website tracking
The Good Shepard on Game and Player

The Good Shepard

Michael Ubaldi  //  January 14, 2011

On Mass Effect's morality gameplay.


nybody who claims that video games distract youth from a moral education is innocent of BioWare roleplaying games, or else content with traditional, vicarious ethics by way of shouting advice to characters on television. For the better part of a decade — since the first Knights of the Old Republic release — the Edmonton developers have granted players control over the outcome of conflicts with ambiguous imperatives, duties or obligations but plain and weighty consequences.

A good-bad dichotomy has accompanied every title. In Knights and its sequel, it was the light and dark sides of the Force; and in each Mass Effect, the immaculate Paragon and the unscrupulous Renegade. Players earn points, karmic or reputational, for Commander Shepard's respective actions or sentiments. These are in turn rewarded by exclusive opportunities to outmaneuver enemies or skirt perils.

Prior to Mass Effect 2, accrual was zero-sum. To achieve useful depth in either ethos, you misbehaved or played the angel — assiduously, because points for one kind of behavior would subtract from points for the other. And while independent scoring between Paragon and Renegade make nuance possible in the last Mass Effect — greatly widening the availability of special dialog or action options in a playthrough — inherited weaknesses of BioWare's otherwise visionary gameplay remain. With Mass Effect 3's projected holiday launch, there can't be much time left to address and refine the rudiment of simulated morality — but perhaps just enough.

Even at its most unctuous, a Paragon inevitably builds alliances by ingratiating everyone. But playing as a Renegade can be destructive to gameplay.Were it not for all things boyish — imaginative mythology, meticulous sci-fi canon, and pervasive third-person shooter sequences — the Mass Effect series may well be classified as a soap opera. A player's success depends on befriending NPC allies through persistent conversation, typically uncovering secrets and building intimacy; be it the eros, agape or philos varieties. Much, if not the majority, of the game is spent navigating dialog trees and responding to characters' requests or confessions.

Paragon and Renegade's unequal effectiveness toward this goal, however sensibly diametric the codes, is problematic. Charity characterizes Paragon behavior; statements are sympathetic or conciliatory, all-smiles or guns drawn. Renegade actions sit in a narrow band spanning ruthlessness and capricious brutality; dialog is boorish or outright dismissive. At its worst, a Paragon is indiscriminate and unctuous, yet inevitably builds alliances by ingratiating everyone. But playing as a Renegade can be destructive to gameplay. The potential to repel and alienate essential NPCs is, apparently, an escapist appeal to embracing one's inner sociopath.

Speaking as a goody two-shoes, I'm reluctant to believe that many players aspire to evil — but then, there is the original Knights of the Old Republic, BioWare's classic, whose dark side ending rivals Titus Andronicus in treachery and body counts. Still, should "renegade" actually connote "repellent and diabolical"?

Enter the antihero. Clint Eastwood's Harry Callahan may not have misled a cornered bank robber into relinquishing his weapon — or goaded Dirty Harry's madman antagonist into a climactic pistol-draw — without his vivid warning against betting on a .44 Magnum's empty chamber, right before he pulled the trigger anyway, bluff or not. Harrison Ford's Indiana Jones, championing historic preservation, commandeered or else demolished whatever stood between him and his prize. And Nathan Fillion's Mal Reynolds took on fugitives because their pursuer was the same lordly government he despised; possibly too that one of them introduced herself au naturel.

On demeanor alone, following the lessons of these characters might give players a reason to go Renegade beyond leaving a wake of maimed interlocutors and insulted crewmembers. But more importantly, there is the value of posture. Axiomatically, at least, bullies don't respond well to kindly expostulation; megalomaniacs are lulled by flattery; and the virtuous have something of an animadversion to bluster. Would browbeating a gaggle of heavies to save lives necessarily turn Shepard into a fiend? Contrariwise, wasn't Hannibal Lecter a pretty suave conversationalist?

