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For the most part, Mass Effect has been great at delivering moral dilemmas that resonate with the players. Indeed, the foundation of the franchise has been decision-making. This decision-making process is divided by two different kinds of options in dialogue: Paragon and Renegade. Does this the make moral choices more organised? Or does it undermine the roleplaying aspect of Mass Effect? Let's take a retrospective look at roleplaying throughout the trilogy.
The Paragade Problem
First and foremost, I feel the Paragon/Renegade system may in itself defenestrate any hope of moral ambiguity. That isn't to say there aren't some truly difficult dilemmas, I just feel that said options should have been free from the Paragon/Renegade system. This system removes the grey area in roleplaying. Instead of making choices according to our moral compass, we end up just going by whichever will get us more charm/intimidate points. This removes us from the story somewhat, and causes it to lose credulity and verisimilitude. When we factor in these binary classifications for our choices, the entire experience seems more like a game and less like a story.
I will say that the system gets points for not being directly divided into "good" and "evil" categories like Fallout 3. Paragon options are gentler, more optimistic, and more idealistic, whereas Renegade options are ruder and more pragmatic. However, simply calling them "nice" and "mean" isn't all that much of a big step forward. For the most part, our choices are completely binary, and that leaves less room for interpretation.
Compare Mass Effect 3's roleplaying to that of Dragon Age: Origins. In the latter, the player's choices were more or less measured by each party member's approval of your actions. This provides us with a very grey and realistic way of tracking our actions. Dragon Age 2 did it slightly different. In conversation, we're given three split decisions as to how we act. Hawke can be helpful and diplomatic, charming and witty, or aggressive and pragmatic. These however, are mostly for the purposes of flavour, and ensure the protagonist's line delivery is more-or-less consistent. The player's actual decisions however, are completely grey, though often times binary (and meaningless, but that's not important right now).
However, our choices weren't defined by those attitudes. Whilst some options are available to certain players, those are more Easter eggs than they are more viable options. Siding with the Templars isn't considered an agressive option, and siding with the mages isn't diplotmatic; they both involve slaughter. I don't actually know what a good middle ground option for a humourous Hawke, and I'd really rather not think about it.
There are of course, plenty of non-Pargade options, with the Paragon and Renegade dialogue options comings afterward, allowing us to be the good guy forced to make a difficult desicion for the greater good. Inversely, I feel it hurts the roleplaying when our options are limited by the being really nice and being an utter badass scores. The charm and intimidate means rewards the player for being consistent in their choices. Nice in theory, but it takes us out of the situation. Instead of thinking "what would I/my character do in this situation?" or "what's the smartest solution", many players end up choosing "good" or "bad" simply because they know they need those points later on to get the best endings. It's not as bad as BioShock's binary desicions, but it could be better.
In Mass Effect there's still quite a bit of grey area in the choices. The best example I can think of is when we're presented with the problem of killing/sparing the Citadel Council during the Battle of the Citadel. The middle option, "focus on Sovereign", ultimately has same end result as saying "let the council die". However, it gives a good middle ground for us to work with, and makes our roleplaying less cut-and-dry. As the series wore on, we saw a bit of degeneration in the dialogue wheel.
Mass Effect is a story-driven series. Said story is driven by characters and dialogue. Streamlining isn't always a good thing, but take it too far, and you make the game feel emptier, like something is missing. And something is missing from Mass Effect 3 The middle or "nuetral" option. In any given conversation, our options are completely binary. All of our options boil down to black in white, or in this case, blue and red.
By narrowing down our dialogue to just "Pargon" and "Renegade" the game loses a lot of its moral ambiguousness. Shepard is divided into "nice guy/gal" and "tough guy/gal", with little room left for interpretation. Then, auto-dialogue kicks in and we lose even more connection with our character. Now, I'm not entirely against all auto-dialogue; I think Dragon Age 2 did it well. When my Hawke acted silly and cracked jokes without my input, my character had come to life, because he was acting based on how I wanted my character to roll (see what I did there?). When Shepard did it, it felt like a disconnect, because it was usually the same dialogue that everyone else got.
