[Enjoy this guest post by Rob Mackie! —Ed.]
As a fundamentally interactive medium, video games use the actions of the game’s players to tell the stories of fictional agents. Every playing of a game is a new telling of the story; the next time I play Super Mario Bros., my actions will determine whether the game tells the story of the plumber who saved the princess, or the plumber who couldn’t make it past that damn trampoline in level 3-1. While there are plenty of other possible places for Mario to meet his ultimate demise, the simplicity of the game constrains the possible endings; either Mario rescues the princess, or he fails to do so. The actions taken on the path to either end have no intrinsic significance to the story playing the game tells.
In Mass Effect, you play as Commander Shepard, a human military officer in the 22nd century, after humans have learned interstellar travel. Early in the game, you discover a relic from an ancient space civilization, and the relic gives you a vision of that civilization’s destruction at the hands of an army of ancient intergalactic horrors called the Reapers. The game then details Shepard’s quest to track down an alien super-soldier who went rogue at the relic site and is trying to unleash the Reapers on the galaxy so they can destroy galactic civilization again.
[Since Shepard can be a character of either gender, the pronouns “ze” and “hir” will be used going forward. – Ed.]
Clearly, Mass Effect has a much more complicated story than Mario. Since Mass Effect is was released a full 22 years after the first Super Mario Bros., this is unsurprising to say the least. But there is a very real sense in which the storytelling possibilities in Mass Effect are more rigidly fixed. The final outcome of your decisions is imposed upon you regardless of the content of your actions. The player can choose Shepard’s gender and skills, but can never at any point choose to pursue another goal. Ze can’t decide Shepard is sick of military life and retire to the French countryside to start up a vineyard, or go back to school for a Ph.D., or do anything except try to save the galaxy. Sure, there are side quests, and you can choose when to do the main quests, but all roads ultimately lead to the same endpoint. This is a nearly universal feature of video game storytelling, and is commonly referred to as railroading.
The thing about this instance of railroading, however, is that it betrays an imperialistic imposition of truth that is reflected in the game’s story itself. You are not given any choice as to the degree of reality Shepard ascribes to the vision. The player cannot decide that Shepard believes the vision represents something other than a true omen of doom for galactic civilization. You are then forced to speak before a powerful council of aliens fittingly referred to as The Council, and argue that the rogue agent has betrayed the Council and gone rogue in order to bring about the Reaper invasion, using only the vision as evidence. This ends, predictably enough, with the Council refusing your request and thus casting them into a primarily oppositional light for the rest of the game as an obstacle to be overcome, concerned more (in the game’s internal logic) with protecting its own interests than acting on the truth.
The idea is that because the vision is a true portent of bad things to come, the Council was foolish in denying your request and therefore cannot be trusted. But see, here’s the thing. The Council was completely justified and correct in denying Shepard’s request, regardless of the actual truth of the evidence. Visions aren’t just bad evidence, they’re barely evidence at all. The need for political leaders to act only on good evidence is obvious, as several recent wars might indicate.
However, in presenting this denial as an act of obstruction, the game unilaterally declares it’s own notion of ‘truth’ as the ultimate arbiter of what constitutes proper action and thus imposes universally over all the game’s agents, even the ones whose actions the player cannot control, a system of morality. This is how the game gives its own railroading force. Due to the absolute nature of the metaphysics of its morals, and given Shepard’s nature as the primary moral agent through which the player acts, the game places a moral imperative on Shepard so absolute that even the player, who exists outside the game and therefore does not share this imperative, cannot make Shepard defy it, or even make Shepard question hir conviction.
However, the game does give the player a system of moral choice in the form of the game’s Paragon/Renegade system. Under this system, after making certain dialogue decisions or taking certain actions, Shepard is awarded either ‘Paragon points’ or ‘Renegade points’ depending on the action taken. While the points are awarded on separate scales and not mutually exclusive (that is, gaining points of one type does not result in losing points of the other), and many decisions and actions award no points at all, the idea is that by the end of the game Shepard will be more of a ‘Paragon’, that is, a relatively Superman-esque character, or ‘Renegade’, a character more akin to darker versions of Batman.
