Illusive choice: Mass Effect takes the “role play” out of RPG

By Brenna Hillier
13 March 2012 06:52 GMT

Everything’s an RPG nowadays, but what’s happened to all the role playing? Brenna grabs her elf ears and giant foam sword and looks for some characterisation in Mass Effect.

Whatever the Mass Effect games are – stat-driven, customisable, tactical, narrative heavy, completely awesome – they’re not RPGs in the one sense which I personally really miss from the days before everything started packing in “RPG elements” and turning it all into an industry of addiction-driven progression.

Here’s a spoiler-free experience a friend and I shared in Mass Effect 3. In a conversation after a crew member takes drastic action to fulfil Shepard’s orders, the Commander issues a rebuke, describing it as “reckless”. I play Paragon, and my friend plays Renegade, but we both experienced this moment, and neither of us agreed with Shepard’s response. “Squad mate, that was awesome, and very quick thinking!” is what my Shepard should have said. “You must have a quad.” (this is my favourite Mass Effect phrase).

This is just one of hundreds of examples of how Mass Effect 3, and the series as a whole, does not allow for role playing. What the player thinks of a situation is completely irrelevant to what the character they are nominally in charge of says and does. Whatever the Mass Effect games are – stat-driven, customisable, tactical, narrative heavy, completely awesome – they’re not RPGs in the one sense which I personally really miss from the days before everything started packing in “RPG elements” and turning it all into an industry of addiction-driven progression.

I want to make it clear that by role playing, I don’t mean just “making choices”. While the bones of the story of Shepard’s three-game fight against the Reapers plays out almost identically no matter what you do, who you do it with varies wildly depending on your decisions. Strong writing and characterisation thereby lends a unique atmosphere to each and every continuing player’s experience, something akin to (and much missed since) the classic, party-based PC RPGs of old, and we’ve praised it elsewhere.

But in terms of who Commander Shepard is I’d argue that Mass Effect offers fewer choices than tits on a hanar (this is my second favourite Mass Effect phrase).

As manifest in-game, BioWare is constantly railroading players into an established character which exists without the player’s input. I concede that there is one character choice only BioWare should make – Commander Shepard is an excellent soldier. Mass Effect has never pretended to offer anything other than the chance to role play a military hero. Shepard is not an empty slate like many action protagonists; the Commander has established habits, preferences and mannerisms attendent to his or her long and distinguished career.

But within the limits of this characterisation, there should still be plenty of scope for player choice in forming the hero with whom they may spend hundreds of hours, and Mass Effect just doesn’t deliver that. Although the player seemingly makes decisions dependent on what approach they feel suits “their” Shepard best, the game mechanics expose the illusion of choice which glosses over a linear experience. The “morality” system is stricter than a dominatrix, thanks to the Persuade skill – perhaps “binary personality” is a better description.

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You can choose to play FemShep though.

On those occasions when the player has a chance to use Persuade in the first Mass Effect game, it required significant investments of precious skill points into the Charm and Intimidation trees, and in the sequel, the player has to have enough reputation points racked up to make the option viable. In either case, the player has to have made a firm commitment to one branch or another. There’s no possibility, in a single playthrough, to walk the middle ground, or makes choices on an individual basis; if you want the significant bonuses and story results that come about through Persuade dialogues, you have to pick one side or the other.

That means those Mass Effect players who are most committed, who most want to explore everything the game offers, are locked into PepShep or PerpShep for the entire course of the game, precluding any possibility of personal choice – that is, role play. You’re going to be one or another of two pre-determined Shepards regardless of what you or your imagined character thinks and feels. (It’s similar to Dragon Age II’s companion relationship system; in order to get the best out of your squadmates, you had to abandon all pretence at caring what dialogue options you picked and plump for the one the NPC likes best. That this system works at all is testament to BioWare’s writing and characterisation, but it’s not role playing.)

Complicating this further, it’s rarely made clear to the Mass Effect player when a pair of choices have been split along the Paragon and Renegade divide, and when, in a very small number of instances, they’re simply being offered a genuine yes or no question which is entirely up to them. “Paragon” Shepard, according to the game’s advertised mechanics, always says yes to a romantic or sexual situation, even when it means hurting an existing relationship; “Renegade” Shepard is a loner who shoots everyone down. You need to consult external guides to find out which choices are “safe” to make on your own without interfering with your chances at further story options down the line – and I’m not even going to touch on the questionable practice of essentially labelling two sides of complicated moral dilemmas “good” or “bad”.

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Mass Effect 3 deserves a lot of praise –
just maybe not all the praise.

Mass Effect 3 thankfully replaces this with a reputation system which allows players access to alternate dialogue options based on their combined alignment scores plus a bonus for all completed actions completed to far. But even beyond this basic, mechanical issue, the vast majority of Mass Effect’s dialogue is scripted so tightly that even when making a choice, players can’t necessarily be sure Shepard will react as they want him or her too – as in my rebuking example above.

Now that Mass Effect has gone mass market, BioWare has little cause to pander to a core group of role playing gamers who want some say in who their avatar is, to weigh the implications of interesting ethical choices, and to see their own personal experience play out through these means. It is extremely likely that the vast majority of Mass Effect players don’t give a shit about not being able to shape Shepard as they want; they like him or her just fine. And I’m okay with that.

It’s just that role playing is not something we see in games much any more; action set pieces are the way to go, with role play servers in MMORPGs seen as a bit twee, aking to LARPing or dressing up for D&D sessions. But even assuming there’s something wrong with all that, you don’t have to call yourself Galiederial the Mighty to want to have some say in who your character is. I love Mass Effect 3, and indeed the whole serie; I enjoy the action and I think they’re some of the most engaging story-driven games in a long time. But every time someone heralds Mass Effect as “the future of RPGs”, I’m going to shed a single tear for the death of role playing.


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