Inevitably Good

I recently replayed Mass Effect to completion on the PC and am already headlong into the much-beloved sequel for a second time. I went into the effort wanting a new experience from the cookie-cutter, Eagle Scout Shepard from my first foray into the series. My former milquetoast was the very definition of a dull, predictable and largely unpalatable hero like Jack from Lost or a white-bread, cold-cut combo from Subway. This world has had enough bad heroes; I was committed to breaking the cycle.

This new fem She-pard was to be an unpredictable galactic force: tough, independent, unrestrained and unafraid to get her hands dirty. She was to be a gender-bent, space-age version of 24’s Jack Bauer, only with better hair and a sports bra. Janeway, if Voyager had had better ordinance and writers. Sarah Palin—only she can break things with her mind.

This was a good plan that, had it been properly executed, would have set the stage for a flawed, though idealistic protagonist. But once I was in the game, I could not escape the nature of myself. Much as I might want to pursue the dark corners of Shepard’s potential modi operandi, inevitably my hand consistently pushes the dialogue wheel to the happy and familiar corners of the paragon path, and by the end this new hero was as edgy and morally corrupt as a very special episode of the Fresh Prince of Bel Air.

Once again, really dull good had triumphed over some interesting evil I could have been doing.

This is the part where I am supposed to blame Bioware and similar companies for making the good vs. evil path too black and white. Renegade options, I am supposed to point out, are too archetypal and often distasteful, leaving no options to create really interesting social choices that swim in the murkier, grayer waters of morality. I suppose that’s true, but on the flip side it’s not like the good choices are any less archetypal or unimaginative.

In fact, that’s sort of the point. Being a paragon of good and light and hope and kindness in the dirty universe of Mass Effect is no less contrived than embracing one's inner Satan or Donald Trump. Further, it’s not like I have the sense that following a darker path would ultimately leave the universe unsaved. I’m pretty sure I could go back and treat every character in the universe as though he, she or it were my own emotional, occasionally physical, punching bag, and somehow, someway the masses would still have embraced my ruthless galaxy-saving actions.

No, the problem is mine. I can’t play an evil or even particularly compromised character. The best I can achieve is a kind of chaotic good—the kind of character that might punch someone in the kidneys if they are rude to an old lady or something. Sure, I can get impotently snarky with Ambassador Udina when the mood hits, but when the chips are down I’m going to save a bureaucratic and occasionally jingoistic counsel of aliens every time they happen into the line of fire, just because.

What’s interesting about this phenomenon is that it only exists in games where there is a clear intention of choice between good and evil. If I play a game like a Grand Theft Auto, I find no internal conflict in making the instantaneous decision to run over a murder of pedestrians if it means evading the feds, but if the game were to suddenly pop up a dialogue box and ask, “Do you want to hit those wheelchair-bound nuns with your Buick?” I would be forced to say “no” every time.

There is a subtle difference in those two actions, and it triggers totally different components of my morality. Something about having a game call a quick time-out and make you explicitly describe the action you intend to take escalates the situation into first-degree moral corruptibility that I can’t stomach. If Counter-Strike had queried, “Would you like to headshot that terrorist, or engage him in open discussion about poverty as it influences geo-political conflicts?” every time I sighted down an enemy, my user name might as well have been “Professorial_TreeHuggerXX1.”

I have, at least once in the past, forced myself to pursue a dark path in one of the Knights of the Old Republic games, but I was only able to stomach it for a few hours before, frankly, I just couldn’t reconcile an interest in the character any longer. Had I made a similar attempt again, I suspect I would have reached the same conclusion. Instead, my angelically smug Shepard has once again spread rainbows and sunshine across the Traverse.

I suspect it’s inevitable.

Comments

I haven't played much of Mass Effect, but could it be that the renegade choices and responses just aren't as compelling or interesting as the paragon side? I tried to play Jade Empire in the Closed Fist way—two characters in my party, Black Whirlwind and Sky, were both obviously Closed Fist followers, but each man's reasoning was palpably different from the other, lending the philosophy nuance and depth. But my Closed Fist options perpetually amounted to "Be an asshole". So I just ended up with do-gooder by default.

It's much easier to do the "chaotic good" thing in ME2 versus ME1 because you know every time you hit the renegade interrupt, you're going to get a cool animation/mini cutscene. Despite being generally goody two shoes, I found it really hard to intentionally let one of those slip by (unless on my second playthrough where I'd already seen it or something), because the paragon interrupts were routinely not as cool as the renegade ones.

