Wednesday, August 8, 2012

#33: Character Analysis #2: Legion (Mass Effect 2, Mass Effect 3)

(Spoiler Alert for the Mass Effect franchise. If you are touchy about spoilers, avert your eyes and go back to watching porn.)

Lately I have getting on my soapbox and writing about a fairly diverse set of topics and the list of said topics is far from empty. However, this week I feel like doing something a bit more recreational. Since my first attempt at something like this was so popular (and is still getting hits to this day), and it has been a long time, another character analysis is in order. This time I will be discussing every Mass Effect fan's favorite AI companion, Legion. Legion is one of the series most interesting characters in the franchise, in my honest opinion, and there are a couple of reasons I have for this.

But before I get into that, we need to learn about the story of Legion. Any character, even a synthetic one, is a product of their story. Due to the nature of the Geth in the Mass Effect franchise, Legion's tale is the tale of Geth, and goes back to when the Geth gained sentience. Originally, the Geth were nothing more than a collection of AI constructs developed by the Quarian race to serve them. They were programmed to always find the most efficient ways to complete tasks assigned to them. It was eventually realized that when Geth programs come together, they can “think” and perform tasks better than they could individually. Reaching its logical conclusion, these programs kept networking until they reached a point where they gained sentience and could communicate with their Quarian creators. This unsettled the Quarians to the point where they started attacking the Geth out of fear. (I suppose that Quarians are equally as aware of standard AI horror tropes as we are.) While some Quarians showed sympathy to the Geth, most of them displayed only fear. This fear only grew once a Geth platform asked its creator, “Does this unit have a soul?” Out of sheer terror was born a war between the two. Though the conflict was started by the Quarians, the Geth held their own and forced them off their own home world, leading the Quarians toward the path of a migrant species.

Shortly after this victory, the Geth embraced a policy of isolationism towards organic life. They had no desire to fight or even deal with other people and just wanted to be left alone, safeguarding the planet their creators called home. This does not mean that they were doing nothing. In fact, they were working towards their ultimate goal. They wished to build a system large enough to house every single Geth intelligence on one platform, becoming as smart and capable as they can possibly become. Striving towards their desire for a very long time, the Geth remained little more than bogeymen to the galactic races until the Reapers arrived on scene. When the Reapers approached the Geth, they made them a huge offer. In exchange for giving the Reapers aid in furthering their goals (which makes little sense when taken into context with Mass Effect 3), the Geth were promised to be elevated by the Reapers and have their goals fulfillled. When trying to reach consensus on this issue, a small collective of the Geth broke away to join the Reapers and were dubbed Heretics by the many who rejected the Reapers. Then the events of the orignal Mass Effect game occurred, with Commander Shepard going against Saren, the Reaper Sovereign, and the Geth who defected. (You know the plot, if not from my prior articles, then from your own experiences.) This colored the preception of organic races towards the Geth and brought credence to the Quarian race's belief that they were wronged by their synthetic creations.

The isotionist policy changed once the Normandy came under attack by a mysterious third party and Commander Shepard was lost, presumed dead. Since the commander had experience with the Heretics and was instrumental in the defeat of Sovereign, the Geth decided that it would be prudent to make sure the Shepard was alive. To successfully traverse the systems that organic life inhabit, the Geth realized it would be best to send as few units as possible and lessen their mark on the world. They built a single platform capable of housing over one thousand individual Geth AI constructs all networked together. This platform traced Shepard's footsteps, looking for clues as to where he/she went and what happened, eventually finding the Normandy's crash site and salvaging a piece of Shepard's N7 armor, using it to repair itself after a firefight. After concluding that Shepard died, it stayed around to investigate another problem it discovered.

The platform learned of a plan by the Heretics to use a virus, granted to them by the Reapers, to rewrite the true Geth, making them accept the Reapers as their leaders. This led the platform to a derilect Reaper in order to acquire knowledge on how to counteract this virus. It encounters Shepard and is surprised to find him/her alive and well. Seeing the commander in a tight situation, the platform takes aim at the hoards attacking Shepard, then retreats further in to hack a terminal and learn about the Reapers and their technology. Once Shepard and company arrive on scene, they see the platform attacked by a Reaper husk and disabled. They acquire a Reaper IFF for their own purposes, collect the platform and leave.

