While Virmire doesn’t feature the worst use of the in-game morality meter / conversation metagame / roleplaying tool, it does have the moment that – for me – perfectly crystallized how silly the system can be at times. So let’s talk about…
It’s obvious that BioWare never totally nailed down the whole Paragon / Renegade system and what it was supposed to mean. Good vs. evil? Idealistic vs. practical? Merciful vs. Ruthless? Cunning vs. brutal? Doormat vs. leader? Sensible vs. sociopathic moron? You can find examples of all of these in the game.
I understand that BioWare felt like they needed to have this. It’s been a staple of the last few games and I guess fans have come to expect it. KOTOR had it because the game played around with the light and dark sides of the force. Then it was turned into the open palm / closed fist, which was an admirable idea that kind of turned into a philosophical mess in practice. So they tried again here in Mass Effect with paragon vs. renegade.
Mechanically, it’s a little more nuanced than the light / dark side slider we had in KOTORAlthough narratively, I think KOTOR wins out. A bit.. The paragon meter fills independently of the renegade meter. Yes, when I save the puppy instead of eat the puppy I get paragon instead of renegade points, but at least it doesn’t subtract renegade points. This makes it a little less painful to cross lines once in a while. If you’re a paragon but right now you really want to shoot this annoying pain in the ass mook who’s trying to pick a fight, you can do so without feeling like you’re being punished. At worst, you’re just passing up the possible reward of more paragon points.
On one hand, the system is a great way to give the player some short-term choice. Every single decision can’t echo forwards, creating an ever-growing landscape of possibility. At the same time, it feels good to make decisions and have the game respond, even in small ways. So you can save the hostages or you can capture the bad guy. Each path gives a few paragade points and some varying dialog, but either way you never see the hostage or the bad guy ever again. I’m basically okay with that, as long as the game doesn’t jerk you around by creating “Sophie’s Choice: The Videogame” where you just plow through a constant stream of frustrating no-win situations.
On the other hand, we always end up having the same damn arguments over what each path “means”. And these arguments always end up in the same gutter, because they don’t actually mean anything. They’re just a low-cost way of telegraphing, rewarding, and acknowledging player choices. There’s no clear philosophy behind them other than “nice” and “meanie”, even though individual choices can be interesting thought experiments and make sense in isolation. This is probably because actually judging player behavior would require knowing why they’re doing the thing they’re doing.
One of my favorite illustrations of this problem is here on Virmire. The Salarians are going to attack Saren’s base head-on to create a diversion, while you sneak in the back. It’s basically a suicide mission for them. During your ingress, you run into several opportunities to make life easier or harder for the Salarians out front. You can destroy the Geth communications array. You can ground their air units. You can set off various alarms to make the enemy move into a different position. Each of these actions will allow you to fight more foes so your allies can fight less.
The paragon / renegade points are awarded under the assumption that taking more heat on yourself is altruistic and paragon-ish, and easing your way by dumping more foes on your allies is the renegade thing to do.
Let’s ignore that fact that some of these actions (like blowing up the communications array) can easily happen by accident in a firefight, without you even realizing you’d done something other than shoot some robots. What’s funny about this situation is when I tried playing through this section as a renegade. I wanted to fight as many Geth as possible, because they’re filled with lovely delicious XP that will level me up and let me kick more ass. The game assumed that I was killing these Geth because I wanted to help my allies, but in reality I was motivated by simple videogame bloodlust. Helping your allies is undeniably the optimal thing to do, so you kind of have to screw yourself here if you’re fishing for renegade points.
No matter how many choices you give the player or how much granularity you offer for their reasoning, I don’t think you can make a system like this work outside of Star WarsAnd even then, the game will need to make assumptions about how you “feel” about the choice you’re making., but at the same time I’d hate to see them abandon it entirely. Like the Mako, the Paragade system isn’t perfect and sometimes it’s downright irritating, but the game would feel shallower if it wasn’t there.
Saren and Indoctrination
Here on Virmire Saren has captured some Salarians and stuck them in prison cells to expose them (somehow) to Sovereign’s indoctrination field. This is where the Reapers start to take on that “Elder Gods” vibe. Just being near them will inevitably warp your mind and bend you to their will. This isn’t a brute-force enslavement like the Thorian, where you’re tormented if you don’t do what the master says. This is subtle, quiet, and insidious. You might not even know its happening.
