The Role of Choice in the Mass Effect Universe

Mass Effect is notorious for its morality system and dialogue options, having made a huge impact on the way RPGs are played since its debut eight years ago. By letting the player choose his/her own path and even create their own story, the game becomes a different experience for whoever picks up the controller. Choices become a vital part of how the player experiences Mass Effect, and change the way the game presents itself, even going as far carrying over the decisions made into the next two titles in the franchise and continuing to affect the game. However, how does having so many choices and personalization options affect the player’s relationship with the game?

The Choices

It is important to understand how Mass Effect works before delving into the effects it has. When booting up the first game in the series, gamers are able to choose the gender, the history (Earth-born, colonists, spacer), the psychological profile (ruthless, sole survivor, war hero), and the class/military specialization (soldier, engineer, infiltrator, sentinel or vanguard) for their character. From the very first moment players step into the Mass Effect universe, they’re given a variety of options. With 108 different combinations, Commander Shepard is very apt to cater to each player’s unique desires for their character. After the creation of your Shepard, players are thrown aboard the Normandy under Captain Anderson and given the run-down about how dialogue options work. Initially, the game only allows for a few, however by raising their Paragon or Renegade stat players can gradually build up to unlock more options.

paragon mass effect The system in Mass Effect, instead of being the more common moral dichotomy between the ‘good’ and ‘bad’, harnesses a more complex system. Games like InFamous are known for their clear line of good and evil with no grey area, while Mass Effect thrives off of said grey area. To use terms gamers are familiar with, The Paragon route would more closely be considered to ‘lawful good’ while the Renegade route is ‘chaotic good’. While players may choose to try to be purely Paragon or just raw Renegade, the game allows you to find a happy balance between both and deviate from each. Thus, there is no ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ working against each other. Lastly, for players who wish to engage in some in-game romance, the first game offered fewer options while the second and third instalmments offer more variety. Shepard’s sexuality becomes more flexible, allowing the same-sex romance scenarios.

mass effect choices
(Mass Effect 1 Screenshot)

The Experience

As Mass Effect lets you have dialogue options, the decisions Commander Shepard must make only become more and more difficult. On more than one occasion, Shepard is given the choice to save one team-mate over the other, drive entire species to extinction or save them, to cure a life-long disease one species created to control the other or let them continue to suffer, and while the right decision isn’t always clear, players learn to live and deal with the consequences. Having this very ability to make the tough calls and decisions within the game furthers the feeling of authenticity, allowing players to think that they are in fact, Commander Shepard. The game trusts players to make the right (or wrong) decisions, basing itself entirely on the calls the players make gives you a real experience. The lines between the reality of it begin to blur as BioWare perfectly captures the aftermath and consequences in the choices players make, forcing the player to live with them throughout the trilogy.

Every gamer who has picked up a copy will have a different story to tell you about how they experience the game, and it makes it all more personal. The gamer’s relationship with the game thickens as you are the one in control of nearly everything. The experience itself is personalized to meet the needs/wants of each and every player. The choices you make reflect your Commander Shepard’s character and gamers find themselves portrayed within this Commander (if you choose to play the game that way). The last installment in the Mass Effect Series bases the eight different endings on decisions made throughout the game. The experience in itself is such an intimate one, as players project themselves onto the character of Commander Shepard. BioWare harnesses raw emotions by taking the time to introduce the different characters the Commander interacts with, giving them each unique personalities and planning for each different Shepard they encounter. The developers make these characters seem as authentic as possible and thus making gamers want to portray their own Shepard as genuine as they feel it to be.

The Control

While some gamers might let all the control Mass Effect gives them to go to their head, others (such as myself) hold the game very close to their heart. In this day and age it becomes less rare to share such an intimate experience with a game, however the Mass Effect Trilogy gives each gamer a different story to tell. The variety of choices and personalization affects the player’s ability to portray themselves as accurately as they wish in the Mass Effect universe should they choose, thus making the experiences felt throughout the game feel as though they happened in the real world to the player.

The personalization and depth presented in the Mass Effect game trilogy is nearly unmatched by any competitors today. To go from playing a game where the experience is catered to each person’s needs/wants for their main character as opposed to a game that plays in a more linear sense is a strange sensation. The role that choice plays in video games as a whole really leaves you guessing as to what is coming next, and despite reading countless reviews or plot summaries on the game, you have the ability to experience it in a different way whereas a linear game tends to become predictable (though, not in all cases) and players may find themselves suffering from frustration or second-hand embarrassment from the things the linear main character may say or do.