Once the crew make it back to the new Normandy, there is a debate as to whether the Commander should activate and interrogate the platform, sell it to Cerberus, or just leave it be. Since nobody in their right mind would sell it to Cerberus, the four Shepards I played all decided to activate and interrogate the platform. The platformed explained its purpose and why it was sent outside the Perseus Veil, where the Geth live. For the purpose of communicating with organic life, the platform accepted the name Legion to distinguish it from other Geth platforms and agreed to help Shepard fight against the Collectors. (This is part of Mass Effect 2's main plot, which I do not want to get into for various reasons.) Through several optional conversations, Legion tells Shepard, and the player by proxy, all about how the Geth work, their “society,” political beliefs, and the like. Eventually, it gives the player the optional objective to head to the base of the Herectic Geth and stop them from using the virus, with the choice to either destroy it, blowing up the Heretic Base and all the Heretics in it, or repurpose it to turn the Heretics back into true Geth and force them to retreat, then destroy it. Since the individual programs inside Legion were unable to form concensus, they trusted Sheppard to make the final decision.

If Legion both survives the events of Mass Effect 2 and was not sold to Cerberus, he will become a central figure in the events regarding the Geth/Quarian conflict in the third game. Since the Quarians attempted to erradicate them, the Geth decided to forge an alliance with the Reapers out of fear. The deal was that they would gain intelligence and fighting prowess in exchange for allowing the Reapers to completely control them. When Shepard arrives on scene to convince the Quarians to join the war efforts, he/she is briefed on the situation. The commander, his/her Quarian friend Tali, and one other person infiltrate a Geth ship sending a broadcast to all the others in order to figure out exactly why it seems like the Geth and the Reapers are working together. They encounter Legion, who tells them that the Reapers are using him to project a signal to all Geth, ordering them to attack. It asks the team to free it so that it is no longer a Reaper conduit and can begin aiding in a counterattack on the Reapers, which Shepard does. As a show of good faith towards Shepard and as a token of their friendship, Legion orders the ship's engines and weaponry to be diabled, which the Quarians took as a queue to attack with full force (despite the fact they know Shepard is on board). Once everyone is safely back on the Normandy, gives Shepard an optional side-mission to enter the Geth Consensus and weaken the Reaper's influence, allowing some of the Geth to join him/her. Afterwards, the Quarians, Shepard's team, and Legion work together to destroy the Reaper signal to the Geth by destroying the source, later revealed to be an actual Reaper. Once Shepard defeats the Reaper, Legion tells him/her that it can use the Reaper's code to make the Geth's thought processes more organic in nature, giving them true individuality and conciousness, whether or not it succeeds is up to Shepard. It will die regardless and it's story comes to an end either way (using the code, for some reason, kills Legion and if Shepard tries to stop it, Legion will fight back and Shepard will kill him). Should Sheppard allow it, Legion will call itself “I” instead of “We” in its final moments, showing that the process is working and demostrating true individuality before passing away.

One of the things that makes Legion so interesting is that it is the player's window into Geth culture. While characters like Garrus and Tali partially serve to further the player's knowledge regarding how their races work, there are many other people from those races to interact with to forge a deeper understanding than with those characters alone. Legion is unique in that it is the one and only way in which Shepard learns about the Geth because they are isolationists and they are so closely networked together that talking to one Geth platform is essentially talking to the Geth as a whole. This makes conversations with Legion facsinating because prior to Legion's inclusion, the Geth were always at least somewhat enigmatic. The player fought against their forces (later revealed to be Heretics) in the first game, but never understood exactly what caused them to side with Sovereign. Legion gives the player an opportunity to learn about the Geth in an interesting and creative way. On the part of the writers, this was very cleaver.

The other intelligent decision the writing team made, which further raises the interest I have towards Legion, is to defy traditional genre conventions regarding Artificial Intelligence. As I aluded to earlier, most media that involves an AI growing sentience have it quickly decide that its creators are too inefficient and immediately start trying to murder everyone. As other people on the internet have already said, this makes very little sense. Why would the default stance for an AI be “murder the shit out of everyone” the moment it learns how to think for itself? Bioware knew about this genre convention and thoughfully decided to avert it. The choice to do that gave Legion (an other AI characters) the ability to be much more fleshed out and interesting than similar characters in other genres, leading into my final point.

Legion is one of the most interesting characters in the Mass Effect series because of what it represents: The moral quandary of whether or not sentient machines count as life in the same way that organics do. They explore every aspect of this question from their ability to feel emotions to whether or not they have civil rights. The ability of the Geth to feel emotions is intentionally left up for debate. When talking with Legion, it will insist that it does not have emotions and is unable to feel anything. According to it, logic and rational thinking allow the invividual Geth programs to come together and build a consensus as to what the next course of action should be. However, there are times where that can be called into question. For example, when Shepard sees the N7 armor on Legion and questions it about it, Legion explains that he used it because there was a hole and it needed to be prepared. When further pressed to answer why it used that in particular piece of armor over other parts more redily available, Legion finally admits that it has no data on that subject and cannot answer that question. In other words, it does not know for sure. This indicates that it was a decision influenced by something more than logic, possibly emotion. There are also other more subtle cues from Legion in other dialogue scenes in Mass Effect 2 and 3 that indicate possible sorrow, anger, and other emotions.

