Dec 3, 2007

Paragons & Renegades: Morality In “Mass Effect” (and Other Thoughts)

Mass Effect

Update: I have recently posted some thoughts and impressions of Mass Effect 2.

It’s been almost two weeks, and I’m still making my way through Mass Effect, the latest game from BioWare. For one thing, as much as I love and am fascinated by video games, I have precious little time to play them these days. The main reason, though, for the long playtime is that Mass Effect has a game world so massive (npi), epic, and involved, I want to take my time going through it. I want to savour the experience, exploring every nook and cranny of its universe.

One of the more intriguing aspects of Mass Effect’s universe is its system for determining your character’s morality. This isn’t groundbreaking by itself; many other developers have done this. But BioWare has made an art and science out of it through such games as Knights Of The Old Republic and Jade Empire.

But unlike the mostly black and white, fairly dualistic morality of BioWare’s earlier titles, Mass Effect’s morality system is a bit subtler and more refined. Your character’s morality is divided between two scales: “Paragon”, which is increased by actions that would be considered noble or heroic, and “Renegade”, which is increased by ruthless and aggressive actions. And unlike those earlier titles, the two don’t cancel eachother out. You can’t simply undo your renegade ways by making the same number of paragon choices.

However, all of your actions — even those of the “Renegade” variety — are ostensibly good. After all, you are trying to save the galaxy from a race of intelligent machines bent on eradicating all forms of organic life. In the face of such an unimaginable threat, might it not be okay to, say, wipe out a colony of innocent civilians, if that will help accomplish your mission?

In setting up such scenarios, Mass Effect touches on a philosophical, moral, and spiritual issue that seems to be on everyone’s minds these days, considering everything that’s going on with the war on terror. Namely, is it ever permissible, or even preferable, to commit acts of great evil so as to bring about a great(er) good?

It’s the sort of question that philosophers, theologians, and great thinkers have pondered and grappled with for generations, so don’t expect a video game — albeit a really good one — to come to any conclusive answers on the subject. But it does make for fascinating gameplay and a pretty compelling storyline that can be surprisingly thought-provoking.

Mass Effect 1 - 1

What makes Mass Effect‘s morality system so intriguing is its subtlety and diversity. There are many obvious, life and death situations in which you hold the lives of innocents in your hands, and you can choose to take the paragon’s route and save them, or go the way of the renegade and kill them all. But how does interacting with a nosy reporter or an adoring fan affect things? What happens when you brusquely ignore the former, or agree to give an autograph to the latter? It might not affect things on a galactic scale, but it might affect things on the personal one.

You spend a good portion of the game on the Citadel, a massive space station that serves as the galactic political center, and as such, is home to many species. You can wander it for hours, encountering all manner of individuals and stumbling upon a number of subplots and side stories — all of which allow you to embrace your inner paragon and/or renegade.

For example, as I was walking through the Citadel, I came across an arguing couple. After asking a few questions, a tragic scenario emerged. The woman was both pregnant and recently widowed. What’s more, her husband had died of a disease that her unborn child might have as well. The man arguing with her was her brother-in-law, who was urging her to undergo medical tests to see if the child had the disease or not. But the woman refused, citing reports that the tests could be potentially harmful to the baby.

Whose side do you pick, and why? How do you convince the other party to agree? Do you do so forcefully or tenderly? Do you try to sympathize with them, or use their fear and grief to make them see reason — whatever that might be?

Mass Effect 1 - 2

In another part of the Citadel, I encountered an alien trying to preach his religion in a public area without the necessary permits. A security officer was threatening him with arrest. Do you attempt to convince the alien to leave, or do you encourage their proselytizing? And again, how do you do so? Do you try to intimidate them or are you more charming and persuasive?

In both of these scenarios, and others like them, there are no clearcut “good” or “evil” choices. You can intimidate, threaten, and harass a character and still be in no danger of ending up on the dark side. But all of these choices do have effects, sometimes right away and sometimes over a span of time.

