Mass Effect: Romance X Morality

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I’ve found it’s hard for even seasoned pundits to predict future trends in games, whether it’s an overestimation of Shadow of Mordor’s Nemesis system or dialogue wheels, the latter of which did persist through the odd (and odd) title for some time but has at least shifted function in the modern RPG space, with its loot shooting and open worlds. I have a feeling this is also the case with Bioware’s signature morality system.

For Mass Effect, that’s where the terms “Paragon” and “Renegade” come in. The Mass Effect wiki has this to say:

Unlike many contemporary role-playing games, such as BioWare’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, that represent morality as a single sliding scale of good and evil, Mass Effect keeps track of the Paragon and Renegade points on separate scales. A good action will not make up for an evil one; therefore, being nice occasionally will not stop people from fearing a killer or remove the reputation of an unsympathetic heel, but nor will the occasional brutal action significantly damage the reputation of an otherwise upstanding soldier. This also means there is no gameplay-driven motivation for avoiding a particular type of action.

The system was a subject of criticism before and during its rollout; players were already tired of morality. While Mass Effect offered a course correction to the good/bad binary, and always entertained with the results (Renegade especially, in 1 and 2, are usually so badass they’re funny. Mass Effect 3 Renegade is just a sociopath). However, my lingering issue lies with its gamification.

You gain these Paragon or Renegade points by choosing corresponding dialogue options, some of which are highlighted in blue or red and offer the only safe pathway out of situations. For example, Wrex can only be saved by the blue or red, which are earned by high Paragon/Renegade scores and/or completion of his side mission. The wiki goes on to break down the points system for Paragon (similar to Renegade):

10% – Opens 2 Charm ranks. Gives 1 Charm point.
25% – Opens 2 Charm ranks. Gives 1 Charm point. Bonus: 10% shorter First Aid cooldown.
50% – No charm ranks/points. Bonus: 10% maximum health.
75% – Opens 2 Charm ranks. Gives 1 Charm point. Bonus: 5% reduction in cooldown on all powers. Paragon Achievement.

I haven’t played Andromeda yet, but apparently the developers abandoned this morality system because of its gamification. It’s true; the series is so much more dramatic and suspenseful if you play it poorly, and you do that by going with your gut. Maybe this is a Paragon response (signified by the topmost dialogue option), maybe this is Renegade. You keep those scores low, maybe you don’t unlock the safe pathways and Tali gets exiled. Tali gets exiled, maybe you actually have to choose between the geth and quarian fleets, and let me tell you: after you make that choice, you’re damn sure gonna watch one of them go down in flames. If it’s the quarian’s, Tali kills herself.

But worry not! If you’re a modern gamer, equipped with wikis like that cited above, and more so the mind attuned to the meta-game, you won’t have to suffer such emotional resonance.

I didn’t honestly notice this until post-Mass Effect 3, during a playthrough of the Omega DLC. There’s a moment when you’re prompted to do a quicktime action to basically surrender something (it’s been a while), and of course I easily ignore it. But then the prompt appears again, and again, and I’m questioning myself. When the Paragon choice is the topmost option, and I’ve decided to go “full Paragon” to reap the benefits, there is no question.

For me, Mass Effect continues to fascinate for the choices evidenced by the developers’ exploratory meshing of gameplay and narrative. The systems they implemented to reward players along an RPG path (like this morality) often drive the player away from compelling characterization, and yet Mass Effect 3 stands as the streamlined, corridor example of the series, taking the complex diplomatic mission at its center and shuttling you from reaction to reaction to other characters’ choices.

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Though Mass Effect is the one (or three) game I continue to come back to, I can still say I “remember” it, and I remember it for its quirks. Indeed, it was a generic shooter with receding RPG elements, but it also had a versatile conversation mechanic, and one of the avenues to follow with that mechanic terminated in “romance,” another of its signatures.

Shepard takes her sproutling team down to Palaven’s moon to spirit away the turian primarch for a summit but is told he’s dead. On the hunt for his successor, Garrus appears and joins the team. Now, Joanna Shepard and Garrus were romantically involved in Mass Effect 2, making their initial reunion somewhat awkward. It went something like “Garrus, I’m glad to see you.” This must be the reaction for all Shepards, romance or not, but my headcanon can attribute this steady heart to the proximity of ever-jealous Liara.