Mass Effect 1 Screenshot
(Mass Effect 1 Screenshot)

The personality of whoever picks up the game is reflected back at them on-screen through the choices and decisions made by Commander Shepard. If a certain character gets on your nerves, this game gives you the Renegade option to deal with them, while if you feel pity or care deeply for another character, the Paragon or neutral option is there for you. The developers capture authenticity with each and every character by showcasing each individual throughout missions and through the immersive storyline.

The role of choice in the Mass Effect series allows each player to have a unique story to tell about the game, and undergo different situations that shape their Commander Shepard to fit the exact mold you’re looking for in a game, and be the main character you’ve always wanted. Having choice bridges a gap that so many other games can miss, by allowing players to choose their path instead of having it planned out ahead of time. Mass Effect captures the essence of actually having to be Commander Shepard, to have to make those tough calls. Mind you, Mass Effect isn’t perfect in the system, but it does not have the same linear feeling that other games have — the game takes into account your decisions, your choices, allowing you to fully immersive yourself in it and all while you kick some Reaper butt. What more could you want from a game?

Here’s to hoping Mass Effect 4 won’t let us down either.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Hancock

    Mass Effect is a great video game franchise.

  2. I’ve sincerely loved the Mass Effect universe since I started playing the first game (I was a bit slow, I heard it was an RPG, and I don’t really care for those, so I only started playing it right before ME2 hit). I was completely blown away by the complexity of the ME universe, it is by far one of the richest universes in science fiction ever. Playing Mass Effect is like being immersed in an epic, deep and thought-provoking space opera-book, only you get to practically live the story. AND you can change the story the next time you play through.

  3. TheLegendofPie

    Does this mean I should start playing it?
    I think you’ve convinced me; it’s rare for me to see such an enthusiasm for a choice system in any game. The systems either suck or are not what the player intends to do and thus breaks immersion and the experience.
    But from what you’ve described in Mass Effect’s choice-based play and its complexity, I think I’m gonna grab it next Steam sale.

    • H4zel

      I definitely recommend the trilogy, and as described above, the system works wonders in terms of the immersive experience. You’re experiencing first-hand some kick-ass sci-fi story as the protagonist. I’m jealous I can’t play through it for the first time all over again. If you end up picking it up, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  4. The thing with multiple games with choice-triggered content is that developers have to create a lot of content that players might not even see. Metal Gear solid is another game series that has heaps of hidden content. What put me off in Mass Effect was the blank looking facial expressions.

  5. Thanks, I am a big fan of Mass Effect and big fan of science fiction.

  6. If you want another original and well written game world, I suggest considering Bioshock.

  7. Carrion

    I played through ME1, and was left very underwhelmed. It was a very badly done shooter with sci-fi elements that felt repetitive and derivative. None of the elements in the game felt fresh and new. The concepts were rather boring and bordering on fanfic quality in some cases – I have read stories and books with all those elements, lifted almost verbatim. Most of the interactions with aliens felt forced and shaped to revolve around the player. Thus they were artificial – the beings in the story weren’t real or interesting to me because they behaved as if Shephard was the central character in their lives.

  8. I think my biggest drawback for the series is that it discourages you from choosing a neutral option. Doing so too often means you won’t get enough Paragon or Renegade points to affect major decisions, and you end up in a worse position than if you had taken a side. I know I’m sitting on the fence too much, but being pitted between two extremes with no Witcher-style middle of the road path is my least favourite aspect of revisiting Mass Effect. That and the Mako.

  9. I like the games and I know they are incredibly popular.

  10. I forwarded this article to a friend who knows the Mass Effect series better than I do!

  11. Oren Self

    Things like this make me wish that I had liked the first game enough to play it through.

  12. As a fan of the series and storyline, I approve of this analysis.

  13. It would be interesting to poll player moral choices in this and other games and see the balance between the moralities of all players. I wonder if each players initial play through resembles themselves more since theoretically they would not be attempting to achieve a specific ending the first go round. I like how you described both sides as variations of good. I know I personally lean to the renegade side but am but no means “bad” just a little more harsh in command.

  14. Mass Effect is a rare opportunity for “good” people (gamers) to explore who they really are without being overwhelmed by fantasy evil decisions. “I choose to murder this entire plane with a single knife” scenarios need not apply. While you can still be a somewhat shady hero (Det. Bullock?), you always skate around some form of moral good. If we’re to believe that we are all essentially good people, then there really is no netter way to instill realism into a video game then to handicap our weakness for viscerally evil acts. For me, no better game had ever tested what kind of person I am.