The points are awarded in a fairly principled way. Paragon points are awarded for actions that display tolerance of non-human species, and are generally diplomatic. Renegade points are awarded for displays of excessive violence, xenophobia, and intimidation. Playing the game adhering to either archetype does provide a different gaming experience at several points. Certain characters will react differently to Shepard’s presence. Some of the major game decisions have broad consequences for individuals, societies, and even species. Therefore, this system seems to represent a robust system of moral choice where actions have an intrinsic importance not seen in Mario; the player has a real influence over Shepard’s actions and thus tells different stories with different playthroughs, like Mario.
This is true to an extent. However, the final outcome of your actions remains essentially the same regardless of the archetype adhered to. A Paragon or Renegade Shepard will still violently take the lives of hundreds of organic and non-organic life forms, and will only be allowed to resolve disputes non-violently in rare, pre-ordained situations. Unlike Mario, absolute failure internal to the game is impossible. You can run out of lives in Mario. You can save, load, and die as many times as you like in Mass Effect. The only way to fail forever in Mass Effect is to quit playing forever before finishing, a decision external to the game itself. Play until the end of the game, and Shepard will kill the bad guy and save the galaxy…for now. Making different decisions in different playthroughs, then, is rather analogous to doing the same Mad Lib multiple times using different words each time. In both cases, the degree to which these changes represent substantive differences in the nature of the story is debatable, at best.
Furthermore, this system is fully subsumed by the same absolute metaphysics of morals. What ultimately constitutes a Paragon or Renegade action is fixed; the player cannot argue with the game about what points were awarded and why. Certain actions award certain points, and that is that. From the perspective of the game, there is never any ambiguity as to what type of points to award, even when the actions themselves are morally ambiguous. In the same way the necessity and ultimate outcome of Shepard’s actions is absolute, so too is the moral character of those actions, at least as far as the game is concerned.
This forcing of fixed moral truths upon others is, in many ways, the defining trait of imperialism. European colonials oppressed millions and turned many cultures into subjugated peoples in order to Christianize them and impose their morality and way of life. Now in hindsight, European colonialism was obviously a very bad thing. Not only did the colonialist oppressors do horrible things to their subjects, the fundamental ignorance and unilateralism of their decisions has created broad consequences for modern geopolitics.
Current disputes in the Middle East, Africa, and South America can in many cases be traced back directly to colonialist actions. The end result of this system is that everyone within it, and in the case of Mass Effect, even the player outside it, must bend to the system’s will. The forces working to ensure that Shepard must save the galaxy from the Reapers are ultimately, in principle, the same forces that worked to ensure George Orwell had to go shoot an elephant in heat while stationed in Burma. The judgments of ‘Paragon’ and ‘Renegade’ are as rigid as the judgments of ‘savage’ and ‘civilized’.
I had halted on the road. As soon as I saw the elephant I knew with perfect certainty that I ought not to shoot him. It is a serious matter to shoot a working elephant – it is comparable to destroying a huge and costly piece of machinery – and obviously one ought not to do it if it can possibly be avoided. And at that distance, peacefully eating, the elephant looked no more dangerous than a cow. I thought then and I think now that his attack of “must” was already passing off; in which case he would merely wander harmlessly about until the mahout came back and caught him. Moreover, I did not in the least want to shoot him. I decided that I would watch him for a little while to make sure that he did not turn savage again, and then go home.
But at that moment I glanced round at the crowd that had followed me. It was an immense crowd, two thousand at the least and growing every minute. It blocked the road for a long distance on either side. I looked at the sea of yellow faces above the garish clothes-faces all happy and excited over this bit of fun, all certain that the elephant was going to be shot. They were watching me as they would watch a conjurer about to perform a trick. They did not like me, but with the magical rifle in my hands I was momentarily worth watching. And suddenly I realized that I should have to shoot the elephant after all. The people expected it of me and I had got to do it; I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly.
And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man’s dominion in the East.
– George Orwell, “Shooting an Elephant”
But in Mass Effect, this imposition leads to positive consequences. The good guys win and everything is cool, even in a universe that judges moral agents against its absolute and unwavering conception of moral truth. At the end of Mass Effect, triumphant music swells while the image of Shepard is nearly deified against a background of sunlight bursting over a planet’s edge. The final reward the player has sought all game is a representation of domination. Given the degree to which the game forces the player to accept its moral imperative, is this really a surprise?
Rob Mackie lives in Chicago, and has about 5 unfinished short stories in the pipeline.
