In my first post in this series on the controversy over the ending of the video game Mass Effect 3, I posited that the true fault that caused fan upset with that ending is a lack of player interaction that extends back throughout not just that title, but into Mass Effect 2 as well.
NOTE: This post contains plot spoilers for all three video games in the Mass Effect trilogy. If you haven’t played Mass Effect, Mass Effect 2 or Mass Effect 3 and are interested in doing so, I strongly recommend you play them before reading further.
I’m aware this may take a few months. The games are worth it, though.
Choice at Work: The Two Rebellions
To give you an idea why the critical lack of choice is so disappointing, I want to show you two key instances when players were granted the ability to influence some of the main conflicts of the Mass Effect universe. These instances are often cited by disgruntled players when discussing the maligned ending.
The Cane Toad Solution
At the time of Christ’s birth, so Mass Effect lore holds, the galaxy was on the brink of disaster. Exploration of a new star system unleashed the rachni, an aggressive, insect-like race that threatened to overwhelm a galactic civilisation then barely five hundred years old. The races of that civilisation, known as the Citadel Council, had nothing that could stand against the overwhelming numbers of the rachni. The rachni hive mind allowed the invaders to throw warrior drones at their enemies without fear of death whilst the governing queens stayed safe in deep underground warrens.
Until the Council races discovered a hardy species on a planet called Tuchanka. Violent and phenomenally resilient, the krogan were just what the Council needed. They “uplifted” the krogan, who had fallen back from atomic age technology when a global war led to nuclear winter, so that they could build and use galactic technology, and sent them against the rachni. The krogan fought the rachni back to their home systems, invading the insects’ warrens and destroying their queens. After three hundred years of fighting, the rachni were though extinct and the krogan hailed as heroes.
Then the krogan, who survived the hostile environment of Tuchanka partly through their ability to breed, began to demand more and more planets in payment for their service to the Council, pushing into the home sectors of other races. When, some four hundred years after the end of the Rachni Wars (or at around the time the Vikings were raiding Europe) the Council eventually said “no more,” the krogan rebelled, becoming a force almost as irresistible as the rachni were.
The science-minded salarians, who uplifted the krogan in the first place, once again had a solution: Curb the krogan’s exponential fertility rate via a bio-weapon that would come to be called “the genophage.” Another race, the newly-discovered, militaristic turians, who had suffered krogan weapons of mass destruction, deployed the genophage against the krogan.
By 2183 A.D., the start of Mass Effect, the krogan are a broken people, a poor shadow of their former might, sunk in the misery caused when only one in a thousand births are viable and extinction seems inevitable. The turians, along with the salarians and asari, are the premier races of Citadel space.
During Mass Effect, conversations with the krogan Urdnot Wrex, who joins Shepard’s crew aboard the starship Normandy, reveal the depth of his species’ misery. Wrex is a bitter mercenary who finds no hope in the galaxy that humanity has just ventured into. Attempts to draw him out in conversation usually result in him offering biting comments about how his race is doomed to a slow death.
At the end of the game’s second act comes a mission on the planet Virmire and one of the major choice-moments of the trilogy. Mass Effect’s villain, a rogue Spectre (galactic special agent) called Saren, has set up a base where he’s creating a cloned krogan army – and the clones may be resistant to the genophage. When Commander Shepard, who was just granted Spectre status after Mass Effect’s first act, sets out to destroy Saren’s operation, Wrex is furious: This could be the cure his race so desperately needs. In a tense branching conversation, Shepard must make Wrex see reason, and if he fails, kill Wrex before the enraged krogan kills Shepard.
This choice is a major one. If Wrex puts his gun down, he appears in the next two games as the head of a krogan clan – and in Mass Effect 3, argues for the future of his race when a real cure for the genophage is found.
Naturally, the other races fear not only krogan vengeance, but also that a fully-fertile krogan species will once again start invading other species’ planets in their need for more land. What do you, the player, do when a salarian matriarch offers Shepard a way of destroying the genophage cure that will allow Shepard to keep face with the krogan and keep their allegiance for the fight to save Earth? Do you trust your krogan friend’s word that he’ll build a better civilisation that will control their own spread? Do you believe that hope can overcome the other races’ (not entirely unjustified) fear of a new krogan rebellion?
