Mass Effect 3: Difficult Choices

Mass Effect 3 Spoiler Warning
Note, this post contains massive spoilers for Mass Effect 3. If you have not played the game yet and you don’t want to be spoiled, turn back now.

I like video games that force you to make difficult, morally ambiguous choices. There are many games on the market that promise the player such a challenge, but few can actually deliver it. Most fall short by supplying a lame, point based, binary good and evil system. Your choices usually boil down to “kick the innocent, fuzzy little kitten” and “put the innocent, fuzzy little kitten through college”. There is no challenge, no moral ambiguity and no consequences here. You can role-play a mustache twirling bastard, a virtuous paladin or a bipolar psychopath who alternates between benevolence and malevolence at random.

Every once in a while there comes along a game that really does pull off the difficult choice angle. Best example of this was the “Dragon Age: Origins” end game. Another was the Mr. House quest line in Fallout: New Vegas. I also think that Alpha Protocol had one of those, but I can’t remember – the timed conversations in that one made me spazz out instead of agonizing over the possibilities. Which I guess is a good game design tip: if you want the player to have meaningful and profound conversations with NPC’s you should never time their dialogs. Let them think, ponder and even consult online wiki before they make a plunge. Otherwise people will bum-rush through your game, coasting on gut reactions, and promptly forget the entire experience. It will feel rushed and forgettable.

Guess what game we will be talking about today?

Guess what game we will be talking about today?

But I digress. Mass Effect 3 is another game that offers you difficult choices. In fact, I counted not one, but two such moments. Both interesting because they did not fit the standard Mass Effect trope of Paragon and Renegade alignments being simple synonyms for nice and naughty. Even though the actual choice was binary (only two possible options to choose from), each path had it’s pros, cons and possible consequences. Today I wanted to talk about both of these.

The Genophage

The mid-game mission on the Krogan home world is a shining example of how to write a good story. This mission (or rather series of missions) are a culmination of a long running story thread that was set up in the very first game. It goes like this: once upon a time the galaxy was more or less bum-raped by an alien race of space bugs known as the Rachni. These aliens were essentially a cross between the bugs from Starship Troopers, the Tyrranids from Warhammer 40K and Xenomorphs from the Alien movies. Essentially scary, hive mind, nightmare creatures with way to many legs and mandibles. To defeat them the good guys “uplifted” and armed the Krogan – a race of barbaric tough dudes who make Klingons look about as menacing as fluffy bunny rabbits. Krogan are huge walking tanks of chitinous armor with internal organs evenly distributes in redundant sets of four, who breed by laying eggs in clutches of about a thousand and reach maturity (and thus combat readiness) ridiculously fast. Those beasts were more than a match for the Rachni space bugs, which more or less went completely extinct long before the Krogan even reached their full potential.

Of course these low tech savages quickly realized that after eliminating their chief enemy, there was really no reason for them to stop waging war. Especially since they needed extra planets for all these babies that they kept churning out. On their hostile home planet, most of their hatchings would perish, but with the advanced medical technology they learned from their allies they could now keep 99% of them alive causing massive overpopulation problems. And so, without even breaking their stride the Krogan turned on their allies and started conquering the universe. Eventually the Citadel races got their shit together, and created a highly infectious plague that rendered most Krogan infertile. This ended the war, but made all the surviving Krogan double plus emo and cranky.

In both Mass Effect 1 and 2, you thwart attempts by various scientists to reverse this plague. The argument is that, if left unchecked the Krogan would once again over-breed and flood the galaxy with young, homeless, hungry and angry turtle looking dudes wanting to nab themselves a nice planet to call their own, and not particularly caring if it’s occupied by another sentient race. Of course the sad part is that the Genophage is actually killing their race. Their gene pool is shrinking, and they are slowly but surely approaching a state when most of the fertile members of their species will be too closely related to produce viable offspring, even without the plague sterilizing them.

Mordin is a pivotal character in this story arc - a Salarian scientist who created the Genophage.

Mordin is a pivotal character in this story arc - a Salarian scientist who created the Genophage.

In the third game, a new force is bum-raping the galaxy. The Reapers are a race of nigh-indestructible evil space-ships that wake up every few thousand years and destroy all civilized life in galaxy, mostly for LULZ. They are kinda like the Rachni but stronger, and more effective. And so, the Krogan issue comes up again. It just so happens that the guy who helped to invent the genophage plague is on your ship, and if you played your cards right in the previous games, you can let him try to un-fuck the entire race, and let them breed again.

