One of the most powerful cinematic moments I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing will never been seen by most people because of its medium – a cutscene from a galaxy-spanning space adventure game called Mass Effect.
This cinematic moment came up in a long conversation I had with Diane Meriwether on the topic on human mythology, the hero archetype and how human choose to remember the fallen amongst us.
A highly-compressed TL;DR backstory that led up to the scene in question:
In the Mass Effect universe, humans are the newest inductees in a multi-racial galaxy-spanning alliance of free sentient beings. This galaxy-spanning alliance has a standing army akin to a galactic United Nations, and at the apex, is served by an elite corps of Special Operations commandos called N7 which operates at the highest level of discretion, and entrusted with wide latitude to neutralize threats to free citizens throughout the galaxy.
You, the protagonist in the Mass Effect series, are Commander Shepherd, the first human operative to be invited to join N7 – and it is a decision that not all the established Alliance races agree upon, that humans can be trusted with this level of responsibility and autonomy. You are considered a test case for humanity’s fitness to be trusted by the Alliance races, and every action you take is viewed with intense scrutiny by both humanity (anxious to prove themselves worthy equals of the Alliance) and skeptical Alliance members convinced humans are unready for the responsibility.
We are introduced to warlike non-Alliance race called the Krogan, whose violent nature and capacity to outbreed other sentience races forced a multi-planet war against the alliance, resulting in millions of casualties on all sides many years prior to the storyline of Mass Effect.
As a result of this war, the scientists from the Salarian race crafted a tailored biological attack on Krogan DNA that effectively sterilizes Krogan females – a soft genocide of an entire species with the intent of curbing any future Krogan threat. The surviving Krogan, realizing their race is doomed from the Genophage, become fatalistic, nihilistic – turning into mercenaries or out-and-out bandits/ criminals/ assassins.
As the plot evolved, we discover that there is a external threat far greater than a single warlike race – a massive threat which must be fought with the combined might of all sentience races, Alliance or no.
The Krogan refuse to join – they are aware of origin of the Genophage and are understandably unwilling to risk their own dwindling numbers to save the lives of the very people who engineered Krogan extinction.
Mordin Solus – a scientist on board your ship and a member of the Salarian race that engineered the genophage in the first place (and defended its use throughout most of the plot), revealed his own increasing discomfort with the genocidal implications of its use.
The Salarian high command decided to employ one last ruse – feign effort at a cure for the genophage, but quietly sabotage it to fool the Krogan into cooperation with the alliance’s efforts. The gambit was as simple as it was ruthless: offer a fake/sabotaged “cure” for the Genophage, trick the Krogan into thinking their species is saved so they would be motivated to cooperate in the Alliance fight against the Reapers, and by the time they realized they’ve been hoodwinked, the war will be over and the Alliance will have gotten their use out of the Krogan while keep the Genophage intact.
Mordin Solus realized this ruse very late into the mission, and immediately understood the colossal stakes – if he counteracted the sabotage, he’d save the Krogan race, but in so doing, will be considered a traitor to his own people for directly countermanding the directive of his commanding officers and reviled in Salarin history books. The weight of that moral choice weighed heavily on him, and in the most powerful moment of the story, he chose to walk into his own death. and chose to enter the burning building and die for what he believed in.
In so doing, saved the Krogan, and died a traitor to his own people.
“Had to be me. Someone else might have gotten it wrong.” I still get chills every time I hear those words. [vimeo id=”136437415″]