A while ago, I decided to do a full play-through of the Mass Effect series. I’m not a big fan of the games overall, but my roommate was playing Mass Effect 3, and I found myself inescapably enticed by that old combination of shiny space stuff, shooting robots in the face, and watching numbers go up. Hackneyed dialogue be damned! I was gonna be a super cool space-soldier with a super cool space-brain! Also, gritty. I was gonna be soooooooooo gritty.
And there I was, going to town with all my space-guns and mind powers. A bunch of stuff blew up, and thousands of robot babies became orphans. Then it was dialogue time. One of the dialogue options was Red for Renegade. My Jane Shepard is totally Renegade, so I hit the red dialogue option. I said a bunch of tough, cool Renegade stuff, got some XP, and became even more Renegade. Since I became more of a Renegade, I could pick the red option during the next dialogue, say a bunch tough, cool Renegade stuff, get some XP, and become even more Renegade. That lead to the next dialogue where I could pick the red option, say a bunch of tough, cool Renegade stuff, get some XP, and become even more Renegade…
But then I came to the point in Mass Effect where we meet the rachni queen. She’s a giant, psychic space-bug. Obviously, that’s pretty awesome. However, she and her potential offspring might be an existential threat to the entire galaxy. Less awesome. Fortunately, there’s a container of acid I can use to turn her into harmless bug soup. Easy solution? Maybe, but that would be akin to genocide since the queen is the last living rachni. I have to either let the queen go or kill her. What’s a Shepard to do? It’s a very grey situation both logistically and ethically. Even with the best intentions, this is a difficult choice to navigate.
At the bottom of the screen, though, I see my dialogue wheel. It tells me that letting the queen go is a Paragon action, and killing the queen is a Renegade action. Now I have a different consideration. My Shepard is a Renegade. I’ve been making Renegade decisions up to this point, and I want to make more Renegade decisions in the future. So, to get as much as I can out of the Renegade path, I should dump acid all over the rachni queen. On the other hand, maybe genocide is a bit much. Renegade is one thing, but my Shepard probably isn’t Space-Hitler.
How should I make this decision, then? I don’t want to be evil, but I do want to keep the galaxy safe. I do want my Renegade points, but I don’t want to betray my vision of Shepard. The whole thing’s a big mess, and, as far as I can tell, the only way to approach it coherently is to disregard some of those concerns. I can either weigh the situation as it exists in the fictional moment, or I can weigh the metafictional matters of my character’s stats and authoring my vision for Shepard. These are categorically different types of concerns, so, to my eyes, there’s no way deal with them all at the same time.
And I find that pretty frustrating. The game falls into conflict with itself, and that, in turn, puts me in a strange double bind. It isn’t just that the decision is difficult, but rather, when considered in its entirety, the decision is incoherent. If it were just a matter of choosing whether to free the rachni queen or kill her, that would be totally fine. It’s a fairly meaty choice and gives you an opportunity to author/discover something interesting about your Shepard. But adding the Renegade-Paragon system confounds things. Fundamentally, the choice between Renegade and Paragon is a choice about stats, a choice about what kind of XP you get. Most of the time, that decision maps fairly well onto other decisions about what kind of person your Shepard is. In this case, though, the decisions don’t mesh. It becomes apparent, at least to me, that authoring my vision for Shepard and choosing between Renegade or Paragon are not the same thing.
Which totally sucks because Mass Effect definitely wants me to do both of those things. It wants me to express my Shepard by picking dialogue options, and it wants me to accumulate Renegade or Paragon XP by picking dialogue options. In this situation, the game wants me to do both things simultaneously but makes it impossible for me to do so. And that isn’t to say that the choice itself is impossible. I can and have decided what to do about the rachni queen, but that decision was only partly an in-play decision. I also had to decide what parts of play I cared about. Did I care more about authoring my Shepard or about getting the right kind of XP? That’s a choice about how to play the game, not a choice that results from playing the game.
Any maybe that’s a trivial choice. Maybe it’s really easy to figure out your priorities and go on with the rest of the game. Deal with that tiny bit of discord, and move on. No harm, no foul. But it still irks me. It’s a tiny, completely avoidable failure of design and only seems to exist because mechanics were put where they don’t need to be. It isn’t as though Mass Effect’s dialogue system or the Renegade-Paragon system are fundamentally broken. But they each do particular things and inform play in particular ways. In the case of the rachni queen, they speak with different voices. One says “This thing with the rachni queen is pretty important, right? What’re you gonna do?” The other says “So, do you want more Red Button or more Blue Button?”
Remove the Renegade-Paragon component, and the situation works fine. This is one of those moments in video games where the choice itself is system enough. There’s no need to further “mechanize” it. Let an alignment system do its work in other places. When it comes to weighty decisions, though, write them well, invest players, give us stakes, and the rest takes care of itself.
Oh, and I obviously freed the rachni queen. Jane Shepard isn’t a monster.