Choose your own adventure(?): Mass Effect and the illusion of choice

Much has been said about the denouement to the Mass Effect series, with a rather vocal segment of players decrying BioWare’s treatment of the franchise. Most fingers are pointed at the third game’s ending, an admittedly dismal affair that confines the entirety of Mass Effect’s history and the player’s own investment in the series into a shoehorned, multicolored box. At the risk of sound like a broken record, I’d posit that the series’ emphasis on choice becomes incompatible with its content during the second game, in which Shepard and company go on a wild goose chase for Collector technology. If Mass Effect 2 indicated a troubling ambivalence towards the events of the first game, it should come as no surprise that Mass Effect 3 demonstrates more of the same.

In the first part of an ongoing series entitled “Choice, multiculturalism, and irrevocability in Mass Effect“, Roger Travis acknowledges the false positive known as interactivity: “From the very beginning of a player’s performance, he or she is trapped between the panoply of available choices for his or her Shepard’s background and the limitation of that panoply…whereas BioShock exposes the illusion of choice, Mass Effect insists, and bases its legibility, upon choice not being an illusion despite (paradox coming) all appearances to the contrary.” I’ve said before that games of this type create dissonance though the (sometimes beneficial) conflict between role-playing and mechanics, though BioWare was apparently able to mask this illusion until the final moments of Mass Effect 3. But while players like Travis could perceive at least the shadow of a panoply of options (rather than the liberating choice), I was not able to get past the impression that Mass Effect adhered to a system more familiar to video games and their treatment of free will–that of Hobson’s choice.

Color-coded outcomes are not new to the Mass Effect series. From the beginning of the franchise players were presented with the angelic blue Paragon and the hellish red of the Renegade, treating the binary as a morality system which guides the player through the not dissimilar motions of Lawful Good and Chaotic Good. Sporadic flashes of evil dotted the otherwise frisson-less mechanics, as the two options were not so much antitheses to each other but two sides of the same coin (to quote Travis: “you can play a huge variety of Shepards, but they’re all named Shepard”). When players speak of the game’s “choices,” they’re not referring to the nuances of a created character but of an established protagonist’s reactions to various situations. There may be a “huge variety of Shepards,” but only two matter in the context of the game’s mechanics: the game’s established dichotomy means that the only long-term difference between a pure Paragon and a neutral character is the amount of blue bars on the side of the screen. That, and the latter receives less options.

In an isolated narrative such as the original Mass Effect, limiting binaries or morality systems do not threaten the foundations of the story so much as prolong the player’s interest in the game. It would seem that many players misinterpret the purpose behind the Paragon/Renegade structure, believing that these options owe their extended memorability to the possibility of later consequence rather than existing to present deviations of various purport within an otherwise similar narrative. It’s true that the first game’s options played out on a much larger scale, with the fate of entire species, planets, and the council gripped within Shepard’s messianic hands. But each incident ended there; the player needn’t expect to be rewarded with a followup narrative because, as a singular experience, Mass Effect did an admirable job in providing a cohesive buildup to the encounter with Saren. Dissonance only occurred–subtly, and without any initial malice–when BioWare imparted unto its fans the idea that the various paths they took over the course of the game would come back not as ghosts but as monuments to the player’s past achievements.

With this idea came the notion that you could change (or, more fittingly, decide on) the ultimate outcome of the second and third games. And you could, in a way: the Paragon/Renegade system in Mass Effect 2 plays a similar role to its counterpart in the first game, though the line between the two becomes ever thinner. But instead of building on the momentum of Mass Effect, the goal of the second game–to infiltrate and destroy or analyze alien technology, to which players can only ask why–is as much a red herring as the player’s treatment of the council in the first game. And when the premise of Mass Effect 3 revealed an almost astonishing ignorance of previous events outside of the Arrival add-on, the illusion of choice was shattered. The player possesses no control of the final game, and, outside of the ability to opt in or out of certain behaviors, never truly did.

The inability for players to transcend coded events isn’t a negative affectation, however; it’s a reality. It doesn’t seem to be a problem for other games, so why the outcry over Mass Effect 3? My quick answer is this: without a vested interest in the evolution of Shepard and their personal role in that process, the player is struck by increasingly diminished stakes as they progress through the series. The Paragon/Renegade system, initially a function reminiscent of other RPG morality systems, became the raison d’être for the game’s narrative and a tool used by BioWare to instill the specter of interactivity. That BioWare could persist in the masquerade was, at first, a stroke of luck. But while they can withhold choice and consequence from their fans, they have little control over those who choose whether or not to buy their games.

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