One thing I did appreciate was the addition of Reputation. I believe a lot more should have hinged on this greyer system, because it simply rewarded the player for doing something, and didn't punish the player for acting differently in different situations. It was a welcome change from the confusing rewards of both Paragon and Renegade points at the end of certain missions, that's for sure.
I think a more elegant solution to the problem of Charm/Intimidate would have been to simply free those options from the constraints of the Renegon system. Instead of accumulating points for either, how about two extra skill trees for each? Or, for the purposes of being simple, why not have a neutral coercion skill, with charming and intimidating dialogue spread throughout influenced by your Paragon and Renegade score, respectively? Players familiar with Dragon Age: Origins might be familiar with that system, and I believe it worked a lot better than the one we have now.
The tricky part about forcing the player to make a decision in any game is to make them feel as though they are actually in that scenario and, even if just for a moment, they feel as though their actions have real weight with lasting consequences. The trick is mimicking real life, and making it feel like less of a game and more of an experience. There are a lot of other games outside the Mass Effect trilogy that I feel does this very well, so please excuse me if I get a bit tangential.
There has been a large handful of truly great moments in gaming, and the Mass Effect series was a great contributor. There have been moments that made me stop and take pause, and later, felt guilty about. When "right" and "wrong" are removed from the scenario, and we're left only with problems and solutions, drawbacks and dilemmas, you have truly memorable moments in video games.
Take a look at the games that don't divide morality into two camps. Fallout: New Vegas realistically recorded your actions by showing you your reputation with key groups and factions. This was good, because the game itself wasn't judging and categorising your actions like some omniscient bureaucrat; the characters, the imperfect, (mostly) human characters, had their own opinions about us. What we do to one person on one side of the world may affect our relations with one organisation, but the entire world doesn't stop worshipping me because I gave a hundred water bottles to a beggar.
Again, excuse the segue, but I want to provide examples before talking about Mass Effect's rights and wrongs. The Walking Dead game by Telltale, easily my Game of the Year thus far, has very interesting and engaging (and in some cases, shocking) decisions that make me feel as though I'm changing dynamically along with the character. My connection with the characters is so strong, I end up actually feeling emotions (you know, those things good stories make you feel?) and reacting with them. In that game, I've killed characters in a murderous rage, only to pull back and realise what a monster I've become. I've witnessed the loss of loved ones, and made choices that I would never make in my first playthrough of other games, because I want to be "all good" or get the "best ending".
Sometimes, we're left with unfair decisions (such is life) with no clear right or wrong answer. Heavy Rain made me stop and ponder many times, which is often the mark of a good story. Dragon Age: Origins offered us more than the typical binary "this or that" scenarios with which we are so often stuck. For example, the decision of who is made ruler has an eclectic myriad of outcomes. At first, we can see the primary binary choice: Alistair or Arnora. However, other candidates and combinations come into consideration as a consequence of previous actions. You could arrange for a political marriage betwixt the two, or even marry Arnora (or Al, if you're a gal). But what else? Well, the outcome differs dependent upon whether you spared or saved a certain person, won a certain debate, the different sacrifices you made, and even your origin story. If only Mass Effect could do that much!
So, did the Mass Effect trilogy have any such decisions? Yes, quite a few actually. I've already talked about the Tuchanka chunk of the game, and how great it is, so I'll just say that it was one of those rare times in gaming where I stopped, thought about my decision, changed my mind, and felt guilty. Ditto for the Rannoch: Admiral Koris mission. I was so caught up in doing what I felt was right, I ended up making an idealistic (and in hindsight, foolish) decision that cost lives. I was so immersed in the experience, I was unable to let the non-combatants die and see the big picture.
These moments are what made the game great for me. It still baffles me that anyone ever chose Action mode....
Renegon In Retrospect
In the end, I liked seeing a lot of our choices our choices segregated from the binary Paragade system. I would have liked to see more of a grey area in the roleplaying, but it could have been much worse. However, I keep drawing comparisons to inFamous. In that game, I made the good guy decisions even when I didn't think it was right, simply because I wanted to keep Cole blue and not red.
When I made those Paragon decisions in the Mass Effect trilogy, did I make them because they were the right decisions... or because I subconsciously hate the colour red?
Everything I know is a lie. My mind is now blown.