This week, Patrick Lee returned to what has always been one of the hottest topics throughout Gameological’s history: the problems with decision-making in BioWare games. First, in a For Our Consideration op-ed, he argued that the lack of consequences for Paragon decisions throughout Mass Effect robs the series’ setting of the anarchic violence it wants to convince us is so prevalent. This discussion started off great and never backed down. The Wilford Brimley Explosion kicked things off (with a prescient comment that sums up Patrick’s later What Are You Playing This Weekend? prompt):
This is one of the reasons I really love the Dragon Age series. With a few exceptions, basically all of the choices are morally ambiguous. In Inquisition especially, I feel really challenged with the choices I make. Just last night I was catching up on a whole bunch of “sitting in judgment” quests, and I really struggled with what sentence made the most sense to dole out on my prisoners. There are definitely a few times I’m not so sure what I did was right, but I made the choice I made and had to live with it.
And Close-watcher pointed out that these choices are ultimately limited by the scope of the game and its pre-programmed interpretations:
The problem with ambiguous choices, though, is that the game is still programmed. You have your own interpretation and reasons for choosing one option, but the game has another interpretation or another reason for offering that choice. And that can be really frustrating to me.
Last night, I sat in judgment on a certain Venatori and initially called for imprisonment. I figured that killing him served no point when we had little info about his ally, but putting him on a leash to train mages seemed incredibly dangerous. (And if you have the right perk, I guess you can tell him to research magic that almost tore apart reality, which—really?) But a bunch of characters disapproved of my choice, which I take as an indication that, from the game’s POV, I made the wrong one. Sentencing him to Redcliffe, on the other hand, gave me a bunch of approvals.
So I went with the option that gave me “likes.” Even though it strikes me as incredibly short-sighted and risky, that doesn’t really matter. This is a game, and the consequences have already been determined. I can’t convince anyone. I can’t bear fruit or avoid harm that has not been programmed by the developers. So is there really a point in going with my gut?
garfieldhatesmondays had a similar problem with predicting the game’s interpretation of certain dialogue options:
I’ve found in both Mass Effect and Dragon Age that sometimes the logic I’m using to make a decision isn’t the same as how the characters see it, and that always takes me out of the game. To use an example from Mass Effect 2, there’s a scene where Miranda and Jack get into a fight. I took Jack’s side, not because I agreed with her, but because Miranda was a more mature and reasonable character, and I was so immersed in the game that I thought “Miranda will understand that I’m not really taking Jack’s side but that this is the best option to diffuse the situation because Jack is being unreasonable right now.” But of course, it’s just a video game, so I lost Miranda’s loyalty and she acted coldly to me the rest of the game.
The consequences in Inquisition haven’t been as severe, but misunderstandings still come up, and that really breaks the immersion for me.
Arex thought the game itself is far less judging than your companions:
With Dragon Age, I don’t think that character “likes” are intended as overall approval/disapproval from the game, especially since your companions generally have a broad range of views. The only way to get Morrigan’s approval consistently in Dragon Age: Origins is to be a jerk to everyone.
It’s kind of a shame that the friendship/rivalry dichotomy they experimented with in Dragon Age II got thrown out. Being able to have a strong relationship with a character without having to constantly cadge for their approval is a really interesting dramatic direction to take things.
Girard agreed and expanded on Arex’s sentiment:
Which is what makes the system so much better and more tenable and realistic than Mass Effect‘s silly black-and-white Star Wars-lite moral system.
When I did stuff that made Leilana happy and Morrigan mad, I knew I was probably doing the right thing, just like how in real life sometimes the right thing isn’t met with universal praise but by the consternation of assholes.
Things were even more complex and ambiguous in Dragon Age II, where motivations were even less “right” and “wrong” (fewer choices involving charity or mercy) and more about navigating different companion’s strongly held moral beliefs that weren’t clearly black and white—like Merril’s magic experimentation rubbing Anders/Justice the wrong way when it came to dealing with demons, or Aveline’s trust in doing things by the book clashing with Varric and Isabela’s roguish ways, as well as the whole mage/templar split, which can end up setting many of your companions against you if you haven’t formed a strong enough bond with them.
Flag On the Moon got a little more meta with the whole thing:
I always found the Paragon/Renegade dichotomy as more of a metagaming feature than an actual morality system. It’s a way to cater to two different playstyles. Paragon allows you to be a shiny movie hero, where being the good guy has good results, while Renegade allows you to be the anti-hero who does what he or she wants without any truly significant cost. (The worst you get is losing some party members.)
It’s not good or evil and was never meant to be. It’s two subgenres of heroic fiction, and letting the player explore a universe within the tropes of those subgenres. Of course Paragon makes everything happy; that’s how those stories work. And Renegade gives you imagined freedom with no meaningful repercussion, no matter how much of an asshole you are, following those sets of rules. Mass Effect is genre fiction, not a simulation.
I think the “player choice systems” in the two major BioWare games actually represent two competing worldviews for interpreting reality in general, not just in fiction.
Mass Effect takes an establishment stance on morality, where there are given rules, and a leadership that is responsible for judgment as to what is good or evil. The game takes on the leadership role, and its judgments fall more or less where you would expect them from what you know of the rules. And like most establishment morality stories, it prefers to show good outcomes for sanctioned choices and poor outcomes for non-sanctioned ones. Some of the judgments may be debatable, but at least when you intend to do good, you do good, so there’s much less self-doubt.
Dragon Age, on the other hand, is a more post-modern take on morality. There’s no authority; you just do things, and some people like them and some people don’t. Sometimes good intentions end badly, and vice versa. The lack of direction and distinct approval from the game makes for some hard decisions with unsatisfying outcomes. You don’t always feel like a hero.
Personally, Dragon Age‘s worldview fits more closely with my own, but I won’t deny that there have been moments (especially late in DA2) where I’ve desperately turned to Google for some sort of direction as to what to do to get a “good” outcome.
And those were just a few of the points in what was one of the most thought-provoking and lengthy comment threads in recent memory. I’d suggest giving it a read if you’re at all interested. That’ll do it for this week. Thanks for reading and commenting, everyone. We’ll see you next week!