Why Mass Effect's Morality System Is Worse Than Wasteland 3 - VRGyani News and Media


Saturday, October 2, 2021

Why Mass Effect's Morality System Is Worse Than Wasteland 3

Mass Effect is a series with a variety of guns, a cover system, and a range of biotic/tech-based special abilities. However, it would be reductive to simply call it a 3rd-person action game. Mass Effect has always been built upon the foundation of the stories and characters it houses within its universe. And the way that most players will experience the bulk of the Mass Effect Universe is through the eyes of their player character, Commander Shepard. Through Commander Shepard, players will make a variety of decisions that shape the fates of individuals as well as entire species and civilizations. But the greatest tragedy of all these decisions is that if you squint your eyes just right, all these seemingly varied choices basically boil down to a choice between two consistent options: Paragon or Renegade.

The morality system in Mass Effect has been a staple feature since the series’ inception, with every decision and dialogue choice feeding into a system that determines what kind of person Shepard will be. Paragon-leaning Shepards will be a virtue of justice, a symbol for the downtrodden, and have an overall heroic persona. Renegade Shepards, on the other hand, will be ruthless, selfish, and oftentimes unnecessarily cruel in their actions and demeanor. And while many consider the system integral to the series, there is an argument to be made that such a binary system of morality limits the series in both its narrative and gameplay.

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From a gameplay perspective, there are a significant amount of dialogue choices that require Shepard to have a specific level of either Paragon or Renegade points in order to access. From the start, players are discouraged from making their choices on a case-by-case basis. If you want to access some of the late-game dialogue choices, you’ll need to have made significantly more decisions that lean heavily into one side of the spectrum or the other. Splitting your decisions to have a more morally balanced Shepard sometimes ends up costing players significant late-game choices. The series would improve upon this issue in later entries, namely in the form of Mass Effect 3’s Reputation system that gained experience from both Paragon and Renegade choices. However, that’s not the only issue that crops up with such a “this or that” system.

While Renegade options are sold to the player as a way to make their Shepard a hard-ass who doesn’t play by the rules but gets results, many of these decisions simply don’t make sense in the grand scheme of Shepard’s role. Shepard is a character who is meant to liaison with and oftentimes serve as a diplomatic figure for a multitude of alien races. And with this type of character, the loud-mouthed, arrogant, violent, and usually tactless dialogue options in the Renegade tree simply don’t match with who Shepard is. Regardless of how you feel about bureaucracy, most people would probably agree that killing the entire galactic government is a bad long-term idea. Choosing to murder brainwashed colonists when you have the means to save them via sleep grenades isn’t a complex moral choice, it’s a litmus test for whether or not you’re a psychopath. Even though you can progress the story in very similar ways whether you lean Paragon or Renegade, the reality is that when given a choice to be a good guy or straight-up villain, most players will choose to be heroic rather than villainous.

Now, this isn’t to say that gamers are implicitly opposed to playing as more morally dubious characters. Grand Theft Auto V is one of the most popular games to ever exist, a game in which gunning down civilians and being a general scumbag isn’t just a feature, it’s a primary reason to play the game. Destroy All Humans, Overlord, Prototype — there are certainly a number of games that allow players to flex their more villainous tendencies. However, with each of these games, being a villain is the price of entry. There’s no real choice to take a more morally righteous approach, and that’s why they are able to succeed as villain-centric stories. However, when a game offers players a distinct option between being a hero or a villain, more often than not players will gravitate toward what makes more sense in the context of the story. And when the choice is so neatly segregated into purely Good or Bad, you have a much greater tendency for players to lean towards the Good option.

To really illustrate this point, John Ebenger (Cinematic Designer for Mass Effect) revealed that around 92% of players created Paragon-focused characters. Because most of the decisions basically boil down to “be a nice person” or “be a jackass,” there’s no real thought-provoking framework from which players can approach each decision. When the game literally color codes which option is good and which is bad, there’s no real discussion to be had for each decision. Very few people in life truly view themselves as a bad person. Even the most reprehensible individuals have rationalizations and justifications for why they did the things they did. In Mass Effect, people rarely have to rationalize why their decision was a just one. The game tells you, constantly peeking over your shoulder to let you know what’s right and what’s wrong.