The other half of this huge moral dillema is the question of the civils rights of synthetic beings and their ability to integrate into society. It is a tough question that does not have a clear answer. Characters debate this throughout the entire series. Most organic races, particularly the Quarians, tend to fall on the side of no rights to synthetic beings. This makes sense since they believe that the Geth forced them off their world. They believe that it is either impossible or too impractical to arrange for peace, despite dissenting opinions. Legion on the other hand, tries its best to be as considerate as it can be. However, it does not always succeed. There are time where it says or does otherwise rational things that can be seen as strange or ruthless to organic beings. During its optional mission in Mass Effect 2, Legion talks about the possibility of destroying the Geth Heretics with cold callous, which the player's other companion comments on with shock. It also states that Shepard and company should not feel bad about killing the Heretics because they “do not share your pity, remorse, or fear.” Legion also expresses a childlike inability to understand human customs, which Shepard can chose to explain to it, such as the concepts of cemetaries, religion, and drug use. Since it is an AI, it has trouble understanding how these things factor into our lives and the emotional (and physiological in the case of the last one) impact of these things, calling into question the ability of Legion and the geth to truly integrate with organics. Through Legion, the game presents all the relevant information and ultimately allows the player to decide for themselves the answer these question, adding depth to its character and making it much more impactful.

Overall the character of Legion is a great example of Bioware's strength. They can write interesting and relatable characters and use them to raise interesting moral questions. Though they have many weaknesses in terms of how they tell stories, especially in recent games, characterization has always been a strength of their brand. This is why they were such a strong brand before the issues with Mass Effect 3. If you write good characters, then players will grow attachments to them and want to play through your game to deepen those bonds. Take this lesson to heart, game developers. 


Jarenth said...

I'd like to note that as far as I'm aware, it's not the Geth's initial communication with the Quarians that spooked them so much: it's the fact that they were gaining sentience and critical thinking skills. That's why 'does this unit have a soul' caused the stir it did: It revealed the Geth had been thinking, been thinking about thinking, about the nature of life and existence and holy shit, I thought these guys were just networked worker drones, BETTER NUKE THEM TO BE SAFE.

That was all, really.

newdarkcloud said...

Because the moment something starts contemplating the nature of existence, they will immediately start wanting to KILL EVERYONE!!!

Aren't horror tropes just grand?

anaphysik said...

"This fear only grew once a Geth platform asked its creator, “Does this unit[sic - 'Do these units' in the original recording] have a soul?”"

It should technically be noted that the history on this is slightly different - after Legion plays the recording, Shep asks he/it if that was the first time a geth platform had asked that particular question. Legion replies in the negative - it was simply the first time that a quarian had been scared by the question...

(Which could imply lots of things, from the quarian dissidents in the ME3 recordings, to a broader cultural shift towards anti-AI, to a different mindset between the quarians that designed, made, and worked with geth during the early stages and those that dealt with them later.)

The portrayal of the geth in ME1 is also rather discussion worthy. Frankly, it's amazing how that game made me think about and feel for voiceless robots with whom 99% of my interaction was shooting them in the face :]

newdarkcloud said...

This is where I'm hampered because I have a PS3 and not a 360. While I've watched playthroughs of the first game and studied the Wiki, I've never actually played it myself.

Phantos said...

Yeah, they handled Legion pretty well, all things considered... right up until the moment where they kill him off for no convincing or clearly defined reason.

I could understand if they just didn't want to give D.C. Douglas more lines or something... except those side-characters only have a couple of lines later on at Earth through a hologram anyway. So they weren't exactly saving tons of disc-space or whatever.

I guess what I'm saying is: Bioware sucks at endings.

newdarkcloud said...

Yeah. I could just cry when I see things like that. It's like Bioware could be doing so much better than they are now, but they lack the time/resources/ambition to real seal the deal and do amazing things.

They still have moments of sheer brilliance, but it's tempered much more than it ever was by mediocrity.

anaphysik said...

Basically their reason is the same as the stupid kid. 'GRR SCENE NEED DRAMA AND SAD. NOW IT ART!'

(Also, I say, the double captcha ExtraBlur Edition on this site is annoying....)