Thanks, Elysium. I feel almost exactly as you do in the first part. ME2 is actually pretty good in places in that it gives even the Paragon some "badass" moments, instead of just having him smile beatifically at people with a warm Gandi-esque glow. Though admittedly the Renegade options tend to be more interesting.

The second part I don't share - I _can't_ run over the pedestrians. Well, I can, but I hate it and i hate everything the GTA games have to offer. I'm not being judgemental here - if you love 'em, great - but I simply get no joy out of shooting cops or running over children. I find that it's banal at best.

This surprised me when I first picked up a GTA to try. I'd heard nothing but good things about the game - but I hated an open field full of innocents to be casually maimed so that I could... well, maim innocents, I guess.

So put me in the 'boring but moral' category too.

I have the same problem with games. Every time I tried to play Fallout 3 as a bad guy, I couldn't stop myself from changing course every time I saw that bad-karma icon pop up with the eerie incidental sound...

If Counter-Strike had queried, “Would you like to headshot that terrorist, or engage him in open discussion about poverty as it influences geo-political conflicts?” every time I sighted down an enemy, my user name might as well have been “Professorial_TreeHuggerXX1.”

Did male Paragon Shep and female Renegade Shep pretty much all the way through both games, importing the same characters and everything. ME almost forces you to stay one side or the other with the locked dialog choices down the road.

But ME2 allows a lot more freedom, and as well has the interrupts for either side. My 3rd character is a more middling character, who goes out of his way to help people, but doesn't have time for bullsh*t. I agree to help everyone out, but I interrupt all the time, shooting people, punching them, and generally doing whatever it takes to get things done as efficiently as possible. It's a lot of fun.

Yeah about the only evil (tm) thing I have ever done in a video game is gut that dwarf companion who betrayed me in the begining of DA. It was one of those moments where I was shocked that they actually allowed me to do it. I figured that they would chicken out at the last minute and the guy would cower away in fear... nope!

Of course, I couldn't keep up that behavior for much more than 5 minutes after that.

I respect the GTA games for what they have accomplished. I cannot stand them and refuse to play them and I certainly wouldn't run people over in my car in that game.

My wife and I have been joking around lately about D&D alignments and the characters from Lost, so it's funny that you should mention both of them in this article. I've come to the realization lately that whatever I might want to be, I'm a pretty white-bread, lawful good sort of person. The character I best relate to in Lost is boring ol' Jack Shepherd, and when I played Mass Effect making all of the choices I would have made, I ended up with someone who might as well have been named Jack Shepherd, too.

And like Nathaniel, I can't bring myself to run over helpless pedestrians, given the opportunity. Heck, I have a hard time stomaching killing animals in games if they've not been framed as my opponents in some way. Killing herds of sheep for their mutton in Nier was a quest that I simply couldn't finish however much I might have wanted to.

However, I'm the first to complain about the shallowness of the moral choices in games despite how well the lily white path of good lines up with my own beliefs. Partly, this is because I turn to video games as a way of forcing myself into different belief systems. It's also because I'd like to see games explore the conflict inherent in a lawful good sort of belief system; i.e., is it better to be lawful or to be good?

The moral choice system that's made me most uncomfortable and take the hardest look at myself is the psychological profiling in Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. The conceit that the choices I was making described myself certainly made me hone in on them in a way that I normally don't, but what got me was that there didn't seem to be obvious answers because I couldn't necessarily see the consequences of my decisions. One thing that game did very well was to present players with a list of options and then not clearly inform them of how their options had affected the world around them. Because some of the effects were obvious enough, it made the other choices feel more meaningful.

Ugh, this is SO me. I've tried being a "bad" guy in Mass Effect and Fallout 3 both and I just can't seem to do it, it's so against my nature. In fact, I did almost the same thing as you did; I created a bad-ass woman ready to kick ass and take names, I even came up with her own history as to why she was like that giving her perfect psychological justification for being the way she was. However instead of gravitating towards the "good" side I simply lost interest, I think because I just couldn't get myself involved enough with the story and character to care, though it could be that I'm not really wired for replaying these grand, epic games.

So, if I understand you right, even though you set out to Role Play a type of character, you just couldn't bring yourself to follow through with it? I mean, you are awesome and totally a great guy, but don't you get bored with being you? Wouldn't you like to play a long, entrenched Role Playing Game as someone else? Heck, that's the whole reason I play role playing games; It's the Role Play part.

