God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?
—Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science
When discussing the biblical themes of Mass Effect, it is important to involve philosophy in the conversation. Philosophy serves as the perfect exercise to challenge our perceptions of the world. Theology, being the study of religious texts and religious philosophy, is just one of many lenses that we can have when exploring these ideas.
This is the second in a four part series looking at Mass Effect characters Garrus, Mordin, Legion, and Commander Shepard. With Character Select, the goal is to showcase some of the best video game characters ever made and dissect why they are memorable. You can find more of them here.
I bring this up because Mass Effect, while it leans heavily into biblical themes, also provides an opposing view that rejects aspects of theology such as destiny, fate, and predetermination. Much of this is baked into the game's design; as an RPG, it allows players to tackle difficult choices on the grounds of logic, morality, and personal ethics. One character helps in emphasizing this by being an agent of independent thought despite input by the player—the Salarian scientist Dr. Mordin Solus.
Mordin as a character is a home-run in terms of writing and appearance. With an aged, wrinkly face and rapid line delivery, Mordin stands out thanks to the memorable actions that allow him to be both comedic and sympathetic through dialogue. The typical scientist, Mordin is a staunch believer of Machiavellian principles of the end justifying the means, a trait that he shares with Garrus to an extent.
Where Mordin differs, however, is the use of science to guide his actions over belief. His logic is cold and pragmatic, devoid of emotional attachment. The bigger picture matters more to Mordin, and in turn drives his actions over leaps of faith.
A common trope in science fiction is the use of logic to overcome challenges. Harder science fiction is meticulous in creating a coherent logic to justify actions, and, often, the theme of science gone awry is ever present as an obstacle to overcome. Mordin fits into this trope as not only a scientist and doctor, but a character who provides an important lesson that contrasts with the rest of the cast. Mordin is the Übermensch, the pinnacle of individualism and humankind’s mastery of the world.
The Übermensch, the "superhuman" goal of humanity, refers to the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. It is a philosophy born out of the Enlightenment, where we saw the widespread rejection of Medieval values and thinking, and reason and modern science became popular over faith and convictions of our will. Nietzsche’s famous declaration that “God is Dead” refers to the weakening belief in divinity thanks to the Enlightenment, and the rise of the Übermensch in God's place thanks to a rise of nihilism, a belief that life ultimately holds no intrinsic value.
Consider what Mordin does in Mass Effect 2. His role in the game is to be the counterfoil to the Krogans, a race of war-like aliens whose culture was decimated by a fertility plague known as the Genophage. Before the Mass Effect series began, an event known as the Krogan Rebellions occurred in the galaxy. Mordin's race, the Salarians, developed the Genophage, a biological weapon that affects the Krogan birth rate. Basically, the lack of successful births made the Krogan a dying race, ending the rebellions and causing fertile females to become prized commodities out of survival.
During the events of Mass Effect 2, it was revealed that the Krogans were beginning to develop an immunity to the initial Genophage. A Salarian special task group, which Mordin was a member of, was tasked to tweak the Genophage, supposedly to keep the Krogan population at a stable, pre-industrial level. Creating a virus that would do so, however, skirts the ethical boundaries of science. In participating in such a feat, Mordin justifies the Genophage as a necessary evil, a peaceful solution to a problem that could quickly turn violent if it was not implemented. The bigger picture deems this the best outcome.
Following reason and logic, Mordin embodies Enlightenment idealism, faith in science and the self over blind faith and emotion. Mordin played God, effectively "killing God" in the process by putting the lives of an entire species into his hands and deeming them of being less valuable. On many levels this affects Mordin beyond what he expected, as he wrestles with the implications of his actions through spiritual soul-searching.
Most of this information comes to light during the loyalty mission for Mordin. He receives information that a former student and colleague who worked on the Genophage, Maelon, has been kidnapped by a clan of Krogan. Upon arriving at the location Maelon is being held, Mordin, Shepard, and company discover a hospital where it becomes clear that there is research being done to cure the Genophage. Throughout the mission in the hospital, we see Mordin and Shepard act out in an existential dialogue, a sort of philosophical discussion about the ethics of science and the justification of a biological weapon.
From a superficial viewing, the entire mission goes through several points about scientific ethics and is honestly very complex in its answer in the end. One of the main points to remember is that Mordin, as a scientist, adamantly objects to those he calls “brute force researchers,” who perform on live test subjects despite the likely loss of life that would occur, which is somewhat ironic because of his own Machiavellian principles. Even though he helped in modifying a biological weapon, he maintains it was done ethically and logically, thus making it, to him at least, a rational and justified use of science to solve a problem.
On the philosophical level, it is Mordin coming to grips with his obsessive desire to rectify his actions. Mordin doesn’t regret the work of the Genophage at first, adhering fully to the Übermensch mantra that he is fully in control despite his soul-searching. Yet we see Mordin disturbed, right down to the ethical quandary of the research created by Maelon: do you, and by extension Shepard, save the data despite its origins and the blood spilled over its creation?
Mordin's intentions, in the end, are to use science for a better future. What he faces are ethically difficult challenges thanks to his rationalization of them being necessary. This is where the other half of the Übermensch mentality comes in. According to Nietzsche, if the Übermensch acts to create new values within the moral vacuum of nihilism, there is nothing that this creative act would not justify. To put it another way, an Übermensch can create their own reality based upon their own values—not the values of others.
