One of the things that makes the original Mass Effect trilogy interesting is that it’s a story of Good and Evil that’s equally interested in all points on the scale from one to the other. This is most poignantly summarised in the line that gave my aborted Let’s Play of the series its title – “They’re jerks and saints like us.” It’s not just the purehearted heroes like Paragon Shepard or the absolute evil of slavers, murderers, and gigantic squid aliens intent on wiping out all sentient life, it’s the petty assholes and well-intentioned bureaucrats and heroes with mean streaks and crime lords with moral codes and regular people who stumbled into a situation too big for them; not all of these people are worth telling a twenty hour game about, but they are all worth our full attention when they’re in our view. This is not unique in my list of faves – almost everything I love most dearly treats every character and every perspective that comes into view with utmost importance, choosing to follow its protagonists not because they’re more important but as a way of centering what could become an otherwise unwieldy world – but it’s near-unique in that there is an explicit moral component to this perspective*. In something like Mad Men or The Shield, we’re seeing a near-infinite number of motivations and how they most effectively actualise themselves; in something like Cowboy Bebop, it’s less about any kind of morality and more about glee in the near-finite number of sensations the universe and the people in it can generate. In Mass Effect, the goal of the player is to create moral equilibrium – every situation is a problem for you to fix, and it’s not about seeing different perspectives but about presenting different kinds of moral quagmires. There are situations in which everyone has an understandable motivation for doing what they do – like the terrible case of the man who wants to retrieve his wife’s body for burial while the military needs it to conduct tests that might prevent further deaths – and there are situations where the problem is clearly black and white – like when you save a young quarian from racial profiling and either help her out or help her out and tell the people harassing her to get fucked.
(*The other one being Order Of The Stick.)
Which is what makes Mordin Solus so interesting. I believe the creative conceit of the character is to show someone sitting perfectly on the grey halfway point between Good and Evil – on a scale of one to ten, one being pure Good and ten being pure Evil, Mordin is a perfect five. Like almost all the characters you recruit in Mass Effect 2, you hear about Mordin long before you meet him; he’s currently running a clinic in the slums of one of the most wretched hives of scum and villainy in the galaxy, and as you search for him, you hear stories of his ruthlessness with the local gangs. The stories turn out to be true without capturing the full totality of the man – quite aside from the fact that he has an infectious, joyful personality that fills an entire room on its own and a set of verbal tics in which he uses terseness to get even more information across (“Not now. Working on Collector data. Have ruled out artificially intelligent virus. Unless it’s very intelligent. And toying with me. Hmm. Tests…”), he also has a deep, clearly worked out sense of right and wrong that’s based on rationally trying to achieve specific goals as opposed to living up to the idea of a person. Many characters are shocked by his willingness to kill, and he’s always comfortable providing an explanation (a conversation you witness with his assistant early on: “You’re a doctor! You’re supposed to help people!” / “Lots of ways to help people. Sometimes heal patients, sometimes execute dangerous people. Either way helps.”). When you become familiar enough with each other, this flowers into him explaining to you that he was part of the task force that created and unleashed the genophage* – a biological weapon that interfered with krogan biology to make only one in ten thousand births viable. Mordin stands with the party justification: the krogan homeworld was sufficiently dangerous that the species bore large numbers of children at any one time, and after being uplifted to space travel, their population exploded, which lead to a violent uprising that could have destroyed the galaxy, so the only solution – the only solution – was population control. And to be clear, Mordin sides with this not out of party loyalty, but because he honestly believes in it.
(*Slightly inaccurate, actually – he was part of the group that effectively took it from beta to the final version. The point is he has a hand in it.)
This leads to the most interesting use of Paragon morality in the game. Paragon Shepard is consistently horrified by the genophage and considers it a war crime, a concept foreign to salarian morality in general and Mordin’s morality in particular. Now, there are a lot of video games that have ‘charisma’ as a skill – something where, if you have enough points in it, you can open up more dialogue options to get stuff. The interesting thing about Charisma in the Mass Effect series is how carefully the dialogue for it is written – at least 60% of the time, you’re not actually changing anyone’s mind, you’ve just proved you care about this so deeply and you’re gonna be so much of a nuisance that they’re just going to let you have your way because its easier than fighting you, and most of the rest of the time, you’re talking to someone who is already wavering over two options and you’re simply pushing them over the edge, with actual cases of changing someone’s mind through either reasoning or sheer force of personality being very, very rare. Another way of saying this is that you’re effectively bullying your way through the galaxy, flattening people with a mixture of willpower and literal power (being a Spectre and capable of killing or arresting people). Mordin is a genuine challenge to this – he can’t be bullied, insulted, or hectored into changing his mind, and he’s smart enough to have a response to every criticism you throw at him. He denies it being either a sterility plague or a genocide with clear medical science, and he’s unswayed by abstract notions of Good and Evil – as far as he’s concerned, the existential threat the krogan represented was too clear and too powerful to do anything other than reduce their population.
