Well, that wasn’t so hard after all. Grab your coffees, dear readers, it’s a long one.
In its defence of the ending, the gaming media caught a heavy dose of George Bush Syndrome: you start your statement with great confidence and a plan laid out in your head, but midway through you start to mess up. While the entire world is silently pleading for you to cut your losses and bail out, you decide to follow through, and end up saying something so unbelievably stupid that everyone listening to you loses a few IQ points. The ending of Mass Effect 3 is a car crash in so many ways. The reaction to it, however, is another, more entertaining beast altogether.
Three’s A Crowd, Two’s A Disaster
The Mass Effect trilogy had a writing and editing team composed of 22 people. That’s a lot of lore, dialogue, events, speeches, and visions from a whole host of creative individuals. So when Bioware employee Patrick Weekes revealed that the ending’s writing was the endeavour of just two people without the peer feedback the rest received, so many pieces fell into place.
In Bioware’s defence (am I not merciful?), Weekes was incorrect when he said the different cutscenes are not present. You can’t particularly blame him, though. The differences only become apparent when you notice minor details like Big Ben exploding in two versions of Destroy and surviving in the other, or the fate of the London soldiers in Control. Watching the endings side-by-side shows that all the scenes follow the same path, and aside from the colour, are frighteningly similar. Give or take a few scenes such as Earth being turned into a ball of ash in the far right version of Destroy, or the Citadel closing in Control, they fit entirely in tandem with one another.
Regardless, if what he says is true, we have a partial answer to “What the hell happened?” The ending being just the work of Casey Hudson (director) and Mac Walters (lead writer), without the safety net of peer input from people who have worked on details and backstory since 2007, is a recipe for disaster. When one singular shared vision ignores others, a shift in character focus and complete mishandling of themes is very plausible.
It Was All A Dream…
I feel I had to point that out before I address the Indoctrination Theory. It’s a theory that rationalises the ending. In short, it supposes that everything after being hit by Harbinger’s beam is a struggle inside Shepard’s mind to fight against Reaper Indoctrination, and Destroy is your willpower’s victory over the Reapers’ suggestions, so the forthcoming ‘Extended Cut’ DLC is what actually happens after Shepard wakes up. You can see some of the evidence supporting the theory in this video. It must be mentioned because all my complaints about the ending are proven groundless if nothing I’m complaining about was actually happening.
I admire the ingenuity that goes into this theory, particularly the reasoning behind Destroy being the right choice. It’s thrilling, covers a wide span of details, and most importantly fits with the Mass Effect franchise’s in-universe logic, which is certainly an improvement over the current ending – and I won’t lie, some slick and entertaining video editing doesn’t hurt either. But – and this is a big ‘but’ – I don’t believe the theory is true, as interesting as it is.
My reasons for this are threefold – firstly because the theory isn’t airtight, secondly because of what it means regarding Mass Effect 3 as a product, and thirdly because of the fact it was written by just two people. Firstly I’ll address the theory itself. Even though the evidence is impressive, the methodology is very similar to Young Earth Creationism. Some facts are ignored entirely, many are used to fit evidence with ad-hoc additions to the theory, and others are interpreted in a way that furthers the end despite the possibility that they can be seen in other ways. I don’t want to dwell on in-depth explanations of each point because that isn’t the main goal of this post, so here’s an abridged version. Take a deep breath now…
Gameplay and story segregation, cutscene incompetence, Shepard is meant to be a blank slate / personality insert instead of having a pre-set psyche, the trees were there in the first place, third-person omniscient scenes in all endings, epilogue in all endings, ‘Indoctrination tentacles’ appear regardless of willpower and during TIM’s control, said control as advanced biotic power, Vendetta detected no indoctrination, situations where Destroy is the only option, situations where Control is the only option, Harbinger thought he was dead, Plot Armour, rapid indoctrination causes brain damage, why indoctrinate a dead / injured person, armour disintegrated, still heavily injured, Synthesis harder to get, runs during Synthesis, high EMS reached via Multiplayer, dreams representative of Earth, soldiers were focused on shooting Reapers, there was a Reaper outside the building when talking to Vent Boy, shitty writing and design.
