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February 21, 2012

Mass Effect: Playing the Right Way

It’s been a while since I’ve played the game, but I have fond memories of Mass Effect 2. Playing the demo for Mass Effect 3 helped me rembember how much fun I had turning invisible and sniping dudes, or watching Krogans fall over after pounding them with Cryo Ammo. No doubt the third installment will be amazing, and a worthy successor to the franchise’s high esteem. But afterward, I couldn’t help but think back to other experiences I had as CJ Shepard.

One night, I’d just finished adding the assassin Thane to my merry band of space adventurers (he looks a little bit like a frog, doesn’t he?). As we returned to the ship, my main man Jacob seemed more than a little untrustworthy of our new associate; I tried reassuring him with a bit of coaxing from my persuasive paragon Shepard.

“Do you always pick the top answer?” my brother asked.

I didn’t even hesitate. “Yes.” 

“Why? Don’t you think you’re taking the fun out of the game?” 

I shook my head and started distributing my squad points. As the man behind the mission, I knew all too well that a good ninety percent of my choices went for the paragon route; the only time I’d ever gone for a renegade choice was by complete accident. It seemed like a good idea at the time, and I’d taken pride in my devotion to doing what I thought was right in the universe.

Yet I can’t shake this suspicion that something’s wrong. I get the feeling that what I’m doing isn’t for the pursuit of in-universe justice, but for my own selfish whims – something in the guise of being noble, which is just as harmful as going straight-renegade and shoving people out of windows. Could it be that my decision to do good was something that I did out of some perverse obligation? Was I merely in it for myself, or the rewards I earned, or a sense of pathetic satisfaction?

To be fair, I’m a fairly decent person. I try to be nice, try to keep my cool, and try to help people. I don’t like starting trouble, or starting unnecessary fights. I’m no model citizen, but I’m far from a rebel. It seems like the paragon path is a logical choice for me; “neutral” Shepard seems rather bland in comparison, with his decisions usually summed up as “I’ll do it” or “Show me” – hardly befitting of a hero of his caliber. And renegade Shepard is so rude and standoffish it’s almost comical; shooting people and machinery on a whim while delivering a snarky one liner? When did I step into a bad action movie?

The paragon path seems like the only choice that matters to me. And not just the answer in the top-right corner, either; when given the chance to investigate, I almost always do. I actually like learning about the Mass Effect universe, and the peoples within it. More to the point, it gives me a chance to offer my services on their behalf – a Charm here, a quest there, things like that. To become the ideal Shepard, a father to the rest of his crew and a symbol to the rest of the universe. Dare I say it, a shepherd?

So why is it that the paragon path, in retrospect, left me so indecisive? I don’t want to recklessly blame BioWare; they’ve already done so much so far. You’re free to play your way, to be as good or as evil (tentatively speaking) as you want, and for that they deserve some praise. Even so, the polarized choices – good, evil, or neutral – create some friction. Why does it always have to be my decision, and why does it always have to be so strained? What if I want to see what Jacob or Miranda has to say, and get their advice? What if I don’t want to be a saint or sinner, but a joker? Something not quite a paragon, but not quite neutral? Choices in real life aren’t that black and white, to be sure, but going down the paragon path seemed to net me countless bonuses that I can’t imagine the renegade path offering. I opposed obvious renegade Zaeed almost every step of the way in his loyalty mission, even choosing to save the colonists over settling the twenty-year score with Vido. He shouted furiously at me, and I admit that I felt a little guilty for causing his loss…but a few clicks of the A button, and a quick-time prompt for a paragon action, and suddenly I get an achievement for earning his loyalty. What the hell?

It calls into question what the player – what all of us – think is good. Is it doing things because you want to, or because you have to? Is it because you believe in something, or because you’re doing it to keep your reputation? Is it because you follow the law, or fear it? And the dilemma goes far beyond the borders of Mass Effect; practically any game with an alignment meter – Fable or Infamous, for example – arguably asks the same thing. Beyond that, would any of the quests or side-quests get done in any game, from killing wolves World of Warcraft to catching a balloon in Spider-Man 2, ever get done without some sort of reward offered? 

Mass Effect 2 makes me care about the characters, and about the world. I want to help them, interact with them, trust them – but, with this being a video game, it’s necessary to tack on some sort of reward, be it money, experience, or as I would assume, another stride towards the “Max out your paragon meter” achievement. It’s a pervasive fact that seeps deep into your mind, making you want to play one way over another. And even if the options aren’t perfectly in line with your own ideas, BioWare is more than kind enough to offer alternatives. So what if Shepard wasn’t meant to be a straight paragon, or a straight renegade, but a mix of the two? Someone free to make his own decisions, for better or worse, for the good of others and the good of himself? Does that mean that the way I’ve been playing is inherently wrong, and I have to select from all three options from now on? Or is there no harm in walking unflinchingly down a single path?

Who knows? As it stands -- and with Mass Effect 3 bobbling up the horizon -- I have no intention of “reforming my ways.” I’m a paragon, damn it, and that’s the way I like it. Even so, I have a greater appreciation of the alternatives, and understand that the choices I make don’t have to be set in stone. If I’m going to choose a path, it has to be one that I want to take. All the perks and niceties that come with it can take a back seat; all that matters is playing the way I want to play.

Even if Jack disapproves. But then again, I’d suggest she put on a shirt before she starts questioning someone else’s social practices.

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