Mass Effect, Morality, and Feminism


Moral choice systems in gaming: saint or demon.

Moral choice systems in gaming: saint or demon.

So, I took a bit of a break from writing. Initially it was just going to be one week break to ensure a chance for those of you who wanted to watch Utena to do so before I went and made a more spoilerific post detailing just how awesomely feminist it is. Things ended up getting out of hand a bit, but I’m back, and will do THAT post next week. This week, however, I want to talk about something that I and a lot of people find annoying in video games: moral choice systems. I’ve been playing inFamous of late (after finishing my undergrad thesis), and it made me think about this system with all its flaws. First made popular with the Fable series and KOTOR, this mechanic has spread immensely. From Jack choosing between saving or sacrificing the little sisters in Rapture in the first Bioshock to Cole deciding between saving the city and destroying it in inFamous, this system is everywhere in gaming these days.

On the one hand, I get it. Replayability is important in a game, and this is a simple, mechanical way to get players to play a game twice. However, it’s really a cheap way of doing it, and honestly, story is what brings players back. I’ve played every title in the Suikoden series multiple times, with the crappier ones (Tactics) being played only two or three times, while the more excellent ones (II) being close to a dozen times. I never played the first Fable title more than once, and while I’ve played the Mass Effect series multiple times, it’s often as either different classes, or even just multiple plays of the same character with the same morality path.

However, the biggest issue with this system in most games is that it’s entirely unreasonable. It’s almost always an extreme choice, either saving a cat from a tree or torching a bus full of orphaned children. That you orphaned in the first place. It’s either being the ultimate saint, or just being a complete and utter asshole for the sake of being an asshole. The thing is, not all titles are this extreme. Take for example the Mass Effect series: yes, it dips into asshole territory from time to time, but its moral choice system isn’t something so basic as “good or evil.”

Moral choice roleplaying in KOTOR.

Moral choice roleplaying in KOTOR.

In Mass Effect, you have instead paragon and renegade, and instead of being on a single spectrum that shifts toward one or the other depending on your actions, you actually have two separate meters measuring what is best described as reputation. You see, either way you go, Commander Shepard (who is default female to me) is the hero of the story. She (or he for those of you who actually prefer Mark Meer’s voice acting) is never an evil force, never a villain. At best, you could look at her options as being a choice between diplomacy and extremism. The paragon path is the path that takes things a bit slower, but does so with diplomacy and makes more friends and allies. Renegade, on the other hand, is the path of accomplishing your goals with expediency, without caring so much what others think.

So how does this all tie to feminism? Well, the obvious parallel is in the methods of feminism. You have your radical feminists and your extremists, those who say things like “kill all men” or who put women’s rights above all else, such as gay rights, trans rights, racial rights, etc. These are your renegades, who have a single goal in mind: improvement of women’s status in society. The paragon feminists are those who don’t just focus on that one goal, but instead focus on equal rights for all. The first group want it now, damn the consequences, and the other group is willing to take more time to make sure it happens properly.

This isn’t to say that Mass Effect always gets it right. For example, late in the second game, Shepard is presented with a choice: brainwash an entire subsect of a species, or kill them all off. The brainwashing is presented as the paragon choice, because it allows them to still live, but in reality, neither option is ideal. Yes, killing that group off is basically genocide, but the other choice is brainwashing. This is basically conversion therapy, and as we all know, that’s sooo wonderful. Yes, dripping sarcasm. It would be better if neither choice gave paragon or renegade points, or both options were renegade, as both options are extreme.

I’d like to see more games looking into this dynamic. This is how feminism and most of the world really is. It’s not a matter of good and evil, but what approaches we take to tackle our goals. And as with Mass Effect, we develop a reputation that precedes us. Peacemakers make more friends while extremists tend to drive away anyone whose views are not enough in line with their own, even including those who have similar goals but take a more peaceful approach.


2 responses to “Mass Effect, Morality, and Feminism

  1. Pingback: Our Own Failings | Transendent Lives

  2. Pingback: More on Morality | Transendent Lives

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