Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Mass Effect 3's Padok Wiks

Occasionally, when an RPG has multiple paths through its story and the gamer’s decisions make a difference to the events that unfold, but of these paths, 1 is clearly the better/best, something that’s legitimately good gets lost in the shuffle. Like, say, Roy’s death scene in Suikoden 5. There’s precious little about Suikoden 5 that’s memorable or interesting, but there is 1 part of the game that’s just legitimately great, a moving moment of selfless courage: the scene in which Roy gives his life in noble sacrifice and buys enough time for the heroes’ reinforcements to save the day. It’s easily the best part of the game, but the funny thing is, it’s not something that’s actually supposed to happen. You only see the scene if you’ve made a mistake and are headed down the wrong plot road. For anyone aiming at the better, true story path and ending, the heroes are never put into the situation that results in this scene, and Roy continues to live on, no one ever knowing what heroism truly lies within him. Which I’m fine with, I suppose, because I like Roy, even if a lot of that affection for him is, paradoxically, born from his death scene that never happened. But it’s still the best part of Suikoden 5, in spite of being 1 that you’ll never know exists if you’re making the right choices and experiencing the true storyline. But you get the general idea here--sometimes there are bits and pieces of non-cannon or otherwise ‘wrong’ story paths in RPGs that are actually real gems, gems that it seems a real shame to miss out on.

And no character better embodies this idea of lost excellence, I think, than Padok Wiks of Mass Effect 3. Most players will never get to know Wiks, because he’s a character whose role in Mass Effect 3’s story is simply to fill in for Mordin Solus, if Mordin died during the events of Mass Effect 2. But the vast majority of players are going to go through the lengths that Mass Effect 2 requires to keep their whole team alive and earn the best ending from that game. Heck, even in the case of players who choose not to finish ME2 with everyone on the team alive, Mordin’s the kind of exceptionally likable character who they’ll probably have made sure survives even when others didn’t. I mean, I can see someone who doesn’t care all that much about the ME2 cast shrugging as they see Jacob kick the bucket, but being much more likely to quit and reload a previous save if the same happens to Mordin, simply because Mordin is far more universally appealing.

So, for most people, the role of salarian hero and visionary who cures the Genophage in Mass Effect 3 will go to Mordin. And that’s good! Because it has more thematic weight when tied to Mordin, and his final and greatest act in life being the salvation and second chance for the krogan as a species and as a culture, is the perfect end to Mordin’s character arc. It completes arguably the greatest and most thoughtful character and personal journey in the series in a way that is satisfying and right. But it does mean that for most players, Padok Wiks will be no more than a minor NPC that Shepard converses with momentarily, never to be seen again. And that’s too bad, because Wiks is actually a terrific character, 1 of the best in the Mass Effect series and, by logical extension, 1 of the best in the RPG genre. So today, I want to make a rant in appreciation of this guy, and whoever the folks were on Bioware’s team who wrote him.

First of all, I want to say kudos to the writers for Padok Wiks just in general for making an awesome character. Padok Wiks manages to walk that line between funny-quirky and deep-meaningful perfectly, with amusing and engaging speech mannerisms and jokes that make his presence enjoyable and allow him to interact with and fit into the cast well, but also frank and creative philosophies governing his actions that draw you in and make you think, give him the depth he needs to stand as a legitimate part of the Mass Effect universe. And it’s such a creative depth, too! Padok’s musings on evolution and cosmic design as higher powers are fascinating to listen to and contemplate. He’s a character of faith in greater designs and fates, whose beliefs and evidence for his religious outlook stem from science itself--very cool. And he manages to be a character of great faith and beliefs without it being the defining trait of how he acts, which is pretty damn hard to pull off--how many other characters do you know for whom religious beliefs are the core of their motivations and depth, but who are subtle and well-rounded enough in personality that they seem as personable and conversationally nuanced as every other character in their group?

I also appreciate Wiks for being just an overall stand-up person. Without seeming like a deliberately over-ethical kind of guy, Wiks puts his career and very life on the line without a moment’s hesitation to right what he (correctly) sees as a great cosmic wrong: the slow extinction of the krogan people due to the Genophage. His view of the universe and the grand, overarching purpose of evolution tell him that to destroy the krogan for being what they were both evolved and called upon to be is a heinous mistake, and that they have a purpose and destiny that they must be given the opportunity to fulfill--a perspective which is, once again, quite interesting to hear him speak about, and makes him ultimately a very laudable hero.

