Why the Story of Mass Effect is One of the Greatest Stories Ever Told, and What it Has to Offer Genre Writers (Part 2: The Geth)

Ah, the Geth. This topic was probably the one I was most looking forward to writing about, primarily because this is a fairly specific aspect of the game, but in my view it’s one of the best things about it, and adds so much to the great universe of Mass Effect. People often talk about sci-fi being a way to progress our way of thought, and see it as a good medium to bring forth new ideas and have meaningful discussions. While I don’t think this is always the case (nor should it be) , it is nice sometimes, and this is a great example.

For some quick background on the Geth for the uninitiated: The Geth are a synthetic race (machines) that function for the most part as a collective, with each ‘geth unit’ being like a hardware platform storing hundreds or thousands of ‘software’ programs. Each program is separate, and the ‘individual’ Geth’s decisions are decided by all of these programs colluding. As such there are different sizes and types of Geth. They were created by another species present in the game, the Quarians, several hundred years prior to the events of the games (and as a result they share a great deal in body structure, even more so because the Quarians have to wear suits that make them look almost robotic as well). The Geth were created to be workers and servants, and were made to be capable of sharing knowledge and learning so that they could become more efficient on their own. Eventually, however, they reached a point near actual intelligence and consciousness, and began questioning things and asking questions like, “Does this unit have a soul?” The Quarians, who had probably also had made movies like Terminator, felt threatened by this, and attempted to shut down all the Geth (though some did side with the Geth). The Geth fought back, understandably, and won the war, forcing the Quarians off their planet, but didn’t pursue the Quarians into space. The Geth then remained quiet within what had been Quarian space until around the time of the first Mass Effect game.

That is where Bioware starts the tale of the Geth for us, and demonstrates just how good their writing can be. In the first game, the Geth are your primary enemies, working for the rogue Spectre Saren. They’re shown as cold, emotionless machines that have no care for other life, and you kill quite a few during the game. This is in line with how synthetic races are used in other sci-fi, filling a similar role to the Borg, Cylons, or Terminators (no the droid army in Star Wars does not count. They were not intelligent in any way, and quiet boring actually.) In Mass Effect 2 there is a new main enemy, the Collectors, and so the Geth go somewhere in the back of your mind, not forgotten, but not the focus. Then, while Shepard and the crew are exploring a derelict Reaper [Reapers are the primary antagonists of the Series, and also a synthetic species] you become of a Geth following you and confront it. It addresses you by name, and expresses surprise that you are alive. It also has a hole in its body that has been patched with a piece of the armor you were wearing when you died in the beginning of the game (I’m not going to explain that plot thread here). Said Geth helps you complete your mission of the derelict Reaper, but is damaged during the fight and you bring it aboard your ship and store it in the AI core, so your ship’s artificial intelligence, EDI, can keep an eye on it.

Then you have a choice. You can sell the disable Geth to the Cerberus organization, your current employer, or you can risk reactivating it. I ma aware that a number of players did in fact sell the Geth, but I can’t understand why they would do that. You just miss out on so much. So when you reactivate it, it not only isn’t hostile to you but it expresses a desire to help you in your mission. This is extremely unexpected when playing the game for the first time, and it only gets more interesting from there. (It is also the first time you hear a Geth talk in an understandable language.) From the following conversations, you learn so much about the Geth that forces you to see them in a completely different light. First, Shepard asks the Geth its name, which prompts an interesting conversation, as the Geth don’t generally have names. It just refers to itself as Geth, and refers to itself as ‘we’, as it is made up of thousands of Geth programs in its mobile platform. Eventually it accepts the name Legion, which EDI suggested. More interesting is when you question Legion as to why it used your armor to repair itself. It becomes uncharacteristically evasive, its explanation being, ‘There was a hole,’ and ultimately can only respond with ‘no data available’. This gave me some pause, as it did for many players. The Geth have been established as a synthetic, emotionless race, and yet here we have one unable to give a logical answer, suggesting an irrational, almost emotional decision by an intelligent being that was sent to find Shepard.

Throughout the rest of the game, you get to interact more with Legion. You get much more information of what the Geth feel toward the Quarians, who they still refer to as ‘creators’, and you learn more about what transpired during the war between the Geth and Quarians. You learn that the Geth were simply defending themselves, and that to this day they bear no animosity toward their creators–they are incapable of emotion, after all. His interactions with your Quarian squadmate, Tali, and EDI also further make him feel like another person, and his insights into the Geth collective mind does not make them seem at all like the evil robots we’ve become used to in fiction.

This is further clarified in Legion’s loyalty mission in Mass Effect 2, where he asks you for help in eliminating what he terms ‘heretic Geth’, the ones you fought in the previous game, who serve the Reapers, which they call the ‘Old Machines’. In this you learn that the Geth are more like us than previously thought; despite their collective mind, they do not always act in complete unison. In this mission you end up with the choice to either rewrite these Geth or destroy them. And this choice is left to you even if you ask Legion: He informs you that the individual programs that make him up are practically evenly split, and he cannot make the choice.

The last major point of Legion’s story in Mass Effect 2, apart from his participation in the game’s final mission, is a confrontation with Tali near the end. She catches Legion scanning her equipment and attempting to send information back to the Geth. When you question Legion, it says that he has to warn his kind about the threat the creators pose (they have been planning to attack the Geth and retake their homeworld. More on this when we reach Mass Effect 3. ultimately you can side with one or the other, which will negatively impact future events, or negotiate a compromise, after which the two people agree to get along, and a mutual respect begins to form.

