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So, in Mass Effect 2, you spend an entire mission investigating the work of a Salarian scientist who has come to the conclusion that the genophage (a gene-altering virus that renders the overwhelming majority of Krogan births stillborn) was an immoral punishment to inflict on the Krogan (who otherwise would have overrun the galaxy and destroyed its government) and that he must find a way to reverse it at any cost, including the use of unethical medical practices and experiments on Krogan subjects. There’s a lot of establishing of the various ways in which this could be interpreted morally, and it affects one of your companions, Mordin, deeply. Mordin is another Salarian geneticist, responsible for secretly monitoring and maintaining the effect of the genophage on Krogan biology, and also the mentor of the scientist you’re trying to find. He is deeply moved by the ravaged bodies of Krogan females who volunteered (desperate and taken in by the outlandish promises of the scientist you seek) to submit to inhumane treatment for a slim chance at bearing children. You watch him pity them, bloody victims of the genophage, as he wrestles with his conviction that the genophage was a bloodless solution to galactic war, and feeling that he has failed to teach his protege to lead ethical work.
At the end of the mission, you are given the choice of saving the research, obtained through incredibly inhumane means, or destroying it. According to Mass Effect 2’s morality system, destroying it is the morally right thing to do: aside from upholding galactic law, the hands of anyone using such painfully bought information would inevitably be stained with the blood of the innocents who were emotionally manipulated into dying for its creation. Saving the research is presented as a Renegade action, the side of ruthless, independent, and un-empathetic decisions.
This decision, and plot line, comes back with avengeance in Mass Effect 3, when you are required to cure the genophage in order to get the Krogan to join the war against the Reapers. Here, you are introduced to Mordin’s change of heart about the genophage. Here, you are introduced to Eve, the series’ first speaking role for a female Krogan (in ME2 female Krogan only appear inside body bags). Here, curing the genophage is presented as noble, necessary, and something that should have happened years ago. Here, destruction of that old genophage cure directly costs lives. But the more I think about it, the thing I love most is the change in how the game wants you, Shepard, to feel about female Krogan.
In ME2, the first we hear of the genophage cure research is that it is brutalizing the females who are involved in it. And the emphasis continues to be on the violence that is being done to them, not the females themselves. They must have been desperate, you think. They must have been crazy. Irrational. No one would volunteer for such a thing otherwise. They are the unfortunate victims of the hopeless Krogan yearning to defeat the irreversible effects of the genophage, and shutting down the research is the only way to protect them.
Then, in ME3, you meet Eve. She’s sick. Dying, actually. The treatment, devised by Mordin, has transformed her into a genetic template from which a cure can be created, but it has also ruined her immune system. You first see her sealed immobile in a sterile chamber, and your mission is to safeguard her, as she is transported in what is basically a freight box, to your ship, while under fire. Again, the game leads you to instinctively protect a female Krogan because you perceive them to be a victim of their circumstances rather than because you actually understand their motivations. But at the end of that mission, when her cage finally reaches ground, Eve steps off it, grabs a sidearm from the most powerful Krogan leader in millennia, and executes the last enemy. And from that point on, sick or not, she is a walking reminder that everything you thought you knew about the morality of the genophage cure research is wrong.
Mass Effect 3 confirms the agency of female krogan, where in ME2, you are encouraged to view them as passive, pitiable victims of scientific madness. Pain? Death? Did you forget that they are still Krogan? A species that every time it rises to post-industrial stages of civilization inevitably nukes itself back to near oblivion in world war? A species where individuals are so territorial that they cannot bunk together even in the tight quarters of faster-than-light ships? (FTL ships that we taught them how to make after we discovered their tribal pre-space flight society, because we desperately needed a warrior race to help us fight a different galactic threat.) A species whose coming of age trial isn’t, Mua’dib, riding the worm, but surviving combat with it? What Eve shows Shepard in ME3 is that those female krogan who chose to be test subjects chose to be test subjects. Rather than choosing out of desperation, they chose it with fierce determination and pride that they would not let their race die quietly, and with a Krogan understanding that pain and death is as close to life as breath and sleep. And to destroy the revelations that they bought with their health, and their dreams, and their clan status, is to deny them the ability to govern the future of their own race…
As the rest of the galaxy denied the Krogan their ability to control the future of their own race. What was a Paragon choice in the last game, is now an example of you committing a moral fuckup on a grand scale. An example of you assuming that you, as a representative of the Council, a member of a race with a seat on the Council, and an outsider to Krogan society… that you knew better than a group of Krogans, a race dwindling to extinction because of the actions of a government which owes them is existence, in which they have no representatives, and to whom they have not been a credible threat for thousands of years. It’s you assuming that you could make a decision for them that would decide the ultimate fate of their entire race and culture.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that if this was intentional, I’m in awe that Bioware was still able to, well, force character development and change of heart onto the player in a game where the entire crux of the gameplay is that building a personality out of player decisions.
And also that I destroyed the genophage cure in ME2 and because of that Eve didn’t survive the process of curing the genophage in ME3 and while I feel bad about that, I’m also in awe of how cunningly I was manipulated into those decisions. And how the reveal of the pretty-much-invisible-to-the-rest-of-the-galaxy culture of female Krogan was central to the realization that I’d been piloting a character into making some really colonial-oppressor-type decisions. Now, I don’t know whether any of that was actually intentional on the part of Bioware. It’s a sad fact that a lot of developers consider designing more than one gender (i.e., designing women) of a race, class, unit, or other player avatar to be not worth the resources. But while it really doesn’t make any sense that there isn’t a single female Turian character anywhere in those games, the genophage gives the Krogan a reason to be very protective of their females: no Krogan women are technically sterile, they’re all equally unlikely to bear live children. Female Krogan, more than the males (who have basically fallen apart as a connected society and live as isolated mercenaries and soldiers in others’ armies), have devoted their energies to living on their home planet and trying desperately to propagate the race, even forming all female clans to raise their limited numbers of children in. It actually makes a certain amount of sense that you wouldn’t run into any of them just jetting around the galaxy. The game, in many ways, seems set up to give you limited information about them by only showing you the male side of Krogan culture with no hints to fill in the gaps in the other half of their species, and then, after you’ve been asked to make a decision for a group of people you know next to nothing about, blindsides you with the fact that they’re living, thinking, active agents of their own destinies.
So the other thing is that I, like, probably only know two people who will really appreciate this from a gamer, writer, metaphor-for-gender/race/colonial-power-structure-abuses standpoint.