A couple of months ago I started replaying Mass Effect 2. It had been my intention to play through it twice all along as I’ve got two completed ME1 save games in my pocket -a Paragon DudeBroShep (pictured) and Renegade FemShep (stolen, but close approximation)- that I wanted to carry forward through Mass Effect 3. Traditionally when I play an RPG, I play to be the hero. I’ve tried with games like Baldur’s Gate 2 to try an alternate path being an “evil” character, but beyond any concerns about whether or not a game makes it plausible to do so, I’ve never enjoyed being a cruel douchebag in a game. Maybe it’s conditioning from my Ultima IV – VII days, but wrecking virtual lives and kicking virtual homeless people just doesn’t offer me anything remotely satisfying as a gamer. I’ve tried it and it always sounds fun in theory -A world without rules! Let’s wreck some shit!- but the reality never meshes with it.
Then came Mass Effect’s Renegade path. Say what you will about Mass Effect and Bioware (and I’ve said plenty), but I’m not sure I’ve seen a game so excellently give the player the opportunity to be a ruthless hero and still actually be a hero rather than someone who curses at everyone for no reason but still saves the world because if they didn’t there wouldn’t be anything else to do. I liked that. I even liked playing it as a strong female character, something I traditionally don’t do when given the choice since I like to really put myself in the shoes of my little avatar and I am, at heart, entirely male. (No really. I fart at appropriate intervals, talk about sports as if I actually know something, and occasionally I sculpt my guns at the office. It’s a deep burn!) I felt like I was growing as a role playing gamer. Then I hit this one particular scene in Mass Effect 2 the other night and realized – yeah, not so much…
You see, as much as I love me a good RPG, I’m actually a pretty lousy role player in the strictest sense of the genre. RPGs are all about putting your feet into someone else’s shoes, but historically when I play these games, it’s not so much to be in someone else’s shoes, but to put on the shoes of some idealized (and not as boring) version of myself, one who actually does something. Perhaps I shouldn’t draw so much satisfaction out of saving some virtual peon’s imaginary farm or going out of my way to rescue my shipmate’s sister when there are real life cats stuck in trees, but then real life doesn’t let me shoot down the tree with a plasma rifle either. Maybe if real life made being heroic more interesting I’d take more interest in being heroic. (No, not really. I’m content in the knowledge that I’m a Gen X slacker. I’ll do my best with my kids and try to do better about donating to charity, but mostly I want to go home and pretend none of you exist. No offense, of course.) The point is when I played through Mass 1 I came out of it feeling like I grew as a role player. Like I’d unlocked some kind of secret about stripping myself away from my character and really trying to look at the world through a different person’s eyes; a person who’s not striving to be some kind of icon, but just trying get through the day, flaws and all. Sounds good in theory, amiright?
As I’ve slowly made my way back through Mass Effect 2 I was getting that same feeling. Sure, I’d shove some douchebag off a ledge, mid-sentence. I’d punch out the occasional reporter for asking a stupid question. I might even let Miranda execute somebody in cold blood. But let’s be honest. All those bastards had it coming. The galaxy is a hard place and justice falls like Hard Rain. (Zing!) Then I got to Jack’s loyalty quest. (Modest spoilers ahead.)
Beyond just recruiting them in the first place, getting the loyalty of each of your team members is rather important in Mass Effect 2. Rather plastically, you can’t do that without doing some random loyalty quest that really has nothing whatsoever to do with the life and death save the universe mission you’re on. It’s not great game or story design, but it works well enough. Among this cast of characters is Jack. Jack is a rather broken individual. She was identified from birth as an immensely powerful biotic (it’s like The Force, but without violating Star Wars copyright) and was kidnapped to be part of an experiment in maximizing human biotic potential. She grew up tortured in both mind and body and when she escaped, she escaped as a homicidal, remorseless killer. Paragon Dudebro Shep did his best to show her a different path, one not fueled by hatred and revenge and it sure felt like he’d at least partially succeeded. FemShep on the other hand believes in frontier justice. Yeah, she’s out to save the day and she’s got a soft spot for her crew, one Liara T’Soni (or whatever her name is) in particular, but the world doesn’t get to see the softer side (of Sears!). She can be a monster as long as she knows that she’s leaving behind a world safe for truth, justice, and The Alliance-uh-an Way. So when she brings Jack back to said facility and Jack decides she wants revenge on some poor slob who’s every bit the broken victim of the place that she is, what does Femshep do?
Paragon versus Renegade prompts in Mass Effect 2 are pretty obvious. Either you get a red or blue mouse click icon or a red or blue dialog option. Regardless of which, you know when you see a red or blue option that regardless of what else is there, you’ll probably end up going for one of those. Again, it’s not great gameplay, but it suffices. So as Jack leveled a pistol at this pitiable dope and I saw the red text, “Do it,” I instinctively clicked it. FemShep, who is EXTREME!, nods at Jack and says with complete and utter indifference, “Do it. You’re a killer.” Jack pulls the trigger and smiles and says something about how good that felt. Well, I’m glad she felt good because I felt like the lowest of the low. This kid. This lost, terrified, insecure kid just cemented her future. She was staring down the edge of a cliff and what do I do? Instead of pulling her back I shove her off. Because that’s what a Renegade Hero does. I was so absolutely disgusted with myself (and a little bit with the game) that I reloaded and talked her down, Renegade character points be damned. Nevermind that it’s a game and none of it really means a hill of beans, it was at that point that I realized that if this is what being a “dark” hero is, I want no part of it. It’s not fun. It’s not funny. It’s just… ugly.
I’m far enough along in this game that I may as well finish it, but I can already see a third playthrough of both games in the offing. The fact of the matter is FemShep is a better character than DudeBroShep and after playing through the Lair of The Shadow Broker DLC over the weekend (it’s probably the best DLC I’ve played, btw), I suddenly want to see a FemShep that’s a better person than the one I’ve created and that I’ve seen countless YouTube vids of (like the one embedded above for hilarity’s sake). I want to find out how FemShep The Paragon goes about saving the universe. A Shep that has a whole heart and who brings out the best in the people around her. Sure, QueenBitchShep is funny and even admirable in her own way, but she’s no longer a character I like. We have to allow for flawed heroes in our every day lives because even the best among us is pretty damn flawed. In my fantasy worlds I want better. I want the icon. If that makes me a lousy role player then I’m okay with that.
EDIT: Based on a couple of the comments I should point out I’m not criticizing the game for the Jack sequence being in there. Shep’s action is a choice the player makes. The game, as is its role, just facilitates it. The point is that as a gamer I didn’t draw enough (any) enjoyment out of that choice for me making it to be worthwhile, even if it’s consistent with the character I had played up to that point. Its actually a compliment to the game that it drew the emotional reaction out of me that it got, which is why I wanted to write about it in the first place.