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The Paragon and The Renegade: A Tale of Morality in Mass Effect and the RPG

N.B.: Warning - The following contains spoilers for Mass Effect 1, and references interviews and speculation on content in Mass Effect 2, which some readers may not want to read.

In addition, if you have not played Mass 1, you will not understand some of the references I am making here.

An "Evil" Obsession?

I've noticed this obsession that game designers(not just BioWare) have with an ingame morality system based on Good versus Evil. Before people start getting confused by this statement and reply, "Well, dude, morality is good vs. evil, and the choices you make based on that...," what I mean is, there always seems to be a way to measure how good or evil your character is in recent RPGs, whether this was in the form of a single bar, or in Mass Effect, two non-conflicting bars.

In other words, your character was typically judged by a scale based on how good or evil their actions were, while "gray" areas were defined by a net sum of the "Evil" values and the "Good" values. This is extremely prevalent in games such as the KotOR series, Jade Empire, or more recently, Fallout 3. BioWare, however, took steps against this trend, especially with their more recent releases, Mass 1, Dragon Age: Origins, and the upcoming Mass 2.

Going Renegade

In Mass 1, the game designers really seemed to take a different step towards the Morality system, defying the current trends. Instead of having a single bar with a marker that was tugged back and forth in a perpetual tug of war due to the player's actions, there were two. But, ultimately, did that really make a difference? In a sense, yes. Mass Effect tried to distance itself from the growing trend of the "Good/Evil Bar" by making the bars a short snippet of Shepard's record - how he acted in situations, etc... Essentially, a high renegade bar might indicate that your character has taken a number of "Renegade" actions in the past, and can be judged as a Renegade because of their past actions.

But, this is only very different from the Good/Evil bar if there is a distinct difference between Renegade and "Evil" and Paragon and "Good." And this is extremely important, as a Renegade is not necessarily evil, and a Paragon is not necessarily good. I'll direct your attention to the Neverwinter Nights series, where players could choose their character's alignment during character creation. One of these was Lawful Evil, a character who - while staying on the right side of the law - did evil and cruel things to others. The other was Unlawful Good, a character who did things his/her way, regardless of the law, but ultimately was a kindhearted soul who was working for the good of the people.

As many people have pointed out in the past, many dilemmas that the player is presented with seem like Good versus Evil dilemmas, where the Evil action rewards Renegade points, while the Good action rewards Paragon points. While the designers of the game have tried to make Mass 1's dilemmas as "gray" as possible to accommodate the "Renegade/Paragon" system instead of the traditional system, sometimes, things slip through the cracks.

Is this BioWare's fault? Certainly not. A great part of the appeal that morality systems have in video games is due to the stress that our own society places on Good or Evil actions. And thus, it's very difficult to move away from a system that we have worked around for so long.

But, there are things that can be done to better apply the Paragon/Renegade system, and to prevent it from becoming another "Good vs. Evil" system.

Shepard's Way

The Paragon/Renegade system has the opportunity to raise interesting ethical dilemmas. For instance, how evil was Saren exactly? How evil is Shepard? How much of a renegade was Saren? How much of a renegade was Shepard? Does Renegade necessarily correspond to being Evil? Or does it simply mean, as it was defined, someone who simply rejects the established way of doing things?

In Mass 1, the most glaring example was the endgame decision the player makes: Saving the Council at the cost of hundreds of thousands of human lives, or going straight for the greatest threat, Sovereign. What exactly is the Renegade Action here? What is the evil action? Does a good action even exist? Wouldn't the definition of a "Paragon action" differ depending on where your moral standpoint is?

Finally, what would Saren have done?

As a character, Saren is a little sidelined by players because of his role in the story. He is portrayed as a ruthless, cunning, individual who will stop at nothing to accomplish his evil goals. His demeanor, his

But, as a character foil to Shepard, Saren accomplishes so much more. In a Biblical reference, Saren is by all means a Judas - a man whose fervor and passion ultimately led to his demise. Just as Judas betrays Christ for fear of greater repercussions against his people, Saren does the same, and finds a form of redemption in ending his life.

Certainly, it is not nice to let the council die, but it also quite nasty to allow thousands of Human soldiers die for the sake of a Galactic government that has worked to sideline their race.

I've found that many players ultimately choose to let humanity take one for the galactic "team" and save the council. But, isn't that what Saren would have done if he were in Shepard's shoes? To save the government without caring how many humans die in the process? To accomplish the mission, regardless of the cost?

At the same time, losing the Council to destroy Sovereign implies the same cost. To eliminate the greatest threat to our existence, even if it means losing our leaders.

In the end, Shepard becomes very much like Saren, even if he doesn't want to admit it or realize it, just as most players of the game fail to notice. Regardless of the actions taken, he is heading down a similar path - a path that isn't exactly good or bad.

Instead, this is where BioWare's Paragon/Renegade system shines. They have presented a moral dilemma that ultimately is neither good nor evil, but rather, something else entirely. A Renegade action versus a Paragon action, from the point of view of a galactic citizen wishing to be a greater part of a union of races.


BioWare's creation of the Paragon/Renegade morality system as opposed to the Good vs. Evil system is a large step in the right direction in terms of diversifying the industry and making it more interesting. But, it is questionable whether Good vs. Evil is even present in the larger decisions of Mass Effect and its sequel. To associate the Renegade/Paragon system with Good and Evil, then, is only a detriment to the game itself.

What can BioWare do?

- Distance the Good vs. Evil dilemmas from the Renegade/Paragon dilemmas. Instead of making everything shades of gray, insert black and white dilemmas as well. But, do them in a similar fashion to that of Dragon Age. If a beggar asks Shepard for assistance, don't reward the player Renegade points if he decides to shoot the beggar, because that's not necessarily a Renegade action. Instead, don't let these dilemmas affect the Renegade/Paragon meters, but only Companion/Squadmate meters.

- Make the distinction between Good and Paragon and Evil and Renegade clearer, because, at the moment, they aren't. By associating Saren with the Reapers and giving him a Renegade personality, BioWare has made him the quintessential "bad guy." He's slick, untrustworthy, and utterly unpredictable. That does not make him evil. But the throwbacks to KotOR present in ME2, most notably, the red scars on Shepard's face, only strengthen the connection to the above that ultimately, should be avoided.

What can players do?

- Stop making rash judgments about characters without fully understanding their motives.

- Before making a judgment on Ethics, think about your ethical standpoint. Exactly where are you looking at the dilemma from? For instance, sacrificing human lives for the Council may look alright in Saren's, Shepard's, and Anderson's position, but it might be viewed as horrible by a serviceman on an Alliance Dreadnought.

The above commentary represents the opinions of the author.