The problem is that not everyone things it is such a good idea. Yes, faced with certain doom, unleashing the Krogan on the Reapers is a no-brainer idea. But, at the rate the evil dudes are harvesting planets, it does not seem that the cure will have to kick in before they either extinguish most sentient life in the galaxy or are defeated. The best it will do for you right now is give you full military support of the existing Krogan, which is a formidable force but not one that can defeat reapers on its own. The cure will only matter if you defeat the reapers – that’s when the soldiers will go home, start making babies.

So there is a good chance that after defeating the reapers, when all the other races are busy rebuilding their home planets, Krogan will quickly spurt out a massive army and go raping and pillaging like in the good old days.

You, the famous Commander Sheppard need to decide what is best for the Krogan and the galaxy. Do you do the right thing, and give the war-turtles another chance risking another war after you deal with the Reapers? Or do you play it safe and withhold the cure to protect future generations from the Krogan threat? Or better yet, do you lie and only pretend to cure them to gain their temporary military support, and appease the other galactic factions who are not keen on reversing the genophage.

If you cure the genophage, Wrex is really, really happy.

If you cure the genophage, Wrex is really, really happy.

There is no obvious right answer here. The paragon option is to implement the cure, while the renegade option is to lie but either choice has far reaching consequences. If you go Paragon, you can potentially doom the galaxy. While your friend Wrex, a prominent Kgrogan leader promises to make sure his race does not repeat the Rachni war scenario, he might not be able to keep his people in line. The new generations may not care about, or honor his policies and his oaths. After the Reaper incrusion, the galaxy will be weak and unprepared for another massive military invasion. You have stopped this precise disaster not once, but twice in previous games. Curing the plague at this point could undo all that effort.

If you go Renegade, you are effectively dooming the Krogan species to extinction. If they give you military support, many of them will die and may not be able to replenish their numbers afterwards. What’s worse, if they call your bluff you may lose their support, or even turn them against you which would seriously hamper your ability to fight your main enemy.

Either decision has a potential of going horribly wrong. Which path did you choose? I told Wrex about the Salarian deal, and got Mordin deploy the cure. I figured that the Reapers are more pressing matter, and that we can worry about Krogan breeding later. Plus I trusted Wrex and Eve to rule responsibly and keep their people in line after the war. In addition I felt like this was a fitting end to Mordin’s character arc. He created the genophage, and as his last act, he cured it. Quite poetic.

Reclaiming the Quarian Homeworld

Just like the Krogan subplot, the Quarian quest chain resolves a conflict that was a major story arc that ran through all three games. Quarians are space nomads – they had their home world taken away from them by their own creation: The Geth – the first and the last truly autonomous, self aware artificial intelligences in the galaxy (at least in the current cycle). After this incident, all sentient races decided to ban AI technology. Now they didn’t go all Butlerian Jihad on technology – they just banned creation of self-aware automatons in fear they will rise up, and go crazy like the Geth.

Quarian home world is actually quite pretty.

Quarian home world is actually quite pretty.

Through the course of two previous games however, you find out that the Geth are not just ordinary murder-bots. It turns out that their rebellion was mostly in self defense, as their Quarian masters never meant for them to awaken to consciousness, and completely freaked the fuck out when they did. Most of them are actually kinda cool, peace loving and logical dudes. They are kinda prone to Reaper indoctrination, since a lot of Geth view Reapers as kindred spirits (sentient machine bros if you will) but they can be convinced otherwise.

In Mass Effect 3 you find yourself in a unique position of a mediator between Quarians and the Geth. Unfortunately there is a lot of bad blood between them, and neither side wants to give way. Quarians want to fix their mistake and wipe Geth out of existence – or at least from their home planet. The Geth of course are like “yo, this is our home world too!” because technically it is. Quarians eventually get fed up, and go on full offensive, and Geth hook up with their machine bros (the Reapers) and get mad software upgrades that make them super effective in space combat, with just a tiny back-door trojan that puts them under direct Reaper control. In the finale, you kick the ass of the Reaper who runs the Geth botnet, but as a side effect all the Geth lose access to their awesome upgrades. Stupid Quarians swoop in for a final blow, and start blasting away at the defenseless and weakened Geth fleet, even if you tell them not to.

For some reason Tali gets really upset if you let Geth exterminate her entire race. Not sure why.

For some reason Tali gets really upset if you let Geth exterminate her entire race. Not sure why.

Fortunately, your buddy Legion figures out a way to re-activate the Reaper upgrades without the side order of indoctrination. There is a catch though – the Quarians are dead set on reclaiming their world and exterminating all non-biological life from it. Upgraded Geth will likely wipe them out and at the very least cause irreparable damage to the Quarian fleet. So essentially you must choose which race is to survive, and which one is to perish.

