Who Am I? Role-Playing In RPGs Part 1: Mass Effect

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As a budding novelist and lore nerd, I’m a pretty big fan of RPGs. I won’t claim to have played every single one — in fact, I’ve only realized how much I liked RPGs in the past few years — but I enjoy studying what makes the games as good as they are. What I love about them most is how the genre strives for player expression through its role-playing elements.

I love this aspect of RPGs, so naturally, I have a lot of criticisms for it. The genre often tries to entice players with promises of interesting NPCs, moral choices and the fact that story will react to their actions. All of these things are great, but they unfortunately fall short in a lot of these aspects. There are a lot of game franchises that I could talk about in this respect, but for now, I’ll stick to one series.

One of the most significant major releases for me this year has to be Mass Effect Legendary Edition. I had never played the original trilogy and, at the behest of many friends, I purchased the compilation on Steam and immediately fell in love. I was absolutely addicted to Mass Effect 2 and, though I haven’t finished Mass Effect 3 yet, it seems to be a major upgrade in almost every way.

Yes, I’m aware that the ending apparently sucks. I’ll decide how I feel about it myself when I get there.

Even Mass Effect 1, which I am notably a lot more lukewarm about, had an undeniable charm to it. I didn’t care for the combat, though that’s normally the case when I play BioWare games. It’s apparently improved from its original combat system way back in 2007, but it still felt pretty tedious to me. With the jump to Mass Effect 2, however, and the significantly improved combat, another problem jumped out at me.

The Paragon/Renegade system and how well it portrays the morality of any given Commander Shepard has been discussed at length by a lot of people who have put many more hours into the franchise than I could ever hope to. I like the system but I noticed a fair amount of issues unique to each game. With ME1, my patented RPG playstyle of “Good Guy Who Can Get Mean If He Needs To Be” looked a lot more like “Pushover Military Grunt Who Would Flip Out At The Slightest Provocation.”

ME2 had less of a dichotomy, but there were some morality choices that just confused me. The most notable had to be my choice that appeared after slaughtering robots in a lab. The game told me I could “Shoot the last robot in the head like the Renegade you are” or “Delay for a second while someone else does it anyway.” This dilemma repeated itself in ME3 during a mission with Aria, except with cameras. ME3 also tried to convince me that buying drinks for my fellow soldiers and knowing their motto is conduct unbecoming of a Paragon leader. I figure it’s a professionalism thing, but the Paragon path has let me get away with a lot worse, as 300,000 Batarians could attest.

Video game morality systems in general just kind of bother me. I don’t care for the idea of tallying all the times you’ve been naughty or nice, especially if it’s such a blatant “good vs. evil” decision. It makes the interactions less about how we can make these characters uniquely our own, but more about what ending we feel like watching this time around. And that’s not objectively bad, just noticeably below the medium’s true role-playing potential.

To me, a better system than the Paragon/Renegade system was Mass Effect Andromeda‘s conversation system. A lot of baggage with that game (the first Mass Effect game I played, just for the record, and yeah the original trilogy is better), but allowing the player to respond to conversations and situations either logically, emotionally, conversationally or professionally is, to be frank, a stroke of genius. This means that Ryder had much more nuance and range depending on the situation. They could be professional with one character, vulnerable with another, and casual with the rest. How each player portrayed Ryder was dictated by a variety of factors, not simply because “Well I did Paragon last time, let’s see what happens if I do Renegade now.” Unfortunately, it didn’t amount to much, but the system itself was a massive step in the right direction.

Now the original trilogy did have background stories for Shepard that would affect some in-game moments, but it doesn’t amount to much more than scripted dialogue and an extra side mission or two. The advantage that the Andromeda conversation system has over the Paragon/Renegade system is that any number of things could impact a specific response. Emotional responses, for example, featured Ryder calling on personal experiences to justify themselves. Professional responses often had Ryder recite protocols and the like. Morality still played a factor, but it wasn’t a rigid driving force.

What I mean to say with all of this is that I am a role-playing junkie. The point of role-playing is to give the player the ability to give their character a unique personality, and then give them space to act it out. Morality choices fall into this as well, but they can’t be solely relied on. Give the player the tools to truly act out the character they want to be, not remain within the confines of a rigid morality system.

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