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Great Moments in Gaming: Discovering The Soul in Mass Effect 3



Mass Effect 3

As a genre, science fiction has the potential to be both some of the best and worst media available for consumption. Unfortunately, more often than not science fiction writers fail to realize that potential, but for those that are willing to wade through the miles of metaphorical mediocrity, the genre provides some of the most philosophically rewarding questions woven into beautiful stories. The difference between good sci-fi and great sci-fi is when the genre forces its audience to reckon with deep philosophical questions for which there is no clearly defined answer. Mass Effect is a series known for the incredible power the player wields over the outcome of the story but that power is never realized quite as well until the moment in which Legion asks Tali “does this unit have a soul?”

To better illustrate why the moment of establishing peace between the Quarians and the Geth was so impactful on me I need to provide some additional backstory. I am not religious and was raised an atheist. As a result of the lack of exposure to religious beliefs during my upbringing, I carried an extremely elementary understanding of what it is that constitutes a soul well into adulthood. To me, the idea of a soul was the cartoonishly ethereal apparition that contains the consciousness that children are taught about in Sunday school. My simple interpretation of a soul was consistent with my lack of belief in a god and so the natural conclusion I came to was that just like god, souls didn’t exist…until I played Mass Effect 3.

A quick disclaimer: the moment discussed in this article is one that is dependent on several decisions and statistics over the course of two games as well as importing a save file from Mass Effect 2 to Mass Effect 3. Achieving peace between the Quarians and the Geth is one of the most difficult story outcomes to attain throughout the entire trilogy. It is advisable to follow a guide for anyone looking to achieve this outcome during their next playthrough of the Mass Effect trilogy.

Mass Effect 3
Image: Bioware

The foundational lore of the conflict between the Quarians and Geth is fundamental to the impact of their moment of reconciliation. One of the most pivotal decisions of the citadel council was to restrict the development of artificial intelligence. Despite this pact among the citadel races, the Quarians developed an artificial intelligence in secret. As development progressed, this race of illegal collective A.I. known as the Geth began to gain levels of intelligence that were the very reason the development of A.I. had been outlawed, to begin with. In response to this development, the Quarians took action to shut the Geth collective down but the advancements that had been made had given the Geth a level of intelligence great enough to realize what the Quarians were doing. The events that would follow would be known as the Morning War.

Ironically it was their fear of a Geth revolt that caused the Quarians to take the actions that would give the Geth no other choice. In their panicked attempt to prevent an A.I. uprising, the Quarians became irrational and afraid. Initially, the Geth simply tried to reason with the Quarians in order to prevent their own destruction via non-violent intervention. But as pressure mounted to correct their mistake, one Quarian made a fatal error that would dictate the lives of every Quarian man, woman, and child for the next three hundred years, that Quarian opened fire on the Geth. It wasn’t until this moment that the Geth were willing to respond with violence, but the degree to which the Geth outnumbered the Quarians made it a fairly lopsided conflict. Eventually, the Geth would gain the upper hand and the Quarians would flee their home planet of Rannoch.

Throughout the duration of the first Mass Effect game, the player is taught that the Geth are an enemy. The Turian Spectre Saren’s manipulation and use of the Geth to achieve his end goals naturally predisposed the player to viewing the Geth as a threat to be dealt with as opposed to another neutral alien race to interact with either positively or negatively. So when, towards the end of Mass Effect 2, the player encounters a Geth unit that not only isn’t aggressive but actually saves Shepard in a time of vulnerability, both the audience and the characters are dumbstruck. After being convinced by the crew, Shepard brings the Geth unit aboard the Normandy and chooses to reactivate it for the rare opportunity to directly interrogate a Geth. After a bit of conversation in which the Geth unit insists “we are Geth” when asked for a name Edi says “My name is Legion, for we are many.” And like that, the specific unit becomes Legion.