What if, in Mass Effect 3, players retained similar moral options but the objective was to display behavior appropriate to the situation?The point may be best made by examining gameplay from a PC title dating back to 1985, Starflight — and its own sequel. A player's ship routinely met and communicated with aliens, selecting a comportment: friendly, hostile, or obsequious. In the first game, only two of the seven spacefaring races actually preferred nice-and-earnest: the rest were vile or pompous enough to demand servility, and one was best treated with a lot of stick and a little carrot. Starflight 2 introduced a confederacy of species — you had to love the names, the G'Nunk — that was so idiosyncratically bloodthirsty that nothing less than broadcasted threats would motivate conversation.

Now consider that in Mass Effect, most exchanges run parallel if players choose Paragon or Renegade paths, the only difference being that with one people end up mollified and with the other they end up knocked around. Exclusive choices short-circuit a scene even more, so the purpose of moral contemplation boils down to scoring precept points and entertaining oneself with the results.

What if players retained the typical three options — something like Paragon, Renegade and noncommittal — but the objective was to display behavior appropriate to the situation, and, like precious few missions in Mass Effect 2, success in defusing a standoff, clinching a negotiation, or throwing enemies off the scent wasn't guaranteed? Maybe suggesting that surly mercenaries "talk this thing over" wouldn't really work, forcing a player to think quick and best use those last seconds before gunfire. Instead of ridiculing or simply abusing crewmembers, Shepard might offer some tough love, since coddling would leave them ill-served. Bad calls could remove all but the "safe" options, depriving players of a skillfully contrived outcome and points denoting character richer than yin and yang. Neutral Good, anyone?

Headlines say BioWare is hard at work building a Mass Effect finale that will splay narratives in umpteen directions, transposing a thousand variables for a few thousand more. Would that the developers take care of those variables for the most important factor of all — Commander Shepard.

Adam K. Bogert // January 14, 2011 // 1:36 PM

I really enjoyed this, Michael. I've still never played a ME game -- due first to finances and second to how flawed the first game apparently is but the knowledge that I can't play 2 without 1 -- but the diversity of options has always intrigued me. I think this concept of a "neutral good" is almost too obvious, as it's the only way Shepard (or any character) could truly approximate a real person: well-meaning, but inherently flawed.

I may be a good guy, but sometimes I need to punch someone in the face. Even if I come to regret it later, occupying a few grey areas ought to be inevitable. If my choices are designed for a specific goal, as you suggest, they are merely manufactured, and the lifeblood of the avatar ceases to flow.

Michael Ubaldi // January 14, 2011 // 2:05 PM

I encourage you to pick up either title from the rental store, Adam. The sequel is standalone — in fact, I forwent importing my saved game from the original just to see what would happen. If you want a better story, choose the first; for stronger gameplay and a more accurate acquaintance with what I've described, choose the second.

My reference to "Neutral Good" adduces that in the first several editions of Dungeons and Dragons characters could choose from nine different ethical alignments, as opposed to BioWare's varying depths in just two. Since the greatest rewards are currently given for being "Full Paragon" or "Full Renegade," actually representing more shades of gray in-game, I think, would allow players to see Shepard's character as more complex than — as it were — Lawful Good and Chaotic Evil.

Thus, a thrown punch, especially if it were for good cause, might push Shepard toward a roguish hero; not toward a saint or devil. As it is now, Renegade actions simply vitiate his character; and that's what I think needs to be refined.

jbburgess // January 22, 2011 // 1:01 PM

Just a quick note, I strongly recommend beating Mass Effect before moving on to Mass Effect 2. It's certainly not necessary, but I felt much more investment in the story of ME2 because of it. From the more important, galaxy-changing decisions, to the less noticeable one-off side quests, seeing the consequences of the countless decisions I made in the first game rippling through the story of the second game really did make it that much better. The continuity you get really links the game together and makes you feel like you're playing the exact same Shepard you played in the first game.

Join the Discussion

Articles by Michael Ubaldi

July 1, 2011

February 12, 2011

G&P Latest

July 1, 2011

June 28, 2011

About  //  Editors  //  Contributors  //  Terms of Use