It’s a fantastic example of both just what all three Mass Effect games do so well – take a big science fiction cencept, ground it in sympathetic, complex characters and ask you to make a call based on what you discover and what they tell you – and how hard discussing the Mass Effect trilogy’s plot is.
If, for example, Wrex dies in Mass Effect, his absence gives a different tone to at least two major events in both Mass Effect 2 and 3 that relate to the krogan and the genophage.
Come Mass Effect 2, you meet another character named Mordin Solus, a salarian who had a hand in correcting the genophage when it was on the verge of failure. It’s possible also for Mordin to die during the Suicide Mission at the end of Mass Effect 2 if you fail to make particular choices, which affects the ultimate resolution of the genophage issue in the final game.
Whole future conversations can turn out differently, or even not happen at all.
The Anti-Terminator and the Limits of Choice
Science fiction is rife with stories of machine intelligences that turn on their creators. Even one not familiar with the wealth of written SF can likely quote Big Arnie’s lines from the Terminator movies or tell you about those hot robot girls from Battlestar Galactica. Naturally, Mass Effect touches on this trope – but gives it its own flavour.
At the end of the nineteenth century, while H. G. Wells wrote The War of the Worlds and the Olympic Games were being revived, a mechanised labour force on Rannoch, a planet on the other side of the galaxy from Earth, became self-aware. Their creators, the quarians, hadn’t intended the machines known as the geth to attain intelligence, but they had designed them with two key abilities: the ability to network and the ability to notice, analyse and act on instances when their performance improved.
As the geth networks went about their duties, they noticed that if they spread the load of their individual components’ basic processes across a given network, each component had more processing power to spare for its assigned tasks. Noticing this, the quarians made incremental improvements to their creations, enabling the geth to accomplish ever more complex tasks – until one day, the geth networks had enough processing power to suddenly notice themselves as gestalt individuals, a consciousness made up of hundreds, thousands of individual programs spread across multiple robot bodies.
They began asking their creators, “Does this unit have a soul?”
Having become largely dependent on their labourers, the quarians were seized by the fear that their newly self-aware creations would turn against them and decided to strike pre-emptively.
In the end, the geth successfully fought for their right to exist, pushing the quarians off Rannoch. The machines didn’t pursue their creators, however, remaining hidden within the Perseus Veil, a gaseous nebula that concealed the former quarian systems from the rest of the galaxy.
As for the quarians, they became interstellar nomads, residing on the remnants of their fleet and whatever other ships they could buy, bargain for or salvage. The unique, symbiotic nature of their evolution on Rannoch left their immune systems fragile; by the time of Mass Effect, few have ever seen a quarian outside the species’ full-body environment suits.
All nurtured the hope that they could one day reclaim Rannoch from the geth and live free of their environment suits again.
In the first game, the geth are Saren’s mechanised henchmen, invading a human colony and fighting Shepard in his attempt to bring the rogue Spectre to justice. It’s not until Mass Effect 2, when Shepard’s quarian squadmate Tali’Zorah is brought on trial for bringing active geth parts back to the quarian Migrant Fleet for her father to study, that the geth-quarian conflict is brought into focus.
Factions within the Migrant Fleet, Shepard discovers, are agitating to start the war that will let them take their homeworld back, while others are advocating making peace with the geth. Again, this is a choice moment. How do you, the player, stand? Who is right? Who is wrong? And has Tali, an old friend from the first game, actually broken Fleet law?
But later in Mass Effect 2, things get even more interesting. Aboard an ancient, derelict alien vessel, Shepard encounters a lone geth – who acts to save Shepard’s life. If you choose to have Shepard bring the geth back aboard the Normandy and re-activate it, it reveals that it is a representative of the actual majority of the geth and that the minority of “heretics” who acted alongside Saren are planning on unleashing a virus that will forcibly convert the majority to the heretics’ point of view.
