It’s time for the morality system to evolve or die. In a game like Mass Effect 2 every decision is designed to give the player direct control over the outcome of the story. Unfortunately, the choices are only illusions designed to make the player feel as though they are in control. Let’s face it, games can’t be completely open ended, they have to follow some sort of structure in order for the player to get from point A to point B. Whether the result is two endings or two thousand endings, games will always be limited by the number of options a developer thinks to include.
Take Mass Effect 2: Good or Evil, those are your options. What’s that? You can build your Shepard in a moral gray area between the two? When it comes to inconsequential choices that have no direct impact on the story you are correct, but even then the game usually designates the neutral position as “slightly less good” or “slightly less evil.” When it truly matters, Mass Effect 2 requires that the player make a decision between good and evil, the paragon and the renegade.
What makes it worse is how obvious Mass Effect 2 makes the choices it presents. The paragon prompt is always at top of the conversation hub and the renegade prompt is always at the bottom. It’s possible to play through the entire game without reading Shepard’s responses if you decide from the beginning whether or not you want to be good or evil. By assigning a specific spot on the conversation hub to the paragon/renegade responses, Mass Effect 2 doesn’t require the player to give any thought to their choices. The response choices could be labeled ‘good’ and ‘bad’ for the entire game and nothing would change.
On top of this you have the acquisition of paragon/renegade points that further dilutes the idea of choice. Filling the paragon/renegade bar removes any difficult decision making all together. Taking one squad mate’s position over someone else's when they’re arguing may lead to unfortunate consequences, but don’t worry, as long as you’ve been consistent with your choices up to that point, you should have enough points to make everyone happy via super paragon/renegade dialogue options.
This sort of dialogue harkens back to the charm skill present in Mass Effect 2’s predecessors where a player had to actively choose to allocate points towards speech skills rather than put them into a skill that could aid the player in battle. The problem with Mass Effect 2 is that the ability to charm an NPC is never earned. Mindlessly choose the paragon/renegade choice on the conversation hub and you’re good to go.
Mass Effect 2 is less about what the player thinks is right/wrong and more about what the game tells the player is right/wrong. Take the game’s final decision: the player is presented with two choices, one of which The Illusive Man argues in favor of. Without giving too much away I will say that I felt The Illusive Man made a strong case and agreed to his plan.
It was obvious from the start that I was making the renegade choice because the conversation hub designated it as such, but I didn’t understand why it was the evil choice. To make matters worse, after the credits rolled and I returned to the Normandy, I had to listen to each of my team mates tell me what a terrible decision I’d made. A few squad mates disagreeing with the decision I can handle, but all of them? I got the feeling the game was trying to tell me something…
Contrast this with Dragon Age Origins, another recent Bioware game with a morality system, though you would hardly know to look at it. Unlike Mass Effect 2, Dragon Age doesn’t immediately tell the player what the consequences of a given decision will be, and quite often the player won’t know the cost of their choices until the event has played itself out. Yes, the team mates may comment on the choice, but it’s not a hive mind response where everyone feels exactly the same way. This places the emphasis of morality not on the game, but on the player. Your decisions may have resulted in something terrible, but what matters is how you feel about it.
It would be hard to argue that at least some of the choices you can make as Commander Shepard aren’t downright mean, but there are quite a few that come across as morally ambiguous. The game’s final decision is one example of this, though there are certainly others. Perhaps one solution is to rely less on the paragon/renegade dynamic and allow the options to speak for themselves by placing the two decisions at random points on the conversation hub, rather than predetermined good/bad positions, and let the consequences play out.