  15. I enjoyed your article very much, especially your discussion on the deviation from a moral dichotomy within Mass Effect. The game is interesting, especially because your companion choices effect whether they even make it through the game. I was a bit upset when I made it through Mass Effect and lost 2 of my companions after my friend told me there was a way to save all of your companions in the ending. The customization and choice element definitely make Mass Effect as special as it is.

  16. good points here!

  17. FantasticMrMac

    Great article. Mass Effect is one of my favorite video game series. I thoroughly enjoyed being Renegade Shepard when it suited me and Paragon. It’s a beautiful system of choice that definitely has a way of shaping the story and your interactions with the other characters in the story.

    Awesome job.

  18. Gilberte

    An interesting read.

  19. I think this is a very good article, and I agree with many of the points made in it. Mass Effect to me is a game that I will cherish for the rest of my life. As far as I’m aware and you do well in saying this, that Mass Effect innovated the rpg genre by not only giving players dialogue options to affect their character and relationships but overall choices to affect the story.

  20. James Patrick Casey

    Hi Hazel – you raised an interesting point about the ‘eight’ endings of Mass Effect 3 but didn’t really elaborate on this. Was wondering what makes you say eight, as opposed to the more conventional three or four?

  21. I have high hopes for Mass Effect 4 because of all the things you mentioned in this piece.

  22. Mark

    I know this was not the focus of your article, but I wonder what the impact will be on future games of this type. It’s been about three years, and so far, I have not seen anything like it other than the normal dichotomy-style system one finds in the good/bad choice games. As opposed to what a few other comments have indicated, I am glad there wasn’t a “neutral” choice. Even if you choose to remain outside of a decision or to not participate, you have still made a choice not to be involved and that decision has consequences. I do not believe that there is any such thing as neutral in real life. All decisions have consequences whether or not you are aware of those consequences at the time. Integrating such a system into the game was the best choice in my opinion.

  23. Mass Effect still maintains a strong presence in my gaming life. I still have high hopes they might eventually do a remastered version of the trilogy for new generation consoles. As for the article, brilliantly written. The impact the choice/morality system had on the game is undoubtedly amazing. It’s something that’s held a strong presence in the RPG genre, more so in the fantasy medium, but as you mentioned, the beauty of the game is the way in which the choices have a drastic impact on the overall narrative of the trilogy. It’s one of the reasons why the ending of the final instalment bugged me; I felt as though if Drew Karpyshyn was still on board, he might have had it changed but I find it ludicrous that people degrade the entire game just because of a weak ending. In a way, it just goes to show how much of an impact Mass Effect had on gamers around the world! The anticipation for Andromeda is definitely strong!

  24. Emily Inman

    I really enjoyed reading your piece, you opened my eyes to the role of choice in the games. I think Mass Effect is my favorite game because of the moral choices you have to make and how these decisions shape the future.

  25. scmblack

    I wholeheartedly agree with you in regards to the way the game allows you to feel your character’s and the galaxy’s fate is under your own agency. However, it is difficult for me to overlook one’s entire games choices of morality coming down to three vague decisions in the conclusion of the game. That alone took the entirety of my game experiences and decisions and cast them away, leaving my sails with no wind. Nevertheless, that does not detract from the points you made, especially that the game allows you to have a unique experience, in game play, from your peers. Good read and great article.

  26. BlueJayy

    I entered the ME universe by going straight into playing ME 3 and not realizing the importance of story and decisions from ME and ME 2. But nonetheless I fell in love with the game and its elements. The options of choice between the conversations, actions, and consequences, make it the ultimate RPG game. I love when games make you question your morality and give you a chance to create your own unique story, and Mass Effect does exactly that. Can’t wait for Andromeda!

  27. Mass Effect is such a brilliantly made game and it’s honestly made me have to think hard about what choices to make because the wrong one could lead to a very unhappy outcome.

  28. I will always love this entire series for how much power they game the player. Chose the personality of a fully fleshed out character and throw that character in a massive universe wide plot.

  29. Bioware has a rich history of creating choice-based role-playing games like Mass Effect, and that really shines through in the game. Years of expertise came together to create the universe of Mass Effect. I believe that a great deal of inspiration was taken from Bioware’s previous work on Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic to formulate the universe for Mass Effect. The experience combined with the obvious amount of passion Bioware had for crafting these alien cultures and the overall world really paid off.

  30. I cannot believe I’ve never played these games. I really need to start. They seem absolutely incredible, and Bioware has a reputation for beautifully written stuff.