The two lists of ‘for and against’ evidence stack up against each other, and when those who believe the Indoctrination Theory make ad-hoc counterpoints to these plotholes (especially the one regarding instances where you only have Destroy available), it becomes apparent that there’s a lot of grasping at straws involved. If the ending really was written by two people, do you really think that they would have anticipated all these questions and had in-game counters to them, in the very same game where we’re not exactly sure why the Reapers didn’t blow up the Crucible? I highly doubt it.
What really puts the theory in doubt is what it would mean considering the ending DLC. Bioware have stated that the DLC adds clarity and closure to the current endings and features just dialogue and scenes, no gameplay, which makes it extremely unlikely that the DLC is post-Indoctrination. Moreover, though, it’s the principle itself that crushes my belief. If this was planned from the start, rather than a response to fan outrage, then it breaks a reader-writer contract: that the story contains a beginning, a middle, and an end. If the Indoctrination theory is true, it isn’t even a cliffhanger ending. Cliffhangers in books, movies and games (TV shows are different, because the result is seen the following day or week, not after a year of waiting as in the other media forms) leave room for the plot to move on, but there is still a sense of closure to the central storyline.
Going by the Indoctrination Theory, Bioware have temporarily ended Mass Effect 3 at its climax, and instead of playing Mass Effect 3, it’s Mass Effect: 3 (Months of Waiting For a Real Ending Throughout a Lack of Communication From Bioware). The only comparable situation would be a film ending after an hour and forty-five minutes, and being told to retain your ticket and come back in a few months’ time for the last fifteen. Oh, and if you wait two years after the initial release to watch the film (some of us have atrocious backlogs), then you’ll have to pay extra to see the ending.
Atop this, the message may not reach everyone. A large chunk of players are likely to take the ending at face value and move on to another game, or trade it in. Those who don’t browse the internet for gaming news and forums may never be made aware of the theory, or the news that the Extended Cut DLC is being made. Those who don’t have their consoles connected to the internet (or don’t have broadband internet at all) would be unable to download the true ending – or if they do but don’t go online often, they may never realise that the DLC exists (this is especially true of the Playstation Network store, whereas the Xbox 360 lets you view a game’s available DLC by checking its information from the dashboard once you own the game itself).
Many who believe that the theory was Bioware’s intention all along say that the goal was to stir up controversy before giving out the ‘real’ ending which would restore the gaming public’s faith in Bioware as writers. The problem here is that such an idea conflicts with Bioware’s strengths. Twist endings are not the main reason why their writing is praised. The ending of Knights of the Old Republic was slightly predictable, but effective because so many prior details made perfect sense in light of the revelation. But it wasn’t why players were pleased to spend their game time exploring and reading. Bioware is known for its ability to use old tropes in interesting and appropriate ways, either played straight or subverted. Hours are spent simply talking to party members, making our investment in the story personal. The draw of their games is not in the story, but in its telling. The Ancient Evil Doohickey is secondary to knowing about your friend’s haunted past.
This weakens the base of the theory by itself, but if it is true, Bioware’s previous track record doesn’t agree with it. Because the theory is continuously developed by players, more and more people are going to believe that Bioware hijacked the theory for the DLC. Instead of running back in droves to the developer whose trick ending ‘indoctrinated’ us as players for months, it will be seen as writers desperately trying to keep a hold of the customer loyalty that they’re leaking at an alarming rate.
When viewed in the context of how the ending was written, though, the theory suffers the most. Think hard on this: when two people working at a company that produces stories dependent on characterisation create the ending to a game without relying on the peer review process that crafted the best moments in the franchise, mishandling all the themes and finer points in the process, what do you think really happened?
A: A twist ending that seals the true ending off from people who don’t use internet forums or have their systems connected the internet, while leading a gap of several months between initial release and the final revision, extending into reality to act as a metaphor for ingame events…
B: They dun goofed.
As much as I wish the former was true, so many things prove it isn’t the case. Occam’s razor isn’t something to be feared, people. The only indoctrination going on here is that of Bioware by EA.
As of 26 June 2012, after the release of Extended Cut, the Indoctrination Theory is still false. Watch and weep. Cue the Never-Ending Cheat To Unlock The Super Secret Indoctrination Ending.