Again, this section is loaded with choice moments. Do you accompany this geth, whom your shipboard AI dubs Legion, on its mission? If you do, Legion discovers that there is an alternative to destroying the heretics; the virus they intend to use can be re-written and turned back onto them. Do you choose to alter an entire nation of electronic entities? What is better: To kill a people or to brainwash them? Is turnabout fair play?
And after the mission, you find Tali with her gun pointed at Legion, whom she has caught going through her computer for sensitive information. Legion counters that it needs to ensure the geth are safe from their creators’ ongoing desire to exterminate them. Again, you the player are offered the opportunity to choose where you stand. Is Legion right in working to protect its people? Is Tali right in ensuring the security of hers, even though they were working to exile her?
Right from the beginning, the geth-quarian conflict seized my imagination, mostly as I’ve loved Cool Machines ever since The Transformers. The very fact that the quarians were written as acting first on what seemed to be a nebulous threat from their brain-children seized my emotions. Even though I found Tali an entertaining and intriguing character, her people’s ongoing fear of their creations bothered me.
When I played Mass Effect 2, I might have sided with Legion had not my previous record of being a good guy (“Paragon,” in Mass Effect terms) unlocked the “You’re both right.” dialogue option, through which Shepard tells both Tali and Legion that they need to grow beyond the conflict between their two races.
As a result, Tali gives Legion some non-classified data to send to the geth consensus. Speaking personally, it was an awesome moment.
On the other hand, it’s the choice the game presented me aboard the Heretic Base – one that gaming analysis site Extra Credits even made the focus of one of their episodes – that actually illustrates the limits of the player projecting their own opinions into the game.
When I first played Mass Effect 2, I wound up taking what the game considered the Paragon path – re-writing the heretics – due to a sort of peer pressure. I wanted to be what the game considered a Good Guy; the idea of earning Renegade points (especially when the game makes Shepard the Renegade out to be a rude, opinionated bastard) was rather repulsive.
Watching that Extra Credits video made me re-consider that action for my second play-through. Was re-writing really the best option? Would it be okay for someone else to dig into my head and change one of my most fundamental opinions not only without my consent, but also without my awareness? Would it be more respectful of my free will and personhood to just kill me?
I was actually swaying toward playing the Reneagde option as I boarded the Heretic Base and fought my way through squads of heretic geth, Legion at my side, to the space station’s central processing hub. But when the time came to make the choice, I read the summary of the Renegade option:
- It’s safer to kill them.
I was taken aback. Safer? Safer?! I don’t want to kill them because I’m scared of them, I want to do it because it may be the more respectful option than brainwashing them!
Fuck this “safer” business, I thought. If that’s what it comes down to, I’ll take the risk of re-writing the heretics, thank you very much. At least that’s a choice I can own.
This, I think, highlights a point that some of the folks who try to play the “player choice” card miss with Mass Effect. As much as the Mass Effect games allow you to enter and explore a fictional universe and its characters more deeply and thoroughly than many other games, ultimately the Mass Effect story, complex though its branches are, is a product of the judgments of its writers. While the Extra Credits mob may extoll its high concept moments as ways of getting you thinking, in the end it’s the writers’ view of Commander Shepard, Paragon, Renegade or neutral, that ends up in the game’s script.
But even that level of interactivity beats out the amount of the involvement players have with the one aspect of Mass Effect’s universe that’s not only central to the controversial ending, but also central to the whole universe and its themes of breaking away from the past.
In The Next Post…
In the light of these instances of well-implemented player choice, I break down just how the seeming irrelevance of the player’s galaxy-uniting feats during Mass Effect 3’s ending relies on events that the player had absolutely no control over or involvement with.
But What About You?
Which moments of choice in other games (or other media) have reached out of the screen and engaged you?
In which moments did you discover that you had less choice than you were expecting?
Which moments in static media have you wished you could reach in and alter?
How did your play of the Mass Effect series deviate from the above?
- If you shot Wrex in Mass Effect, how did the Tuchanka missions in 2 and 3 play out for you?
- If you lost Legion and / or Mordin Solus during the Suicide Mission in Mass Effect 2, how did the Tuchanka and Rannoch missions play out in 3?
- Did you cure the genophage? Why?
- Did you achieve peace between the geth and quarians? Why?