One of the sad things about the big reveal of the bug-like Rachni in Peak 15 is that for a lot of players it probably didn’t feel like a big reveal. The Rachni War is probably the single most important event to happen in the galaxy since the last time the Reapers went on tour, but the game never goes out of its way to let you know that beforehand.
A Brief History of the Rachni
Two thousand years before Commander Shepard was given his license to fly around the galaxy and Shoot Shit in The Name of Peace, some enterprising Salarian popped open a mass relay, took a look around the system on the other side, and was promptly captured by the Rachni that lived there. The Rachni reverse-engineered the ship, built some of their own, and started kicking the galaxy’s ass. They were kicking so much ass that the council races were basically screwed.
So the Salarians – masters at implementing terrible ideas in clever ways – uplifted the Krogan. The Krogan weren’t much for doing things like inventing spaceships or zap guns or space suits, but once the Salarians gave them these things the Krogan were able – delighted even! – to solve the Rachni problem as violently as possible. They eradicated the bugs from space, then eradicated them on their homeworlds, then bombed the surface just to make sure.
The Krogan then turned around and began fighting everyone else, because that’s kind of what they do. This led the Salarians to come up with a sterility plagueOr not, depending on which game codex you believe. Whatever Salarian PR is calling it, fewer babies are born., and the Turians to release it, which cut down on the Krogan numbers and created a lot of hard feelings all around. Also, the council races stopped opening new mass relays, which stopped their expansion, which had even more consequences down the road as species began squabbling over the now-limited supply of planets.
And then when the Humans showed up on the galactic scene, they tried opening a mass relay because they didn’t know any better. The Turians found them doing it and tried to stop them without saying “please” first, and yet another war happened.
Basically, the Rachni war was at the root of every lousy thing that’s happened in the last two thousand years.
I love this bit of galactic history because of the causality chain it creates: D because C as a result of B because of A. This is so much more interesting than so many invented histories which are simply: A then B then C then D. When you look at the history, you see how sickeningly inevitable it all was. You can also see the personalities of the various species involved. They don’t all behave like humans with funny-shaped heads. They all have their own approach to solving problems and making decisions.
For example: The Salarians are brilliant but extremely hasty, averse to direct confrontation, and short-lived. Short-term solutions like the Krogan uplift perfectly reflect their mindset. (The genophage probably wasn’t the product of long-term thinking, either.)
Sadly, I’m willing to bet most players had no idea about any of this when they ran into the Rachni Queen. You could only learn about the Rachni through the codex, and even then it’s not like the game went out of its way to draw attention to this particular entry. Wrex is the only one who brings it up in conversation, and only if you talk to him about his people often, and even then the Rachni are barely a footnote in his story about the genophage.
Basically, this could have been a major mind-blowing reveal, but instead ends up feeling like a little bit of trivia: “By the way, did you know this bug-thing was believed to be extinct?”
Ideally, it would have been nice if someone in your crew had been telling this story the way Wrex told the story of the genophage. Then when the player was offered the choice to let the Rachni queen live or die, they would have had a fuller grasp of the magnitude of their decision. Speaking of which…
The Rachni Queen
This is a pretty interesting alien. She is not quite the freak that the Thorian is, but the whole thing with her using a mostly-dead Asari commando as a puppet so she can speak is pretty out there, and all her blather about colors and words makes it clear that their way of communication is pretty different from ours.
This also marks one of the major player-controlled story branches in the game: Do you release or destroy the Rachni Queen? Either empty her cage into the vat of acid, or open the cage and let her scurry off.
The choice is a little unfair, of course. When the Rachni War ended, the Roman Empire was still a thing back on Earth. The war was a long time ago according to how humans measure it, and not so long ago according to (say) the Asari. Even if the player has been diligent about the codex-reading and even if Shepard paid attention in history class, neither one has the proper context or authority to make a decision of this magnitude.
The most obvious course of action would be to leave the Rachni queen in her cage for the moment. You could delay the choice until after you arrange a conference call with (say) the council. Maybe she should be handed over to the Salarian STG? Maybe you should give the complex time to evacuate before you let this particular genie out of her bottle? Maybe the Citadel could send some other force to take custody of the queen and leave the decision to them?