Yes, Padok Wiks as a character is terrific, among the best that Mass Effect can offer--and 1 of ME’s major selling points as a story is its engaging and well-rounded cast, so that says something. But I also appreciate the fact that Bioware managed to fit him into the role he has to play as well as they did. First of all, they managed to make a significantly engaging, deep character that you can easily grow emotionally attached to, with only about, what, a fifth of the game’s time to work with? Padok has the screen time and role in Mass Effect 3 that in other RPGs would be relegated to an overall forgettable secondary or tertiary NPC who’s used as a plot device more than a character. No player is going to have anything more than a faint amount of respect and affection for, say, Dr. Emma from Wild Arms 1, or Sergei from Tales of Zestiria, because while these characters fulfill significant roles in the plot, and are overall basically likable, they don’t really have a lot of time to develop in, nor is there any real interest on the part of the writers in having them do so. Characters given the time and significance that Padok Wiks is afforded tend to just be static, reliable friends to the heroes who do and say little that makes them stand out as someone interesting or layered. They’re functional, they’re perhaps mildly likable, but that’s it. So the fact that Bioware makes so much of Padok in such a limited time is impressive.

Of course, that probably is largely because, let’s face it, Padok’s a stand-in for a well-known, well-beloved character in the franchise, so the room and focus is already there on that role in the game--it’d be a dick move, not to mention probably even a little challenging, to fill the role of such character-driven weight as Mordin’s with a character written carelessly. Still, they didn’t have to go as far as they did for Padok to make him work--just look at the Legion VI that can replace Legion in the next major arc of the story--so I do applaud Bioware on this point.

On the subject of how well Padok fits into Mordin’s role, let’s also look at the quality of his motivations and beliefs. I have to once again tip my hat to Bioware on this point, because Padok fits flawlessly as a character into the role of Genophage-curer created for Mordin, for reasons that are entirely Padok’s own. That has got to be tough--to have designed a role to perfectly fit the personality, history, development, and motivations of 1 character (Mordin), yet then have to find a way to fit another character, who has to be substantially different, into the same role, and make it work. We know why Mordin feels compelled to cure the Genophage and save the krogan people--the guilt that he’s become less and less able to rationalize away from the period of ME2 through ME3 about his involvement in continuing the genophage, and the firsthand experience he’s had with the krogans and Tuchanka that has helped him understand the horrors of not just what the Genophage has done to them physically, but spiritually. It’s why the completion of his character arc, which started in Mass Effect 2, is such a profoundly moving and meaningful part of Mass Effect 3, possibly the greatest component of its excellent (until-the-last-second) story.

And yet, somehow, Padok manages to comfortably fit into this story slot written for Mordin, yet for reasons entirely his own! Padok owns none of the guilt of Mordin, and we’ve never seen him experience the Genophage’s horrors up close. His reasons for his unassailable need to restore the krogans are, as far as we can tell, purely philosophical and belief-based, in no way personally motivated, the way Mordin’s are. For Padok, it’s a question of the bigger picture of the universe, a (well-reasoned) faith in the need for each species to serve its purpose or die out naturally. It really is a fascinating blend of the spiritual and the scientific...but in so being, Padok’s cause for solving the Genophage is completely divorced from Mordin’s, yet fits just as well. Mordin is motivated to risk his all for what he has come to understand is right, emotionally, while Padok is motivated to risk his all for what he has come to understand is right, spiritually and logically.* Padok’s sincere belief that all species have a part to play that they must allowed, and in evolution as a form of fate and higher power, gives him just as great a cause to wish to end the Genophage, an artificial limiter placed on a species’ development, as Mordin has. So long as we believe that either character is willing to give everything he has and pursue his cause to the end, each fits exactly what is needed for the game’s role of Salarian who sacrifices himself to save a people not his own. Again, impressive work on the part of ME3’s writers.

