Mass Effect and Performative Identity, pt. 1

August 18, 2012 § Leave a comment

If you’ve ever been curious as to why I’m so fascinated by video games, I recommend Extra Credits. They do some of the best, most accessible game critique I’ve ever come across.

Anyway, I just watched the above video, Extra Credits’ take on storytelling and moral choices in Mass Effect 2, and it made me want to dust off my notes from my planned piece on Mass Effect and performative identity in the Judith Butlerian mode. So I think I shall. Soon. But first, I want to post this response I just wrote to the above video:

Dear ExCr crew,

I just watched your (very old) episode “Enriching Lives,” and felt compelled to write you. I know, I’m late to the party. Anyway, in this episode, you detail the scenario in Mass Effect 2 in which the player is forced to choose between destroying and reprogramming the Geth splinter group. You ended the episode with a statement that the mechanics of the game would have been better served by that decision if both decisions led to earning Renegade points. I thought about it some, and I have to say I disagree with you, but that disagreement is worth discussion (:D).

My argument: Being labeled as a “Paragon” or a “Renegade” for the decision you make in that scenario is perfectly appropriate, and is actually an example of the morality system in Mass Effect succeeding. However, that morality system is undermined by the large number of scenarios in the game in which “Paragon” and “Renegade” more closely equate with a more traditional morality scale of Good vs. Evil. Ultimately, though, the more complex morality system succeeded, by enabling my favorite moment ever in game storytelling.

First, back to the Geth decision. Both choices lead the player, essentially, to genocide by different means (destroying a population bodily vs. the erasure of their culture). But the important thing in marking this decision with a morality marker isn’t to determine whether the choice made by the player is Good or Bad, but rather what type of Good or Bad the choice was. I believe this sort of dilemma is the  reason why Mass Effect used “Paragon” and “Renegade” instead of “Good” and “Evil,” and why Bioware decided to move away from the firm binary system of morality from the Knights of the Old Republic series and instead employed a morality system in which each moral pole could be filled independently of one another. In so doing, I think they were trying to hearken back to their earlier games, based off the Dungeons and Dragons system.

As I’m sure you know, in those versions of D&D, morality was based on two axes: the spectrum between Good and Evil as well as between Lawful and Chaotic. For the sake of argument, let’s say that in Mass Effect, Paragon represents both Lawful and Good, and Renegade represents both Chaotic and Evil. With that assumption in place, let’s go back to Shepard’s choice re: the geth — to brainwash or annihilate.

In your episode, when you discuss why reprogramming the Geth is an act of evil, the examples you used were psychiatric institutions lobotomizing the mentally ill, religious groups forcing “cures” on homosexuals, the Catholic Church torturing heretics in the Inquisition, and the US government interning its citizens of Japanese ancestry. Each of these are acts of evil and ill intent taken by an institution of orthodoxy or law with the intent of assimilating deviant people into their orthodoxy by attempting to remove the presumed source of their deviance: to make a blunt analogy, you could say that the reprogramming choice in ME2 is an attempt to “Kill the Geth, save the man” — and is an act of Lawful Evil.

However, killing the entire lot of those Geth, whether intentionally or by neglect, is equally evil. I’d argue, though, that that type of evil is on the Chaotic Evil spectrum. In movies (and in real life), the terrorists are generally not concerned with converting the hearts and minds of their enemies. They want everyone to die, and explosions are generally, I guess, an effective way to do that.

The fact that Mass Effect has a morality system which can distinguish between these types of evil, I’d say, is evidence that they’re doing something very very right: such interesting philosophical questions would not be possible with a binary morality system of just good vs. evil, or even law vs. chaos. The problem, though, is the huge number of smaller interactions in Mass Effect 1 and 2 (I haven’t played 3 yet) in which “Paragon” and “Renegade” really do boil down to “Good” and “Evil,” or at least “I like to help other people sometimes” vs. “My primary concern in life is to look like a badass.”

To a large part, this is understandable: I’m sure Mass Effect’s lead writer spent a lot of time on A House Divided (the Geth mission), and a team of scenario writers much further down on Bioware’s totem pole wrote all those other interactions.

The payoff is worth it, though. My mostly-Paragon-oriented Shepard was able to make some huge Renegade actions through the course of the game, including that one, which better reflected my own personal ideology — in D&D terms, I’d be the far corner of Chaotic Good. Even better, the game script honored these decisions. While playing the “Lair of the Shadow Broker” DLC for Mass Effect 2, I was chasing down Tela Vasir, the Shadow Broker’s agent, when she took a civilian hostage. Sensing the situation, I didn’t feel like Diplomacy was going to work, so I chose to Intimidate her. “I’m Commander Shepard, and I allowed the Council to die at the Citadel and unleashed the Rachni on Noveria,” said Shepard, referencing my two biggest Renegade decisions from the previous game. “What makes you think I’ll be bothered by a dead hostage?” The bluff, as it turns out, succeeded, and the hostage was saved. And that was my favorite moment yet in video game storytelling.

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