BioWare knew from the start that they wanted Mass Effect to be a franchise about tough choices. Unlike Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic where your decisions often came down to whether or not you wanted to be “good” or “bad,” BioWare wanted Mass Effect to be the kind of game where you were rarely sure what the right decision was (if one even exists).
Granted, the Mass Effect franchise sometimes struggled to achieve that lofty goal, but many of the best moments in Mass Effect history come down to a tough choice that leaves you staring at the screen wondering what to do. In many cases, there is indeed no “right” decision. The trouble comes when you try to look far enough ahead to see all the possible angles and decide which decision is the right one for you.
While our look back at Mass Effect‘s toughest choices accounts for the consequences of those choices and how they impact the game’s dynamic story, it’s important to also remember how those choices felt in the moment they were presented and the ways they made us question how we were ever going to force ourselves to make a decision that could very well hang over our head for the rest of the game and beyond.
10. The Ending- Mass Effect 3
Many words have been written about Mass Effect 3’s controversial ending, and many more words will likely be written about it now that we have the chance to revisit that ending via the trilogy’s Legendary Edition release. However, it’s hard to deny that the final choice presented during that ending is a tough one to make, even if it’s only because none of the options really speak to you.
There is a lot to be said about the decision to effectively whittle Mass Effect’s story down to three choices, but the feeling of having to make that choice at that moment after everything you’ve been through is hard to replicate. That choice is made all the more difficult by the fact that the consequences of each decision can play out differently enough based on your previous actions to make you wonder whether the choice you make at that moment is also the one that will honor what you’ve done before.
9. Destroy or Rewrite the Heretic Geth – Mass Effect 2
The decision to either destroy the Geth in Mass Effect 2 that have been aiding the Reapers or to rewrite them and convince them to rejoin the hivemind is sometimes criticized for being a decision that has a “right” answer in terms of the payoff.
That’s actually part of what makes this choice so fascinating, though. Many members of your squad think the right decision is to destroy the Geth (for various reasons), and it’s only through investigation and soul searching that you start to see the value and ethics of the other option. Of course, destroying the Geth may still be what you simply prefer to do as part of your roleplaying experience, which happens to be the kind of emotional conflict that makes these games so great.
8. Save or Destroy The Council -Mass Effect
If you’ve never played Mass Effect, the decision to save the Citadel Council at the end of the game probably seems like an easy one. Who wouldn’t want to save the “good guys?” However, actually playing the game will likely make you wonder if the council is more of an annoyance than an asset and if it’s worth sacrificing so many lives and resources to save them.
The thing that makes a Mass Effect decision so tough is weighing the value of your instincts against the consequences of your actions and your emotional investment in the outcome. So far as that goes, this is still one of the best examples of an “obvious” choice that isn’t nearly as obvious as it may seem.
7. Who to Romance – Mass Effect Trilogy
We’ve seen other games treat the ability to romance other characters as little more than a gimmick, but there are two things that separate the Mass Effect series from those other games: the quality of most of the characters you can romance and the ways that romancing characters allow you to better understand them.
It’s technically possible to romance multiple characters across the Mass Effect trilogy, but most of the more impactful and memorable relationships require you to commit to one partner over the others. It’s hard enough to make that decision, but the really tough part is not dwelling on what could have been.
6. Destroy or Save Maelon’s Data – Mass Effect 2
If you complete Mordin’s loyalty missions in Mass Effect 2 (which you should), you’ll eventually confront one of Mordin’s students (Maelon) who has been performing unspeakable experiments in search of a cure for the Genophage. You’ll have to decide whether to keep the data related to his research or destroy it.
Aside from the ethical dilemmas associated with the research methods that data comes from, the thing that makes this decision so hard is the fact that the game offers little indication of what this is really all about and how far the consequences will go. Is there something in that data that will lead to more deaths? Can you really trust Mordin given his past? Your decision may come down to what you think the Shepard character you’ve built so far would do, but trying to guess what will happen is certainly part of the fun.
5. Give the Illusive Man the Collector Base or Destroy it – Mass Effect 2
You’re on your way to destroy the Collector Base in Mass Effect 2 when you receive a transmission from the Illusive Man. He asks you to utilize a radiation pulse that will kill the Collectors but preserve the base. With their technology, he believes he can help find a way to destroy the Reapers.
This is something of a companion to the “Council” decision from the first game in that your feelings about the Illusive Man will likely impact your choice. Is your animosity towards the Illusive Man blinding you, or are you right to suspect that his seemingly generous offer isn’t what it appears to be? The long-term payoff of this one is a little underwhelming but, it’s a fantastic dilemma delivered at the right time.
4. Free or Kill the Rachni Queen -Mass Effect
Not too long into your Mass Effect adventure, you confront the Rachni Queen: the apparent sole survivor of a species once partially responsible for a long and violent war. The queen asks for you to spare her life so that she has a chance to rebuild her species, but given the historic actions of that species, you may decide to kill her instead.
While this is another one of those instances where the payoff of your decision doesn’t quite justify the feeling of the moment you have to make it, this was certainly one of the first Mass Effect decisions that really made you stop and think. It may be little more than a test of your moral compass, but it’s certainly a fascinating one.
3. Save the Geth or the Quarians? – Mass Effect 3
One of Mass Effect 3’s best moments see the Geth and Quarians engage in a massive battle. Geth companion Legion asks you to give the Geth the Reaper code so that they can perhaps aid you in future battles. Quarian companion Tali says that doing so will likely lead to the Geth killing the Quarians and that it’s better to simply be rid of the Geth altogether.
It’s entirely possible to broker peace between the Geth and Quarian, but if you haven’t made the right moves along the way, then you’ll ultimately need to pick one side over the other. Not only does your choice have galactic ramifications but it will lead to the death of one of your companions. Aside from the diplomatic option and the “out” it provides, this is arguably the ultimate example of a tough Mass Effect choice.
2. Save Ashley Or Kaidan – Mass Effect
While trying to destroy Saren’s base on Virmire, a series of circumstances put Ashley and Kaidan’s lives in jeopardy. It becomes clear you can only help one of them, but which one do you save?
The set-up is simple, but the fact that you’re forced to choose between two of the companions who have been with you the whole time is more than enough to make this one of the hardest decisions in the Mass Effect trilogy. Granted, these aren’t the most beloved characters in the game, but in a strange way, that almost makes the decision more difficult as it robs you of an “obvious” choice.
1. Picking Your Squad for the Suicide Mission – Mass Effect 2
The final mission in Mass Effect 2 makes little effort to hide how dangerous it will be. As you prepare to infiltrate the Citadel, you’re forced to decide which of your crew members will assist you in what is clearly described as a suicide mission. Make the right decisions, and you all might just make it through alive. Make the wrong decisions, and the consequences could be devastating.
The thing that makes this choice so tough and so memorable is the fact that it’s both sudden and very much based on the little choices that you’ve made so far up until this point. Making the “right” decision requires you to make a series of right decisions along the way that allow you to clearly see the best path forward. Overall, this is one of the best examples of a Mass Effect choice that’s tough at the moment, tough based on your previous actions, and tough based on what you suspect the consequences of your decision may be.