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Tubatic avatar 4:06 PM on 08.31.2010  (server time)
Mass Effect 2 and the Triumph of Red/Blue Morality[Spoilers]

Lured into the den of a powerful biotic mind controller, I had made all the right moves to come this far. Answered all the right questions. Talked about music, sculpture and film and avoided talk of family and law enforcement. While in this villian's apartment, I'm running around scanning things and getting casual information. Lest I forget I'm in a game, a key weapon upgrade is found in this pre-amble to seduction. I initiate the final part of this masterplan, passing all the good/evil checkpoints... except for the last. For all the bravado and tough talk Rai Shepard had blown across the galaxy, she plainly was not committed enough to renegade dogma to be considered immune to mind control. Sorry kid, not enough points, thanks for playing. As a result, the option to recruit the Ardakh Yakshi Morinth is simply not an option.

The Mass Effect method of moral choice and determination is fairly straightforward in design. "Good" and selfless choice is highlighted in blue, or on the top of the dialog wheel. "Evil", selfish, or outright meanspirited choices are highlighted in Red or along the bottom of the dialog wheel. As common criticism goes, a player can choose a color, stick with it, and have what many can consider the best possible outcome for most of the game. Cowboy wears white. Badguy wears black. Depth of character becomes irrelevant and all conflict resolves based on the blue/red will of the protagonist. Is this not a broken system? If a player wants to win, why wouldn't they pick the path of least resistance?

In this, perhaps a "fair enough" is in order. Pick the obvious answer, win the game, collect all possibly points. No fault to be given to smart play: games are by definition for winning or losing. But consider, then, play that isn't about winning, but more about experiencing the play space. Is this system still broken?

In this way, not really. Consider, then, a person that plays both sides of the coin as the situation suits their agenda. You know, normal folk. I can't say that the real people I know, given the great power of being the greatest starship Commander in the universe, wouldn't necessarily run their lives on the full blue or red path. That goes for for even the most righteous people I know. What happens in that purple area shows the complexity and depth of a real person's life.

Playing Mass Effect for role than for points offers the promise of shaping a world to your command. Whether those commands are duty born, or emotional, that path you're allowed to cut can reasonably be in the middle of the spectrum, to interesting depths. My renegade Shepard ran mostly red, save for the chance to save innocents. Within the way I played her, sacrificing soldiers was fair game. But in the majority of situations with supposed innocent lives at stake, she was immediately a blue-scout.

Does the result of my play really reflect that? Not really, right? All I have in my save file by the end of it all is a tally of good/evil decision making, and a listing of those decisions as matter of fact. The tell-tale mark of gaming morality, the Good/Bad ending, isn't the pay off in a role played run. The effect is more analog than digital. The moment to moment experience is heightened, because of the role, in spite of the tally. Compare it to Dr. Who, a series about a very powerful character. The Doctor, though he runs with an almost signature benevolence and desire to help, there are specific situations (usually involving timelines and Daleks) where he appears as a strikingly cruel character. Finding the limits of the character, outside of good vs evil, is the value.

But what then of that first situation? Is this really a triumph, being limited by a failure to tally? Yes. In that limitation, in that inability to do something so off the wall as to be greatly out of character, the system both acknowledges that the decisions one makes shapes a character while defining, in the role playing context, what the full blue or full red path means. If you played the game truthfully to a character of renegade or paragon sensibility, there's a point (by point tally, sure) that this heavily leaning decision making indicates a will align strongly to either cosmic altruism or self centered cruelty. At this point, the game rewards that role player with the fruits of a pretty serious stat check. Failure to score this strong willed decision respects the limits of the middle roader, and rewards with a rare display of character weakness in the acted Shepard. For a role played run, that's actually amazing.

But what do you think DToid? Is Bioware commendable for the purple path, or is this just a player construct against a still broken morality paradigm?

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