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.