Make a character in your head, give them some backstory and justification. Then, while playing the game and presented with these moral choices, don't ask "what would I do in this situation?" Instead ask "what would this character do in that situation?" If you wanted to play a Jack Bauer type character, you gotta ask, what would Jack Bauer do? If your answer is act like a pussy and talk about a solution, you have not watched the same 24 that I have. If your answer is shoot suspect in the leg and then proceed to torture them for information, now you have channeled Jack Bauer and are Role Playing.

I'm just saying, you've proved you can go a year without buying Madden. Doesn't that mean that you have the willpower to play an RPG as Jack?

I'm in the same boat. When faced with moral-choice games I used to always try to take the evil approach, but inevitably I'd just end up feeling bad after choosing some particularly nasty evil action. Now I mostly just take the good path. In Mass Effect 1 & 2 I managed to play a partially Renegade character, but I was never able to take all the bad choices and my second playthrough always went full Paragon.

Part of my problem is that the evil path almost always forces you into acting like a psychotic douchebag. If I could play as a cold, calculating villain who acted purely out of self-interest, I could probably get behind that. Unfortunately, every game with an evil path always seems to hit a point where you can't be properly evil unless you drown some kittens or set fire to an old lady or something.

I too have failed miserably at being a terrible prick in the Mass Effect games. I always plan to go back and play that way, and inevitably wuss out when the first few "be a dick" moments pop up and choose the good path.

Sometimes I don't understand myself.

The interrupts are interesting, because I feel okay choosing an "evil" interrupt in at least some cases even when I'm playing a goody-two-shoes. I think it's about intentions.

When you choose a line of dialog, it's not just an action, it's a part of an argument. Everything you say exudes meaning. While it's possible to play someone who says whatever is necessary to manipulate people, that's one of those attributes we don't even like to see in a *villain*.

Because of that, it's difficult to consider different reasons for *why*. In contrast, an action like stabbing a member of a violent street gang in the back to prevent him from repairing a dangerous vehicle seems more open to interpretation. He's a bad guy. If I leave him alive, I'm very likely to end up shooting him in the head or blowing him up in a short while. I'm a soldier, I'm not going to give fair warning to the thugs around the corner before I open fire, and there's no reason to consider it less moral to kill this guy who's under the false preconception that I'm here to help (by being a moving target for his gang) than to kill him later when he has a blaster in his hand. Only a true knight in shining armor would do that--and that kind of person would have rejected this whole working with {redacted} thing in the first place.

But words... words give meanings to things. You can't avoid their implications.

Now, I *was* able to play ME and ME2 as renegade characters--and I had much less trouble reconciling with what my character was doing than certain things in KOTOR. And, I think that's what makes ME and ME2 better morality-wise. It is *possible* to construct a moral framework in which the majority of renegade choices make sense--one founded on the idea that there *is* a very real race war at work in the galaxy, and that species differences really do make a difference in such a struggle for survival. That's not a pleasant take on the universe, but it doesn't require that the character be a total bigot in order to approach things that way.

Again, deciding on that when I played required me to think about the intentions of the character--and it meant that I didn't always choose the renegade choice. (Because, yes, *some* of those choices are just straight out violent for the sake of violence. But many of them are repugnant because they are unjust under the assumption that all species should be treated equally.)

Anyway, that's what I like about the paragon/renegade choice. It's more about "solidarity among thinking beings against a threat" versus "raise up humanity, no matter what the cost to other species". I still know which approach I think is *better*. But I can imagine a character who thinks the other way and isn't a total fiend.

But the dark side force-user who turns a McCoys-vs-Hatfields type scenario into a complete bloodbath just for fun? That's... quite a bit harder to see in terms of anything except "total psychopath".

I made a point to make the Mass Effect series the one current RPG that I played as a bad guy. It's pretty fun being in the middle of a conversation, only to have the red mouse icon pop up and BLAM! Now there is a big hole in the guy who was previously being interrogated.

I did enjoy that not every choice in the ME games resulted in an expected outcome. The effects of your choices seemed a little more vague than other RPGs. A seemingly evil choice might turn out to be a good one, and vice versa.

A game that I had a terrible time playing as a bad guy was Baldur's Gate. It just got too tricky to function in some towns. Maybe I was doing it wrong?

The options for being good in Mass Effect can easily be viewed as ideal. It's hard to be a paragon, but in a video game we can make those "sacrifices" to do what is good instead of what is convenient or whatnot.