When we finally confront Saren, he reveals that there’s a trade-off at work here. Indoctrination can work fast and turn you into a gibbering psycho, or it can work slow and you keep your skill and mental acuity. Saren’s thinking is that he can give the galaxy – or himself – a more favorable outcome by being useful to Sovereign so that Sovereign will let him keep his mind. This also reveals that Saren has already fallen and he can’t even see it. You can tell he’s delusional. He’s blind to the truth that this cycle has repeated countless times. No doubt lots of people tried to do what Saren is doing, and in the end it didn’t make any difference. You can die standing still, you can die struggling, but either way you and your civilization are going to die.
This makes Sovereign a much more terrifying threat than simply showing that he’s got powerful space-lasers and Level 100 shields. Maybe we can invent better guns or get better armor, but how do we defend ourselves from undetectable mental manipulation? How do we protect against agents of the enemy when they themselves might not even know they’re serving the enemy? It drives home the point that even if we could somehow miraculously overcome our staggering technology disadvantage, we would still be hopelessly outmatched by the superior intelligence and experience of our enemy.
The research that Saren is doing is the biggest clue in the game that Saren is – or was – fighting against indoctrination. If he was truly loyal (either ideologically, or because he’s too far gone to have a will of his own) then he wouldn’t be spending his time studying this. But he knows that the indoctrination field exists, he knows he’s susceptible to it, and he probably suspects that once he’s fully indoctrinated, he won’t know it. So he’s looking for a way to work against Sovereign without losing himself. It’s a doomed plan, of course, but Saren would rather embrace a pipe dream like “outsmart a machine god” than give up and die. This is both why he chose to serve Sovereign, and why Sovereign chose him as his principal servant.
The game never spells any of this out for us, of course, but it is the simplest and most satisfying explanation for his behavior. There have been times in the game where Saren makes some poor decisions. He leaves the beacon behind on Eden Prime, which gives Shepard a chance to use it. You can nitpick lots of his moves like this, but “indoctrination” is a handy excuse that can plug almost any of his possible plot holes. If we accept that he’s mostly a thrall to to Sovereign but he’s sort of fighting back in small ways then we can excuse any of his mistakes.
This is another area where trust in the storyteller is crucial. If we trust the author, then we give them the benefit of the doubt. If the rest of the story is stupid action schlock, then we’re not going to go looking for subtlety and subtext when someone does something apparently dumb. We’ll just assume they’re an idiot like everyone else in the story.
Kaiden vs. Ashley
Everyone talks about this decision. “Kaiden vs. Ashley – WHO DID YOU SAVE?” I see polls now and again. Most of them seem to indicate the split is roughly even. I actually don’t feel strongly one way or the other. Being human, they’re both tied for last place in my list of favorite characters in Mass Effect 1. I don’t dislike them, but I also didn’t experience the gut-punch sense of loss that the writer clearly hoped I’d feel.
Ashley feels a little more “real” and vibrant – I’ve known a few Ashley-types in my life. Kaiden is a little more quiet and distant. He comes off as boring at first because he doesn’t seem to be very passionate about things the way Ashley is, and you’ve actually got to dig for a while before you get to the interesting parts of his backstory.
I do find it interesting that the split is so even when so many people played as Maleshep. I don’t have numbers for Mass Effect 1, but in Mass Effect 3 the breakdown is a landslide 82% to 18% victory of Maleshep over Femshep. If we assume that the numbers are similar in Mass Effect 1And they could conceivably be worse. Remember that Femshep got an HD facelift and appeared on the box in Mass Effect 3, which might have boosted the number of people playing as female in the third game. then it makes the Kaiden vs. Ashley outcome even more strange. You’d assume that a lot of people would go for the obvious early-game romance, which would stack the odds drastically against Kaiden. But it comes out about even?
Maybe Liara messes up the romance numbers, since she’s available as a partner to either gender? Maybe too many people interpreted Ashley as racist? Maybe a lot of people couldn’t prevent Wrex from dying and blamed Ashley? Maybe Ash’s personality just doesn’t resonate with the typical sci-fi fan the way quiet Kaiden’s does? I honestly don’t know.
In any case, it was an interesting and rewarding choice, even if I didn’t personally bear the emotional brunt of it. It’s a good character development moment for the team, it raises the stakes a bit by showing not everyone gets to go home, and it gives the player a huge degree of agency to choose who lives and who dies. And unlike some decisions in the series, this one stands. You don’t come back in Mass Effect 3 and find robo-Kaiden, or clone Ashley, or revived-by-Cerberus Kaiden, or VI-hologram Ashley, or whatever. Dead is dead.
 Although narratively, I think KOTOR wins out. A bit.
 And even then, the game will need to make assumptions about how you “feel” about the choice you’re making.
 And they could conceivably be worse. Remember that Femshep got an HD facelift and appeared on the box in Mass Effect 3, which might have boosted the number of people playing as female in the third game.
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