The real reunion happens later, after some in-jokes about Garrus’s love of recalibrating parts of the Normandy, when we learn that Garrus played a mini-Shepard role (as he often does) with the turians in advance of the reaper invasion. He went to his father as a desperate move and secured a token reaper “task force,” which did what it could but clearly its scope continues to irk him. The two old buds reflect on their shared history of being ignored and disbelieved, and how so much has changed now that the reapers are here. What to make of that, Shepard?

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GARRUS
We’re actually respectable now.

SHEPARD
[It won’t be easy.] or [We earned it.]

Again, the top answer is presumably Paragon, and the bottom is Renegade. As I’d discover later, this wasn’t the case, as Mass Effect 3 also employs a Reputation system that complements and sometimes replaces the morality. This whole conversation gained me +2 Reputation points, which I believe feeds into the war effort. Really, it should do nothing, because it’s a character moment, but that’s fine for now. In the moment, believing this might be Paragon or Renegade, and choosing “We earned it” would grant another instance of Sassy Shepard, I thought about Garrus suddenly reconsidering his affection.

What is it he sees in me? I mean, Shepard. Well, that would come down to the character. PC Gamer has this memorable analysis of Garrus in a ranking of the series’ squadmates (in which Garrus ranked first and Legion at least cracked the top ten, which is perhaps all I can ask given his limited role):

The idea that Garrus is both dependent on Shepard and overshadowed by Shepard is one of the most nuanced bits of character writing in the series. Heading out alone after Shepard’s ‘death’, Garrus makes a mess of hero life: when Shepard finds him and relieves him of the Arkangel moniker, it’s a relief. He wasn’t cut out to be Batman: he was born to be Robin. But that’s a sad thing to recognise, and—laudably—it’s not something that Shepard is allowed to fully resolve. There’s no paragon-interrupting your way out of it. It’s simply a thorn in your friendship, a blemish that makes their relationship all the more believable.

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Taking this a step further, what if Garrus needs Shepard to better understand himself? He’s a lot to make sense of, which makes for one frustrated, anxious turian. Shepard and Garrus’s relationship doesn’t play out with a lot of check-ins the way it might in an American television drama, so it’s difficult for me to say, much as I’d like to. There’s just enough here to tantalize, and that’s how I come to speculate on the mechanics.

Let’s say the morality system and the romance system were inextricable. Now, that’s roleplaying: Shepard tells Garrus that it’s about damn time people started recognizing her, and it rubs him the wrong way. He no longer sees an aspirational reflection, and here comes some guarded dialogue about recalibrations that cuts off the conversation. You’ll have to win him back now, and suddenly it’s not just a progress bar.

This is the Approval system in sister series Dragon Age, which seems like a more compelling alternative. By putting squadmates off enough, they can actually threaten to leave the party. Despite some lapses in Mass Effect 3, or deaths, everyone’s pretty much tethered to the good commander. I don’t believe the Approval or Disapproval is so direct, either. Based on how you interact with the world (Paragon/Renegade), the Approval points variously collect among the squad.

Theoretically for Mass Effect, the first bar to clear for Charm or Renegade opens up romance options, while simultaneously closing others off. The 10% Paragon status attracts you to Jacob and Kaiden and all those drips, and those flirtatious dialogue options don’t exist for Jack. With respect to both modern and contemporary social politics, this is a better method than closing off options based on gender. Who says Shepard isn’t gay? That’s too much roleplaying.

I’m not the biggest fan of either system, morality or romance, but my gamification-related issues are resolved by combining the two. At least, for the romance. Morality still needs further examination.

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Originally published February 24, 2019 to The Utopia Blueprint


2 thoughts on “Mass Effect: Romance X Morality

  1. “Great in-depth article. Admittedly the perfectionist in me pursued the ‘perfect’ path and opted for the paragon options. For that reason the first Dragon Age just didn’t sit right, attempting to game the system and realising it just wouldn’t work.

    Ultimately it seemed there was something in Alpha Protocols approach which had a third alternative take but also had a timer mechanism. Always felt the mechanic in Bioware titles broke when you could stop to consider your options and everyone stood passively around you. Enjoyed AP approach forcing you to ‘live in the moment’”

    – Around The Bonfire, February 24, 2019

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    1. I did, too, with ME. All three games, every playthrough I nearly maxed Paragon. I did end up minimizing the ephemeral joy of that sort of gaminess — just because it clashes with the narrative doesn’t mean somebody thoughtful didn’t design it. That said, I’d be interested in exploring alternatives, and always meant to check out Alpha Protocol.

      (February 25, 2019)

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