Being evil in most video games means being a dick. There's really no interesting deep way to be evil. You cannot play The Joker, or perhaps Two Face. You're the thug from the opening of the cartoon that Batman trashes in two seconds because you're just a chump.

That's what it means to be evil in most video games.

In terms of running over pedestrians, that's because the choice is presented in a manner where you don't have the time to think about morality.

Its this whats makes playing video games awesome! You CAN run over people in GTA because I know they arent real, I find its funny as hell seeing a hooker ragdoll off my car hood.

Regarding Mass Effect the choices arent really "evil", they are just douchey. Fable series offers more morally good or evil options and I would say Mass Effect just gives you the option to be a saint or a prick. Asshole Shepard still saves the galaxy regards if your paragon or renegade, its the path you take getting the final outcome.

When it comes to playing a game that involves moral choices I always choice the "good" option but on a 2nd playthrough is fairgame to be the worlds biggest asshole.

Good Lord, reading this thread makes me feel like such a douche. I blew up Megaton, played as evil Cole in Infamous, and ran through Mass Effect 1/2 as a pure renegade without reservation. I'm a goodie goodie in my real life. I don't have much desire to recreate my own persona in my games unless I'm going for additional playthroughs. Am I alone?

ClockworkHouse wrote:

However, I'm the first to complain about the shallowness of the moral choices in games despite how well the lily white path of good lines up with my own beliefs. Partly, this is because I turn to video games as a way of forcing myself into different belief systems. It's also because I'd like to see games explore the conflict inherent in a lawful good sort of belief system; i.e., is it better to be lawful or to be good?

This is what games should be exploring. To some extent, this is what ME2 does, which is why it's fun to play: the Renegade even played to the hilt doesn't have THAT many evil choices. (The worst is letting the Justicar die.)

One game I find myself thinking about in this context is King of Dragon Pass. That game had oodles of story; in some sense it was nothing but stories. But because you play a community, not an individual, the game has you making decisions that aren't the most generous or compassionate - if you do that, you find yourself starving to death. A good game to go back to, if you can emulate the environment. (Happily, they're talking now about a re-release for iPod and iTouch!)

Nathaniel wrote:

One game I find myself thinking about in this context is King of Dragon Pass. That game had oodles of story; in some sense it was nothing but stories. But because you play a community, not an individual, the game has you making decisions that aren't the most generous or compassionate

I think you're on to something -- I'm always a good guy when I'm playing any single character, but when a band of adventurers came to visit my tribe in KoDP, of course we killed them all and took their stuff. Somehow, that game got me to play a morality other than my own in a way that nothing else before or since has made seem nearly as appealing.

I find myself following the same path: Start with intentions of being a cold hearted player and wind up either molding my character into the good path or starting over.

I think it has to do with being the writer of the game's storyline. The Song of Ice and Fire series provides a good example. The way I read a chapter led by a Lannister was completely different from a chapter following a Stark. I couldn't help but hope to see good characters succeed while looking for the evil characters' downfall. Why would I buy into helping an evil character win in the game I'm playing?

I forgot to mention Bioshock before. I harvested a little sister once. Then I reloaded my save and never considered doing that again. I could not bring myself to do that, the imagery was too disturbing. A very clear light/dark path in that game, and I just could not stomach the dark.

I really should try to play through Mass Effect 2 as an evil bastard, possibly I'd enjoy it more as I won't get suckered into all the stupid sidequests to help random people. It's my problem with Bioware games in general, if you just can't stop yourself from trying to help people the game will take 80+ hours. Maybe if I'm role-playing king of the assholes I can just stick to the fun quests.

Stele wrote:

I forgot to mention Bioshock before. I harvested a little sister once. Then I reloaded my save and never considered doing that again. I could not bring myself to do that, the imagery was too disturbing. A very clear light/dark path in that game, and I just could not stomach the dark.

When I first played Bioshock, I hesitantly chose "rescue" instead of harvest at the first opportunity to meet a little sister, since I wasn't sure whom to trust. Saving her was so visceral that I was scared to harvest one, even to see what it looked like.

Excellent article.

I was the same way. Then achievements compelled me to do some abhorrent things, which turned out to be quite fun. I still do the lily white good guy by default, though.

Hypatian wrote:

The interrupts are interesting, because I feel okay choosing an "evil" interrupt in at least some cases even when I'm playing a goody-two-shoes. I think it's about intentions.