We (Pretend to) Value Your Feedback
The Western Role-Playing Game genre is supposed to respect the intelligence of the player, and the same applies to Bioware’s narratives. The way the gaming media treated the critics of the ending sent the total opposite message. Bioware’s co-founder Ray Muzyka (whose title of ‘doctor’ is used in public statements and speeches, because everybody knows a medical school degree makes you an infallible master of storytelling) said that Bioware are listening, but the responses from company and media alike show only half the story is being heard. Many have passed the complaints off as being the whining of players who wanted a ‘Disney ending’, who thought that it was too sad. Admittedly, that was a minor problem with the ending, insofar as there was no outcome other than bittersweet. After waiting over the course of five years and three games with many choices in each, it’s not bizarre to expect the availability of a happy ending.
But that wasn’t the main source of contempt. The facts that our choices weren’t reflected in the ending and that so much was left vague for the purpose of being vague were the loudest complaints among players, and we should be grateful to Bioware for choosing to rectify these problems with the DLC. But for the big names in gaming journalism to listen to a few complaints and twist it to paint us all as children is the biggest insult of all. Was the ending of Mass Effect 3 too sad? Perhaps it was. But was it the only reason why we hated it? You can bet Wrex’s four bollocks it wasn’t.
Missing The Point Entirely
Many people who have defended the ending bring up the fact that the rest of the game was very enjoyable. Of course they have a point, it doesn’t ruin the entire game. Those who flocked to Metacritic to give a user score of zero on account of the ending did overreact. But, conversely, the fact that Mass Effect 3 is an otherwise great game doesn’t prop up the ending. It’s a very poor strawman argument. Nobody made the argument that the gunplay was less polished, the writing less engaging, the multiplayer less addictive because of the ending. We just stated the ending was terrible. The argument that the other 99% of the game was of a high quality is the equivalent of arguing against someone who says the sky is blue by pointing out that it was black last night.
In addition, the rest of the series is not ‘perfect’ as some people believe. Mass Effect 2 featured quite a lot of minor inconsistencies and continuity errors. The first section of Mass Effect 3 is rife with flaws in both design and storytelling. It dismisses and raises a great number of questions for old and new players. How did Ashley go up in rank so quickly? Why is Shepard on first-name terms with new character James Vega? Why are the Reapers killing humans rather than gathering them for the new Reaper after you sabotaged the larva? Why am I given all starting weapons and abilities from the get-go rather than being introduced to mechanics one by one? What happened to Shepard’s house arrest and trial after Arrival? Why does Shepard say fighting is hopeless one moment and then the next say that we have to fight? All these questions fly under the radar of the player because in these first moments of the game you’re still returning to the mindset of playing Mass Effect, recognising old faces, meeting new ones, refreshing your memory on the story and getting to grips with new gameplay elements and controls. By the end, those barriers no longer exist so it’s easier to detect problems in writing.
Even if that was the case, and the rest of the game was flawless, the ending would still soil the experience. For the climax of the story in a story-driven game to disappoint is to dampen the overall game significantly. A weak central element can bring down a game, just as a strong one can make it easier for the player to forgive other problems. Let’s look back at a series that stirs fond memories to this day.
A few months ago, I bought Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver off the PSN store and proceeded to play it for the first time. Put bluntly, some parts of it are simply abysmal. The combat system encourages using the environment to kill enemies, but loses its appeal later into the game, partially due to clumsy controls, and becomes overly simple when you acquire the Soul Reaver itself. Many of the environmental and platforming puzzles that rely on you switching between spectral and physical realms end up being an exercise in trial and error (for everything else, there’s a block puzzle that rapidly devolves into will-sapping tedium). The world’s layout can cause frustration, even with the Elder God at hand to recap on your next objective. The boss fights are all overly simplistic, involving that you repeat a certain pattern of actions three or four times rather than test your skill in any meaningful way, with death in the physical realm only being a minor annoyance in these fights instead of a threat. So why do people still play it, still enjoy it, and spend money on it as I did? Simply put, it’s because if you put any of the game’s voice actors in a room with a script and a microphone, magic happens. The writing and voice acting are absolutely top-notch and complement the environment and sound design to the point of perfection. Every single cutscene and line of voiced dialogue acted as a reward to push on with even the most annoying of puzzles. That was an incentive alone to play through the game, and for some, was the sole reason they continued with the franchise or played the Blood Omen games. The dark, excellent adult storytelling and atmosphere manage to prop Soul Reaver up despite the gameplay that often feels ripped straight from a children’s platformer.