The culmination of the Geth’s story takes place in Mass Effect 3. When you first see the Quarians and the Geth in this game, the Quarians have begun their planned invasion, even in the face of the greater Reaper threat. When you and Tali are assisting the Quarians, you discover something shocking: Legion is being held captive, used as a transmitter for a Reaper signal. He tells you that the majority of Geth elected to turn to the Reapers for help when it became clear they could not beat the Quarians and feared for their survival.  They made a poor choice out of desperation, just like we organics have been known to do.

Freeing Legion hampers the Geth significantly, because they no longer have access to the Reaper enhancements, and the Quarians begin to win. When you talk to Legion back on your ship, you learn even more: That with these Reaper enhancements, their thoughts processes became much more advanced, and nearly organic. The Geth wish to keep these upgrades, as it will allow them to fully advance to their true potential. Interestingly, Legion also tells Shepard that after the events of Mass Effect 2, it returned to the Geth to warn them of the Reaper threat, and the consensus agreed about the threat, and had prepared to fight the Reapers. Only the ill-advised Quarian attack forced them to ask the Reapers for help. As you complete future missions, you learn more about what’s been going on, and they free more Geth from Reaper control. Ultimately, they find the original source of the Reaper signal: an actual Reaper, on the planet. The Reaper is destroyed, and the Quarians try to take advantage and attack the now disabled Geth fleet. At the same time, Legion announces that he intends to give the Reaper code back to his people, who will remain free but will make them truly alive, but they would also win the space battle and the Quarians would die. Here Shepard has to make a choice: choose one over the other, or try and broker a cease-fire; letting Legion continue while ordering the Quarians to cease attacking. (Note: Should you choose to side with the Quarians, Legion may attack you, stating that Shepard does not have to right to choose the fate of its people.) But when you do make the cease-fire, Legion discovers that copying the code is not enough–it will have to directly deliver it by dispersing itself among the Geth, which will result in its death, essentially.

But in these final moments, Legion refers to itself as ‘I’, not we, and later we see all of the Geth now do so as well. The actual scene is one of the most heart-wrenching of the game, and describing it with text can’t do it justice. Legion sacrifices itself for its people, and Tali confirms what the Geth have known for some time: The Geth do have a soul, and they are truly alive. The Geth then become staunch supporters of Shepard’s war effort ,and fight alongside the Quarians and everybody else against the Reapers. Furthermore, they welcome the Quarians back to their homeworld ,and offer to work together to rebuild.

So there is the story of the Geth. I hope you can see why I find it so amazing. Bioware takes a general convention and completely turns it on its head while not making said new spin on the convention the only thing the Geth have going for them. Over the course of the three games the Geth go from your standard evil robots to as much a living species as any other. They make mistakes, but they are not in any way evil, and by the end they truly become alive.

This is just a great example of how anything can be used in an inventive, original way. It was one of the things about Mass Effect that led to it being my favorite sci-fi setting of all time, and one of my biggest inspirations as a writer. But once again, it has so much more of an impact when you play the game, and even more so if you closely follow the relationship between Legion and Tali. Two people who were naturally opposed, and by then end they trust each other and Tali essentially admits that her people were wrong all those years ago when they tried to say the Geth were not alive. She even remarks on how crazy it is that she is mourning a Geth.

I hope I wasn’t too repetitive with this, and that I did a good job illustrating how beautiful a story this is, both in and outside the game. All props to BioWare for their incredible writing team; they really hit it out of the park with this. And seriously, if you haven’t and have no intention of playing the games at least go watch that last scene on Youtube. Just search for Geth Quarian peace or something like that. If you don’t feel anything, then…I don’t know what’s wrong with you. Moments like that are why Mass Effect is amazing,

I hope you enjoyed, and I hope I’ve broadened your perspective regarding Mass Effect, and maybe even gotten some more people to play these amazing games. So until next time, keep writing, remember that Mass Effect is amazing, and remember that any convention or cliche can be used, so long as you alter it enough to make it uniquely your own. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to re-watch some cutscenes from the game.

2 thoughts on “Why the Story of Mass Effect is One of the Greatest Stories Ever Told, and What it Has to Offer Genre Writers (Part 2: The Geth)

  1. The geth in ME2 were really cool. The geth in ME3 were Data. The writers took this unique spin on artificial life, and then turned it into yet another Pinocchio story, with the geth wanting to be just like normal people.

  2. I’ve heard this complaint before, and while I can see why you might see it that way I personally don’t. In Mass Effect 2 the only geth we really interacted with was Legion (since we don’t ever communicate with the heretic geth). I didn’t see any drastic change between the geths’ goals from ME2 to ME3. In both games their goal as a species was to advance, to become more advanced. Legion mentioned in ME2 the ‘dyson sphere’ they were building to try and reach a higher level of intelligence where all geth minds could be housed in one piece of infrastructure. Their becoming true individuals in Mass Effect 3 didn’t change that goal (at least it was never stated that it was the case). The geth still did not feel emotions as organics did, and each unit referring itself as an individual doesn’t necessarily mean that they abandoned their ability to share information. Their problem of individual get being isolated from the group and unable to share information is not solved by their being true AI now.

    Legion stated in ME2 that the ‘journey’ of the geth toward their ultimate goal was as important as their goal. The fact that they were flexible regarding that path is what to me indicates that they were truly living. The geth didn’t want to be human, it’s just that the direction in which they needed to advance would make them more ‘humanlike’. I still find it to be a unique spin on the idea of artificial life, and I believe that if we had been able to interact more with the geth post Rannoch, we would have seen that in the game. (There is also the point to consider that the geth might have changed their minds re direction of advance after seeing what the Reaper code upgrades could do for them. It made them much more effective, and given they were about to enter a war against a foe as powerful as the Reapers, it only made sense to hold onto whatever advantages they could, and that becoming more individualistic was a pragmatic choice.)

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