Mass Effect 3
Image: Bioware

Almost immediately upon reactivating Legion, the sole Quarian crew member aboard the Normandy, Tali’Zorah Vas Normandy, is understandably upset. Tali urges Shepard to not trust Legion and warns of the danger allowing a Geth aboard the Normandy brings. If Shepard acknowledges Tali but chooses to insist to both Tali and Legion that they learn to coexist then both will remain members of the crew of the Normandy throughout the remainder of Mass Effect 2. Assuming Shepard gains the loyalty of both Tali and Legion and both survive the trip through the Omega 4 relay, then peace between the Quarians and the Geth remains a possibility. After meeting several other parameters that make that peace possible, Shepard makes a trip to the Quarian home planet Rannoch late in Mass Effect 3

While on Rannoch, if all the pre-requisite requirements have been met, Shepard encounters Legion who is preparing to upload a software patch to the rest of the Geth collective. This particular software patch contains code acquired from heretical Geth who had been assimilated by the Reapers. The Geth heretics were given a level of intelligence by the Reapers that had never been possessed by any units of the Geth collective previously. As a result of this significantly greater level of intelligence the Geth would finally achieve true sentience, and according to Legion, would finally be able to truly assist in the galaxy’s fight against the Reapers. But the circumstances in which the Geth would receive this intelligence are less than ideal. 

As Legion is in the process of uploading the Reaper’s intelligence patch to the Geth collective, the Quarian flotilla is in their final approach to what is meant to be the ultimate attack on the Geth ending in the total destruction of the Geth. In the event that Legion is allowed to upload the intelligence to the Geth collective, the Geth will significantly outmatch the Quarian’s, leaving the Quarian fleet vulnerable to certain doom. Because of this potential vulnerability, Tali pleads with Shepard to not allow Legion to upload the intelligence patch to the Geth to ensure the salvation of her people and in turn, the annihilation of the Geth. In response to Tali’s plea Legion  asks her if she remembers the question that caused the Quarians to attack the Geth to begin with, he then turns to Tali and asks “does this unit have a soul?”

Mass Effect 3
Image: Bioware

After this moment of forced introspection, Shepard and Tali have the opportunity to call off the Quarian fleet and demand that they stand down for the span of just two minutes. In that time Legion is able to complete the upload of the Reaper code to the Geth collective giving each unit sentience and free will essentially end their status as a collective and making them individuals. And when at the moment they gain sentience, the Quarians are there not firing upon them, the Geth immediately ally with the Quarians, and the elusive peace is achieved ending literally centuries of war between the Quarians and their creation. 

After the Geth gains sentience and peace is achieved, Legion reveals that in order to finalize the upload direct personality dissemination is required. Legion explains that his sacrifice is necessary to finalize the upload and in his last moments of existence, Tali tells him that the answer to his question is yes. 

The moment of achieving peace between the Quarians and the Geth forced me to question my own preconceived notion of what it means to possess a soul and how we as a species should define being alive. The moment between Tali and Legion in which Tali openly acknowledges that Legion has a soul is a beautiful one that put into perspective how immature my own perception of a soul was. A soul isn’t the ethereal ghost version of ourselves that exists within our mortal body and goes to heaven in the clouds when we die. A soul is an intangible manifestation of who we are that makes us more than simple electrical charges firing within the brain matter in our skulls. It is that which cannot be quantified, our guiding principles that enable us to love and to be loved. It is what allows us to touch and connect with other people, what allows us to feel pain in more ways than just physically which gives us the perspective to appreciate the moments of love and peace. A soul is what makes us individuals and what ultimately drives us to yearn to be free.

Normandy SR1
Image: Bioware

So yes, as silly as it may sound, after playing Mass Effect 3 I believe in the existence of a soul. And not only do I believe that everyone in the world has a soul and is alive but I also firmly believe that there will come a time when we create a living being that isn’t human. And when that time comes it will be some of the most impactful and important moments in storytelling in which creatives grappled with morality that we will be able to turn to as our guiding light of what is the correct way to progress.

Mass Effect 3 made me believe in something I hadn’t believed in prior. A story in a game forced me to reevaluate a major philosophical issue from a totally new perspective and it made me not only think about what the future holds but look forward to it. It is the unrivaled ability to make us truly understand what it means to be human that makes great science fiction and Mass Effect 3 is not only great science fiction but some of the best science fiction ever created. 

News writer and Xbox reviewer. Patrick lives in Minneapolis Minnesota with his wife and their dog Ghost. Patrick studied economics at the University of Northern Colorado and is particularly interested in the market dynamics of the video game industry. When he's not working Patrick can be found walking Ghost through downtown MPLS, binging The West Wing on repeat, or playing hockey. You see everything Patrick does right here on