Do you side with the Quarians and help them destroy the unique, interesting, mostly peace loving and awesome artificial species that is just coming to it’s own? Or do you side with the Geth and doom thousands of innocent Quarians implicated in the war because they just want their home planet back, but may otherwise be ignorant of the reasons why the two races are fighting in the first place.

I like that Tali understands the decision to stop Legion from uploading the upgrades really sucked.

I like that Tali understands the decision to stop Legion from uploading the upgrades really sucked.

The problem is compounded by the fact that you have friends on both sides. Legion is a Geth collective that has adventured with you in Mass Effect 2, and who had some of the most interesting dialog in the game. Tali on the other hand is an adorable Quarian geek-girl who has been with you since game 1, and is a potential love interest. Neither one will take your decision to doom their species lightly.

I really wanted to save the Geth because they fascinated me as a race. Sadly, Tali was my romantic option in ME2 and 3 and I just could not doom her race to extinction. I sided with her, and had to watch Legion die, and Geth be wiped out. It was really depressing, but in a good way. It was a very, very difficult decision and it had really horrible consequences. It has been haunting me ever since.

Bioware Knows how to Write Good Endings

Both the Krogan and Quarian story arcs are a clear proof that Bioware is not incapable of writing excellent long story arcs. Both have excellent buildup, a morally ambiguous conflict and a satisfying climax. Both are exactly the kind of stories I want to see in video games. Well thought out, well written, interesting and thought provoking. They absolutely got these right. This is why I am baffled by the ending of the game.

I just can’t figure out what happened there. After delivering closure for the two most important story arcs in the game, they completely drop the ball in the last 10 minutes. But, that’s a topic for a whole other rant. These two quest chains are worth buying the game for. This is what makes the Mass Effect universe so appealing, and these games so popular.

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11 Responses to Mass Effect 3: Difficult Choices

  1. Morghan UNITED STATES Safari Linux says:

    Speaking of spoilers:

    I couldn’t kill Legion, and Tali was my LI so I wasn’t about to let he reace fall despite the fact I’d have loved to kill a few of their admirals myself.

    Thankfully I didn’t have to choose, with Tali and the admiral I saved from the crash on Rannoch backing me talking the others down was possible with both a paragon plea and a renegade “I’m through saving you, keep attacking and die.” response.

    Of course, come the last ten minutes and none of it really mattered. The Geth went down with the Reapers, EDI was with me when Harbinger blasted us so I wasn’t worried about saving an AI that was laying in pieces, and the Quarians will never see Rannoch, a good bit of the Krogan are stranded on Pallaven where they can’t even eat the food, most of the rest are on a seriously damaged Earth, Thessia is cut off so Liara can’t get home either, and even your Human mates managed to end up somewhere other than the planet they were fighting over.

    It was so good, right up until the end, and due to the last ten minutes my disc has been making the rounds to friends with PS3s so they can play it without supporting BioWare. DA2 was forgivable, ME3 is most likely the end of my high opinion of BioWare. Pretty sad that 23 hours of enjoyable game can be ruined by ten minutes of horribly done ending, and even ME 1&2 seem tainted now.

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  2. Steve CANADA Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    Yeah, I tend not to buy ANY game until I get actual reviews from actual players – not some paid-for reviews by the so-called “Gaming press”. I have a PS3 (not on purpose, got one for free) so ME3 is out until they patch out the plethora of bugs that seem to crop up a lot on the PS platform. I don’t play multi-player – ever – and could care less about achievements and trophies. But, even if they patch it, I won’t buy a copy until they fix that dog’s breath of an ending. And as Morghan wrote: ME2 is tainted for me now. I had replayed it at least 3 times and was on another run through (romancing Jack – most poignant romance option in the game IMHO). But stopped and haven’t taken it out of the case since ME3 was vomited forth by Bioware/EA.

    Interesting factoid: a local Walmart was selling the PS3 version of ME3 for $29.83 – I saw that about 2 weeks ago. That’s half of what they charged on Mar 6th.

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  3. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Morghan:

    How did you manage to get that going? I initially told Legion to go ahead and start the upload, and made Tali get her people on the horn, and talk them down. But the stupid admirals went all Battlestar Galactica on me (LOL, belay that order and blast these fracking toasters!). Tali was freaking out so I was like:

    “Legion, bro – stop with all the downloading. My girlfriend is about to have an aneurysm here. I’ma gonna paragon those admirals to stand now, but you have to chill right now!”

    Legion wasn’t cool with that, and attempted to choke me like a bitch. :( See if that was Garrus, he would totally be like “All right, Sheppard, do your thang!” Legion did not trust me that way. :/

    I saved that dude from the crash too, but he didn’t do shit. Maybe I should have kept giving legion the go-ahead… Then again, I think I accidentally skipped the “fighter base” side mission on Ranoch (accidentally clicked the wrong one without realizing it) so maybe my mojo was not high enough for this.