Oh, and as an aside, I like the fact that this confirms that the Genophage is an atrocity on every level, in that we see a character that feels its wrong in Mordin, and a character that knows its wrong in Padok. And hey, beyond my personal feelings, that fact does kind of strengthen the impetus that the plot gives us to guide Shepard and company in curing it, so in a small, indirect way, Padok is good for that, too.

I also appreciate Bioware’s making Padok a character that, despite needing to be available to replace him physically, doesn’t attempt to replace Mordin emotionally. Although the characters of the game cannot know, of course, that they were supposed to be working with Mordin in this part of their tale, the presence of another quirky Salarian scientist on the Normandy is understandably enough to remind Shepard, Joker, and several others aboard the ship of their fallen comrade, and even as they talk about Padok and the player gets to know this new character, everyone also reminisces about Mordin. Mordin is not forgotten by the characters, and the player clearly isn’t being asked to ignore him and his history with the series. Joker even calls Padok ‘Not-Mordin.’ If anything, it’s another perspective we’re given of Mordin as a character, to see the emotional hole his absence creates. Hey, don’t knock that--sometimes a huge part of a character, and other characters through their relationships, can only be understood and explored after death. Shadowrun: Dragonfall does this quite well with Monika, and Alice’s death creates a far better and more nuanced character of Yuri in Shadow Hearts 2, for examples. Anyway, Mordin’s far from forgotten with Padok Wiks in his place, and that’s an appropriate, believable, and respectable thing.

1 last thing I want to say in this appreciation for the unsung excellent character of Padok is that, and I know this is heresy but bear with me, in a couple regards Padok is actually better than Mordin. Yes, yes, I know I’m evil, but hear me out. In most regards, I agree that Mordin is a little better as a character, but there are a couple points that Padok beats him out in, minor though they may be. First of all, I would argue that Padok is actually an even better person than Mordin. Wonderful though Mordin is, a huge part of his motivation to do right and end the Genophage is a wish to make up for his past mistake. Now don’t get me wrong, that is a very noble and righteous motivation. But Padok? He has no personal stake like that. He just honestly believes that this is for the good of the universe, and for that, for no more than the very concept of right and wrong, Padok Wiks gives his life. Again, I am not knocking feelings of responsibility and the need to rectify past misdeeds, those are very good causes. But, to me at least, the wish to do good for no more than the sake of doing good is an even greater heroism. I suppose it’s subjective, but that’s how I feel, at any rate.

Secondly, epic and inspiring as Mordin’s speech is, is pretty damn hard to top Padok’s final words to Shepard as he goes to give his life for his cause. They’re awesome in text form, but honestly, a lot of it is in the voice actor’s delivery, too, so I’m just gonna link you to it. 0:55 - 1:16 of this: Damn if that’s not magnificent to me. Mordin’s great in this scene, but Padok’s is a final speech for the ages.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: when you discount the ending, Mass Effect 3 is a truly spectacular RPG. Really, you can see the transition from Mass Effect 3 into its ending as the symbol of Bioware’s transition from a dignified collection of storytellers capable of creating excellent products into the sloppy shit-show the company is now. But if I am to frequently point and laugh at the garbage Bioware presently makes, and criticize their now constant failures as creators and people, then I must be fair, and remember to credit them for what they once were capable of. And few of their accomplishments is as underappreciated as Padok Wiks. So I give full praise to Bioware for this character. Not many players may know Padok, and fewer still may care to pay attention to him enough to appreciate him for his unique traits...but to me, at least, Padok Wiks is as much and as worthy a part of Mass Effect as any other among its unforgettable cast.

If you’re interested in getting to know this character, and either enjoying him as much as I do or shaking your head in disgust and wondering what the hell I’m going on about, you can find a compilation of pretty much every part of Padok’s time in Mass Effect 3 here:

* Not to say that Padok is some stoic Spock type, or that Mordin isn’t thinking long and hard about the important long-term, or anything. Padok is very warm and engaging with everyone, including the krogan Bakura, and Mordin has clearly put significant thought into what the future holds for the krogan, as seen by his assessment, once the Genophage cure is about to be put into effect, of how the krogan as a whole will be as they go forward, depending on whether Wrex and Bakura have survived. I’m just saying that the primary motivation for Mordin is what’s morally right emotionally, while for Padok it’s what’s morally right intellectually, and what justifications they have beyond that starting point are simply built upon their primary motivator.

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