Mass Effect, Murder, and Morality

Mass Effect made me feel like a monster and it’s all my fault.

Wait. Let’s back up a minute and let me explain.

I have a long history of playing Bioware games. Honestly, I’ve mostly played Bioware games exclusively with occasional diversions elsewhere. Knights of the Old Republic was my jam in middle/high school and I adored the (non-Bioware but it felt like Bioware) sequel game just as much. There was something about being a part of Star Wars and getting to make choices that would affect not only me but the entire galaxy that was thrilling. Even though female Revan and female Exile will always be my preference, I made it a point to play through each game with all four potential paths at least once: light side female, dark side female, light side male, dark side male. It appealed to not only my completionist side but also let me experience the story in new ways.

And then Mass Effect happened.

I came late to the Mass Effect world thanks to a lack of a console or gaming PC, despite having always wanted to play the games. When I finally got a PS3 in 2016, the first thing I did was download the trilogy. I was going to get to experience these games. Finally. Almost three years later, I’m on my third play through. My initial game was Paragon FemShep which I followed up with a Paragon DudeShep. I loved everything about the game even when Mass Effect 3 routinely broke my heart, blew my mind and made me really feel like I had the weight of the galaxy on my shoulders. When I loaded up a third play through, I knew I had to change things up. It was finally time to Renegade. Mostly. I decided that I would Paragon through the first game, leave the Council to die, and then go Renegade when Cerberus brought Shepard back in Mass Effect 2. I thought it would be like playing through KOTOR as a dark sider.

I was so very wrong.

Being Renegade in Mass Effect 2 was hard. Yeah kicking jerk people out windows was fun but being mean to my friends wasn’t. I struggled with sticking to the Renegade path and kept acquiring Paragon points by accident until I finally had to hold my nose and deliberately start hitting all the responses I knew were Renegade even though I didn’t want to because I kept getting greyed out, better response options because point levels were off. My morality struggles earlier in the game ultimately resulted in me failing to help Tali at her trial and having to remain silent and take the Paragon points because I couldn’t bear to lose her loyalty. In short… I was between a rock and a hard place and it sucked.

Fast forward to Mass Effect 3 where the morality system changes and operates via Reputation points in addition to Paragon/Renegade. I finally felt free to still be nice to my friends while still doing a Renegade play through. I still didn’t love it but at least I didn’t feel like I couldn’t tell Kaidan how happy I was to see him or like I had to give James Vega the cold shoulder. I could live with this. It was all for the story. The closer we got to everything on Tuchanka, the more apprehensive I got because not curing the genophage meant I was going to have to betray Wrex who’d put his faith in me back on Virmire. Turns out, it was so much worse than that and it was all I could do to keep numbly clicking the right Renegade responses and reactions.

I felt guilty buying this pin from TheWindsNocturne on Etsy.

This isn’t the first time the game has presented you with the death of one of your companions. It’s not even the first time it’s presented you with the ability to kill one of them. Part of why I decided to start this play through as Paragon was so I wouldn’t have to kill Wrex on Virmire. (Big mistake.) The game forcing you to leave one squad mate behind no matter what was painful enough already. I had it in my head that a Renegade play through might mean Mordin would live because he’d never really reacted negatively to my Renegade comments before and besides, he was responsible for the genophage in the first place. He’d back me no matter what… right?

Wrong. So very wrong. Mordin is hell bent on curing the genophage and honestly, he’s too good of a person to be friends with a Renegade Shepard. He had to be the one to set right his past actions. Someone else might have gotten it wrong. A true Renegade play through forces you to kill Mordin before he can undo the sabotage and properly dispense the cure. This time, there’s no Gilbert and Sullivan tune to make you cry; it’s the horror of your own actions. I felt sick to my stomach for the hours following. Because of a decision in a video game.

To make matters worse, Wrex eventually learns of your part in sabotaging the cure and confronts you on the Citadel. He’s furious and ready to kill you and honestly, he has every right to because he thought he could trust you. It was all I could do to numbly click the Renegade interrupt and shoot and kill yet another one of my squad mates. I could’ve let C-Sec handle it but in a way, I felt obliged to do it myself. I owed him that… right?

In the less than ten years between KOTOR and Mass Effect 3, the morality system reached a new level of sophistication that I simply wasn’t ready for. Most of your dark side decisions in KOTOR were just so over the top evil that it felt borderline cartoonish. Even when the game prompted you to kill your shipmates, it hurt but not quite in this same way. Often, you didn’t have much of a choice. It also probably helped that Revan/Exile’s lines were never voiced so you didn’t feel the full impact of, say, ordering Zaalbar to kill Mission. Besides, in KOTOR you’re a Sith which means you’re supposed to be the bad guy. In Mass Effect, it’s not that simple. Not only did the story and role-playing become more sophisticated in those few years between series but Bioware really committed to fleshing out your squadmates especially in Mass Effect 2 where you have more of a choice regarding who you romance and you have to work to get their loyalty but once you have it, they’ll mostly follow you to the end of the galaxy… literally. And yet…

Why I hate playing as Renegade can be boiled down to this: you’re Commander Shepard, hero of the galaxy, and heroes don’t kill their friends.

I suppose that a small part of me is glad I did the Renegade play through because I would’ve kept wondering what the story was like but this is where my completionism finally draws to an end. I can never play as a Renegade!Shep again because Bioware made me love my friends too much. I appear to be Paragon for life.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a Grunt plushie to hug.

One thought on “Mass Effect, Murder, and Morality

  1. Around The Bonfire January 23, 2019 / 5:13 PM

    Really enjoyed reading that and entirely understand. My own personal motivations were a little more superficial, the renegade scars were a big deterrent in 2 despite being able to heal them. Felt like a not so subtle nod the paragon path was the right option both mentally and physically.


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