    @ Steve:

    Yeah, I agree. ME1 and 2 are kinda weird now, that you know how it ends. Although, it’s kinda funny. I went back and I re-read my review of ME1 and was amazed how much shit I gave Bioware for not explaining Reapers better. Now, years later I wish they left them an ambiguous, unknowable force instead of the star-child bullshit.

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  4. Liudvikas LITHUANIA Google Chrome Windows Terminalist says:

    @ Luke Maciak:
    Well after that there is a option to convince admirals to stand down. Sort of you’ve got a minute to stand down or you are all dead. If you saved the admiral on rannoch it’s easier as he also approves.

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  5. Iodine DENMARK Google Chrome Windows says:

    Also on the topic of the Krogan and genophage thing, if you killed Wrex in ME1 (I know, I know it’s wrong) that choice really becomes a non-choice. Basically Wreav, the stand in for Wrex, is such a massive dick that you basically have to cheat them of a cure. Nevertheless it was a very satisfying ending to that arch. And yes everything is bit weird now.

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  6. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ Liudvikas:

    I probably jumped the gun then. Damn it. Oh well, it didn’t matter anyway considering the ending.

    @ Iodine:

    Oh wow, I didn’t even think about that. I wonder how many people actually killed Wrex in ME1 though. I mean, even if you are playing renegade, it makes sense to talk him down rather than needlessly waste a team mate like that.

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  7. Morghan UNITED STATES Safari Linux says:

    There were a whole lot of lead ups to Rannoch, both in ME2 and on the planet before taking down the base, you need something like 3/4 of the decisions made in order to get the option. I had all of them “right” aside from freeing the heretic Geth in ME2, setting them free rather than destroying them makes freeing all the Geth more difficult, so I probably could have made it saving the crew instead of the admiral, but it was the logical choice to take a voice with authority when Tali was the only Quarian leader who seemed to have any sense.

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  8. Iodine DENMARK Google Chrome Windows says:

    The assumption in ME2, if you’re not importing an old char, is that you went all renegade and killed wrex. Initially when I received ME2 stuff was wrong with my previous saves, so I had to start from there. And I am guessing that is sort of the official story, that Shepard was all renegade and killed the council. [minor spoiler] Also if you take the renegade (red) ending in ME3 shepard gets to survive, in an almost off-screen kind of way. Meaning that if they create any more games, they will probably take the stance the Shep killed all synthetics.

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  9. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Morghan:

    I believe I may have reprogrammed them in ME2. I did both choices on two different playthroughs and I don’t remember which choice was my “official paragon Sheppard” and which one was the “renegade bitch fem-Shep”.

    @ Iodine:

    I think you only survive if you max out your war assets through multiplayer (which makes no sense). I actually did “all” the marked quests (except that optional one on Ranoch because I fucked up and pick the final mission first and then couldn’t go back), helped every jackass on the citadel to find whatever they were looking for via scanning, and then did one final sweep through the galaxy armed with a wiki page that listed locations of all the unmarked assets. I got them all.

    Then I felt really, really stupid for doing all of that because it did not matter at all.

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  10. Liudvikas LITHUANIA Google Chrome Windows Terminalist says:

    @ Luke Maciak:

    Yes, you can only get enough assets if you play multiplayer, this seriously pissed me off, I made sure to find all assets, do all missions and still had only like 3600 EMS, I could probably get more if I had wiki at that time, but it still wouldn’t be enough, I had to stop playing campaign and play some matches and that is a horrible game design decision.

    Of course next thing I found out is that it was a giant fucking waste of my time.

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  11. karthik AUSTRALIA Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Two things, Luke:

    1. Mordin did not create the Genophage. The Genophage was created well over a millennium ago. It was weakening, so Mordin’s task force tweaked it. (Effectively re-neutering the Krogan, so you’re pretty much right.)

    2. I managed to barter a peace between the Quarians and the Geth by shouting at the Admirals: “Are you out of your goddamned minds?”
    I suspect you need to have made a specific series of choices and have a high enough reputation to pull it off. Legion ends up having to sacrifice himself to disperse his upgrades anyway: “Shepard-Commander, personality dissemination required. This unit will cease to exist. I am sorry.” Also the first time he says “I” instead of “We”. I nearly tore up.
    The Geth help the Quarians rebuild Rannoch after that. Some (being pure software) even integrate themselves in the Quarians’ suits.

    These two quest chains were the best things about Mass Effect 3.

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