So, I recently started playing Mass Effect 2 (2010) – I know, ten years late to the whole thing – and I rather enjoyed it. As a fan of strategy games, the combination of role-playing elements and third-person gun-play is an invigorating change.
Through the first couple of playthroughs, though, I was pretty much exclusively a Paragon – someone who selects the kindest and most understanding options possible in response to any scenario in the game. This slightly surprised me, given the slaughter I typically inflict in strategy games. But, looking back, it seems that the game design was pushing me towards Paragon, rather than Renegade (where you are ruthlessly pragmatic and sometimes cruel). So, to test this, I fired up a new playthrough, determined to be a Renegade.
And I couldn’t do it.
Part of this is down to moral queasiness. Who genuinely takes pleasure in belittling and beating up people in computer games? Given the absolute power the player has at almost all times, it feels a little sadistic. However, in large part, it’s actually the game itself.
The first reason for this is that you don’t actually know what will happen when you select the Paragon or Renegade dialogue prompt. It gives you a brief description, but no details. For example, in an early sequence, your crew are evacuating a burning spaceship. You’re going in to rescue the pilot, who is disabled, and another crew member wants to accompany you. The prompts to convince the other person to leave you alone are ‘The rest of the crew needs you’ (Paragon) or ‘I gave you an order!’ (Renegade). I went for ‘I gave you an order!’ on my first playthrough. After all, this is a military ship in a crisis. However, the line my character said – in tones of derision – was “Get to the damn shuttles! I’ll haul Joker’s crippled ass out of here.” I was rather taken aback. It seemed cruel and unnecessary.
There are other examples of this phenomenon. For example, in a hostage crisis, you are given the Renegade option of shooting through a hostage to kill the enemy. On my Renegade playthrough, I did this. The poor woman I shot predictably fell to the floor crying; I’d blown a hole in her arm, after all. My character’s reaction – beyond my immediate control – was to say, ‘You’ll be fine, get over it,’ and move on without rendering medical assistance. This seems like a wildly inappropriate response to deliberate maiming. In yet another example, I was interrogating a suspect. The button for a Renegade action came up, I pressed it…and proceeded to break the suspect’s nose. Yikes. Not what I thought was going to happen. A morality system that lets you accidentally walk into torture is not ideal.
Paragon dialogue options have the same issues, but there’s rarely harm in being too kind in the same way that being too callous or cruel is. More control over the outcomes of decisions and dialogue would encourage me to pick Renegade options more frequently. As is, my attempt to play pragmatically and ruthlessly ended up with me being a pointlessly malevolent jerk half of the time. Again, not ideal!
This issue is compounded by the levelling system in place with Paragon and Renegade actions. The idea is that as you take either action, you gain either Paragon or Renegade points. Enough of these points unlocks new dialogue options and actions you can take. This is a smart way to incentivise roleplaying as a set character. However, it also limits your options if you want to play as nice but ruthless where you need to be, or as a jerk with a heart of gold.
I mean ‘limits your options’ very literally. There’s a scene where you come across a guard beating a defenceless prisoner. In my usual playthroughs, I had enough Paragon points to appeal to the guard’s better nature, which gets him to stop. But in the Renegade run, I didn’t have enough points, so the game forced me to nod and let him carry on. This is because, as it turns out, I took too many Renegade actions involving shooting genocidaires mid-speech. The collapse of morality into the binary Paragon/Renegade system and the gating of certain gameplay options behind point scores means you are encouraged to pick one and commit to it. And given the above issue with a pure Renegade run just being uncontrollably unpleasant, that means – for me, at least – choosing the Paragon path.
Lastly, being a Renegade actually cuts off game content no matter what you do. When you have conversations with people, Paragon options usually involve learning more about them, their beliefs, and their backgrounds. Renegade options are invariably straight to a specific operational point. That means you miss out on some rich worldbuilding and characterisation.
Moreover, Renegade ‘interrupts’ – the reactions to specific unfolding events – have a similar impact. One of the most frequent Renegade ‘interrupts’ is to shoot someone in the face mid-speech. Sometimes this is appropriate. However, a lot of the time, you just miss out on opportunities for further interaction and roleplaying. The core of Mass Effect 2 is a third person shooter game, so generally you are going to kill people sooner or later (I will never not laugh at how complicated legal and social issues in this game invariably degenerate into shooting ranges), but Renegade ‘interrupts’ seem tailor-made to cut to the chase (and by chase I mean mass murder). Why do that when there is more to the game?
I’ve spent 1000 words whinging, so I think it’s important to insert some caveats. Mass Effect 2 is an exceptionally good game. The characters are compelling, the gameplay is fluid, and the plot is emotionally affecting. But, ultimately, for a roleplaying game, you need to have choices. And while the game offers plenty of choices, in reality they are far more constricted than you might first imagine.
Words by Matthew Ader