[As a fan of the Mass Effect series myself, I wonder how the overarching metaplot fits into this interpretation. Does the backstory behind the true nature of the Reapers say something similar to what Orwell does about the ultimate fate of all empires? Sound off in the comments! —JP]
In all advertisements, Shepard is male. One could say that the cannon shepard, is male. Just like with KotOR, you could pick a gender, Lucas arts had already set a gender for official storyline.
He or she work fine as generic identifiers, and I have seen and used both quite successfully. I don’t really care which is used, by using “ze” makes you sound like an ass.
Or, you could have just used “s/he” and “him/her”. That’s a bit unwieldy, but much less ridiculous.
There is no canon Shepard. The ads use a generic white male, but one of the nice things about RPGs is not being forced to play as one.
Less ridiculous than “ze” and “hir”, I mean.
Yo I like yall comments and Imma let yall finish debate’n imperialist morality, but “Thon” is the best gender neutral pronoun of all time… of all time.
I don’t mind ze, but aren’t hir and her homophones? It would be a little confusing if you used it in conversation.
Just use ‘they’. It’s a perfectly acceptable singular gender-neutral pronoun that’s been in use for hundreds of years…
An interesting article, particularly in terms of your critical style. That is to say, the rather unorthodox way in which you have eschewed the use of outdated concepts like ‘arguments’ or ‘conclusions’ in favour of a strange, meandering rumination.
I should say by the way that this is in no sense a negative reflection on yourself or the article. I may just be unfamiliar with this style of writing, which though not stricly circular, is certainly a good deal more curvacious than I am used to.
Anyway, having reached the ‘termination’ of the article (I feel in no way justified in calling it a conclusion, see above), I had the sense that you were implying the following. You seem to feel that the moral imperative imposed upon Shepard’s (and by rigid extension the player’s) actions was the perogative of the developers. I say perogative rather than a more judgemental term like ‘fault’, since you do not appear to argue that the inflexible morality is a ‘bad’ thing (insofar as it is possible for a self-contained moral code to be objectively ‘bad’). I think this a reasonable position, but I would draw somewhat more attention to the fact that Mass Effect is a Role Playing Game.
In my mind, this genre association has significant bearing on your discussion. To state the bleeding obvious, the fact of any RPG is that you are playing a ROLE. As the player you are not controlling an analogue of your Self in-game (capitalisation very much intended). No matter how great the pretentions of free choice held by the developers (in the case of Bioware clearly signposted with the holy trinity of dialogue options, morality scales and multiple endings), the avatar running and gunning around in game is to a great extent their own person(a). This means that we as RPG-ers are necessarily along for the ride, experiencing the actions, decisions and unfolding narrative of the character second hand.
To my mind, Bioware are not guilty of imposing fixed moral truths on their game. Instead, they are presenting one character’s (or one ‘person’s’) perspective on events. We as the player cannot decide whether Shepard believes hir vision, because Shepard has already made that choice. The only moral imperative being applied is the subjective truth experienced by Shepard hirself, which we experience second-hand when playing the game. To say that Bioware are guilty of moral imperialism seems a little harsh. The only reason we players see the Council’s decision to ignore Shepard’s visions as ‘wrong’ for example, is because Shepard hirself holds that views, and we are passengers to hir moral alignment.
I would try and explain this point more clearly, but this comment is already riddled with TLDNRitis, so I shall take your lead, and conclude as follows.
That comment would have been a lot shorter and more interesting without the self satisfied passive-aggressiveness.
It seems like you just agreed with what the article said, even though you disagree. You say we are passengers to Shepard’s moral alignment. That’s saying we have a moral code imposed upon us by the developers who created Shepard, which is what the writer is saying. You do a poor job of arguing when you agree with the person with whom you argue.
You used ze and hir, seriously? That’s not even a matched pair of ridiculous invented words.
Most obviously, your ruminations completely neglect the tyranny of the clock in Super Mario Bros. Shepard can stop mid-quest and become a dancer in a nightclub, accepting payment in drinks, if you so desire; this will even pause the main story events. Shepard doing so could even be argued to be a noble sacrifice in terms of lives saved.
You’re also ignoring the fact that there are different endings to Mass Effect. Yes, they all end with some events having occurred in the same way, but the other events are by no means irrelevant. The “final outcome” to which you refer is not even the last thing that happens in the game. The last thing you do in the game is chose a candidate to support for office or chose to deny any such support.