On the subject of Legacy of Kain, the ending of Defiance seems to be everything Bioware wanted to achieve with Mass Effect 3. Defiance, the last (timeline madness aside) game in the series, has a masterfully executed bittersweet ending. It leaves the story open to continuation, but all opened plotlines are drawn to a close, character arcs all receive closure, the player is left with the satisfying sense that sacrifices were not made in vain, and character development is clearly visible.
But I digress. Regardless, it’s a groundless argument, and the central reason is because it does affect the rest of the franchise. The ending is not a self-contained entity. It has retroactive consequences that seep through the rest of the series. The main draw of the Mass Effect trilogy is that your choices have an impact on the fate of a galaxy that you become heavily invested in. The ending strips the player of that anticipation and motivation. It’s painful to be made aware of the final cost of the galaxy and the possible implications it may have, in addition to a lack of visible consequences of individual choices. (side note: no, it wouldn’t be too hard to do. The ending of Fallout 3, believe it or not, has over 200 permutations. Why don’t we even see simple things in the final battle for earth like a horde of Krogan ripping Banshees and Marauders to shreds after you send them to fight, or the hivemind Rachni rushing a Reaper and climbing into every opening, bringing it down with their combined weight alone? All we have is preset scenes to acknowledge assets, rather than their use.) Many players have lost interest in replaying any of the games, left with the impression that those minutes spent twiddling the thumbstick or mouse around the dialogue wheel, unsure of what to do, was all for nothing. This reduces the previous games to above-average shooters with a few choices that carry no long-term consequence. Throughout any replay, many of the moral dilemmas are removed and investment is drastically reduced due to knowing that so much is lost. As tempting as it is to roll out the adage that it’s the journey that matters, rather than the destination, the journey’s not going to be pleasant if you know it’s headed off a cliff. Oh, and when you fall off this particular cliff, it activates a nuclear bomb reducing all the scenery you saw on the way into ash.
Shut Up, You’re Just The End User!
The gaming media, eager to please Bioware and EA as well as receive greater site traffic through the great old trick of nerd-baiting, (ridiculous, inflammatory titles help too) resorted to attacking those who advocated a new ending. A former Bioware employee retorted “You’re not producers”. Soundbytes like these are an underhand tactic in arguing (although it’s a refreshing change from terrible car analogies). It’s thought-stopping rhetoric, akin to “You should educate yourself on the matter”, “It’s not your conversation to have” and the Deviantart favourite, “You can’t criticise unless you can do better”.
The point of journalism is to inform the consumer, the end users who are the real source of cash for the publisher and developer. With this in mind, it’s usually a bad idea for the press or developer to call them whiny and entitled, or “the worst fucking people” as a result of one of your own idiot comments, among other buzzwords, or generalise against a massive section of the industry’s market. Just because the rant comes under the category of ‘opinion column’ or ‘blog post’ it doesn’t prevent it from reflecting badly on the writer, site, or gaming media as a whole.
Spewing Shit Like a Colon Colin
When IGN’s Playsation Editor Colin Moriarty made himself the face of every defendant in the gaming media in this Youtube video that spread like wildfire, not only did he reinforce the fanmade slogan of the site (“You can’t spell ignorance without IGN”), but he made his every move watched. It came as little surprise when, in a follow-up video after Bioware announced the Extended Cut DLC, he denounced the critics of the ending as “a vocal minority” who were “setting a dangerous precedent for the creation of fiction in our industry”. Aside from the fact that Colin clearly didn’t read Bioware’s statement that said it was only going to expand on what already existed, it’s the vocal minority that should be paid attention to. For one, these were the people that went through the story because they cared for it, staying up until the wee hours of the morning for the final stretch, to go to bed at 6AM with a rotten taste in the mouth. Those who didn’t speak about it on the Bioware forums may not have known of its existence, may have hated the ending but not cared enough to create an account there, voiced their dissent on other places, or not have finished the game. Secondly, those who were annoyed were the people that cared enough to do so. These are the people who care about “the creation of fiction in our industry”, were sad to see the decline of Bioware’s storytelling since Dragon Age: Origins, bought the Digital Deluxe Editions, felt the most insulted and (most importantly) are people so dissatisfied that they may not purchase another Bioware product again. People who make content on the subject almost always say that though their complaints make it seem as if they hate Mass Effect, the opposite is true. If someone makes a three-part blog post with a five-digit word count, it’s pretty damn self-evident they care. If someone makes a video, they show how much the series means to them, whether it’s 4 minutes, 20 minutes, 40 minutes, or 2 hours.
