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To punch or not to punch} ?> Punishing bad guys is the staple to most video games, and for good reason. After all, who doesn’t feel satisfied after sending Bowser hightailing it away, destroying Ganondorf by using his own magic against him, or giving Sephiroth what for?
These games appeal to the desire to right wrongs and to give the villains what they deserve. I want to bring justice to my wounded hero, naturally.
The Mass Effect series has some impressive dialogue and morality options (yes it is unfortunate that you have to choose mostly Paragon or Renegade options to get the most out of the game, but I won’t get into that here). I like getting to make my own mistakes and deciding whether I want to punch someone in the face or not, rather than watching the hero commit to actions beyond my control.
As such, I get to choose (to an extent) how to carry out justice as Commander Shepard. Many scenarios in the Mass Effect games require choices that affect later outcomes, and a lot of those choices involve dealing with injustice.
Is it the “right” choice, for instance, to kill the Rachni Queen on Noveria, or to let her go? The rachni are incredibly dangerous and previously hostile, as proven from the Rachni Wars. The queen’s offspring had just rampaged through Rift Station, slaughtering a lot of people, and you don’t know if she is telling the truth that she wasn’t behind the attacks. Would killing her be just?
On the other hand, the scientists on Noveria had trapped her and used her children in an experiment, and if she is telling the truth, she had nothing to do with the murders. Maybe the right thing would be to let her go.
It’s up to you to call it, and thus brings up the question, can the result of your decision be judged independent of motive? If your brand of justice turns out badly, causing collateral damage and wreaking destruction in the future, was your decision still just?
If we define justice along the lines of equality and giving people what they are due, I wonder if the Renegade choices are actually the more “just” options in some instances. And before you Paragons get in a tizzy about that statement, let me explain.
When I think of justice and Mass Effect, I think of Garrus Vakarian and his loyalty mission in Mass Effect 2. Garrus is out to kill Sidonis, the turian responsible for his teammates’ deaths. Despite Garrus’s desire to set things right, it is also clear he is out for revenge.
Eventually, you and Garrus catch up with Sidonis. You talk to the traitor while Garrus hides above with his trusty sniper rifle, ready to take the shot. If you continue talking to Sidonis, you find out that the turian is haunted by what he did and regrets his actions deeply. Your choices are as follows: you can step aside so that Garrus shoots him, or you can persuade Garrus to let him go free.
Sidonis did a terrible thing, and if he is to be treated with equality, logic states he should be killed and justice will be served, Renegade style.
But the Paragon option of letting Sidonis go just seems like the wiser choice. Garrus would be killing this guy out of revenge, and that’s got to have consequences on him at some point. If he thinks this is okay now, who’s to say he won’t go on some revenge hunt again later, possibly compromising the mission in the process? (All right, let’s get real. Garrus would never do that. But for the sake of argument.)
By letting Sidonis go free, by showing mercy, Garrus can be the bigger turian and not have someone’s cold-blooded murder on his hands. Not only does this seem the better option for keeping Garrus mentally stable, Sidonis is left to deal with his own demons—probably a punishment worse than death.
Is that not justice as well, but perhaps a different kind? Is there such a thing as merciful justice? I’d like to think so.
After this mission, Garrus says to Shepard: “So much easier to see the world in black and white. Grey… I don’t know what to do with grey.”
Yet if the grey world we live in includes mercy over punishment every now and then, I’m okay with that.
I think motives matter. How I go about doing something is just as important as the end it accomplishes, because it shapes who I am. I can try my best to make wise decisions based on the knowledge I have, but no one can see all ends. Ultimately I live in a world of greys, I can’t ensure true justice because there are too many outcomes beyond my control.
But I can control the decisions that define and shape me. The universe may be overrun with sentient bug monsters, or suffer a worse fate without them, that is not necessarily my decision. I can only decide whether I see the world in harsh tones of black and white or merciful shades of grey.
The original version of this article was published in Push Select Magazine.