“You can’t save everyone.”

You hear these words in the first five minutes of gameplay in Mass Effect 3 and about a hundred more times in the course of the game. In any other context, a throwaway line seemingly intended to add drama to the cover-based shooter. But they’re not kidding.
You can’t save everyone.
It finally hit me a little while later. I was strolling through the Citadel, enjoying the new ambient conversation/argument system where occasionally Shepard can interject and take sides for various bonuses to reputation or even the war effort, when I happened upon what I thought was a simple argument.
A refugee was arguing with a dockworker about letting his family’s shuttle land on the station, as they had nowhere else to go. The dockworker pointed out that there was no room. I remember looking around the docks and thinking “Look at all this empty space! Sure, it might be uncomfortable and cramped, but you could fit lots more people in here.” (If you get the reference, it’s a lot like in the movie 2012 when the black scientist gets on the rescue ark and discovers how big his room is.)
I was playing my Paragon-aligned “Let’s Save Everyone Everywhere forever” Shepard, the choice was simple: Side with the refugee. A little intervention, and the dockworker agreed to let more people into the docks, and I got a bonus to my Reputation score. My good deed done, I was on my way.
Then I get back to my war room and check my Galaxy At War score. (Also known as the point system that helps determine your ending.) What I found was a surprise: My Citadel score had gone down. Why? According to the map: The sudden influx of extra refugees had taxed the resources and manpower of the Citadel. My good deed had damaged the Citadel’s ability to respond to an attack.
Me trying to save everyone had made it harder to save anyone.
After that, decisions I already found difficult became ten times more so. The game had lulled me into a false sense of security earlier, with ME1 and ME2 fresh in my mind for killing off characters if I made even a slightly poor decision (or in the case of ME1, just “because”) I became a nervous wreck every time the game asked me to choose which squadmate I wanted to have split off from the party for some task. Of course, they kept coming back fine, and rather than comfort me, it just scared me more. “The game is lulling me into a false sense of security.”
True or not, after that moment with the refugees, I suddenly realized every one of Shepard’s decisions had weight. That all-Paragon and all-Renegade were traps, and every choice had to be made independent of a moral code. The fate of the Galaxy is at stake here. A knee-jerk Paragon reaction will just get us all killed.
And there are some real nail-biters here, and it shows. Many times, when you make a decision, you can see and hear Shepard dealing with the conflict between personal morals and doing what’s right for the Galaxy, and not just Paragon Shep either, even Renegade Shep has doubts. All you can do is hope you made the right choice and that it will work out in the end.

<<<Spoiler Alert!>>>
For me, the worst of the lot was choosing between the Geth and the Quarians. Choose between Legion and Tali. I had no reason to expect I’d be able to take a third option at this point. I was fairly certain I was choosing which race joined the war effort and which race went extinct. And the downside?
There were no bad guys here. There were mistakes and foolishness, sure. Outside influences? Absolutely. But the Geth had done nothing wrong at this point. All they wanted was to be treated like living beings. To not be enslaved or attacked or killed.
And the Quarians? They just wanted to go home. They just wanted the world they lived on back so they could set down real roots and stop being nomads looked down on by the other races of the Galaxy. The two sides simply couldn’t see eye to eye. The Reapers did not exactly help this issue.
The game indicated that the Geth was the “Paragon” option and the Quarians were the “Renegade” option.  But really, there were no good options here. I liked Tali, sure I did. I wanted her on my team and I wanted her happy. But I liked Legion too, and after learning so much about the Geth through him in this game, I wanted him to get the things he wanted for his people. Should the Geth be punished for being manipulated against their will by the Reapers? Should the Quarians suffer because their ancestors committed horrifying crimes?
Ultimately, I chose the Geth. Legion had asked me if synthetics could have a soul, and after everything I had seen in that game, my Paragon Shepard could not say that no, they didn’t. And beyond that, the Geth had a powerful standing military. Heck, the Reapers helped them build it! Whereas the Quarians had literally strapped guns on various ships and left it at that.
As much as it hurt me to do it: The war needed the Geth and my incarnation of Shepard couldn’t lie to Legion.
Tali protested, and Shepard tried gamely to get the Quarians to hold their fire. The Geth would be well within their rights to defend themselves, and it wasn’t a battle the Quarians could win. But the Admirals ignored Shepard…until a miracle happened. Four options appeared. I only saw one of them: A Paragon Persuasion option: “Rally the fleet.”
Shepard made an impassioned speech, Tali made a desperate plea to her people, and for a moment, Shepard stared at her comm waiting to hear whether or not the Quarians were about to die.
“All ships, hold your fire.”
I cheered. Honestly. The game had ruthlessly and shamelessly manipulated my emotions, and the relief was palpable. I now had both the Geth army and the Quarian army. But though everyone was all smiles and relief and peace treaties afterwards, I couldn’t shake the knowledge that it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been willing to completely sacrifice an entire species.
<<<End Spoiler Warning>>>

Other such decisions didn’t turn out so well. And the end of the game featured a decision well beyond paragon and renegade, a decision that took me fifteen minutes to make, and after I made it…I still wondered if it was the right choice. A choice I made days ago and I still debate with myself.
Bioware has done something truly impressive here. Step away from complaints or compliments about gameplay or voice acting or DLC or glitches or patches or face bugs, and look at what they’ve done about Decisions. The game forces you to make hard decisions. Not just once, but constantly. Sometimes, the hard decisions work out. Sometimes, they get someone killed. Sometimes, they get a lot of people killed, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad decision. There is no good decision or bad decision. Each decision requires thought, and consideration.
Do you focus on the threat in front of you? Or do you worry about the future beyond it? Do you make sacrifices for the greater good? What is an acceptable sacrifice for saving the galaxy? A planet? A solar system? An entire species? Is it important to survive if it means changing who and what you are? Is there something intrinsically noble about choosing to sacrifice yourself for the greater good? Can you say the same thing about sacrificing someone against their will for the greater good? Can you justify sitting and watching “Blasto: The Hanar Spectre 6 – Partners in Crime” while people are fighting and dying?
Yeah. That’s an easy one.