Plenty of games tailor themselves to the player by allowing them the mode of choice. In this manner, most (if done well) of the players’ choices will lead their own specific consequences and stack upon themselves. One problem that people have with some games, however, is that while the notion of choice is promised they feel that most of their input has led to them to some pre-scripted event that they had no control over. When this happens, it’s almost as if an unwritten contract between game developer and player has been breached. But when you think of games like that, what comes to mind? The Witcher series by CD Projekt Red? The Walking Dead or the The Wolf Among Us by Tell Tale Games? How about games like Mass Effect? A product of BioWare, this series has garnered much critical acclaim and is probably one of my own personal favorites. One common complaint that people have found, though, is that their choices (in some games over others) don’t seem to matter. I want to think about how true that statement is.
To do that, I think it’s important to understand the types of choices that are being made. First and foremost is understanding that all of the game’s dialogue is handled through a conversation wheel. Typically, the answers situated at the top are known as “paragon” options, the middle answers are neutral and the bottom are “renegade.” The player is given the option of making these choices any time the situation calls for it but the change is almost entirely aesthetic. More often than not, your character’s responses will lead to the same conclusion in a conversation while in other scenarios you need to be persuasive enough (in either paragon or renegade fashion) to get what you need.
One variation of this, as briefly mentioned before, is the paragon and renegade system. Sometimes in conversations, an emblem will appear that will require to press a certain button that corresponds to either choice. You will never get the option of choosing between both at once, simply whether or not to enact it. These actions generally only reward you with more renegade or paragon points that only serve to aid you in your persuasive pursuits. Here, the choice-based design seems to be here mainly for the fun and inclusion of the player.
But even bigger than this system is the story-related choices that you’ll get to make. In the original Mass Effect, you fight your way through a snowy planet that’s unfortunately being infested with a thought-to-be-extinct race of alien bugs known as the Rachni. It turns out that the person behind their emergence is none other than the main antagonist and one of his followers, Matriarch Benezia. After making your way through science labs and mountain ranges, you find yourself knee-deep in a nest of these beings and are given the choice to kill or spare the Queen. The benefits aren’t very clear in the moment and there is no real weight to the decision. However, in the third game this changes when it turns out that if you’d let the Queen live you’ll be able to use her and her spawn as “war assets” in your campaign against the evil Reapers, an even greater threat.
An even greater slight comes at the end of the third game, as many players of the series will agree. When you finally achieve your goal of destroying the Reaper hive-mind, you’re given the option of exactly how to do it. You can either synthesize every being in the universe, making every both organic and mechanic, destroy the reapers and any other technological beings in the universe, or becoming the new hive mind and using the Reapers to repair the destruction they’ve wrought. The problem that many faced here was the idea that it felt unnecessary to give the player more options than to destroy the Reapers. What was even worse was the fact that immediately afterwards, the game originally had an abrupt end that offered no real consequence to any of the choices you’d made. No matter how you look at it, the problem most players faced revolved around whether or not it seemed fair to short-change them. The entire underlying goal (from the end of the first game onward) was to destroy the Reapers. What people didn’t seem to fully understand is that the creators had an actual ending in mind and no number of choices would be able to change the static ending that they had in mind. But if the game is marketed as entirely choice based, there does become a disconnect between both aspects.
My question here revolves around whether or not it seems entirely fair to criticize the series for its plethora or lack of relevant choices. Do you feel they were well executed? No?