A certain choice or set of choices might mean that your character forfeits certain skills or talents that could come in handy later. Subplots might have subtle differences, or be gone entirely. Trusted crewmembers might leave if they come to disagree with your methods. They may even end up dead.

It’s tempting to dismiss all of this as just another trick in the game developer’s bag, as another tactic intended as a selling point. After all, it’s just a video game that we’re talking about here.

I find that stance rather cynical and smug, however. Granted, I may never consider Mass Effect “high art” (whatever that means). But to say that it’s merely a video game, and not at all something artistic? There, I’m not so sure. Video games are still human endeavors, and like all other human endeavors, possess, at the very least, the potential to be art. And any art that is truly worth its salt wrestles, in some way, with “big” questions.

With their interactive nature, video games hold a unique potential for causing people to think about those “big” questions in ways that no other medium can — by allowing them to make those decisions and experience the consequences (albeit in a virtual form). Which is something that BioWare has been touting in Mass Effect’s promos, like this one and this one.

Mass Effect 1 - Galaxy Map

That’s what can potentially make a game truly great, moreso than anything else. I’ve been fascinated with video games for years, and have followed the industry from a distance. Over time, though, I’ve grown rather disenchanted by the constant focus on the technology that drives the games, as if a game’s merit is only decided by the graphics engine that it uses, or the type of hardware on which it can run. Not surprisingly, it reminds me of the movie industry’s constant focus on big budget spectacles and special effects budgets — as if those are the only true measures of a film’s merit.

I’ve always been drawn to games that have the potential to be great stories, to be truly immersive, transporting experiences — to be artistic experiences. Some might scoff at that proposition, but when I play a game like Mass Effect, where one moment I’m deciding the fate of billions, and the next, the fate of a single unborn child, I find that proposition more than just a whim or fancy.

I’ll admit, sometimes it’s fun to be the renegade, to be the bad-ass special agent who runs in with both guns blazing and to hell with the consequences. But when Mass Effect shows you to results of your actions, I find myself wishing I’d taken a nobler, more thoughtful path. Similarly, being a paragon may be its own reward, but there are times when being the “good” guy means worse consequences in the long run.

Of course, its morality system isn’t the only thing in Mass Effect to write about. Here are a few other random impressions, both good and bad:

  • I love a good character creation system, and Mass Effect’s system is really nice (watch it here). I spent a good part of my first Mass Effect session simply tweaking my character’s appearance to make him as cool as possible (hint: scars = cool). But then again, I used to make up Marvel Super Heroes characters and BattleTech mechs for fun when I was in high school, so your mileage may vary.
  • The “Galaxy Map” is freaking cool (watch it here).
  • The voice acting and dialog are topnotch, and feature a number of well-cast celebrities such as Keith David, Seth Green, Lance Henriksen, and Marina Sirtis.
  • Mass Effect is a role-playing game first and foremost, which means that you’ll spend a good deal of your time managing characters’ skills and inventories. Which, if you’re an anal geek like me, can be lots of fun. I just wish the interface had been given a bit more polish and fine-tuning before release. As it stands right now, it’s a bit unwieldy and inconsistent.
  • The same goes for the battle system. Which isn’t as bad as everyone says, but it’s not the easiest either. I just wish I didn’t have to use the thumbstick for everything. It sounds great in theory, but in practice, it’s a bit on the irritating side. The control should have been tightened a bit before the game went gold. Ditto for the dialog wheel. Using the thumbstick to navigate your dialog options isn’t the worst thing, but it could’ve been better.
  • The game’s graphical glitches are noticeable, but they aren’t nearly as aggravating as some make them out to be. Same goes for the load times.
  • The elevators are pretty slow.

I’m still making my way through the game, so any of the above observations may change. But I don’t think so. Even as far as I am, I completely understand why Mass Effect currently has a score of 92 on MetaCritic.


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