When playing through the Mass Effect trilogy, is your Shepard male or female; paragon or renegade? How players perceive Commander Shepard shapes the choices they make when playing through the game. Are these perceptions set during character creation and background setup, or are they chosen during gameplay allowing for greater flexibility in the choices we make? What if the player doesn’t care for a balanced approach and goes all renegade or all paragon? Regardless of how Commander Shepard is perceived, Mass Effect ultimately funnels the player through a campaign with a single objective at the end of its story.
Players will often choose the pre-service background and psychological profile that best complement each other, like I did. The Spacer background and War Hero profile compliment each other and can portray Shepard as the gallant and noble Alliance soldier. Players who choose these two options may end up pursuing a more paragon style of gameplay. The Colonist and the Sole Survivor portray Shepard as the individual who will survive at all cost. This seems to be the slightly neutral option of the group as the character can be either helpful or hurtful toward others including the members of his/her crew. Last is the Earthborn and Ruthless option that casts Shepard as the hardened soldier who doesn’t care if someone lives or dies. Players who choose this path may have a tendency or obligation to push toward being a renegade. Once these choices are made, some players may feel forced into choosing an all-paragon or all-renegade path. Personally, I chose the Spacer/War Hero on one play through and the Colonist/Sole Survivor on another. These two options seamed best in allowing me to maintain a paragon attitude. I always felt that if I chose the Earthborn and Ruthless option that I should and would go all renegade. Unfortunately, despite the implied importance of these decisions, very little about Mass Effect’s story or gameplay will change. All the game offers is a brief story element that comes and go in the blink of an eye.
Choice is a part of Mass Effect the player holds in their hands, including the choice of who lives and who dies. Sometimes, saving squad members can depend on the amount of Charisma or Intimidation points the player has added to Shepard’s skills. On Virmire, Shepard is given the chance to save two of three team members. The choices are Ashley Williams, Kaidan Alenko and Urdnot Wrex. Ashley and Kaiden are placed in dire situations, and Shepard only has time to rescue one of them. There are no paragon or renegade options here. Shepard has to pick a life, save him or her and live with the decision. This is one of the toughest decisions in the game because Shepard and the player have to choose who lives and who dies. It turned out to be one of those decisions where I was glad it was a game and based my choice on a possible love interest. I chose Ashley. Wrex faces a similar dilemma and Shepard must decide his fate.
While on Virmire, Wrex finds out that Saren is working on a cure for the genophage. Wrex’s loyalties are challenged as he debates with Shepard over the right course of action. Shepard can save Wrex’s life with enough points in charm or intimidate. Shepard convinces Wrex that Saren is the real enemy here or tells him “don’t be so naive.” Shepard also has the choice to shoot Wrex himself or signal Ashley to do it. If the charm or intimidate options are not high enough and the conversation carries on too long, Ashley shoots Wrex on her own believing there was no choice. When it comes to the concept of choice, Khalisah Al-Jilani makes the player feel as if they too have no choice.
Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3 ditch the Charisma or Intimidation skill point system for paragon and renegade interrupts. Trying to push for an all-paragon or all-renegade play through starts to create interesting dialogue and story options. While the story pushes for a more neutral tone, the interrupts force the player choose a softer or hardened approach to a given situation. Khalisah Al-Jilani is a reporter Shepard runs into on the Citadel in all three Mass Effect games. She is arrogant, rude, and has an agenda to paint Shepard as a pro alien sympathizer. Shepard can choose to answer her questions diplomatically which will anger her. He can choose a pro Earth stance which will make her happy or Shepard can just walk away. Regardless of the stance the player takes, the renegade option of punching Al-Jilani in the face is always open. I always try to choose the paragon approach to certain situation, but with Al-Jilani’s rude interview style and the option to punch her in the face, the punch always seemed right. I chose the renegade option in all three games and wondered if I was making the right choice. In Mass Effect 3, Shepard can use the interrupts to knock her out. Al-Jilani will dodge the first attack and a second interrupt appears for Shepard to dodge her counter attack. I wasn’t expecting that and got knocked my ass. I was embarrassed for Shepard and restarted at the last save point. I came back and knocked her out, but I always wondered what would have happened if I had not chosen the interrupt. I eventually went back and played through that section again and realized something. The interrupts along with the preconceived paragon or renegade mindset force the player to quickly make choices for one side or the other abandoning the neutral choice. If Shepard chooses not to attack Al-Jilani, he leans in and talks to her about the reaper situation sympathizing with her fears. I got so caught up in the moment given their past history that I forgot that the interrupts were optional. The player isn’t forced or obligated to use them, they are there to add flexibility to the character.
What happens if Shepard chose to go all renegade or all paragon? The option to do that is always available but wouldn’t be easy. The player would take away Shepard’s flexibility in decision making pushing him to a more single minded way of doing things. Going all paragon may look and sound good for players like myself but would turn Shepard into a one dimensional character. He would almost be too nice, too safe and too boring. On the other hand, going full renegade would turn Shepard into one of the most ruthless characters in the game. He wouldn’t just be bad but would look the part as well. In Mass Effect 2, Shepard’s cybernetic face implants represent the paragon or renegade choices he makes throughout the game. The more renegade he becomes, the more red the implants turn making Shepard look like an evil cyborg. Choosing this path forces the player to go down a dark road where Shepard can end up killing Mordin Solus to prevent him from curing the genophage, letting Samara take her life on Lesuss and murdering Falere to prevent her from leaving the monastery. Mass Effect is all about choice, and following an all renegade or all paragon path over the other effectively eliminates those choices. Although the options to do one or the other will always be available, the player must pick one side and ignore the other. Mass Effect isn’t just about the choices but the consequences to those choices we’ve made.
The consequences to the decisions we have made in Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 can come back to haunt Shepard in Mass Effect 3. Did you save Wrex? How about Maelon’s cure for the genophage? Did you save the data? If the answer is yes, then Mordin can cure the genophage saving the female Krogan’s life, which in turn gives Wrex an extra voice in not going to war after the reapers are dealt with. Saving Ashley’s life on Virmire was a no brain-er, but I had no idea that Shepard might be forced to kill her in a later game. Not only are the choices endless but so are the consequences. Shepard can save his crew in the suicide mission just to watch them die in the next game. No one can see the future, so trying to predict hat will happen with the choices Shepard makes is impossible. Saving Wrex can prevent a future war with the Krogan and influence the players decision to cure the genophage. Wrex being dead can help influence the player to prevent the genophage cure making it less likely the Krogan will go to war. The player has no idea these choices are coming until they arrive.
How much of our perception of Shepard is affected by the choices we make (or don’t make)? Our perception of Commander Shepard is shaped the moment we play the game for the first time. Setting up the background information gets players thinking about what type of individual Shepard is going to be. Will he/she be noble, indecisive or ruthless? The choices Shepard makes in one game not only have consequences but they can also influence future decisions. The option of going full paragon or renegade is always there but maxing out the slider may be tougher then the player thinks. Choosing to follow the renegade path could lead Shepard down a dark path I personally wouldn’t want to go down. On the other hand, Choosing to only make paragon choices makes Shepard predictable and boring. Following one over the other would take all the fun out of the game. Mass Effect and Commander Shepard need that median where both paragon and renegade choices are made. It’s OK if the player decides to go paragon, but don’t forget to use the renegade options once and a while. It makes the game fun and creates a well-rounded Commander Shepard. If not, you can take all his choices away and turn him into Gordon Freeman.