The evidence of Saren’s, i.e. the rogue agent’s, treachery extends far beyond a “vision.” The “vision” is a historical record of a previously known ancient race. It’s not a peyote-induced hallucination; it’s a high-speed data transfer. The “vision” deals only with the Reapers, and it does not touch on Saren at all. Saren, on the other hand, is witnessed murdering in cold blood an equally high-ranking agent by a neutral civilian. Said agent’s corpse certainly demands explanation, and it contains a bullet hole from Saren’s pistol, which is likely a Spectre-exclusive, extremely low-production model given their superior performance.
The Paragon and Renegade points assigned to actions aren’t really value judgments. They are a means of recording your pattern of actions according to a purely invented standard. Mentally rename them Jam and Jelly points if you want. The game recording how many of your actions were more Jam-like is not imposing anything on your morality; it’s just recording the game’s classification of your actions according to a scale the developers explicitly made up and named to that effect.
Most importantly, you are free to play the game with the mixture of Paragon, Renegade, and neutral actions that suits your own personal moral code. There’s not even a penalty for the mixture of Paragon and Renegade; they do not cancel out, and the benefits are not primarily at the end of the scales. In fact, the game mechanics only deny perks to you for taking neutral choices. That would have made for a more legitimate complaint.
The “forcing of fixed moral truths upon others is, in many ways, the defining trait of imperialism” only in the rationalizations of imperialists. The leading reason for European colonialism was resources; national prestige, the social utility of having a frontier, and moral and religious imposition on the natives were all nice extras, but they were still distinctly secondary. The greatest influence on people’s actions is the incentive structure.
Coming fresh off the heels of a masterfully written dialogue on the fascist aesthetic, I’m surprised all of the comments so far have focused on the gender politics of ze and hir. That was an exceptionally minor part of this article, indeed, even the gender politics that are supposedly appeased by this use of ze and hir are fairly minor. I thought there would be much more parallels to the glory through submission, playing as the perfect agent of a perfect state, ending at a moment of innervated transformation, etc.
I only gave by far the shortest paragraph of 7 to the silly pronouns, so I’m surprised you stopped reading at that point.
Glory through submission is pretty much the opposite of Mass Effect’s positions on both glory and submission. The glorious Spectres are explicitly free of almost all oversight; the Council is pretty close to Bond’s M in terms of their hands-off management style and the similarly nonexistent consequences for defiance. Submission as a theme is most readily apparent in relation to the Reapers’ indoctrination; it most definitely does not come with a side of glory.
Shepard is a human special forces operative and eventually a Spectre for the council. Aside from the split loyalties issue that presents, neither is a perfect state in any sense. Neither seems eager to claim such a title, either. The humans have clear internal dissent. The Council is composed of 3 distinct species with distinct interests, and they are open in their disregard for the means to their ends.
the morality system in mass effect is appropriated from an older title, Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR), which was based on the Star Wars IP. Morality in kotor is “light side”, ideals of the jedi, restraint, negotiation, and respect for life, versus “dark side”, sith, lust for power, violence, and machiavellian personal manuevering. This fits well with KOTORs overall plot and the journey of the hero.
With mass effect, “light side” became paragon, and “dark side” was renamed to renegade. That’s why it is renegade when you open fire in the middle of a negotiation, and why it is paragon when you save individual lives at cost to your greater mission of saving the galaxy.
It follows this general jedi vs. sith morality laid out by lucas in the original movie.
The studio behind KOTOR and mass effect had a falling out with lucasfilms about the star wars IP which is why mass effect is in many ways a continuation of KOTOR using a brand-new, bioware owned IP.
Alright! There are a bunch of cool arguments here, so I’ll try and respond as best I can!
First off, the pronouns I used were just the gender-neutral pronouns I was taught to use. I never really liked ‘s/he’ very much.
Second, I should really clarify my purpose in writing this. I’m not trying to judge, condemn, complain, or make any particularly strong value statements about Mass Effect, Bioware, or anyone else. My main purpose was to explore how morality is used in the game and some related implications. I think these things are rarely taken into consideration with video games, and in an era where games are increasingly plot-driven there are more and more interesting ways to analyze said plots. That said, I freely concede that the last paragraph comes across as a little harsh and judgmental, so I could see why you would think otherwise.
Yes, the sign-posting of premises, conclusions, and other parts of my argument isn’t up to the analytic philosophical standard I was trained in. They are there, but they’re almost always implied rather than directly stated.
