The dramatic consequences of Mass Effect’s alternate universes

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This article contains spoilers for the Mass Effect franchise.

At the end of my first playthrough of Mass Effect 3, I had stopped the menacing Reapers and advanced all intelligent life in the Milky Way to a higher form. Along the way, I had even fixed problems comparable to third-world hunger or the Israel-Palestine conflict.

I had disabled the mass relays — which enabled galaxy-wide transport and communication — and trillions died along the way. But the cycle of Reaper-induced organic extinctions had finally come to an end. Everything went as well as it could have.

A week later, playing with my alternate Commander Shepard, I’m on Tuchanka. This is the nuclear-war-torn homeworld of the Krogan. In their evolutionary past, excessively rough competitors never gave them a break — so they grew up to be hulking, obnoxious warmongers.


In my first, perfect, playthrough, I had a much easier time helping the Krogans cure the sterility-causing genophage, as I had kept alive an important ally from the first Mass Effect. This ally, Wrex, became the most important leader on Tuchanka and was probably going to lead his people to a new era of peace and cooperation. When a Salarian politician wanted me to trick the Krogans into thinking I had cured the genophage instead of actually helping them, I easily dismissed her concerns that they would be a major problem in the future.

Now, because my alternate character had lost Wrex, I’m stuck with his unreasonable brother, Wreav. Wreav would turn the Krogans into a galactic menace, so it's easier to agree with the Salarian politician. But Mordin — a Salarian scientist seeking redemption for helping to develop the genophage — would rather die than let me fool the Krogans. Mordin’s moral struggle with his and his species’ role in the genophage was a huge side plot in Mass Effect 2. He even rewrites human showtunes to be culturally relevant to bug-eyed space aliens from the future. 

I love Mordin.

What to do?

That is the most emotionally involving part of any adventure-based title — making hard decisions that aren’t obviously right or wrong. And this was the sort of decision that only occurs once in a blue moon, nebula, or quasar in Mass Effect.

Most of the time, decisions are easy to make. Talk a coked-up alien into leaving a danger zone, or convince him to charge the enemy for your amusement. Politely justify your position to a reporter, or punch her in the face. Basically, you just modify your tone while saying essentially the same thing. The results tweak the great sci-fi story in small ways but don’t tax the brain or heart at all.

Shooting a favorite character in the back and condemning a species to near sterility does do that, however. This scene on Tuchanka isn’t the only example. Even the ending presents a much tougher choice if you go into it unprepared.

Keeping Wrex alive in Mass Effect, gaining characters’ loyalties in Mass Effect 2, and preparing the galaxy for Mass Effect 3’s climax all lead to situations where you have to avoid compromise. That’s hugely satisfying, and role playing as someone who’s renegade (or who just breezes through the other titles and lets important characters die) in Mass Effect might be the best way to experience BioWare’s vision of a game full of tough choices.

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