Opinion: The Toughest Choice in Mass Effect

The games industry is far from getting its Apocalypse Now, but even Mass Effect asks at least one reasonably tough moral question.

Sunday morning at the Huerta Memorial Hospital. The air is thick with unease and for good reason. Teams of towering robotic cuttlefish are headed straight for Planet Earth, slicing through the void on a steely-eyed mission to smash all life (but mostly just Londoners) into dust and echoes.

No time to worry about that though, there are more urgent matters to attend to. 

Sunday morning at the Huerta Memorial Hospital.

Doctor 1: “We’re reputable doctors. We must do our all to see to everybody that comes into our hospital in need of aid!”

Doctor 2: “Bollocks man. The doom clock is primed to strike 12. We need to keep supplies for those we can actually save. No point wasting aid on those who are doomed, like This Guy.”

This Guy:What?!”

Golly. This isn’t the Mass Effect I know. The Mass Effect I know presents its deluge of “moral dilemmas” in easily digestible form. Good-guy stuff on top, naughty-boy stuff below. Jesus mode on the left, Dick Dastardly on the right. One time it asked if I wanted to save the Man or the Woman. The Woman had breasts so she won the right to continue existing.

That wasn’t a gritty choice. Mass Effect’s aren’t gritty choices. 

But this? A genuine dilemma shrouded in all manner of ethical hoo-ha.

Boy. I’d have to think about it. 

Whichever of the doctors I brainwashed into believing was in the wrong, people were sure to die. But they weren’t people I, Mark Shepard, knew. They weren’t people who would go on to affect the overarching story. More importantly, they weren’t people who existed – even as a knot of identikit pixels. They were figurative chumps conjured up for the sake of this bind.

Don’t Worry Udina, I’m in Jesus Mode. I’ll let you off.

Ridiculous, really. Yet flavourful, and thorny too. Yes. What would I do?

See, when Mass Effect asks how I’d like the game to end, I’m not really thinking about how I’d like the game to end. I’m pontificating: which way is the right way? Which option should I choose? I’m solving the puzzle. The developer knows which option is right. I need to get it right. I need to see that little cutscene at the end that signifies: yes, you did it right. I need that badge of honour. 

None of that here. You can’t reduce this dilemma to the infantile notions of good and evil/ right and wrong that dog BioWare games. And that’s where its value lies.

The Huerta Memorial Hospital dilemma works as a moral choice because it transcends Mass Effect’s elementary moral gauge and it did a better job of that than any blustering dialogue tree or hokum moral decision hobbled by contingent factors; good-boy points, space hamsters or intergalactic handjobs. It succeeded by eschewing mechanical reward, by transcending good and bad, and in doing so became a genuine example of ethical quandary tucked away in the depths of Huerta Memorial on the fourth floor of the Citadel. Or wherever it damn well is.There’s no underlying system of good and evil governing the choice and, on top of that, nothing material (in-game) to sway player choice. I wasn’t blindly choosing the ‘good’ option because I was chasing an achievement or a new pet for my spaceship. There was no good option.

It helped too that it was organic. I stumbled upon the bickering duo by chance, and I almost damn well left them to their squabbling. There was no system in place forcing me tackling the situation or bullying me into making one choice over the other. Compare that to a scene in Spec Ops – and if you’ve watched Apocalypse Now or read The Heart of Darkness this isn’t going to come as much of a spoiler, fair warning for the next two paragraphs though – where you accidentally napalm the shit out of some women and children. You take control of an air-balloon camera and in familiar Call of Duty AC-130 fashion paint where you would like the morally dubious doom-stuff to go. Everywhere! The first time I played I was having such a good time burning men alive that I didn’t consider the people cowering off in one corner. Turns out they were the women and children. They died a grizzly death and the game does a wonderful job of rubbing that in your face, honing in on a poor woman charred, reduced to her knees and clutching a child. It’s pretty damn uncomfortable.

Bullying the player into being the bad man doesn’t work, either.

Trouble is, it’s not actually your fault. If you play Spec Ops through again and you’re not a fucking lunatic (or indeed, cotton on to the fact that not everybody’s a soldier the first time round), you’ll learn, as you meticulously position shots to avoid cooking the poor kiddies, that you’re obligated to drop the fiery shampoo on them anyway. You’re not making an incredibly bad call – one that would eat most men up from the inside out – you’re just co-operating with a clumsy system because you’d like to get your money’s worth. That’s not a choice at all. 

Mass Effect’s moment of glory isn’t like that, you can take it or leave it. The doctors cycle through their conversation whether you chime in or not, at least until they’re replaced by the next two chaps in need of an intergalactic space hero to make the tough calls. Subtlety here helps and the process feels natural because you’re not aware of any underlying system, least of all one bullying you into making the “wrong” decision (or even a decision at all). If it feels natural there’s nothing blocking you from actually considering the dilemma. What would you do, in that situation?

Moral dilemma – the brilliantly knotty stuff that allows us to study the human psyche, the stuff that makes Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Apocalypse Now and Nineteen Eighty Four so utterly intoxicating and the stuff games so sorely miss – that can’t be rooted in primitive good/bad/ right/wrong systems that reward materially otherwise the dilemma – the tough bit – that’s drowned somewhere beneath the bullshit. Bullshit likes points or upgrades or deep-space sexual expeditions.

There is no material gain to withholding medical supplies from the dying, after all. 

Doc 2 got the nod in the end. Shepard left the Huerta Memorial Hospital, not really a hero this time. Just a guy that made a tough call. Wrong or wrong?

First time for everything.

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