Like I said, I’m not trying to say that this imposition is anyone’s ‘fault’, or even a bad thing. It is a necessary component of plot-driven video games, RPGs especially, precisely because the player does assume the role of the protagonist. Now, while it’s true that Shepard’s perspective is the one adopted, part of my point is that it is the only one you can adopt as the player, and the only one players can be exposed to. Certainly other perspectives exist in the game’s world, but in assuming the role of Shepard the player is unable to interact with them in any robust way, despite their potential validity. To fixate solely on one perspective in this way is to impose truth in the way I am arguing the game does. Again, almost all video games with any sort of plot do this, and I’m just trying to point out that this is a consequence of the way the game implements railroading.
Hmm. My style of playing Super Mario Bros. involves a lot of mad sprinting, so I guess I forgot about the time limit. All games have rails of some kind. Also, Shepard is only saving lives by dancing/drinking/whatever if this is done instead of other side quests; it is perfectly possible to do all these things.
Anyway, yes there are different endings, but you still have to make a choice about who leads galactic civilization. You can’t make Shepard disavow interest, refuse to make a decision, etc. Regardless of the exact decision made, the imperative is placed on the player’s shoulders. The game dictates that not caring is not an option; you MUST decide because Shepard has this interest, regardless of whether or not the player does.
Yes, the beacon is an accurate historical record. However, there is little evidence that this is the case. To most of the games agents, including the Council, it is a historical object of great interest, but it is not clear what it’s purpose is. Even though Shepard correctly identifies its purpose, that does not mean it is above skeptical inquiry from the perspective of other characters. What does the data from the beacon mean? On its face, it could mean any number of things. That it is a true account of events is something the game fills in for us as players. Without being told explicitly, its nature would be much more ambiguous.
My point about the Paragon/Renegade system is that it is ultimately arbitrary. However, it still rigidly quantifies the moral character of Shepard’s decisions in game terms, even if that quantification is not grounded in any real, substantive moral system. It is only grounded by the game’s rules.
When I speak of the “defining characteristic of imperialism”, I am not talking about its causes, but rather its social and geo-political consequences and features. Colonialism was certainly driven by material incentives. But its legacy today can be seen in the imposing decisions colonial powers made. For example, look at the national borders in Africa, South America, and the Middle East that don’t make a lick of sense. These borders were largely set by colonial powers, and as a result of their ignorance of local cultures and societies they simply divided up these areas as they saw fit, and this imposition has had profound and bloody consequences for these regions.
Thanks for the arguments!
So what’s the closest a game has come to free moral choice? It seems like it would be possible these days to have two or three dramatically different plot course and moral choices possible, not just the “Good guy, bad guy, neutral guy” weapons and endings of Bioshock and such.
It’s seems possible but maybe it really is a technological Gordian knot to have so many plot options be coherent?
Or is it just a marketing thing, technologically possible but why design basically 4 or more whole game plots when everyone is happy with one and minor variations?
Not sure, but an interesting point of comparison is Fallout, where the in-game morality is more directly tied to basic interactions with the world (such as stealing or not stealing) and there are often alternatives to violence. However, the ‘judgment’ the game gives for these actions remains fixed. This is likely to remain a necessary component of game morality systems, unless actual morality is successfully reduced to a programmable logic. Don’t hold your breath on that one.
There are some games that have done a good job of branching stories-Contra: Hard Corps for Genesis comes to mind, as an example.
To be perfectly honest I’m not sure I understand why a game needs a morality system at all – provide moral choices by all means, but why does it need to be tallied up in-game? Surely you should just let the player be the judge of their actions…
There are a number of reasons why video games track morality, which boil down to making sure that actions have consequences.
In various Star Wars games (e.g., Jedi Knight, Knights of the Old Republic) morality would influence whether your character ultimately aligns with the Light Side or Dark Side of the Force. It’s a very dichotomous, forced choice, but thematically appropriate to the setting.
The Fallout games have a karma system which functions more as a reputation system, tracking your standing with various factions, towns, and the overall world. It is a much more open-ended system, as befits the open-world nature of the games.
Star Wars games usually have a Light Side or Dark Side ending, as determined by your actions. Endings in Fallout are usually more complicated, with various outcomes arising for different factions and settlements you’ve interacted with, in innumerable combinations. In both franchises, the player’s actions do have significant consequences, setting them apart from the comparably inconsequential nature of the player’s actions in Mass Effect.
