth to withdraw. Shepard’s mind is overwhelmed with the beacon’s visions and passes out.
Sequence 2 (The Citadel)
Shepard wakes up aboard the Normandy surrounded by Ashley, Kaidan, and Anderson. Shepard tells them about the Prothean vision, but no one knows what it means.
The Normandy uses another piece of Prothean technology, a MASS EFFECT RELAY, to travel across the galaxy instantaneously to the Citadel: a space station inherited from the Protheans that has since become the center for Galactic government. Anderson and Shepard inform the CITADEL COUNCIL, a governing body of representatives from the galaxy’s most influential races, about Saren’s treason.
During the meeting we discover that the humans are new to the galactic community and seen with suspicion/racism. Add to the fact that Saren gives testimony via transmission discrediting Shepard’s claims and it seems they’ve gotten nowhere…
… until a Citadel Security Officer named GARRUS VAKARIAN, a Turian who’s been suspicious of Saren for some time, comes to Shepard after the hearing. Garrus has located a contact who might have hard evidence against Saren, but a Korgan mercenary has been paid to take her out before she can deliver it.
Shepard, Ashley, Kaidan, and Garrus venture into the slums of the Citadel to rescue a QUARIAN named TALI from being killed by the KROGAN MERCENARY WREX. It’s an all out brawl and Wrex proves himself a capable warrior (getting a real cheap shot off on Garrus), but Shepard’s team rescues Tali. Wrex is arrested while Tali presents her evidence to Shepard: the data core of a Geth holding proof Saren has gone rogue. Furthermore, he seems to be looking for something called “the conduit” in order to bring a mysterious force called the “Reapers” back.
Shepard and his team present the evidence to the council, who are convinced Saren has abused his power as a SPECTRE. They are not convinced, however, that “the conduit” or “Reapers” are anything more than superstition. Still, Saren is an embarrassment that needs to be neutralized and Shepard has a unique insight into his motivations… so in a shrewd political gesture, they make Shepard a SPECTRE with the task of with bringing in Saren.
Sequence 3 (A Trail Of Stars)
Shepard is given command of the Normandy, but Saren’s trail has gone cold. So, Shepard follows the one good lead they have: Wrex. When Shepard questions Wrex in his cell, he reveals he knows nothing about any conduits or Reapers. Shepard tries to press further, but Wrex doesn’t work for free.
So Shepard uses SPECTRE authority to free Wrex and hire him at triple the rate Saren’s people were paying. Wrex agrees and gives Shepard the location of the contact who hired him: their first lead.
Kaidan, Ashley, Garrus, Tali, and Wrex join the Normandy’s crew and are a mess of talents, flaws, and clashing personalities crackling against each other… and it’s Shepard’s responsibility to keep them alive long enough to turn them into a team.
They arrive at Wrex’s given location, which should be one of the seedier places in the Mass Effect universe. While the exact location doesn’t matter for the sake of our story, making it Omega (which would be cheaper) or the Korgan homeworld of Tuchanka may go a long way to help with worldbuilding.
Shepard’s team encounters Wrex’s contact, who isn’t cooperative. Things get violent and it’s Wrex who puts the contact down. Back on the Normandy, doctors perform an autopsy and discover the contact’s brain chemistry resembles the husks on Eden Prime. According to the doctors, the man seems to have been mentally conditioned and wouldn’t have told them anything.
Wrex and Tali hack into the contact’s omni tool and discovers he hired several mercenaries to go after Prothean experts. One was discovered recently: Dr. Liara T’Soni. According to Citadel Intelligence, her last location was the planet Therum in the Artemis Tau cluster. Shepard’s crew has their next lead.
Sequence 4 (Artemis Tau)
The Normandy arrives on Therum and finds that a team of Geth and Saren’s mercenaries have beat them there. Shepard’s team infiltrates the dig site and finds Liara in captivity, who tells them her dig has uncovered the best preserved Prothean beacon ever found… and Saren’s team is shipping it off world. When Shepard’s crew moves to stop them, their cohesion as a team isn’t what it should be: Wrex isn’t listening to orders, Garrus presses his advantages too far, and Kaidan is trying to support too many positions.
They’re not a team yet, and it shows.
The mercenaries set off EXCAVATION CHARGES to kill Shepard’s team. Kaiden fails to stop the explosion with his biotics and it looks like they’re going to be engulfed in flames —
— When LIARA puts up a biotic barrier, saving everyone. Shepard’s group manages to make it back to the Normandy just in time to pursue the mercenary’s ship to the system’s Mass Relay.
When they complete the relay jump, however, their pursuit is cut short by SOVEREIGN, who heavily damages the Normandy. The ship is saved by the fantastic flying of their pilot JOKER, who triggers the ship’s stealth mode and hides it in the upper atmosphere of a gas giant.
Jump to the next page to see how the story concludes.