I liked your post, but I feel the opposite. The interrupts (or dialog trees, wheels, whatever) reduce the game's scope drastically for their duration; to a handful of possible choices at best, or a dichotomy (good/nothing, or bad/nothing) at worst. Under these circumstances I feel every available option is blaringly obvious in its utility: to make my character more 'good', or more 'evil', or to access additional and optional dialog (which I happen to like doing).

But because many games reward you in some way for swinging to one extreme or the other in morality, I know I'm going to 'game' the dialog before I even hear it. It's rare for mildness to be the most compelling option, from a narrative or gameplay perspective. So I find the interrupts boring by default, even if the story is well-written and enjoyable to watch. I'm a good guy or I'm an evil guy, and maybe some interesting stuff comes along with that, but it's so simple it's on autopilot.

Accidentally running over a pedestrian while driving a dying patient to the hospital in a stolen ambulance is by far the more interesting moral dilemma.

I find it interesting to see this discussion around Mass Effect.

While I generally play the 'light' path in an RPG because the 'dark' path usually closes down options and also doesn't make sense I found Mass Effect quite different. The Renegade option in Mass Effect is, if you want to use DnD terms, more of a chaotic good or neutral path. You are out to save the galaxy and aren't afraid to kick dudes in the face to do it, but you are definitely not evil as more traditional games would have you be.

I did my Renegade playthrough by being nice to my crew but stomping everyone else, it worked well, felt real and I wasn't a moustache twirling villain.

I've only played through ME1 and ME2 once each (as male Shepard), and while I made several renegade choices when I felt it was appropriate, my character ended up on the paragon side of the meter. Later this year I plan to replay both games as a tough bitch (renegade FemShep), and I assure you I will have no problem sticking to the renegade path. After all, it's just a game - a damn good one, but still, just a game.

Since a few people mentioned BioShock, I'll state that I harvested every little sister I came across. Not because I was making a conscious decision to be "evil," but because doing so gave me the most ADAM.

Man, as long as we have clear-cut moral decisions, rather than embedded moral dillemmas games will never interest me with their moral choice systems. The choice always seems to be 'Are you good or evil?', as opposed to something that makes you examine your values, or stand for one value over another. I want to see moral decisions that sneak up on you, where you don't realise a choice is presented until you've chosen.

In other news, Eegra seems to be back out of bankruptcy. Anybody who enjoys the GWJ podcast should DEFINITELY check out their 'Octopodcast'. It only ran for five episodes, but featured some of the deepest discussion, funniest humour, and worst sound quality of any show online.

Seriously, click the link, the site may not be around for long: http://www.eegra.com/show/sub/cat/re...

-Just realised it looks like I'm soullessly advertising. But their second episode features some truly excellent discussion on Mass Effect and morality systems in general.

El-Taco-the-Rogue wrote:

Man, as long as we have clear-cut moral decisions, rather than embedded moral dillemmas games will never interest me with their moral choice systems. The choice always seems to be 'Are you good or evil?', as opposed to something that makes you examine your values, or stand for one value over another. I want to see moral decisions that sneak up on you, where you don't realise a choice is presented until you've chosen.

You tried the Witcher? It's the closest I've seen to a game that forces you to make tough choices. What's especially cool is you only find out the consequences hours later.

Man, all these posts, and no mention of The Witcher yet? I'm usually a good-two shoes player in Mass Effect (with the occasional renegade-y choice when I'm not in the mood to deal with idiots), so I was pretty intrigued by all the hubbub about The Witcher not having such clear cut choices. And it lives up the hubbub. The town of Vizima is rife with lesser-of-two-evil type scenarios that made me sit and stare at the screen for a bit while I tried to decide what to do. The only time in Mass Effect where I did that was not even on a Paragon/Renegade choice: Virmire.

Damn, it, MrDeVil909...you Tanhausered (spelling?) me while I was writing my comment! Curse these slow typing hands!

I think there are the elements of a darn good psychology PhD thesis in this "Sands" effect and "Anti-Sands" effect. I wouldn't be surprised if it has already been done, actually.

The best video games make it difficult for you to disassociate yourself from the protagonist. My "completionistic" and "scottish" tendencies generally lead me to play all sides of the very few games I buy.

I do have to force myself to act a role when making the evil choices and will usually choose the paragon-like choices on the first run through.

I wonder if there are any correlations in background or other variables in those that experience the Sands effect?