Who is Renegade Shepard — and How Heroic Is She?

Mass Effect is my favorite video game series, and what I love most about it are the in-game choices you’re able to make as Commander Shepard.

Mass Effect stats: roughly 2/3 of players go the Paragon route.
Mass Effect stats: roughly 2/3 of players go the Paragon route.

You can be a diplomatic Paragon or a sharp-tongued Renegade – and both are badass. You can romance your NPC of choice (or not), help friends in their personal missions or ignore them, spare enemies or shoot them. (Hell, there are at least two occasions when you can shoot your own squad mates!) And let’s not even get into the more major choices about the Rachni queen, Krogan genophage, and geth, because… you know, spoilers.

This is why it’s always fun to meet other Mass Effect fans and compare notes on how each of us chose to play the game. Every Commander Shepard is unique.

But what’s interesting to me is that most players choose the Paragon path for their Shepards, especially on first playthroughs. When I tell people that my canon Shepard was a Renegade, I sometimes get responses like, “Oh, I have trouble playing mean characters,” or, “I only like to play the good side.” (Of course, there are some people who love playing like I do. I got into this conversation a bit with Tobe Cooper in the comments on my post about playing the hero in video games.)

Now, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to play the nice guy (or girl) in a video game, but there’s no light side/dark side in Mass Effect. And “not nice” is not exactly how I think of Renegade Shepard.

This is how I see the Paragon-Renegade personalities:

PARAGONParagon: Diplomatic. Sympathetic. Concerned with saving lives as much as winning. Ready to sacrifice for the greater good, but would rather no one come to harm. Able to forgive.

renegadeRenegade: Ruthless. Isn’t afraid to piss people off. Believes in victory at any cost, and the end justifies the means. Always ready to pull the trigger when no one else will. Shows no mercy.

I understand that as a Renegade, Shepard can seem like a bully. She makes the tough calls when other people can’t. But even if she makes all of the renegade choices throughout the Mass Effect series — and that can mean basically annihilating entire alien races — she still ends up the hero of the Citadel and savior of the galaxy. Sure, she’s not the most merciful person in the galaxy. But she gets the job done, saving a lot of lives in the process.

Now, I have to confess that my canon Renegade Shepard still made quite a few Paragon decisions. That’s what role-playing is about; if I only choose red dialogue options to make my character a Renegade, I’m not really thinking through decisions as my Shepard would. Veering from the main Paragon or Renegade path when it suits your character is part of the RPG experience in Mass Effect.

So while many conversations had my Shepard threatening people to get what she wanted — and yeah, she totally played bad cop to Thane’s good cop — I never imagined she would act on all of those threats. Sure, there were moments when my Shepard let enemies die instead of sparing their lives; for instance, she let Garrus shoot the man who had betrayed his team instead of convincing Garrus to let him go. For my Shepard, that was well-deserved justice, not anything evil. She chose Renegade interrupts to get people to do the right thing — even if it meant scaring them into action. I liked to imagine my Shepard as more “cruel to be kind” than just plain cruel.

That also meant that when it came to the big decisions, such as whether or not to spare an alien race, my Shepard was open-minded. She was a spacer who was used to diplomacy and trying to find common ground with alien races. And even on Feros in Mass Effect 1, Shepard tried her best to save as many colonists as possible. She might have had an uncompromising demeanor, but she was far from heartless. Maybe that means my Shepard wasn’t a true Renegade – just 70% Renegade like my Paragon-Renegade bars tended to show.

A “watch your mouth” Renegade — not a “kill them all” type.

But what’s interesting is that the way I played my Shepard – as the hard-ass with a heart of gold – made her just as much a bully as any other Renegade. The only difference? She didn’t favor humans over aliens. Most of the big decisions that inspired Paragon responses in my Shepard (and, let’s face it, in me) had something to do with saving alien races, compromising with them, and trying to keep an open mind. So does that mean that playing a full-on Renegade Shepard means being both ruthless and a little bit racist?

Either way, this makes me wonder whether the difference between a hero and a jerk is a matter of degrees — or maybe the two aren’t mutually exclusive. The fact that both Paragon and Renegade Shepard become the same heroes at the end of the day means that the role-playing choices in Mass Effect are more limited than they seem. It doesn’t make me love the decisions any less… but it’s interesting that so many Shepards can have the same fate. That’s the way Mass Effect is set up: Commander Shepard is always a hero.

