We all have things in our lives that we’re just a little crazy about: an old TV show you watched as a kid, a song that helped you get through a rough time, or, as the title of this post would suggest, a video game character who earned a special place in your affections. It may sound silly to get so sentimental about a bunch of painstakingly-rendered pixels, but the truth is that video games have been creating memorable, nuanced characters for decades, and they deserve just as much love as characters from any other medium.
All this is a roundabout way of introducing a new series of posts I want to try out called What’s So Special? in which I ramble effusively about some aspect of pop culture that has meant something to me over the years. I want to shine a light on certain things, however small, that for whatever reason just stick with us. It can often be difficult to define exactly why some things stand out to us, but that’s precisely what I’m going to try to do with these posts: I think it’ll be fun to explore what makes something great, and in some cases, try to understand what makes it special to me on a personal level. With that in mind, I’m kicking things off with a deep dive into Mass Effect’s inimitable Salarian scientist (or should that be scientist Salarian?), Mordin Solus.
(SPOILERS AHEAD FOR MASS EFFECT 2 & 3)
Had to be me. Someone else might have gotten it wrong.
If you’re familiar with the quote above, then you’re probably already curled up on the floor in the foetal position, sobbing at one of the all-time send-offs for a video game character. If you’re unfamiliar with the quote, well, you’re missing out. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves a little; for now, let’s focus on the beginning. Mordin Solus is one of the first squadmates recruited by Commander Shepard in his fight against the Reapers in Mass Effect 2; he also has a pivotal role in Mass Effect 3, but doesn’t join your squad in the game. In ME2 he can fight alongside you on missions, and develops most of the upgrades to your weapons and gear. We find Mordin in an improvised medical clinic deep in the slums of the space station Omega, and we get to know a few things about him pretty quickly:
- He is a Salarian, an alien race in the Mass Effect universe known for their intelligence and cunning. Salarians are logical to a fault and tend to make decisions based on science and reason rather than emotion.
- He is a scientist – a geneticist, to be specific, but you get the sense he could turn his hand to just about anything.
- He talks fast and looks cool. I’ll get to his unique way of speaking later, but doesn’t he just look like a badass? Scars on his face, narrowed eyes, one of his horns is missing… Cool.
- He is morally… cloudy. Mordin is ruthless, and makes it clear that he won’t hesitate to kill if he believes it’s justified; but we also find him feverishly working to find a cure for an epidemic on Omega and is even treating plague victims.
We learn all this about Mordin in a few well-crafted minutes of dialogue and cutscenes, which speaks as much to the quality of his introduction as it does to the strength of his character, but what’s clear from the start is that he doesn’t fuck around; and while I don’t necessarily agree with his logic-driven, end-justifies-the-means philosophy, the force of his conviction endeared him to me instantly. We build on this foundation throughout the game: during our interactions with Mordin on the Normandy, when he isn’t cracking mad scientist-type jokes, we explore the darker parts of his past and learn about his philosophies and motives. If he seems callous about taking lives from time to time, it’s only because he believes so passionately that his actions will ultimately prevent greater harm to a greater number. His ethics are questionable at best, but they invite an interesting debate about video game protagonists in a wider context: after all, in many games we mow down countless enemies without a second thought because we’re told that this is how we save the world; but we never have to consider what we leave behind in our destructive wake. Mordin forces himself to see, to feel whatever collateral anguish his decisions may cause, and for that, I respect him.
You can (and probably should) argue with his methods, but at least Mordin has the balls to face up to the consequences of his actions; and there is no greater consequence than from his work on the Genophage, a genetic weapon that all but sterilised the Krogan race. According to Mordin, the Genophage was the only course of action that could prevent the Krogan from spreading war and devastation across the galaxy, but he did not make the decision lightly. Mordin accepts his responsibility for the decimation of the Krogan, and we can feel the weight of his guilt in some of the deeper conversations we share with him. But he is granted redemption: in a brilliant, bittersweet scene in Mass Effect 3, Mordin engineers a cure for the Genophage – but to disperse the cure so that it reaches the population of Tuchanka (the Krogan homeworld), he has to sacrifice himself. The moment he chooses to distribute the cure himself, knowing that he will be killed in the process, is truly touching, and a fitting tribute to such an unforgettable character.
All right, all right, put down the Kleenex. It hurts to lose characters like Mordin, but the fact that we’re moved by his death is proof of how much we care about him – and Mordin Solus gave us plenty of reason to care. He’s one of the most intensely likeable characters I’ve come across in any medium: a deeply principled yet nuanced scientist; devoted to logic but ultimately driven by emotion; equally familiar with a pistol as with a witty one-liner. When we first meet him he seems aloof and cold, but as we learn more about him, he becomes a valuable teammate and a true friend. Mass Effect is a series built on strong, memorable characters; the fact that Mordin manages to stand out among such a quality cast just goes to show how special he is.
I wanted to finish with my favourite thing about Mordin Solus – his unique way of speaking. I adore the way Mordin talks, and I love that the team behind the game thought to do something different with a character’s dialect beyond just giving them a weird accent. He talks at a ridiculous pace, as if his mouth can barely keep up with his brain; and, befitting his almost-robotically logical worldview, he is supremely economical with his words – why use ten words when you can use five? I feel like I could write an essay about how Mordin talks, but I doubt anyone other than me cares as much about it, so I’ll spare you all.
Mordin Solus is a perfect example of how to create a fictional character: well written, brilliantly acted, funny and serious in just the right measures, and with a depth that enhances his personality the more you learn about him. For me, he deserves recognition as one of the great characters in pop culture. I’ll leave you with probably his most famous scene – I couldn’t finish a tribute to Mordin Solus in any other way.
Are there video game characters who have stood out to you through your life whom you’d like to shout about? I’d love to hear in the comments, but I’d also like to invite people to get in touch with ideas for guest columns in this spot on the site. If you have someone or something in mind that means a lot to you, and you feel could write a post about it, hit me up and we’ll get something arranged.