A closer look at the narrative devices used in Mass Effect that better support its game design. Spoilers abound.
An interesting distinction about games from other media is that the scenes in a book or film that a passive audience will take for granted often do not work in video games. Anthony Burch, from Destructoid, makes this point in one of his Rev Rants. You can’t just tell me that an NPC is my best friend and suddenly expect me to care about them. You can’t presume that the player, as the active participant, accepts the burdens of their friendship in the same way that they will watching two people on a screen interact. You have to get the player to like the person. Half-Life 2 has us spend hours upon hours with characters before we are expected to care about one being at risk, The Darkness engages us with our girlfriend through its infamous couch interaction. The key to Mass Effect’s success is by instilling the player with a real sense that their choices in the game matter. It does this by having the player work with characters and establishing their role in the game from the start.
The game starts with people discussing if you are able to become an elite government agent. Your first mission is to rescue a colony under attack while another agent, a Specter, observes you. Failing this mission is linear, but it sets the stage for the player wanting to prove themselves. Your first task is to show that the incident was not your fault and that you should become a Specter. A player review in a forum post by Kateri comments, “This game really makes you feel like a commander, with all the associated baggage. I demanded respect, because I felt like I deserved it. I honestly wanted to prove myself, I really identified with the goals and ideals that were presented to me, in terms of the paragon-type ideals. I wanted to set a good example, and be admired as a leader.” This motivation is established through numerous tiny details and encounters. Humanity has not yet proven itself to the other alien races and is not yet allowed on the Intergalactic Council. While we are on board the Citadel we encounter jealous aliens who do not believe we deserve such privileged status. We encounter others, like the Turians, who do not think we are ready to join them. When your character is finally given Specter status, they are the first human being to gain this rank. Between the diplomats and rival species, the game’s narrative makes sure to establish a feeling that this new rank is important through missions and character interactions.
The game also takes efforts to simplify moral decisions by clearly designating which dialogue options are ‘Paragon’ and which are ‘Renegade’. It creates a sort of built-in conscience for the player because it makes sure they know which choice is being rude in the game’s context and which is being noble. Rather than just accidentally saying something offensive, the decision is deliberate. Normally the problem with most morality choices, even game design neutral ones, is that when you’re asking someone to choose between doing something awful and something nice they are generally going to pick the nice choice. In a rant on moral choices, Anthony Burch points out that in field tests of Fable they discovered about 95% of players choose the good path. 4% will try to be evil but become so disgusted with the constant feedback that they quit and go back to the game telling them that they’re a good person. Very few actually pursue choices when the game constantly tells them that what they chose was evil. Mass Effect’s morality system circumvents this problem because it’s a decision about how things should be done. Being a paragon just means being nice, being a renegade just means being blunt and a bit sarcastic. There are even quests in the game that can only be solved by being a Renegade to validate both philosophies. One of the first quests in the Citadel involves a man who has lost his wife and wants her body from the military. Only by being an insensitive Renegade will he finally understand that they need to study the weapons that were used on her to save more lives.
One of the largest moral choices is who you wish to engage with romantically. Depending on your choice of gender, you can either flirt with a male or female human who is fairly complex if you talk to them. The human female, Ashely Williams, comes from a military background and is ideologically conservative. She is defensive about her family, believes in God, and criticizes you for trusting aliens excessively. Kaiden, whose resemblance to Carth from KOTOR is hard to not notice, can be described as Kateri puts it a “32 year old telekinetic virgin". For the player uninterested in either of these people, the blue alien Liara (whose species can have sex with anyone) will be propositioning you from the moment you meet her. This choice of lovers is given extra weight by the game’s play on both gender and duty during the Virmir mission. You must choose between Kaiden or Williams to go on a suicide mission. When you reach the final leg, you must pick which to save. Since you’ll probably have been flirting with one of them by this point in the game, the decision has extra weight for any player. Choose the one you like and you are playing favorites. Abandon them, and you’re losing a romantic option.