John Ebenger, an ex-Cinematic Designer on the Mass Effect trilogy, revealed earlier this week that a vastly overwhelming amount of people played as a Paragon Shepard. Although he didn’t provide an exact number, he said on Twitter it’s “something like 92%,” and lamented the statistic since the team put in plenty of work into the Renegade content.
It’s not an entirely surprising statistic. As Commander Shepard, you have the choice between a clear Paragon or Renegade. If your Shepard was a Paragon, you were still able to make Renegade choices — but they didn’t contribute to your Paragon standing once you were locked in. At times, you had quick time prompts and decisions that you could only pick if you were enough of a Paragon or Renegade.
It’s a binary that has never resonated with players much. It feels restrictive and its simplicity clashes with the complexity of the societal issues and characters in Mass Effect. While Renegade is ideally meant to be a version of your Shepard that is honest, if brutal, and more willing to make sacrifices to accomplish your goals, it sometimes veers into comically villainous territory that feels like it breaks Shepard’s unremovable core as a savior of the galaxy. Renegade also generally leads to often undesirable outcomes, like an abundance of cybernetic scars on your Shepard’s face or the deaths of characters you wanted to see more of.
But in some cases, like the one below, it provided a sense of humor that you wouldn’t get if you just had nice options all the time, similarly to Dragon Age 2‘s system of diplomatic, sarcastic, and aggressive responses. The Citadel DLC is still one of the most beloved DLCs in video games, and for clearly good reason.
At other times, it offered a much-needed catharsis — especially at the lowest points of Mass Effect 3 in which you feel powerless and just want to let someone have it. The reality is that, in the real world, even the kindest people have their “Are you tired of being nice? Don’t you just wanna go apeshit?” moments. Similarly, even the most intimidating or seemingly mean people have people with whom they’re kind and loving. Probably. Unless your name is Donald Trump. Or Lindsey Graham. Or Mike Bloomberg.
Anyway. The point is that kindness and rudeness are not systems upon which we can base morality. Very few people in this world are entirely good or entirely bad. A natural part of life is to be the most important person to someone and to be hated by someone else. You get the gist.
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But maybe it’s not so bad that only approximately eight percent of players were Renegade Shepards. It doesn’t necessarily mean that BioWare failed in any objective way. Despite being in virtual simulations of fictional worlds, the majority of players still want to do good and be good in video games. Odds are that you, dear reader, want to do that in real life, too. In his replies to responses on his initial tweet, Ebenger notes that the team learned to take the imbalance positively. “If you feel bad about hurting the 1’s and 0’s on the computer,” he tweets, “we’ve all done something right as developers and as a society.”
Yup. Something like 92% of Mass Effect players were Paragon.
And we put a lot of work in to the Renegade content too 🙁 https://t.co/lywwx7n4Hy
— John Ebenger (@EbengerJohn) February 19, 2020
Video games, many of which are choice-based in order to immerse players more deeply, have also largely moved on from framing choices through Good and Bad, Paragon and Renegade. Even back then, people wanted something more like Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead, which achieved its fame partly due to the different consequences of its excellent choice-based narrative.
Today, games like Life is Strange 2, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and Divinity: Original Sin 2 are well known for the depth with which they take into account player decisions. For example, none of Life is Strange 2‘s seven endings are technically bad endings, even if one ends more tragically than the rest. It doesn’t feel like there’s one right version of the bond between Sean and Daniel Diaz. There are also dozens of smaller choices in individual episodes, and throughout the season, that individualize your playthrough enough that no two playthroughs will likely be the same.
While the Mass Effect trilogy’s Paragon and Renegade system feels archaic in retrospect, it set the groundwork for many of the complex choice and morality systems we have in games today. Choices in games have always been, and will always be illusions, but what matters is that those illusions aren’t broken. Although I’m not fond of the limitations of this system, I have fond memories of it, as I do of the rest of the trilogy. I’m just hoping my illusions of another Mass Effect game before global warming ends everything aren’t broken any time soon.