Players are able to be the judge of their own actions regardless of whether the game tracks morality. But these morality systems add a level of immersiveness and interactivity that are central to these games’ appeal.
The Paragon/Renegade thing is nothing new, but since I haven’t played the game I’m not sure exactly how it works in Mass Effect. These things seem to come in 3 main types. The first is as a purely external measure, such as in Oblivion. You gain fame or infamy based on the types of actions you make, and NPC’s react to you differently depending on your relative scores. The creators could justify this one fairly easily, because the game people are making moral judgements about someone just as IRL, albeit with a very simplistic set of criteria.
The second type is what you’ll find in KotOR. The creators take a well-established system of morality and the consequences of certain decisions, and apply it as numbers to the game. Thus, the decisions the player makes tip them towards the light and dark sides of the Force in a way that pretty much universally happens in SW canon. It does affect the player internally, by making some abilities easier or harder and granting skill options, but for the most part it’s governed by the player’s relationship to an external power which operates under it’s own prescribed rules.
The third type is when it ‘just is’. You make decisions for good or evil, and for some unexplained reason you get points one way or the other. It will somehow affect the player in their abilities or options, so it can’t be a purely external judgement call. This one is the only one I would really take exception to, and then only because it’s been insufficiently thought through. (Also when it’s contradictory or makes no sense. But that’s always there). For the rest, the game creator’s define the game’s world, and part of that is the prevailing moral standards.
Oh, and incidentally, I won’t go into this because I’ve frankly forgotten most of the evidence I could use to support the argument, but it is incredibly simplistic to say imperialism and colonialism = bad, just based on the aftermath. Consider that in a hell of a lot of cases (nearly all? maybe), the problems arose directly from the withdrawal of the colonial reins of power, often to a populace horribly unprepared for self-government and dieing for a chance to flex their new independant muscles. India/Pakistan is the perfect example of this.
Mass Effect’s system is closest to the first type. Paragon/renegade is basically a measure of your reputation, which is why getting high points in one or the other opens up new conversation options. For example, if you have a renegade option to threaten someone for information, they will give it up right away because they’ve heard of you and know that you’ll follow through with your threat. Or, if you have a paragon option to convince someone to walk away from a fight peacefully, they will trust you because your compassion and diplomacy are well-known. It’s not explained explicitly in-game (in the tutorial or anything like that), but it makes sense when you think about it.
I’m aghast that the author and editors choose to let the absurdity of the ze / hir in the final product before it went to press. Each pronoun was only used once and it would have been incredibly simple to rewrite both sentences to avoid the use of these pronouns. Heck, it is simple to write long article without resorting to use of any gender specific pronoun when referring to a person of unknown gender or using the third person plural in the third person singular’s place. Even crap like s/he would have been better because at least that usage can be understood intuitively by the reader. Ze and hir are just gobbledegook.
The editor’s note about ze and hir gives the reader the impression that the author and editors want the article to be inclusive to the possibility of Shepard being of either gender but are too lazy to actually write a sentence that doesn’t make use of a gender specific pronouns. What’s more, note is placed, inscrutably, two paragraphs instead at the start of the article where it should be, and it makes the reader wonder whether or not the hir is intended as a stand-in for the objective, the possessive, or both. As such, the note interrupts the article and thereby causes people to post absurd exegeses such as the one you are presently reading.
I’m aghast how much ire this has aroused, I’m saying this 100% sincerely from the most honest chamber within my most tender heart of hearts, I think this is the best possible use there has and will ever be in the current and future history of human language of “Ze/Hir” and the next person to deny it’s usage here unsurpassed and unsurpassable I will find IRL go to your home in the darkest of night with torch and pitchfork to debate politely with you there over pitchfork roasted marshmallows and if you still deny it I will stab you in the face.
When I first read the article, honestly I thought he made up the pronouns and thought it was a brilliant joke on the sci-fi trope of consonant heavy fictional nouns, that “Ze/Hir” is real doesn’t negate it’s brilliant usage in this article about the portrayal of imperialism in a sci-fi video game where you play an intergalactic soldier of intermediate gender. Unsurpassed and unsurpassable!
