Right now, I’m about halfway through the original Mass Effect, an RPG whose morality system was one of its signature innovations. Traditionally, RPGs have a good/evil scale; your decisions push you up or down that scale; and those decisions, all too often, take the nature of “save puppy / ignore puppy / kill puppy and wave its corpse in its owner’s face” (the last option becoming known as “chaotic stupid”/ “stupid evil”). Mass Effect tried to move past this by giving you the choice as to whether to be a conventional, violence-as-a-last-resort, squeaky-clean hero (Paragon), or a ruthless antihero (Renegade). And furthermore, it put Paragon and Renegade points on two separate axes – they can only go up, never go down – which, in theory, allows you to react in different ways to different situations. So, for example, I could pile up Paragon points by using non-lethal means to overpower a swarm of mind-controlled enemies, then earn some Renegade points by summarily executing a prisoner. Unfortunately, the implementation isn’t quite perfect.
First, being a Renegade still sometimes involves (verbally) kicking puppies. Sometimes, the distinction between being Paragon and Renegade conversation choices breaks down along one of two axes:
- Are you polite and understanding, or are you an abrasive jerk?
- Are you open-minded towards aliens (whom, by and large, the game depicts as Folks Just Like Us) or do you hate anyone who’s not a human being?
Most “reasonable” people, in-universe, would take the Paragon route under those circumstances. And this weakens the concept that “Renegade” simply means you’re willing to take nasty decisions for the greater good.
Second, it still punishes players who don’t want to respond in the same way every time. The bigger a Paragon or Renegade you are, the more points you can invest in your Charm and Intimidate skills (respectively). These skills are what actually matters for game purposes: to get the optimum outcome from various conversations and quests, you’ll typically need sufficient Charm or sufficient Intimidate. The problem is that, as a result, you have an incentive to exclusively focus on one or the other: there are no prizes for having a little bit in each. So while I’ve pumped my Charm skill almost to the max, I have just a handful of points in Intimidate, and from a powergaming perspective, it would have better if I’d ignored Intimidate entirely. I want to play the game as a hero to most and a merciless menacing brute to those who deserve it, but having to split points between Charm and Intimidate discourages me from doing so.
Now, neither issue is a gamebreaker. There are plenty of Renegade options that are pragmatic or blunt rather than outright nasty; plenty of Renegade and Paragon points to go around (apparently, you can get to 75% in each on a first playthrough); and I could still be both Charming and Intimidating (to a certain extent, determined by just how many P/R points I had) if I were willing to sacrifice combat effectiveness by pouring my precious skill points into those two areas instead. But they’re still flies in an innovative ointment.
How could Bioware have implemented the system differently? Making politeness and xenophobia separate from Paragon/Renegade would have been the easy way to resolve my first complaint. The second complaint is a little thornier: Bioware could have used a single Speech skill a la Fallout; or made Charm and Intimidate complements instead of substitutes (i.e. I can charm person A but I have to intimidate person B). As it turned out, Bioware did neither for Mass Effect 2 – based on what I’ve read, ME2 does away with Charm/Intimidate entirely and instead simply uses your Paragon/Renegade level, modified by a “Negotiation” bonus.
Now, I’m having enough fun with Mass Effect, and I’ve heard enough good things about the sequel, that I’ll probably pick up ME2 once a PC version with the DLC quests becomes available for a cheap price. But I am curious as to how well ME2 addresses my issues. Any impressions, folks?