The False Dichotomies of ‘Mass Effect’

This is an article about choice in Mass Effect 3, about the path our Shepards have taken and how confined decisions make these experiences all the more powerful. Since the first entry into the franchise, the most interesting dichotomy has not been between synthetic and organic, but between Paragon and Renegade. While Bioware constructs a false dichotomy between the two out of necessity, artful adjustments to story and context during decision points have continued to complicate the game’s own binary system.

Even in the first Mass Effect, the Paragon/Renegade system had already set itself apart from traditional morality systems. The blue and red color coded options gave newcomers the false impression that these decisions represented “good” and “bad”, as though they were judgements passed down from some fictional deity. In actuality, these decisions more closely adhered and continue to adhere to the “lawful good” and “chaotic good” alignments established by Dungeons & Dragons. They represent how closely Shepard “follows the rules” in pursuit of good, a measurement of divergence from a lore-based code of conduct.

This slight difference between morality system and divergence from the law gives players a great amount of freedom. It would be strange to see a “good” character take “evil” actions, but even a Paragon Shepard can make Renegade decisions now and again. Yet Bioware’s own success with its Paragon/Renegade system has created an unfortunate false dichotomy. Much of the discourse around each player’s version of Shepard revolves around whether she is Paragon or Renegade as opposed to in what situations does she act as a Paragon or Renegade. Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3 in particular undermine this discourse with complex situations that allow or demand more variability in Shepard’s personality.

When it comes to Paragon/Renegade decisions, context is everything. For example, take Shepard’s first visit to the Krogan homeworld of Tuchanka in Mass Effect 2. The Krogan are depicted as a brutal and vicious race of aliens, more comfortable on the battlefield than in politics. With few exceptions, their culture values strength and lethality above all else. Mercy and diplomacy may appear as a sign of weakness. It is only natural then when a traditionally “Paragon behaving” Shepard takes Renegade actions. Pulling the right trigger to brutally display Shepard’s strength is just a way to fit in among the locals and gain their confidence. Such an extreme context provides Shepard and players a safe place to test her own moral boundaries.

The trigger system also provides some excellent narrative complications to the binary Paragon/Renegade system. In order to let players know the general outcome of these quick decisions, Bioware improved upon how Mass Effect telegraphs these decisions in each game. The infamous moment when Shepard punches the tabloid news reporter Khalisah Al-Jilani is a classic example. The moment before and during the Renegade trigger appears in Mass Effect 2, Shepard leans closer into the reporter’s space while she in turn backs away just slightly. Intent is shown and the expected outcome takes effect. Try to knock her out again in Mass Effect 3, and she might return the favor, disconnecting the expectation of outcome from the Renegade decision.

A similar disconnect occurs at one point late in Mass Effect 3 when strictly Paragon players ignore Renegade prompts only to receive a Game Over screen. Some fans reacted with hostility to the notion of the game requiring a Renegade decision. Yet even a Paragon-centric Shepard cannot solely be confined to that framework. We are rarely blessed with a pause button to contemplate our moral dilemmas. Like Shepard, we must live with our decisions, good or bad.

We all have moral frameworks on which we base difficult decisions. Some people ask, “What would Jesus do?”, others strictly obey the law or words of wisdom handed down by friends and family. The Paragon and Renegade system has matured throughout the Mass Effect series to better reflect the experiences, contexts, and moral systems that define our decisions but never define our future.