Mass Effect's Choices Remain Its Greatest Success—And Greatest Failure

I think if I had to pinpoint why I don’t enjoy the choices of Mass Effect, besides a few obvious ones where both Paragon and Renegade are weird and/or morally reprehensible, is just that I don’t really feel like Shepard has a character arc? Like, if you took the Shepard who was freshly appointed Spectre at the start of Mass Effect and said to them “okay, there’s a threat to the galaxy, and the only way to stop it is to jump into a light and sacrifice yourself (and you can decide if all synthetic life dies also btw)”, I think that Shepard would still make that sacrifice. And because of the way the Paragon/Renegade system works, I even think most Shepards would make the same choice vis-a-vis which colour ending they get.

Which is fine, I don’t think all characters need a strong arc - it’s a story about a big galactic invasion. But since most of the choices that really feel like anything, and not just palette swaps for the Council, are about Shepard as a person… I think it feels less like I am deciding who Shepard will become and just deciding ‘which of these is more in-line with the Shepard who I already see here? and conveniently, there are two personalities Shepard can really have so the choice is extremely obvious’.

Maybe that would be fixed if the game didn’t kind of punish you for not sticking almost entirely to Paragon or Renegade, but…

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Maybe that would be fixed if the game didn’t kind of punish you for not sticking almost entirely to Paragon or Renegade, but…

This is probably my largest complaint about the Post Baldur’s Gate Bioware games. They never got to a morality system that didn’t withhold rewards until you go all in on a predetermined archetype. I played ME as a Fem-shep Renegade who made paragon choices when the renegade ones were just insane (or I just didn’t like them) and it was struggle to keep the bar red.

I’d argue that I had a much more satisfying playthrough because I played that way, except that I really had to fight the game to do it, in a way that felt punitive. The other side of that is what Rowan covers really well: they didn’t telegraph consequences particularly well. This is probably true of real-world tough decisions, but in a game, it feels like there should be an option to feel more like a trusted co-author than a subject in a simulation.

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Paragon/Renegade has definitely been the weaker of the series hallmarks I’ve noticed on this replay. It’s simply too constricting in that it discourages role playing. Worse, it conditions a mechanical muscle memory that actively makes parts of the dialogue system worse. For instance, I’m going paragon this run, which mostly consists of pushing my left stick to the up and right to advance dialogue. Through mechanical repetition, I’ve conditioned myself that that’s the right answer. And so it feels weird when the “let’s be friends” dialogue choice is to the bottom right, which is a renegade answer location. I ended up leading crewmates on simply because I thought I’d get paragon points out of it!

If there’s one thing that I think modern Bioware does better, it’s that by removing explicit morality systems and focusing more on cause and effect, I’m more free to role play. Heck, for all of Andromeda’s faults, at least my Ryder had a character arc.

Oh god, I’m talking about Andromeda now. I might actually convince myself to replay it, aren’t I?

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…I liked PeeBee…

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To paraphrase Heather Alexandra: ‘I like PeeBee and I think she’s great. I’m wrong, but I don’t care.’

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Precisely. Is she a…good? character? No. Was I absolutely delighted when she ran into the room spilled her guts to me and said she wanted the strings and everything? 10000%. It felt like a romantic comedy, but the point of romantic comedies is that the romance part still works, right? It worked on me.

I just finished Omega last night and that whole stand-off feels like Garrus getting the chance to be the badass vigilante he thought he wanted to be now that he left C-Sec and Shephard isn’t around to keep his instincts in check, and the result is that he fails miserably, barely escaping with his life because he pissed off literally everybody. It’s a classic downfall for a Punisher-type character and the Paragon Shephard arc from 2 onwards is about him remaking himself into a more compassionate and less bitter person with Shephard as his role-model.

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Most of the Garrus love is because Brandon Keener does an amazing job.

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A lot of my attraction to Garrus has to do with the voice, the looks and how he’s shaped by Shepards choices. He’s delightfully awkward when it comes down to it and delivers a pretty powerful confessional speech to you in Mass Effect 2.
Also I am just a deviant who wants to get down with the alien bug man ok…

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Rezzing this thread to say that Garrus quotes Rumsfeld in ME3. A problematic fave incarnate.

Rumsfeld’s “known knowns/known unknowns/unknown unknowns” bit of philosophy is actually pretty useful but if it’s anything but that yikes

I did not expect “you go to war with the army you have” to be a touchstone for the BioWare writer’s room

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Oh, huh. For some reason I thought that one predated Rumsfeld.