But Shamus, Noveria is outside of Council space! The council couldn’t just send in a team to deal with this.
I’m not really objecting to the fact that Shepard can’t just summon help out here. It just feels odd that our only options are “kill” and “release”. It shouldn’t have been that hard to fix. Just give Shepard a third option to leave her in the cage, and when he talks to the council they mention they’re sending somebody to secure the queen. This middle road would have offered no paragon or renegade points, and the writers could have simply treated this choice as exterminating her for the purposes of the sequels. (Since it’s reasonable to assume the council would have killed her themselves if given the chance.)
And speaking of making choices…
Choice and Consequence
But fine. It’s a videogame and it can’t possibly take into account every possible course of action. A complex dilemma is boiled down to a simple binary decision. That’s a bit of a bummer, but you can’t have everything.
But this just makes it all the more frustrating when Mass Effect 3 muddles the whole choice. There are four total outcomes for the Rachni:
- If you spare the Rachni queen here on Noveria, then you find her a prisoner of the Reapers on Utukku.
- You can rescue the queen, which turns her into war assets.
- You can leave her to her fate, which… whatever. Nothing happens.
- If you KILL the Queen here on Noveria, then the Reapers construct a Queen Thrall, because they want to control Rachni soldiers and no we don’t have time to explore that idea in detail. Let’s just go with it.
- You can rescue the thrall queen, which turns her into negative war assetsI’m just going by the wiki. I never explored this path. when she betrays you off-screen at some later time.
- You can leave her to her fate, and she will attack you.
They went to all this trouble to give us this branching outcome, when I think that what people really wanted was for that initial decision to stand. If I kill the queen she should stay dead, not be replaced with a color-swapped doppleganger. It’s this strange mindset that players must value content more than choice, that we’d rather see our decisions negated than miss out on one mission. Heck, if you don’t want to cut a mission then just fill the cave on Utukku with… I dunno… other mooks. Whatever. Just don’t un-do the earlier decision, and then turn around and offer the player the same decision again.
This is something that harmed Telltale’s The Walking Dead. Negating a major player decision doesn’t just harm that particular moment of the game, it harms every subsequent decision. You’re asking the player to ponder this uncomfortable decision with complex ethical implications and unknowable outcomes, but now in the back of their mind they have this nagging doubt, “Bah. It probably doesn’t matter what I choose anyway because nothing I choose makes any difference. I’ll just do whatever gives me paragon points.” It’s destructive to one of the core promises of the game, which is that the player will get to “make choices that matter”. Players are hungry for even a little authorship over the world. I think we value that far more than one more stupid gunfight.
I can’t make sense of BioWare’s priorities when it comes to choice. You can bump into Agent Parasini again in Mass Effect 2, and according to the wiki there are several different ways that conversation can go. She might not be there at all, if she died in Mass Effect 1. If she is there and if you helped her, then she has some extra dialog acknowledging that. Parasini is a minor character and I doubt anyone would have been upset if she hadn’t shown up in later games. In fact, randomly bumping into her on another world makes the universe feel kind of small.
Why was the trivial decision about how nice I was to Parasini given a nice little fan-service spotlight, but the gut-wrenching decision to genocide or unleash the Rachni was hand-waved away? This was both the most expensive and least satisfying way of handling things.
 Or not, depending on which game codex you believe. Whatever Salarian PR is calling it, fewer babies are born.
 I’m just going by the wiki. I never explored this path.
Artless in Alderaan
People were so worried about the boring gameplay of The Old Republic they overlooked just how boring and amateur the art is.
Game at the Bottom
Why spend millions on visuals that are just a distraction from the REAL game of hotbar-watching?
The game was a dud, and I'm convinced a big part of that is due to the way the game leaned into its story. Its terrible, cringe-inducing story.
The Best of 2017
My picks for what was important, awesome, or worth talking about in 2017.
TitleWhat’s Inside Skinner’s Box?
What is a skinner box, how does it interact with neurotransmitters, and what does it have to do with shooting people in the face for rare loot?