Mass Effect’s Hidden Kirk/Picard Morality System

How the personalities of two sci-fi heroes reveal the flaws in Mass Effect's morals.

Confession time: I haven’t enjoyed a BioWare morality system since Knights of the Old Republic.

I know, I know. You’re saying that my perception of Knights of the Old Republic’s morality system is bolstered by nostalgia. Well, at least I hope that’s what you’re saying. Otherwise, you’re probably just calling me an idiot.

To be certain, KotOR’s morality system is best viewed through rose-tinted glasses. Its simplified take on good vs. evil (as represented by the light side and dark side) doesn’t exactly force you to do much soul searching. If you’d like to follow the path of the Jedi, you save puppies instead of electrocuting them with Force Lightning.

As simplistic as the mechanic was, it greatly benefited from context. Context, in this instance, refers to both KotOR’s status as one of the first mainstream morality systems of its kind and the context of the Star Wars universe itself. Many of us grew up pretending we were a Jedi or Sith. KotOR afforded us the opportunity to play out our playground fantasies in a way that immediately satisfied the core concept behind the dueling paths.

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By comparison, Mass Effect’s morality system suffers under the weight of its ambition. It strives for a more nuanced take on good vs. evil via its Paragon/Renegade system, which converts good and evil into lawful good and chaotic good. Lawful players opt for the open-handed way of the Paragon, while chaotic players go straight for the Renegade’s closed fist approach to justice.

The idea behind this method is that neither side is necessarily good or evil. Paragons are portrayed as more noble kind of people, but there’s an implication that they sometimes avoid doing the right thing in order to maintain a more wholesome image. Renegades, meanwhile, are often more heartless but are only heartless in the pursuit of a greater good. 

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Yet, there is only one notable point in the entire Mass Effect trilogy when a Paragon action doesn’t result in the intended effect. In Mass Effect 3, players can encourage Kelly Chambers to continue her work aiding Citadel refugees rather than demand that she go into hiding. Encouraging Chambers (the Paragon choice) will lead to her being killed during the Cerebus invasion.

That’s a fascinating example of how a heavy hand is sometimes best able to carry the weight of the world, but too often, the Mass Effect trilogy relies on the same conventions established by the comparatively simpler light side/dark side path. Paragons follow a blue-tinted path towards peace while Renegades are red-shaded players in a game of supposed grays.

BioWare attempted to tweak the Paragon/Renegade system with each new entry in order to get it just right, but they never really found their intended balance. Perhaps that’s why the studio announced that Mass Effect: Andromeda wouldn’t feature the Paragon/Renegade system. Their official reason for its absence is that the system “felt very Shepard” and not appropriate for Andromeda’s universe. However, some suspect that the fallout from Mass Effect 3’s choice-based ending dampened BioWare’s enthusiasm for the concept.

Even though I’m not in love with Mass Effect’s morality mechanics, I’m sad to see the system go. As flawed as it was, the Paragon/Renegade divide did afford players the ability to engage in a far more fascinating morality system that may not be included in the game’s code but is very much woven into the series’ fabric.

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Forget Paragon/Renegade. The most compelling morality system in Mass Effect is Kirk/Picard.

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Just like how Knights of the Old Republic benefited from players’ desire to live in the Star Wars universe, Mass Effect benefits from its ability to allow gamers to fulfill their Star Trek fantasies. For many, the Mass Effect franchise offered the kind of complete Star Trek experience that many official Star Trek games have thus far failed to provide. 

While there are many gamers who grew up on a steady sci-fi diet of Star Trek episodes and then gravitated towards Mass Effect, there were really only two kinds of Star Trek fans who found themselves enamored by BioWare’s epic franchise. Those who devote their loyalty to Captain Kirk and those who owe allegiance to Captain Picard.

Yes, it’s that age-old debate again. However, just as Knights of the Old Republic allowed Star Wars fans to engage in the Jedi/Sith argument in a new way, Mass Effect affords you the ability to reignite the Kirk/Picard debate if you’re willing to play the game in a way that really tests your preference. 

Here’s how it works: at the start of your next Mass Effect adventure, choose which famous Enterprise captain you wish to play the game as. Whenever you encounter a fork in the road, you’ll base your decision on which option your chosen leader would have picked.

It sounds simple, doesn’t it? After all, Kirk and Picard are two of the greatest heroes in sci-fi history. Wouldn’t you just select the path of the Paragon in both instances?

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Ah, but that’s where things get really interesting. They may be heroes, but Kirk and Picard’s personalities don’t always conveniently adhere to Mass Effect’s Paragon and Renegade sensibilities.

Consider Captain Kirk. Kirk was created at a time when the Star Trek franchise still drew heavily from the well of Western genre conventions. Fittingly, then, Kirk is a bit of a cowboy. You can’t exactly label him a “shoot first, ask questions later” kind of guy, but there is a brashness to his decisions which is indicative of that gunslinger mentality.

