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Getting dumped: What Mass Effect 2 gets right about role-playing

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Man, Jacob just rejected me.

I don't even know what I said. OK, maybe it wasn't the brightest idea to chat a guy up after he's just encouraged his father to kill himself. And maybe I shouldn't have implied he was using his inner turmoil to mask his feelings for his totally hot commanding officer. But that's no reason to refuse to flirt with me from now on! Grow up, soldier!

This sucks. But I'll be fine. Who needs Jacob, right? I'm Commander Shepard, biggest badass in the galaxy. Find me something to shoot and I'll feel better.

At least I hope so.

I think this is how my Shepard would have reacted to the events I just witnessed in my game of Mass Effect 2. And it's the exact opposite of how I personally would have handled the situation.

Given the choice in a role-playing game between "good" and "bad" playthroughs, I'll almost always choose the former, at least at first. This time I specifically set out to create a character as unlike myself as possible (including making her female, if the photo and the Jacob thing wasn't a tip-off). And it's been a lot harder to stick to it than I expected — which turns out to be a good thing.

 

Morality systems in RPGs can be pretty hit-and-miss. Too often they boil down to binary choices between extremes — you're either Superman or Satan, without much room in between. As Bitmob community writer Matthew Polen recently wrote, moral ambiguity is sorely lacking in today's games.

I do think Mass Effect 2 goes further than most in framing those choices in a way that makes sense. The morality binary it presents players with is less about "good" or "bad," because no matter the means your Shepard uses, he/she is a bona fide hero. Some Shepards are just more heroic than others.

Shepard

Knowing this, I created the character of my Shepard to be a straight-up Renegade — someone who doesn't take any crap and gets the job done no matter what. I would speak my mind no matter the consequences, or I would use my gun to do the talking. It sounded like fun.

But as I progressed through the game, I kept unconsciously choosing Paragon options. I couldn't help it. I would think, "There's nobody to impress here. I don't have to be a jerk to my crew members. My Shepard wouldn't do that. She'd be hardcore on the outside but kind when she needs to be."

Before I knew it, I had a whole section of Paragon filled in on my morality meter. True, I had three full sections of Renegade…but I was still surprised. And it revealed something to me that I hadn't expected — that I had formed a sort of partnership with the game to create a more well-rounded character, one far more interesting than the Paragon/Renegade stereotype.

See, I think the constant weight of being the galaxy's biggest badass would exhaust my Shepard. I think she'd have moments when she would need to let her guard down, times when she would want more of a check on her femininity, even. She'd be kind to the people on her team. She'd be a good leader. And because of that stress and responsibility, she'd probably be horrible at relationships.

FemShep

That last part is significant, I think. Too often in RPGs, even in past BioWare games, romance has felt tacked-on, something developers put in because they know fans expect it. It rarely feels like something that would happen naturally through the course of the game. It's just another goal to achieve, another achievement to unlock.

In my Mass Effect 2 playthrough, it's been just the opposite. I kept bugging Jacob about it, trying to be flirtatious, until he finally shot me down. When he did, it made perfect sense for my character. (He's all wrong for her, anyway.) And when I finished the Shadow Broker mission and invited Liara up to my cabin, I could feel this strained connection between them, a sort of intimacy and warmth both felt but couldn't act upon. That's how my Shepard would have behaved.

I've never been the kind of guy to worry too much about playing a role, but I'm really surprised at how much I care in Mass Effect 2. Playing both sides of the morality meter, while it might deny me some dialogue options, makes for a far more rewarding experience for me. I'm glad this game has put the RP back in RPG.


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