Well, I did it. I played Mass Effect again. And if there's one thing I took away, it's that it's awfully hard to have fun replaying things differently the second time around.
My goal was simple: replay the game a little differently. Create a Shepard that was a bit more renegade and a little bit more blunt (not to mention female, for Jennifer Hale's oft-praised voice acting). Playing a different kind of character was more...awkward than I thought it would be, and it kind of ruined the game for me. At least at first.
The first time I played Mass Effect, I tried to do and say the kinds of things that I—or rather, my ideal version of myself—would do and say in those situations. And I ended up with a pretty goody-two-shoes, paragon Shepard (for the most part).
I didn't have too much in mind when I started this playthrough except that I wanted to be "more renegade." But that means a few different things, and for awhile, I made a lot of decisions I didn't feel very good about. My Shepard hard to relate to, which really pulls you out of the world. My decisions were disjointed, and my dialogue didn't make sense—it was like Shepard was bipolar. Sometimes she was a force of good in a hardened outer shell, and sometimes she was just kind of a bitch and I wasn't sure why she was even trying to save the universe.
There were a couple reasons for this:
1. New Dialogue Options: Since my Shepard's character was more nuanced this time around, it became much harder to pick dialogue options. I wasn't just picking the cheesy Captain America peace-truth-and-love options every time—I wanted this Shepard to be a bit more ruthless and danger-seeking. Unfortunately, with Mass Effect's dialogue system, I never really know what she's going to end up saying. Sometimes things come out way more horrible than I'd intended, or the conversation takes a really weird turn. It felt like I didn't have control over my character.
2. New Choices: Dialogue is a big part of the way the character feels, but this being my second playthrough, I wanted to make different choices too. What happens if I kill the Rachni queen? What happens if I romance Liara instead of Ashley? That's what you're supposed to do on a second playthrough, right?
But some of them didn't feel right. They weren't the choices I wanted to make. I was treating it too much like a game and not following my instincts—which disconnected me from the universe. To me, that kills the best part about Mass Effect—the way it draws you in and makes you feel like your decisions matter. Not like they're variables in a game.
In the end, I learned a valuable lesson: there's more to creating a character than "Paragon vs Renegade." There's a middle ground, and it's likely where the most realistic characters lie. You just have to mix them the right way. Where I originally played a Han Solo-esque character, I was now playing something more akin to Malcom Reynolds. A true neutral hero just feels wrong, but a chaotic good hero feels oh so right.
It took me about 10 hours of playing to figure this out, but once I did, the game felt much better. I ended up making lots of the same morality-based choices as my first playthrough, but my Shepard was still a different character. As long as the dialogue system didn't mess with me too bad, it still felt like I was seeing a new side of the game, without ruining what sucked me in the first time. And now I can't wait to move onto 2 and 3*. I wonder where my new Shepard will go...
*Yes, I know all the above images are from Mass Effect 3, but it's strangely hard to find images of female Shepard from the first game, so just shhhhh.