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 generally can't stand playing the bad guy. Like Mr. Sands, going down that route is difficult and contrary to my way of life.

I played a few missions of GTA: Vice City and found it boring. Fallout 3 kept me on the path of good the whole way through. But Dragon Age....

When playing DA:O I found myself occasionally taking the "bad guy" route. Sometimes when thinking the process through I could not help but do the "bad" option because things had to happen at the moment - a problem with free roaming RPGs when you can effectively put a situation on hold by walking away and doing something else for a bit.

Now playing a jerk character in a table top RPG is totally different. First, I had a goody-goody character based on Ryu from Street Fighter, but when he left the storyline I wrote up a second character based on John Constantine. When the dust settled, I found I put myself out of the gaming group. Not cool at all.

Great article, and I can relate; I'm also too good for my own good.

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 - 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!)

I think King of Dragon Pass explains a lot about the "Sands effect." In Dragon Pass, making decisions as an educated, culturally-sensitive member of a modern liberal society would result in your being staked naked to an anthill and forced to watch as your children were eaten by brain worms. Every time. Without exception. You can't integrate the beastmen into your tribe. The beastmen will eat all of your children and the neighboring tribes would unite to wipe you from the land. Those pleasant multi-cultural adventurers? They're here to steal your most treasured items and kill your strongest heroes. In that context, your decisions suddenly become self-centered. Any environmental sympathies you may have shared with the elves vanish when your people are consumed by murder vines. (It's a very Republican view of the world, if I can get in a political jab here.) But it sets up an ethical framework where making hippie granola decisions isn't just inconsequential, it's actively punished. And it doesn't matter if you are a vegan, environmentalist, zero-carbon, pacifist, Unitarian who has dedicated your life to feeding the homeless--half an hour with this game and you are the ethical version of Conan the Barbarian. And I think the key here is not necessarily the game mechanics.

In the Bioware games, you can be punished for doing the right things. You don't get the supergun/sword, or you receive a smaller amount of gold. But when it comes down to it, the eight-year-old you've saved hands you a flower and everyone cheers and Pavlov rests in complete and utter peace. In King of Dragon's Pass, if you risk the well-being of the tribe to save a child, everyone calls you a damn fool and a neighboring tribe steals all of your sheep. Within a few years you're sacrificing newborns to the Gods of Terror because you're a little worried about the barley harvest.

Another problem with a lot of these moral decisions is that the consequences of your actions are overcome by killing large numbers of people. You can do whatever you want as Shepherd because you are an unstoppable one man army who can overcome any disadvantage through sheer force. Who cares if the mob boss will join you if he can kill an innocent witness? All that means is a few more bad guys to shoot and then you can feel good about yourself for having your cake and shooting it several times in the face.

What's missing from these "Paragon" options is the sense of all these additional burdens significantly detracting from your goal. You don't lose so many allies/soldiers that the final boss battle is insurmountable. The population doesn't turn on you just because you forgot to clear out the den of sickly, elderly wolves for the 15th time. When you expose the corrupt magister, his political party never slashes your funding out of spite.

What's missing from the Bioware "Renegade" decisions is the sense that what appears expedient often isn't. The captured enemy spy never gives you the wrong information when he's tortured. The enemies you make are largely inconsequential. Allowing outlaws to sell drugs in your village doesn't result in one of your companions becoming an unreliable addict who sells all of your equipment to feed his habit. Etc., etc.

All that said, I prefer the two-decision games to the no decision games. At least you've got a little bit of agency in the story. I just wish they'd be more creative with consequences.

kazooka wrote:

I think King of Dragon Pass explains a lot about the "Sands effect." In Dragon Pass, making decisions as an educated, culturally-sensitive member of a modern liberal society would result in your being staked naked to an anthill and forced to watch as your children were eaten by brain worms. Every time. Without exception. You can't integrate the beastmen into your tribe. The beastmen will eat all of your children and the neighboring tribes would unite to wipe you from the land. Those pleasant multi-cultural adventurers? They're here to steal your most treasured items and kill your strongest heroes. In that context, your decisions suddenly become self-centered. Any environmental sympathies you may have shared with the elves vanish when your people are consumed by murder vines. (It's a very Republican view of the world, if I can get in a political jab here.)

I might rather call it Hobbesian.

kazooka wrote:

What's missing from these "Paragon" options is the sense of all these additional burdens significantly detracting from your goal....

What's missing from the Bioware "Renegade" decisions is the sense that what appears expedient often isn't....

Great examples, and great points. I do agree that many decisions in Bioware games lack a lot of weight. Many of the decisions affect only the immediate, and only in rare cases do they come back as problems or rewards later on in the game.

I would love to see more consequences for the choices you've made in games. In a game like Dragon Age, I feel that treasure is a poor motivator compared to the potential reward of effecting current (and future) events.

MrDeVil909 wrote:

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

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'd like to play a moustache twirling villain someday, or be one.

I feel good that I broke free of those restrictions. My Shepard was a complex character. By the end of the game I had around 80% renegade 80% paragon. During the big decisions I choose the good path unless I could see ways in which they wouldn't end well but most run of the mill conversations I took the renegade path. With companions I took the paragon path but with some notable exceptions. For instance with Grunt I mostly took a renegade path and it was a far more interesting relationship. Also I treated Jack as a soulless killer and encouraged her. I felt my character was torn inside for doing it but at the end of the day she wanted a companion who could function as a killer not as a human being. While playing I tried to justify my Shepards actions and it was a far more interesting game than always choosing the good or bad option. It takes a certain amount of suspension of disbelieve because ultimately I know the choices are binary and don't mean much.

When I first played through KOTOR, I found it hard to be bad at first, mostly because there seemed no benefit to it. Once the plot turn hit, though, and I headed to Korriban, all bets were off.

It was like I got to re-spec my character, even though on paper he was all the same. Still, even with that, I found that I wasn't compelled to do evil regardless of it's utility. It was more of a "I'm tired of this, get out of my way or I'll force push you out of my way" sort of mentality.

Now that I'm playing through DA:O, I'm finding much the same sort of thing. I've got a Blight to stop. I'm not going to get bogged down in someone else's problem unless it helps me get an army. Same thing for Fallout: NV.

However, in pen and paper RPGs, I find I'll do ~moderately~ evil things for the same reasons far more easily. Villager has the info I need about the thieves' guild, but won't talk because he's afraid of them? I'll make him fear me more.