Warning: Spoilers for Mass Effect, Mass Effect 2, and Mass Effect 3.
In the Mass Effect series, there are two directions you can take your version of Commander Shepherd: paragon and renegade. Mass Effect describes these choices as being essentially good and evil, with paragon representing good and renegade representing evil. However, these lines often become blurred, especially when examining what “goodness” means.
Throughout the games, Shepherd has to make many tough choices. However, at these points, the distinction between paragon and renegade would often break down. With the goal of paragon and renegade points being to build upon each other to make a total make Shepherd’s total morality score. Sometimes, the distinction is as simple as “be a dick” or “don’t be a dick,” but sometimes a renegade option will be to let three die in order to save an entire world (as happens in the first game) or to let a murderer trying to destroy a planet escape (presumably to try again later). In this particular instance, the scientists had already sacrificed some of their number in order to save the planet, so presumably, they were willing to sacrifice themselves for this cause. This was the first big moment that made me question the moral standards of the Mass Effect universe.
It’s hard to judge what a pop-up renegade action will be. Sometimes it’s simply cutting someone off or sometimes you are actually punching people in the face (outside of the context of combat). This falls under the “be a dick” or “don’t be a dick” categories. It’s safe to say that assholishness is evil. But not doing immediate good in exchange for a greater good at a later point is also seen as renegade.
Are these truly opposite concepts? Often in the games there is no right answer. So it’s unclear why so much focus would be put on morality without really giving players the ability to explore it. It could be that this duality is the mass perception of good and evil, but negative choices don’t actually affect your interactions all that much. Perhaps a crewmate will be upset with you for a few dialogue interactions or an NPC will , but, overall, your status and relationships will remain largely the same.
If the point of Mass Effect is there is no right and wrong–only right and wrong at the time–then why are there mechanics based around paragon and renegade? Particularly in the third installment, where Shepherd has to make many tough decisions, it seems like the message is that right and wrong aren’t applicable to war. There’s a degree of desperation in Shepherd’s decisions. She has to let others suffer to save the galaxy.
These decisions clearly haunt her. In ME3, She sees a ship get blown up by the Reapers knowing a child is on board. This is a child she theoretically could have saved. She could have spent time chasing after the child in the vents of the building and possibly risked her own evacuation to bring him to her ship. However, this isn’t even an option in the cut scene. Shepherd has to keep pace with Anderson and leave Earth. She had to gamble a child’s life (and lose) to save her own.
The game doesn’t assign paragon or renegade points to this scene because the player has no choice. Shepherd often has to let others die for a greater good. However, it sometimes counts against her and other times does not. The only difference seems to be the amount of dialogue after the fact. The Kaidan and Ashley decision clearly haunts Shepherd for two subsequent games. The side missions with these sorts of decisions however bear far fewer dialogue options and rarely continue into other games unless the paragon option is chosen. Occasionally, a choice one way or the other will resolve in an email sent to Shepherd. However, this is not satisfying enough to justify a sloppy mechanic. I dislike that an otherwise strong series has a mechanic that’s essentially “be mean and get badass scars and the option to be a dick more often” or “be nice and have a smooth face and the opportunity to be nice more often.” This is especially frustrating when the paragon and renegade options get to the same end. It’s simply flavor disguised as morality.
Flavor is useful in Mass Effect games, but they have to have a consistent logic to them. The varying differences between paragon and renegade often seem somewhat arbitrary. It’s hard to see Shepherd as paragon or renegade when the decisions don’t always line up with the descriptions. The ultimate message seems to be that morality itself is arbitrary. But, again, there’s no way for the player to explore that. The things that haunt Shepherd are the things outside of her control. She seems at least willing to live with the decisions she makes as a Spectre, regardless of choice. Besides a few nightmares and nasty emails, the player doesn’t get to see these things affect Shepherd. Even Samara talked about her feelings and regrets as a Justiciar occasionally.
Roleplaying games don’t actually need a representation for good and evil if the choices are at all interesting. The choices in Mass Effect that stuck with me the most are the ones where there is no right answer. Spectres are there to make the tough decisions. Rather than getting buried in mountains of paperwork, the Spectres can operate outside the law as long as their ultimate goal is to protect the galaxy. No matter what choices Shepherd makes, this is always her goal.