  31. The story rich idea of ”choice’s matter” in video games has definitely risen in terms of popularity in the past decade. It’s setting this new sense of moral values and teaching into players by thinking of the consequence to actions, and based on the outcome, everyone has a different experience, like stated. Personally it’s very exciting and brings you that much more into that alternate virtual reality.

  32. The story rich idea of ”choice’s matter” in video games has definitely risen in terms of popularity in the past decade. It’s setting this new sense of moral values and teaching into players by thinking of the consequence to actions, and based on the outcome, everyone has a different experience, like stated. Personally it’s very exciting and brings you that much more into that alternate virtual reality. Awesome article

  33. Excellent analysis. I didn’t play the first, but I did purchase the playable comic for the second and was able to make the “big decisions.” In the second, the Paragon/Renegade scores were based on a matrix serving as a zero-sum game. Thus, players were encouraged to play on a consistent side in order to (SPOILER ALERT!!!!) destroy/preserve the Collector base with an intact team. There is a glitch of which one can take advantage during Samara’s loyalty mission in ME2: after defeating Morinth, if one asks Samara if she is ok (or whatever the dialog option is on the upper left) the conversation will end, but Shepard will have the option to stay in the apartment and look around. Doing this gains Shep +2 Paragon points. Going back to Samara and repeating that same process a few hundred times allows the player to fill the Paragon meter entirely, play everything prior to and everything after the loyalty mission as renegade, and complete the game with both meters full, or nearly so.

    Have you ever played Alpha Protocol? If not, you should do yourself the favor. It uses a similar dialog engine as ME, but there are some differences. The most important of which is that AP puts the player on a timer to make their decisions. I highly recommend it.

    Excellent article, H4zel. Always a pleasure to read good writing on a game I for which I have such passion.

  34. Paul Osgerby

    Bioware did a good job allowing fluidity in the romantic options and their sexual preference in this series. It was a welcomed atmosphere when Liara reveals herself as more pansexual right away in the first game (however, the Asari are represented nearly entirely as that of women, which gets very problematic).

    It’s a damn shame the multitudes of choices never came to any actual fruition in the final installment of the ME trilogy. I sat with my jaw dropped for a good while after that cheap, three-option ending.

  35. Mass effect is one of the greatest RPGs I ever played. From the storyline to the choices you make while you are playing

  36. The thought running through my mind the entirety of your article was that you were giving so much justice and respect to a narrative that ends so distastefully. I see ^ that my friend Paul beat me too it. The ending of the Mass Effect trilogy takes all of your choices, throughout the entirety of three games (imagine them as a soft clay that you can create a masterpiece out of) and essentially throws them into three different molds that take the beauty of all of your unique choices and manufactures them into three separate endings that include the same setting, more or less the same characters, and the same disposition of your protagonist. In fact, it’s arguable to say that the greatest difference in the three conclusions were the different gradients of color each had. I remember it was a very popular thing to mockingly say to one another “Did you chose the blue, green, or red ending?” The context of the choices the player chose were in it of themselves different, but the reality of the result of those choices in what you were rewarded with as a player was wholly and depressingly unsatisfying. I think your article might need to acknowledge that, so that it isn’t overshadowed by it.

  37. H4zel,
    You have done an excellent job at describing the positives of the Mass Effect series, and clearly follow the “Journey is more important than the destination” train of thought in regard to the series. I can see that you have already received comments regarding the unsatisfactory conclusion to the trilogy, so I won’t reiterate them. Instead, I’d like to ask you what you think could have been done to the ending that would appropriately wrap up all the emotional investment and myriad choices that went into the series?

  38. [This comment contains spoilers to the ending of the second game] While the idea of choice is something I truly enjoy out of Mass Effect, I found that gaining the loyalty of your crew by being either 99% paragon or renegade (I.E.: The Miranda and Jack argument) quite annoying. In this instance, we lose the illusion of realism which was brought by this system of karma, if I may say. I would say that overall, the loyalty system was the biggest flaw out of the second game in relation to this good/bad equilibrium, and I’m sure many of us paid the cost of it in the last mission.

  39. Having played Mass Effect with a few different Shepards, I think it’s really interesting dramaturgically, in terms of storytelling: a balance between guiding a player through a predetermined story and, as you say, giving them enough choices to feel as if they are influencing it. You encounter the game very differently depending on the choices you make, even if [SPOILER] they don’t have as much impact on the ending, as some people have noted. It does feel personal.

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