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.
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:
Paragon: 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.
Renegade: 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.
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.