However, there is a game that also delves into the complicated web of moral choices, and manages to do so in a much more compelling manner. Wasteland 3 shares the RPG tag of Mass Effect, though the two are extremely different in a number of ways. Wasteland 3 is a top-down strategy RPG set in a post-apocalyptic Colorado. Players control a pair of Rangers, one of the last vestiges of law and order in this new world. They are sent on a mission to liberate Colorado from groups of insurgents at the behest of a man called The Patriarch, who has promised crucial supplies in return for their help. From this premise, Wasteland 3 wastes no time in tackling a decidedly different approach to morality and story decisions.

Rather than have a “good” or “evil” meter, players build reputation individually with a number of the factions in Colorado, with decisions positively or negatively affecting each group’s opinion of you. From a gameplay perspective, this means rather than basing their decisions on whether or not they’re going to be good or evil, players must consider how their standing in the world at large will be affected by their actions. This may sound as if it carries a similar problem to Mass Effect’s system, as players may decide to just do whatever makes a certain faction happy to boost their reputation and reap the rewards. However, what may please one faction will more often than not deteriorate your relationship with another.

When the choice is between saving an innocent family who’s been taken hostage or protecting a weapons convoy from cultists, saving the family is undoubtedly the more “Paragon” option. However, when doing so means that innocent marshals from a local town will die, and powerful weapons will fall into the hands of deranged lunatics, is this truly the more moral decision? Choosing to protect a mobster over handing him over to the police is obviously the more “Renegade” decision. However, the police in question are corrupt to the core and are arguably as big of criminals as the mobster. Plus, said mobster has promised to release a captive officer and supply the Rangers with weapons and supplies they desperately need to accomplish their goal. There’s also no guarantee that either faction won’t stab you in the back down the line for their own ends. Is there truly a correct decision to be made? Wasteland 3 constantly poses questions for the player, asking them not to choose between good and evil, but rather what they themselves value as their own interpretation of what is moral and what isn’t.

That’s not to say that Mass Effect is entirely without decisions like these. Choosing to cure the Genophage in Mass Effect 3 is the Paragon option versus Renegade’s option to fake it and keep the Krogan infected. However, when curing the Genophage may allow the Krogan to multiply and take revenge for their near-genocide by starting another galactic war, the decision becomes decidedly less black and white. Choosing to kill the Rachni Queen in Mass Effect is the Renegade option. But when allowing them to live means letting a race that once wreaked untold death and destruction a chance to repopulate, can we truly say there’s no risk or room for doubt in our Paragon stance? And let’s not forget what is arguably the most memorable decision of the first game: Choosing to save Kaiden or Ashley was a perfect example of what a good moral decision looks like. There’s no clear-cut answer, and each side can argue or justify why their decision was the best one they could make in the moment. Not all of Mass Effect’s decisions are as black and white as its binary system proposes. However, when each decision is prematurely denigrated or praised as just or immoral by way of a color-coded system, there isn’t much room for discussion within the game itself. 92% of players chose Paragon characters. If every person basically chooses the same thing, you haven’t really given players a choice. You’ve just given them an excuse to play the game twice to see all its content.

A well-designed moral decision in a game should ideally spark a debate among players about which option was the “right” option, with each side being able to reason out why their decision was the most moral or practical way to resolve a conflict. A decision where every player agrees may be satisfying in the moment, but it does little to actually create discussion. Mass Effect’s morality system may have worked back in 2007, but games are continuing to grow up and ask deeper, more complicated questions. Mass Effect is a series that a vast number of people hold in high regard, and rightfully so. And while it’s far from the only game to be guilty of having a purely binary morality system, it is one of the most noteworthy examples. That being said, it’s refreshing to see games such as Wasteland 3 attempting to approach moral choices with the gravity and nuance that simply makes them more interesting to discuss and deliberate over. In a galaxy of Paragon-blue and Renegade-red, it’s the shades of grey in between that shine the brightest.

KEEP READING: ‘Wasteland 3’ DLC ‘Cult of the Holy Detonation’ Trailer Puts Players Between Two Warring Cults

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