So is Renegade Shepard less of a hero than Paragon Shepard? If I had played my Renegade with all of the renegade options — even the ones I consider prejudiced against the game’s alien races — maybe she would have seemed less heroic. But as it stands, I like to think she made all the right calls. Or I did.

— Ashley

15 thoughts on “Who is Renegade Shepard — and How Heroic Is She?”

  1. There’s seriously a Bioware/Mass Effect week going on this entire week, whether it’s on our individual blogs or on Geek Force Network. Coincidence or geek mind meld? :P

    Love this article! I always figured Renegade Shepard was more of an “ends justifies the means” type than full on evil. I mean, how can you have a lead character who saves the galaxy if she hates everyone and everything in it? Shepard would have let the world burn pretty much.

    That’s the beauty of Mass Effect, you can play Shepard from a different angle each and every time. Would I agree to being heartless to get things done if I were in a Renegade Shepard’s position? Probably not, but I can understand why she does it from a character/story perspective. I can’t wait to try Renegade soon! :)

    1. It is like Mass Effect week! =D

      Yeah, I totally agree on your idea of Renegade Shep… and that part of the fun is playing as someone who does things differently than you would! I guess it’s kind of like what you talked about in your post about playing naughty in games.

      Have fun playing Renegade Shep when you do! I’m finishing up Paragon at the moment, which was a blast for a change of pace. But I do miss my Renegade a little… so new playthrough time! =)

  2. The only Mass Effect game that I’ve finished is the second one (which I loved), and I only played through it once. I went Paragon but wasn’t necessarily trying to. Of course on my first play through of a game that has such a system I usually do play the “good” side first, but in most cases I go back and experience the other choices and I don’t know why I haven’t done that for ME2 yet.

    In KOTOR and the InFamous series, I’d always get my first playthrough out of the way as light/hero, and then go through it again and enjoy the game a lot more the other way. I always like to think of the first go around as what I would actually do if put in the situation of the character.

    I like the games where the two sides seem different, or even if there’s no really any choices you play the game however you want and the story still make sense. I love open world games, but GTAIV (besides looking horrible on PS3) sucked me out because the character has no redeeming qualities. You can try to play and play as a good guy, but then the story isn’t going to make sense because the next mission is going to have you kill some guy for no reason that actually concerns your character. At least with RDR I could play as reformed good Marston or outlaw Marston and the story still fit.

    Will have to revisit ME2 one day soon. Should probably finally finish the first one first though.

    Great write up!

    1. That’s true, I love games like KOTOR that have the light and dark sides, and like said, it’s fun when the two sides are different. It’s interesting you said you weren’t really trying to follow the Paragon path in ME2, it’s just what happened. That is what I think we should do more of in these games! In a way, Mass Effect could be better if it didn’t color code the different paths. Like in Dragon Age: Origins, there’s no real way to tell what your dialogue choices are going to mean — you just role-play your character once choice at a time. It feels a little more natural that way.

      As for ME1, I’d say definitely play it if you’re going on to the rest of the series! Also, you’ve gotta meet Wrex and see why he’s so beloved. =)

  3. I’ve never played as a Renegade Shepard. I think I’ll have to try that next time around. I’ve also never been a Biotic, so I think I’ll give that a try too.

    1. The biotics are my favorite, I bet you’ll have fun. My canon Shepard was a Sentinel, and then I went with Adept. Now I’m trying something different and playing as an Engineer, which is awesome… although it feels weird not to have Warp, which was the biotic power I whipped out several times in every fight!

      1. I’ve never played as an Engineer either. I’ve always been a Paragon Soldier. Next time will definitely be the time to mix it up some!

  4. Great post!

    I always went Paragon in my first playthrough. Subconsciously I always attributed the Paragon side of things to be more like myself which is why I went that way. Second playthrough though? Renegade for sure so I could experience the game a different way.

    I like how you laid everything out though in regards to both sides and what they meant to you. That’s a great way to look at it as a more organic way of handling situations rather than committing to one side or the other fully (which is typically what I did…mostly).

    This calls for another playthrough….

    1. That’s true, when I first starting playing games (which was as an adult), I was really kind and polite in them, because it’s how I would handle things in real life. (I’m thinking Dragon Age: Origins.) So I definitely can see the appeal of playing a character close to yourself. But then when I started playing Mass Effect, I went Renegade and found it so much more fun that I always start there in games now, in case I don’t replay them.