One of the interesting things about the game’s moral system is that motivations don’t enter into it: actions are either good, or bad (or neutral), regardless of why they are taken. A=A, Good=Good, Paragon=Paragon, and so on. This is a feature of many real-world systems of ethics (utilitarianism, for instance), but then again there are a lot of ethical systems where it’s not a feature. A Christian version of the game would have Shepard gaining Renegade points in the fastness of hir heart for just wanting to slap that smug grin off of the Councilor’s face. But video game morality can never take intentions into account, because the player’s intentions are essentially a black box as far as the game engine is concerned. Was the player trying to be “good”? Or was ze only trying to do whatever it took to unlock the next tier of Paragon rewards? Or did hir finger merely slip on the controller? The game engine can’t know. So the reward system can’t care.
I’m afraid I do not think this article has much merit. As with every discussion that involves Mass Effect, I must put my cards on the table and state that Shepard is a hugely important character to me. Rachel Shepard, the hero that I have led through several playthroughs of both games has had a striking effect on how I believe game characters should be used and stories can be told. Those are discussions for another time, however.
With regard to this article: There is no suggestion in the game that the council are acting immorally. Shepard is certainly exasperated by them but the council are clearly justified by their own discussions and by talk from other NPCs. However, Shepard is not exasperated simply because they have ignored her vision (rightly). Her evidence of their mistake is not simply because of the vision but also because of a huge wealth of circumstantial evidence such as: eyewitness reports of Saren killing another Spectre in cold blood, seeing Saren’s ship leading the assault on Eden Prime, talking to Sovereign and finding its plans, talking to Garrus and Anderson about Saren’s earlier terrible acts as well as several other events. To claim that the vision is the only pertinent issue here is to ignore a huge amount of contextual information. Even at the first instance, the vision is not the only important issue. Shepard herself does not even accept the vision until later in the game after discussions with Liara and further contact with Prothean information. There is more than enough evidence there for Shepard to be justified in her opinion. However enough of this evidence is only apparent to Shepard (due to various discussions without witnesses, etc.) that the Council are also justified in their opinion.
To suggest that the Renegade actions (mostly xenophobic, often very violent as you say) are reminiscent of Batman is a terrible misreading of Batman. Even at his darkest he has always kept to one rule. That he does not kill. The comparison of Paragon and Renegade with Superman and Batman is neither pertinent nor helpful.
Your comparison with Mario is even less relevant. You suggest that in Mario you have a set number of lives beyond which the game will end. That was certainly true of the original games but save points have been around since at least the N64 era. Nowadays in Mario you can die several times before having to reload. In Mass Effect you must reload after one death. Yet you suggest that Mario is the game in which death is a more permanent event and in which death represents “absolute failure”? If you are drawing a comparison to early Mario games then the question is not one of the intent of the Mass Effect designers but instead one of modern game design (and I use “Modern” loosely as the save/reload style of design has been common for around a third of video games short history).
Only at the end of the article do you come to a point that approaches something of interest. You suggest that whether Shepard is a Paragon or a Renegade she is still on the side of good in this fight. That’s true and it’s certainly something that was designed to be so. Shepard is incapable of allowing the Reapers to win. To suggest this is a moral argument particular to Mass Effect (or even particular to video games) seems facetious, however. Shepard is a hero. Her job is to save the universe. The player’s choice is how that happens. Shepard is archetypal of a video game character that exists at least partially outside of the choices of the player. Other less well formed characters such as Gordon Freeman provide the counterpoint to this. Freeman is the player and everything Freeman does and is is a response to the player. Shepard is not that sort of character. Why isn’t she? Because this is the story of an action film. Arnie never loses when he is on the side opposed to destruction. Stallone never loses. Statham never loses. Shepard never loses. To suggest that the fact that Shepard cannot let the Reapers arrive and destroy all intelligent life is to entirely miss the point of Shepard and in doing so to not even gain any interesting discussion.
You have stated in the comments that “You can’t make Shepard disavow interest, refuse to make a decision, etc.” – Again this is categorically wrong. Shepard can say very specifically that the choice of who becomes humanity’s member of the council is “something for the politicians to decide.[paraphrasing]”
If there is an argument to be made regarding the forcing of moral choices in Mass Effect then I think the only viable point of discussion is that of the Arrival DLC to Mass Effect 2 and I think it’s fairly obvious that the reason why no choice is available there is due to time and budget constraints regarding that DLC and the opening of Mass Effect 3.
There are excellent discussions to be had regarding Mass Effect. I do not think this article is an example of one of those discussions, unfortunately.