Bioware Finally Gets the Morality Meter Right in ‘Mass Effect 3’

The morality system of Mass Effect has always been a blessing and a curse. It’s just nuanced enough to allow players to create morally murky and interesting characters, but BioWare’s insistence on maintaining a binary morality means it could never be as complex as it wants to be. Last week, fellow Moving Pixels blogger Jorge Albor wrote about the troubles that Mass Effect has always faced with its morality system on a narrative level, but I think BioWare has had just as much trouble simply figuring out a way to present this system to players in a manner that is clear and understandable as a metric.

The morality system of Mass Effect is a clear evolution of the morality system from BioWare’s previous game Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.On the surface, they seem identical. Instead of “Jedi,” we now have something called a “Paragon,” and instead of “Sith,” we now have something called “Renegade. However, the difference lies in the presentation. Rather than measure morality with a single meter that moves back and forth between good and bad, Mass Effect features two meters that measure both extremes at the same time. This means that our characters don’t have to be just “good” or “bad;” they can be a bit of both. This was a revelation at the time, but this presentation has its downsides as well.

The picture above is the morality system as it was presented in Mass Effect, with two curved meters surrounding Shepard’s head, one blue and one red. Jorge already touched on the problems with the color scheme:

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. (“The False Dichotomies of Mass Effect, PopMatters, 29 March 2012)

However, the biggest problem with this presentation is the fact that there are two separate meters to begin with. The separation allows BioWare to measure both sides simultaneously, conveying the idea that morality is not an either/or system, but separating Paragon from Renegade also reinforces the idea that morality is an either/or system (that Paragon is not Renegade and Renegade is not Paragon) and that they’re so different that they can’t even be measured within the same meter. In fact, taking into account how they’re place around Shepard’s head, they seem to be the exact opposite of each other. They even fill in from opposite directions. This presentation implies that Paragon and Renegade are two completely different types of people when they’re really not.

Also problematic is the fact that players have been trained to fill meters as much as possible by nearly every genre of video games. Filling a meter is good, it means progress, it means a reward, and it means we’ve completed something. Gamers have a natural desire to fill a meter, but since we can’t fill both Paragon and Renegade, then we naturally tend to min/max one side of the moral spectrum even if this is inconsistent with the character in our heads. When playing the first Mass Effect, how many people just chose a Paragon action because they wanted to play as the “good guy” without actually considering the context around the decision? I know I did. We’ve been conditioned to assume that two opposing meters like this represent a concrete binary system. To be one means that we can’t be the other. But this isn’t true. As Jorge stated last week, it’s a false dichotomy.

The presentation of morality gets better in Mass Effect 2. It’s a similar set up, but the two meters have been moved closer to one another. They’re now on the same level so that they appear more equal. This is an improvement as it doesn’t present them as total opposites — more like mirror images of each other — but it’s still problematic because Paragon and Renegade actions are not always mirror images of each other. As Jorge wrote last week, the context of the situation is everything:

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 context adds nuance to the overall morality system (and to Mass Effect‘s credit it never punishes the player for jumping from Paragon to Renegade every other conversation), but that nuance isn’t reflected in how your morality is measured.

Mass Effect 3 overhauls the presentation and finally gets it right. The most obvious difference is that there is now just one meter instead of two and that this single meter gets filled with both a blue bar and a red bar. This new look helps rid us of the notion that Paragon and Renegade actions are polar opposites, and it reinforces the idea that they’re not mutually exclusive. Getting points in either one fills the meter just the same.

That title of the meter is very different as well. Mass Effect 3 is the first game in the series to actually label it, and it’s important that it’s not labeled “morality,” even though this whole system is casually referred to as a “morality system.” The Paragon and Renegade metrics are simply labeled “Reputation.” It’s a smart choice of words since “reputation” implies something more fungible and variable than “morality.” The latter is an explicit expression of Right and Wrong, Good and Bad, while the former is just an opinion.

With a single glance at this new presentation, we understand that Paragon and Renegade don’t mean “good” and “bad,” encouraging players to be a mix of both, and the layout doesn’t favor one option over the other. (Although if Paragon is always above Renegade that’s a subtle suggestion that Paragon is better than Renegade, but I don’t know if this is the case. Every picture that I found online showed a character that was overwhelmingly a Paragon, so maybe it’s on top simply because the bar is bigger.). Putting both qualities into one meter also prevents us from wanting to min/max one side. Since points from both choices fill the same meter, we’ll earn progress no matter which one we choose.

In 2007 when the first Mass Effect came out, the ideas behind the morality system were ahead of its mechanics. Thankfully, the mechanics have caught up just in time, since Mass Effect 3 is filled with the some of the most morally murky decisions of the entire series. This time, the presentation reflects that.