      I just started a new playthrough of the series, too. I feel like I’m always in the middle of one playthrough or another with Mass Effect, even if I put it down for a month or two at a time! Have fun when you replay. =)

  5. My first playthrough was about 2:1 Paragon, and I almost didn’t have enough points in either to save a particular character…

    I still find it rather annoying that Bioware chose to reward consistency in the moral choices you make (more options for pure paragons/renegades). I think the choices and story get a lot more interesting when you mix it up and simply try to think through choices from your unique Shepard’s point of view. That way, you end up with a character who’s flawed and uncertain, and ultimately more believable.

    I’ve done 2 full playthroughs, with the 2nd being about 3/4 renegade. Both, however, were Lady Shepards. My first one was female, and Jennifer Hale’s performance is so damn good that the male voice actor comes off pretty flat by comparison. If you want to play through as a guy, I’d suggest doing that one first.

    Awesome article. Thanks for the chance to reflect.

    1. I totally agree about the decisions being a little too red and blue (er, you know). Like you, I enjoy role-playing with a mix of choices to make a well-rounded, realistic character, so I’m usually like 3/4 Renegade, etc. Choosing all Paragon or all Renegade options makes the character a little too one dimensional.

      Oh, I think I know who you’re talking about saving there. Mass Effect 1 seemed to have the toughest Paragon/Renegade structure because you had to choose one or the other to succeed. I think in the next games, you could get away with a more balanced Paragon/Renegade score, if I remember right? Maybe not…

      Anyway, I agree that Jennifer Hale’s voice actor is awesome! I haven’t played all the games as male Shepard yet, but I do find the voice acting to be flat compared to Hale’s performance.

  6. Hah, your Renegade Shepard is really quite a bit different from mine. For example, there wasn’t much life left on Feros after I was done with it. But I never felt like a ruthless maniac. Jennifer Hale’s voice wouldn’t really let that happen. My character had an emotional core, and she never wanted to hurt any of her friends.

    It was kinda problematic because I chose Earthborn background. I didn’t realize that Earth is such a spawning ground for racists. I wanted to be evilish / badass and being a racist jerk didn’t necessarily fit into my concept of the character. After all, Wrex and Garrus are an absolutely ideal team for a renegade playthrough and I liked them a lot. So I often had to deal with what the world expected of me in terms of ‘Earth/renegade=aliens should go away,’ and my strong belief that aliens are awesomesauce. It was an interesting balance to keep, and I probably failed because the all-human council ending I got didn’t sound too open-minded, but I had my fun ;D

    1. Yeah, that’s a great point about Jennifer Hale’s voice acting. And really, the script allowed even a renegade Shepard have her vulnerable moments, especially with the crew of the Normandy. I also played my Shepard as kind to her friends, etc.

      I totally agree that Wrex and Garrus are awesome choices for a renegade Shep in the first game! That’s a really good point about the racism and those renegade characters. It’s a tricky balance, and in a way, I think it would have been much more fun to not have those alignment points — or at least not have them be so influential. The second and third games seemed to try to fix that by letting you have more of a mix of Paragon/Renegade choices and still talk people down, etc., which was nice!

  7. i have no probleme playing renegade with ME 1-2 sometime its harsh but mostly passable . tho in ME 3 i think it went to far ! shepard pass from a hard ass soldier to mass murder and very cold blooded asshole ! i didnt even finish my renegade game in ME3 because it feel just wrong . instead i mostly go paragon and do renegade when it seam appropriate . for exemple i never could pull the trigger on mordin or ash/kaiden , well maybe ash because she just piss me off with her mistrust :)
    but i dont agree that renegade shep still a hero! for me a hero take on him/her to ease the burden of other around them, but renegade shep is selfish , coldblood killer there is nothing heroics about that! yea you still win and save the galaxy and that make you a savior but not a hero! well that only my opignion

    1. Hmm that’s a good point about renegade Shep potentially NOT being a hero — just a savior. So things work out, but it doesn’t mean that his/her actions are entirely justifiable. I guess I still feel like a person who does bad things can be a hero if their one big sweeping action is to do something great that helps others — like saving the galaxy! — but I definitely see what you mean! Different ways of thinking about the term “hero,” I think.

      And yes, I also can’t pull the trigger on Mordin or Ashley/Kaiden. Even when I play renegade, I’m always nice to my Normandy family!

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