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Mass Effect 2 and game storytelling with karma systems

Many games have "karma" systems, but should they necessarily measure good versus evil? How do they measure it? And how do they shape the narrative experience? Read on for an analysis of a spectacular specimen.

Christopher Aaby, Blogger

April 18, 2011

7 Min Read

I recently went back and played Mass Effect 2 again (after completing it twice), this time to revisit the DLC. This got me thinking about a certain system within the game – the renegade / paragon system.

There are a number of things that are interesting with this system. For one, it’s not a karma system, meaning that it does not measure your habit or capacity for doing good and evil deeds. Furthermore, the extremes of the spectrum are not mutually exclusive – you can be a paragon and a renegade. Lastly, the system brought some new things to the table in terms of game mechanics, that I think are worth taking a look at, and learning from.
I’l go into these three aspects in more detail below.


First, I’d like to move momentarily into the morasses of moral metrics in video games. Indeed, what do these systems even measure? There have been countless takes on the same theme – from the arbitrary ”dark side / light side” sliders, over reputation meters (general or spread over factions), personal morality, or even styles of play that are very specific to the game at hand. Overlord 1 & 2 for instance had a corruption meter which was not a measure of how evil you are, but rather just what kind of evil you are, alluding of course to the fact that you play an evil character, like it or not.

It’s hard to generalize about these systems, but safe to say that these systems measure something which relates to your character, and that character’s relationship with the surrounding world. Interestingly, these systems are generally in place whether or not others are around to witness your actions. In other words, it would appear that these systems measure a sort of internal dialogue for your character. It’s really like the identity of your character, as seen by the character itself.
Either that, or Big Brother is watching, and news travel really fast. This can feel like the case in, say, Fallout 3, where you might steal something completely unnoticed, or butcher a group of innocents out in the middle of nowhere, and it will still come back to haunt you. Or maybe it was simply the best the developers could do. Let’s not dwell on it too much.



In the case of Mass Effect, the paragon / renegade system measures something like idealism versus cynicism. As a paragon, you tend to make ”do what’s right” decisions, and as a renegade, you tend to make ”do what’s necessary” decisions, with an inclination towards brute force and badass one-liners.

The first thing this makes me think is that it is a very believable system within the Mass Effect narrative. I often have a problem believing when my wickedly evil character decides to earn a couple of gamebucks rescuing kittens, or my virtuous hero agrees to do a little assassinating... all in the name of good of course. Mass Effect has a narrative to stick to – as Commander Shepherd, you are out to save the galaxy, no discussion. And to have any kind of integrity, that character has to be pretty damn virtuous in some way or other. The system lives within those limitations, without feeling stifled or meaningless.

This is tangential to another problem with moral metrics – that they try to measure and express something which is not easily quantifiable. By limiting the subject matter, the measuring becomes more believable than a universal assessment of good and evil. Idealist / cynicist is a pretty believable distinction.
Imagine a game where you’ve tended every flower, rescued every kitten and saved every distressed damsel. Rightfully, your karma rating is “ultrabenevolent”. Then, on a whim, you beat a family into submission with a bible, douse them in kerosene and set them ablaze, pull up a comfy chair and watch the scene unfold, as you wolf down a bowl of Fido soup, cooked on the bones of their beloved pet dog.

Take a look at your good / evil meter – it’s now fallen to “benevolent”. Not very nuanced. It does put a very distinct spin on the idea of redemption... but I won’t go into that here!


Back in Mass Effect land, the second thing which really tickled my RPG sensibilities, is that the meter is not a 1-dimensional scale. Well, sort of. It’s actually two 1-dimensional scales, that are independent of each other.

The beauty of this is that you can act more or less as you see fit, without fear of ending in the neutral no-man’s-land that generally doesn’t come with benefits in games. Consider a Star Wars dark side / light side analogy. What about the grey side? Don’t they get any superpowers of moral ambiguity?

I felt that the two values were a much better representation of the character. Instead of quickly turning into a one-sided ideology-machine (as you must, if you’re going to milk the game mechanical benefits to the max), your character actually has the capacity to surprise you, and make tough calls that might not jive completely with his or her moral precedents, without making them feel like “less of a character” afterwards because they sacrificed some of their badass side or whatever. It’s refreshing to be given this freedom, in an otherwise very linear narrative, where you would not necessarily expect to have a lot of freedoms.

The flipside of this is that it does come with some very tangible benefits, which get unlocked as your rankings go up, meaning that there is a tendency to go for one side over the other if you want to max out your potential. In other words, the mechanics do “taint” the narrative content... but is it better to have a character system which allows total freedom? Is that a believable character? Or perhaps more importantly, is that an enjoyable character? I won’t presume to know an answer to that, but it’s open to discussion.

 Unique dialogue options can be handy, and great for characterization

Unique dialogue options can be handy, and great for characterization

While we’re on the subject, I’d like to round off by taking a look at what the system actually does for you, as a player. This is a place where I think a lot of games make some bad decisions. Often the reward for sticking to one side of the karma meter are mechanical benefits like experience points, abilities, basically stuff that affects the core mechanics of the game. But this creates an artificial relationship between the story content (which morals you base your decisions on) and the mechanics (how powerful you are, etc). You end up in a situation where you are pursuing evil deeds, because you want to be able to shoot purple lightning from your hands, not because you want to play an evil character. It detracts from the narrative freedom that you could have. This might not matter to everyone, since some might be disinterested in the narrative of a game (or the mechanics!), but for broadly interested player, there’s a conflict.

In Mass Effect, the reward you get for high paragon / renegade scores are new dialogue options, and even the occasional unique quicktime “dialogue option” with very satisfying characterization. This way, you see your character really solidify as you make more and more character decisions – which makes a lot of sense, and the player is not steered toward a narrative “line” because of rewards that really belong in a skill tree. Character-based choices strengthen your character – elegant and satisfying.

I’m usually for intertwining mechanics in games, so that story and gameplay relate to each other, but this is one area where I feel that the player is given a rewarding sense of freedom by keeping the two systems somewhat separate (yes, they are not entirely separate, but the combat benefits gained are generally “stealthed” in the game).


I think it’s telling how different two players of Mass Effect can relate their experiences, despite having played through a totally linear narrative. Sure, you get to save this or destroy that, but in the end, Shepherd saves the day, and that’s just canon. It’ll be interesting to see just how much room for divergence the final conclusion in ME3 will have... but until then, we’re stuck replaying the first two games, the DLC, and writing lengthy articles about them. Thanks for reading this one.

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