What I end up thinking about is how this sounds like a lot of shit that wallflower has said, particularly about Ronnie Gardocki. Mass Effect being what it is, Mordin is given more chances to explain and defend his views and actions, but his sensibility and character is much like Ronnie in his lack of inner conflict. One of the main recurring beats in the relationship between Paragon Shepard and Mordin is that she keeps attributing a guilt to him that he continuously denies, not in a protesting-too-much way but in that he hasn’t even thought about it and is surprised she keeps bringing it up. One of the most powerful moments is when Mordin is shocked and saddened to find a dead female krogan who was killed in the process of performing sloppy experiments to reverse the genophage (“Pointless. Pointless waste of life.”), and Shepard observes how strange it is to see him sad over a dead krogan. Mordin almost always responds to questions about his morality like a patient teacher, not particularly surprised or offended by anyone’s naivete, but this provokes genuine and hysterical anger out of him – he’s not some unfeeling monster actively slaughtering krogan out of sadism or indifference to life, but a moral actor making the best moral choices he can with the shitty hand the galaxy dealt to him. That clarity in a simple motivation that leads to complex action is very much in line with the kind of stories wallflower highlights, and I propose that Mordin is another such example, and that such characters be referred to as wallflorid characters.
(I asked wallflower about turning his name into an adjective, and that’s what he suggested)
What’s interesting about Mordin is how you can see how everything he says justifying the genophage is true whilst still having the perspective to find it morally unacceptable. Mordin’s loyalty mission is one in which you travel to the krogan homeworld to track down his former assistant, kidnapped by a gang of mercenaries trying to reverse the effects of the genophage, which gives the two of you a procession of terrible things the krogan have done in the wake of the genophage, but for you it’s just a specific and extreme example of the spiritual wound the krogan were delivered. By this point, you’ve met thousands of krogan, responding to the genophage in thousands of distinct ways but responding to it nonetheless; most bear a level of fatalism and/or nihilism as their race slowly bubbles away, some are grasping at straws to save their race, some see it as punishment for the sins of the past, and one in particular sees it as simply another challenge for the krogan people to face (a very krogan way of looking at it). There are two moments in Mordin’s mission that stand out in this respect – there’s a random gang member who gives an speech throwing blame and threats at everyone and anyone he can think of, and it’s in equal parts incoherent and heartfelt (at one part his voice breaks). The other is a soldier you find who has willingly undergone horrific genetic experiments because he knows that while there’s zero chance of him ever having children, he can do something for the krogan race in general right now.
I almost feel like I’m strolling into the notion of Paragon Shepard being a character just as strong-willed and just as credible and complex a moral voice as Mordin but not feeling very wallflorid (which helps, you know, try and clarify this term). The side effect of Mass Effect‘s gameplay style and storytelling goals is that Paragon and Renegade Shepard have moralities that are based in fitting a conception of a person, with Paragon being a Kirk-like, uh, paragon of goodness and Renegade being an antiheroic edgy asshole; the consequence of this is that both versions of Shep feel as if they’re driven by abstract ideals and principles rather than chasing a specific action. Paragon Shep in particular is driven by concepts like unity, mutual cooperation, and preservation of all life – to put it neatly, the Paragon ending of the first game is one in which humanity gains a seat on the multi-species Council, whereas the Renegade ending has humanity become the only race in charge, something that would be abhorrent to Paragon Shep. A wallflorid character like Mordin begins their moral process by identifying the problem they want to tackle and then finding the most effective way of solving that problem; with Shep, it feels more like she asks who she wants to be, and then what that person would do in this current situation. The latter asks “What Would Jesus Do?” and the former asks “What Would Jesus Fix?”.
The ending of Mordin’s story is interesting in light of all of this, because it manages to achieve the unity Paragon Shepard wants without compromising Mordin. The big reveal is that Mordin’s assistant wasn’t kidnapped, but actively chose that specific krogan gang to assist him in finding a way to reverse the genophage. Unlike Mordin, he’s been wracked with guilt ever since participating in the genophage; when Mordin, bewildered, asks how he could justify performing such unethical and terrible experiments, he responds “Nothing we do will ever be justified!”, and every argument Mordin tries fails to bring his former student down from frenzied anger and sadness. Mordin, stricken by anger and grief, pulls a pistol on his mentee knowing that killing him is the only way to stop these experiments going further, and it’s only Paragon Shepard crying out “You’re not a murderer!” that stops him. There is an extent to which Mordin is trying to be a particular person – he had ten million reasons to justify the genophage and it was an act of rationality, whereas this would be coldblooded murder done in the heat of the moment. He picks the problems that a good person would solve. In the end, Mordin does allow himself to recognise that developing the genophage has caused everything he sees before him, and he gives a line on his feelings that’s not necessary for a wallflorid character but is wonderfull wallflower-like in its meaning: “Not guilty, but responsible.”