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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.