Nihilism, of course, is the full rejection of the "meaning of life" in the broadest sense. This conflicts with biblical themes heavily, arguing that Catholic theology serves no purpose other than being an antiquated sensibility towards the inadequacies of a "rational" world. The point of the Übermensch is to effectively create that meaning for themselves without a guiding hand. Life had no meaning to Mordin, only science. Mordin's view of life is one based primarily on logic, on trusting that life follows a specific pattern that can be tracked by science.
Mass Effect 2 leaves Mordin in a moral quandary, but in Mass Effect 3, he comes to a conclusion that changes his thinking, thanks in part to the fertile Krogan Bakara, nicknamed Eve in another reference to the Bible. Discussions with Eve reveal how Mordin seems traumatized by his role in stabilizing the Genophage, and how she suspects that his work in then curing the Genophage thanks to the Reaper invasion is a way to achieve penance. In this case, Eve implies that Mordin has had a change of heart, which would, in turn, imply he has rejected his own nihilism and the Übermensch mantra.
Yet Mordin's actions still bear no regrets from him; instead, he still adheres to the tenants of the Übermensch through his actions. Mordin's work to cure the Genophage thanks to Eve puts him again on the path of taking charge of his own destiny. He is adamant that he has to fix his own mistake by destroying the Genophage with the cure at any costs, much like how he was adamant to ensure the Genophage continues to remain effective against the Krogan. What changes are the justifications through logic; Mordin sees the Reapers as a viable threat, and if Eve can survive the process, she can be a stabilizing force for the Krogan that changes the scope of the Krogan's future by focusing less on the "big picture" in his words.
Mordin argues that too many variables can determine the fate of the Krogans. This perspective, reinforced by his own principles, leads him to feed his own ego to an extent. In the most dramatic scenes regarding the closure of the Genophage arc, Mordin follows through with his plans regardless of how those variables further change the scope of the narrative. Is Wrex dead? Is Eve? For Mordin the goal is the Genophage, his self-gratifying triumph—a mastery over the world.
Mordin never changes; ultimately, he just admits he made a mistake. This seems like an existential crisis with a path for redemption at first, but it is still one rooted in the belief of oneself that the world will make sense if corrected only by him. Instead, it is the outcries of one who is taking charge of his own destiny to prove superiority over abject morality. His individualism and human-like fragility remain present, using his logic once more to destroy the "mistake" of the Genophage modification he helped create. Mordin justifies his actions regardless of the cost to benefit himself and the world through his ideals; in replacing God, Mordin is hoping to do it better.
It is perhaps fitting that like Garrus, Mordin's fate is tied to the ethics of Shepard. Would Shepard see the ends justifying the means? Would they allow Mordin the chance of redemption in his own way, or is Shepard an Übermensch themselves, willing to kill Mordin for Shepard's own view of humanity? The Übermensch, after all, creates their own values in the absence of divine morality, and often it pertains to the nihilistic tendencies of the individual, the self-serving choices we make that are given the most weight.
Shepard is forced to make a choice during the Genophage arc, and it can lead down roads that are, ironically, just as nihilistic as Mordin's. The Salarians offer Shepard a deal: they'll support against the Reapers if Shepard sabotages the cure. Does the player follow their own ethics for personal reasons, or is it relative to what they need in the moment? The entire arc regarding the Genophage is ultimately a philosophical debate through an ethical dilemma, with variables ranging from who leads the Krogan to whether Eve survives the process, even giving the player strong cases to go against their own morality.
When viewed from Mordin's point of view, this becomes a personal betrayal that ultimately relative as well. Does Shepard believe they have no choice in taking the deal and are they willing to take control of the world and be as self-serving as Mordin was?
The fate of Mordin is also tied to his philosophical outlook. Arguably the worst outcome is the only one where Mordin survives. He betrays his own morality in the face of Shepard, effectively ceding control of his destiny into the hands of another, contradicting his beliefs fully. The best case scenario is debatable, but for Mordin the optimal outcome is the success of the cure through his own choice to sacrifice his life. Shepard's involvement, taking control and murdering Mordin for having the audacity to tell them no, is perhaps the most appropriate ending tied to being an Übermensch for one reason: it proves Nietzsche right. God is dead, and in its place are the relative morals of humankind.
It is a question deeply rooted in Mordin's entire character arc. Through all the laughs, patter songs, and ethical debating, we see a deeply flawed, yet consistently logical character through struggles that not only define his fluid morality but allow him to take control of his actions as an individual. Mordin hopes to destroy the Genophage, but in doing so he destroys God in the process and leaves it in the hands of an Übermensch instead, be it him or Shepard.
The self-serving, nihilistic nature of the Übermensch is often criticized because of its implications to relative morality. After all, such fluid morals can lead to ethically questionable behavior, as is the case of the Genophage itself. For Mordin, and to an extent for the player, it serves as a rebuke against the ethical standards expected by external morality. The rejection of morals serves as a rejection of God, arguing that one's own values shape their future regardless of the cost. Mordin challenges standard Christian notions of goodwill and benevolence towards man. In this way, he serves as the counterpoint to themes of redemption or divine intervention. It is in ourselves we can reshape the world.
Of course, while individualism is powerful, Mass Effect provides a third option for those not seeking redemption or those seeking individual meaning. For all the themes and ethical debates that Mordin encounters, sometimes destiny takes a hand beyond the physical self. Our third character exemplifies this. Sometimes, a savior is necessary to bring peace…