Kirk loves and respects his crew, but he never affords them the opportunity to forget he is the captain. He often makes split second decisions based on his instincts. This makes him an effective leader in many ways, but it also makes him an emotional leader who is prone to conceding the point to this anger. 

Picard, meanwhile, is a man of logic. He’s a bit like Spock in that way. It’s not that he’s necessarily more intelligent than Kirk, but he’s a man who respects the fact that he is surrounded by some of the greatest minds in their respective fields.

He’s going to make the final decision, but he’s not going to make that decision until he’s had time to consider the advice of others. Ultimately, it’s his goal to maintain the morality of the Federation by pursuing the best option available to him. He’s a neutral character with a tendency to side towards lawful. 

If you focus on this one set of character differences, you might be tempted to label Kirk as the Renegade and Picard as the Paragon. However, you also have to consider that Kirk’s passions extend well beyond his decision making. As evidenced in episodes like “City on the Edge of Forever,” which sees Kirk struggle to let a woman die in order to prevent the Nazis from winning the war, he finds it difficult to make decisions he knows to be right if it will put those close to him in harm’s way. Yes, he’s brash and prone to aggressive strategies, but he desires to love and be loved. He’s someone many people secretly want to be.

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Picard isn’t like that. A critic once said that he felt like he was listening to a social worker whenever Picard spoke to the Next Generation crew. Perhaps that’s harsh, but it speaks to Picard’s outwardly cold nature. His logical approach means that he treats even the direst situations as a blank slate, just as it sometimes affords him the ability to embrace ambiguities that Kirk might otherwise shun.

He accepts that “villainous” minds like Q exist in the universe and do not always need to be defeated by traditional means. He doesn’t see everyone who opposes him as an opponent that needs to be defeated. He is also able to accept tragedies, such as the one that occurs at the end of “The Inner Light” when Picard must accept that an entire race of people he has grown to love have been destroyed because he accepts that even tragedies have a role to play in the universe. 

The functionality of these characters’ respective moral compasses is exactly the kind of complex mechanic that BioWare seemingly desired to capture via Paragon/Renegade. That’s why it’s so fascinating to accurately recreate Kirk and Picard through the Mass Effect morality system.

Rather than being encouraged to lean towards one direction or the other in order to unlock some new gameplay ability or advance an ongoing personal effort, the Kirk/Picard method truly forces you to consider the merit of all available options in order to complete your goal of answering “What would Kirk do?” or “What would Picard do?”

For instance, review the moment in the original Mass Effect when Wrex learns that you have decided to destroy a serum that could cure the Krogan people. At that point, you have to decide whether to convince Wrex to join your cause and betray his people or to kill him rather than risk sabotage.

It’s tempting to suggest that Kirk would kill Wrex, as he’s the gunslinger who views hostile aliens as a threat. He’s also an awful ambassador whose negotiations also end with “or else.” Picard, meanwhile, is exactly the kind of person who would choose the negotiating table over his phaser. Then again, it doesn’t seem very Kirk-like to betray a member of his crew, now does it?

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Granted, the Kirk/Picard method is based on a desire to fulfill pop-culture fantasies, but it’s a system that highlights the inherent flaws of Mass Effect’s – and many other games – built-in morality system.

See, Kirk and Picard aren’t opposite ends of a morality scale. They’re two swirling entities in the vortex of existence whose views on right and wrong are just as likely to cohabitate the same molecule as they are to be on polar ends of the universe. They are fully-fledged characters and choosing one requires you to play a role.

That’s the problem with Mass Effect’s baseline morality. For all its good intentions and great ideas, it doesn’t fulfill its promise of letting you complete your character creation over the course of the game through organic choices that eventually lead to natural consequences. Instead, it encourages you to adhere to preset ideas through methods both mechanical and psychological. It aims high but too often gamifies morality.

Sure, the Kirk/Picard method is a game – and a fun one at that – but it’s a game that allows you to utilize the intent of the Paragon/Renegade method without suffering the traps that so often force you to stick to one path or the other in order to achieve traditional progress.

Just as Knights of the Old Republic‘s morality benefited from being based on an established idea deeply rooted in the imagination of its players, the Kirk/Picard approach offers an end goal that is easy to immediately feel attached to. At the same time, completing it requires you to truly consider the complicated implications that BioWare attempted to convey via Paragon/Renegade. 

Of course, the dream isn’t a video game morality system which allows us to pursue an established idea, but rather a morality system that forces us to confront our established ideas. Morality is shaped by experiences, and the interactive nature of games should offer us the chance to test our morals through new experiences. Too often, video games allow us a moment to let our morals dictate our choices when more often than not it is our choices that shape our morals. 

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Matthew Byrd is a staff writer.