October 20, 2008

Morality and Gameplay in “Bring Down the Sky”

by Noah Wardrip-Fruin · , 11:00 am
Bring Down the Sky

I’ve been in the process of moving, one of my least favorite activities, so when I had an evening to give myself a break I decided to indulge by downloading “Bring Down the Sky” — the first DLC release for BioWare’s Mass Effect.

It was a pleasure to return to the Mass Effect universe — though, like many others, I was disappointed that so much of “Bring Down the Sky” focuses on the boring peek-a-boo tank combat that was probably the weakest element of the original game.

More troubling, however, was the morality embedded in “Bring Down the Sky.” Explaining this requires a little background. (Also, there are spoilers ahead, so don’t read further if you’d like to avoid them.)

Like most BioWare games, you can play Mass Effect according to different moral codes. In the case of ME these are “paragon” and “renegade.” As your character develops, your accumulated points from playing one way or another open new dialogue/action options (“charm” and “intimidate” options, respectively).

In “Bring Down the Sky” your play approach doesn’t matter much at first. You’re blasting turrets, turning off asteroid-mounted boosters, and perhaps finding the bodies of dead scientists. But at the mission’s climax you learn that BDtS is also a hostage situation. Your paragon/renegade choice is whether to (a) let a terrorist go in return for the lives of his hostages or (b) sacrifice the lives of the hostages in order to apprehend the terrorist (and arguably save the lives of his future victims).

As a moral quandary, it is convincingly presented, giving both paragon and renegade characters a reason for their actions. In formal game terms it’s also a balanced decision. I played through both ways and got the impression that the experience points, paragon/renegade points, and available equipment were about the same.

But in terms of gameplay it’s utterly unbalanced. If you choose to let the hostages die you get a battle with the terrorists, a final confrontation/conversation with the lead terrorist (giving much more backstory for the events, and new dialogue/action options to explore), and a final denouement with one of the characters. If you choose to save the hostages you get to defuse three bombs and then have the denouement.

Obviously, one of these is a lot more content and a lot more interesting. Even if the formal game rewards are balanced between paragon and renegade, then, it’s clear that the gameplay rewards are utterly lopsided. And we’re all in this for the gameplay, right? The gameplay gives me enjoyment in my real life, whereas paragon points do not.

I’ve certainly talked with people who find it more fun to play BioWare games like Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire with the “evil” approach (“dark side” / “closed fist”). But I don’t think I’ve heard them say that playing in that way simply provides more content and better gameplay opportunities.

Of course, there’s always the chance that I’m missing something. Maybe choosing BDtS’s paragon option also adds another element to a later part of the game — like a confrontation with the lead terrorist on another world, where moral and gameplay debts are repaid. But I think it’s highly unlikely we wouldn’t have heard about such an easter egg by now. So I guess BioWare means to leave us with an understanding: in our universe, if you want the best gameplay and story, you shouldn’t think twice about the lives of hostages.