Studio heads, directors and agents haven't been knocking down Drew Karpyshyn's door. The man who was one of the Mass Effect universe's chief architects knows that Hollywood will be looking elsewhere for the talent that will power the upcoming film adaptation. But Karpyshyn headed up the writing for the first Mass Effect game and part of the second. And he's got some free advice to offer to the folks who'll be trying to bring the Krogan, Asari and Salarians to silver screen.
When we spoke recently, I asked Karpyshyn what the movie studio making the Mass Effect movie absolutely needs to avoid in trying to transpose this universe to another medium. And, for good measure, I also wanted to speak on what directors and/or screenwriters should home in on if they want to nail what Mass Effect does right.
“I think taking a video game and putting it into another form—book, movie, or whatever—is very complicated, especially a BioWare game. We have 30 hours of content!,” Karpyshyn noted. “Obviously, you’re going to have to define Shepard which is going to annoy a lot of the fans. ‘Hey, my Shepard was female.’ ‘Hey, my Shepard was Paragon.’ Or ‘my Shepard was Renegade.’ ‘My Shepard didn’t have a romance.’ That is something you just can’t avoid as a film. You just have to bite the bullet and realize that’s going to happen.”
“But I think one of the things that also has to happen is you have to compress things down,” he continued. I don’t think you can do justice to the characters even if it’s just, say, Mass Effect 1, which had the smallest cast of characters. You have Shepard, and then you have six squadmates. You had Joker. You have Anderson. You have Saren. Maybe a Sovereign sort of hiding there a little bit. Already that’s 10 very significant characters.
“What you have to do, and I know fans don’t want to hear this, but you have to remove some of those characters. I think you just have to realize we can’t tell everything that’s in the game in a two-hour movie. Some of them are just going to be cameos, like in Ocean’s 11, ‘Oh, that guy was in there. I don’t even remember his name, but he’s the bomb guy.” It’s going to be a muddled mess if you don’t do that.
"Sometimes, Hollywood doesn’t to annoy anybody. But to make it work you have to say, 'OK, you know what? I don’t know, maybe there’s no Tali.” I’m not sure what it is. I’m not the one making those decisions. But you have to cut some of them out.”
“If you say, ‘We want this relationship between Shepard and Liara because it parallels humanity’s relationship with the various alien species,’ then you don’t even use certain characters at that point. Now Ashley’s gone. Then people are going to go, ‘Oh, Ashley’s gone. What the heck?’ If you want to focus again, maybe you want to have the relationship, like, ‘We really like this Garrus character and how he ties in and his views on humanity and Shepard. Well, then, maybe Tali’s extraneous.’ There’s different things you have to pull out depending on the direction you want to take it in.”
Ok, if some of the cast members may never make onto the silver screen Normandy, what absolutely needs to be in a Mass Effect screenplay? “As far as what I think they really need to leave in, for me, [Mass Effect is] really about this idea that humanity is the newcomer and trying to prove themselves to the other races or trying to find their place,” Karpyshyn said. “It’s a great set-up, especially if they want to go forward and base the second movie on the second game, which brings up Cerberus. They’re sort of the epitome of the conflict that arises as humanity tries to carve out their place in the universe and are sort of the polar opposite of Shepard.”
The concept of humanity as the new kid on the galactic block also lets a filmmaker focus on the best part of the Mass Effect fiction: its extraterrestrial races. “Humans as newcomers will allow you to have these different species and lets viewers react to them,” Karpyshyn reflected. “Shepard is trying to find his way through as the first human Spectre. It’s an honor but also a burden. Everyone is watching him and there’s people who want to see him fail. it’s important to see that element in there as well and really get a sense that everybody is watching what humans do and the humans are trying to figure out their place in the universe. For me, I hope that’s one of the things I really hope they’re able to capture in the film if and when it ever gets made.”
It's Mass Effect Week at Kotaku. All week, we'll be taking a look back at the last five and a half years of galaxy-saving heroism, cross-species romance, and awkward dancing. You can follow along here.