I see the little white Paragon symbol pop up in the corner during our conversation and I hit it. I’m trying to be the good guy here. My Shepard spouts some platitude, or helps someone, or some such goodie two-shoes thing. I can’t remember exactly what she did. I do remember my blue Paragon meter going up.
Not that the Renegade options aren’t tempting. Sometimes, they even seem more right than the Paragon choices. But I choose Paragon — every time. The game never really convinces me that Paragon was truly the right choice, but I choose it anyway. Because if I didn’t, the game would lump me in with the likes of the Cerberus or the scum on Omega. It would file me away with a big red stamp on my character’s life: “Known Bad Person.”
This is shame.
Mass Effect spoilers below the break.
My Shepard, the character, is driven to do good because she is a good person. When the genophage ravages an entire species in slow-motion genocide, she recoils in horror. She takes every opportunity to find a cure, to help the Krogan, to do anything to alleviate the suffering. Even though the Krogan rebuff her at every turn, screaming vengeance and calling for blood with every breath.
Personally, I kind of think the Krogan are dicks. But the game doesn’t really want my opinion. Once I had decided that my Shepard is a Paragon, my hands were tied. Each important choice I have about the Krogan, the consequences are clearly spelled out in blue and red. If I think the Krogan are dangerous, I should keep it to myself if I know what’s good for my Paragon meter.
I am never really comfortable with the Renegade options, though. Even if those options sometimes make sense to me, I look over and see the Illusive Man. Is that where this leads me? I bet his Renegade meter is through the roof — all his conversation options crimson red. According to Mass Effect, this is where Renegades end up. Staring at the sun with mechanical eyes.
Is that really how Illusive Man ended up in that office, though? Occasionally I am left without Shepard’s blue, glowing moral compass. There’s no convenient text color to let me know “Paragon! Renegade!” The choices are literally a shade of grey. In those options, I have plenty of room to end up with dodgy moral character and a smoking habit. I also have just as many chances to do good. In those instances, I no longer have to answer to the Paragon meter or the Illusive Man’s glare. When there are no points at stake, I'm set free. There are no constraints on my judgement, my moral character is the only guide left.
While assaulting Reapers on Tuchanka, I am given secret information from the Salarian council member. I could sabotage the cure, ensure the Krogan’s help in the fight while simultaneously dooming them to the perpetual horror of the genophage. Every time I have an opportunity to come clean, there is no Paragon option. Is it "Paragon" to tell them, to come clean? I have no idea. The game doesn’t give me such an easy excuse.
Which somehow makes it worse. When my Shepard’s reputation is no longer at stake, the choice is on me. I can’t hide behind the Paragon/Renegade meter anymore, I have no excuse. Without those binary red and blue markers, I have to navigate the moral fog myself.
The Geth became self-aware and gained true freedom, but I am unable to persuade the Quarians to back down. They get annihilated. I doomed a race to extinction because I felt their creations were more deserving of life. No glowing white sign of approval from the universe, no points awarded. No red sign of condemnation, either. Somewhere in my moral journey I've stumbled over a cliff. I made a wrong turn, and now Tali’s face mask is lying in the dirt beside her corpse.
Is the game punishing me for a bad decision earlier in the road? If it is, it doesn’t try to explain it to me. I was never told which specific choice I made that could’ve possibly led to genocide. How many Renegade points could that be, anyway? Does the meter go that high? There is no record of my crimes. I just watch, helpless, as good people get destroyed for bad decisions.
How do I know they were good people? I never got to see their Paragon meter.
It’s in the grey choices that I’m forced to ask myself if something is right or wrong. That’s when Mass Effect shines. Not because it asks, but because there is no answer. I decide; the universe goes on.
This is guilt.