Colin accused people who voiced dissent and involved themselves in the Retake Mass Effect 3 movement of expressing their opinions in the “wrong way” without giving any indication of what may be considered the ‘right’ way to complain (presumably, making a condescending video calling people with standards ‘entitled’ and trolling for site traffic). It’s a sad day when activities like making Facebook and Twitter groups, making opinion videos, exercising the right to free speech, talking about Mass Effect 3 on forums intended for discussion of Mass Effect 3 and coming together under one banner to raise tens of thousands of dollars to buy toys for sick kids (how selfish and entitled) are considered “wrong” as opposed to sending Bioware physical angry letters or tiffany boxes containing dog turds, tweeting death threats, or physically showing up outside their offices waving signs and throwing eggs (I will admit, mind you, I’d kill to see Mega64 do that – again).
Referring to the outcry over the From Ashes DLC, Colin’s point was “God forbid that Bioware wants to make money”, before bringing up inflation (which actually is a non-issue), and the price of one old game on a system without standardised pricing. Aside from the fact that Colin thinks he has any right to talk about value for money despite getting his games for free due to his job, the statement goes both ways. God forbid the consumer asks for value for money considering the data’s already on the disc. God forbid that astute readers with knowledge of fiction complain about writer cop-outs and a lack of proper closure. God forbid fans of the series expect what was promised. And God forbid we would like access to lore-centric content already on the disc we bought. Colin’s statements boil down to an attitude that values money and sales over quality and consumer satisfaction. And hey, if you can monopolise your digital sales, force Battlefield 3 players to install your spyware dressed up as a distribution platform, place a hard cap on digital downloads, lie about the purpose of online passes that were just a cash grab, run the worst customer service ever, get your own employees to post metacritic reviews, run a forum with moderators all too eager to censor dissent and ban people from playing the single-player content that comprises 100% of a game they paid for while you’re at it, so much the better.
A little digging into Colin’s journalistic history shows he had quite the opposite opinion of developers going by the adage that the customer is always right when Sucker Punch changed the design of Infamous 2 protagonist Cole back to his original appearance at the demand of the fanbase. Either Colin has an extremely high threshold for withstanding cognitive dissonance or a little extra incentive was involved.
EA’s marketing budgets are nine figures long for successful IPs they want to continue (but not for developers who actually care about quality, it seems). Atop this, IGN have a pretty close relationship with Bioware and EA. One of IGN’s video hosts, Jessica Chobot, made a cameo as a journalist in Mass Effect 3. And it’s obvious that she was hired for her amazing voice acting talent, right? When Chobot was questioned on this, she continued Jennifer ‘Hamburger Helper’ Brandes-Hepler of Bioware’s legacy of putting all criticism down to the fact she was a woman. When IGN readers gave her arguments that simply stated facts, she threatened to close her blog and started blocking people (watch this video for the full story, narrated by a badass angry black man).
So, which is Colin’s real opinion? Is the same practice having appreciation for the fans, or is it crumbling under pressure? Call me biased, but I’m going to guess it’s not the one that featured editing, sets, filming, and pre-planned jump-cuts all taken from IGN’s time and wallet to be put on their Youtube channel, usually reserved for trailers, event coverage and video reviews. Especially when the words are taken from a man who has “We the people” tattooed on his arm and whose Twitter is “no taxation”.
Bioware: Entertainment’s Special Snowflake
In Colin’s follow-up, one of his final sentiments was that the Extended Cut DLC would “Set a dangerous precedent for the creation of fiction in our industry.” For something to set a precedent, then surely, wouldn’t it have to be, you know, formerly unprecedented? This isn’t the first time that a developer has added on to their ending this generation. The cel-shaded Prince of Persia reboot featured an ‘Epilogue’ DLC that had to be paid for. Nor is it the first time fan demand has altered an ending. Fallout 3 ended with the player unable to travel the world regardless of their choice, so if you didn’t have a save from before the final quest you were in quite a predicament. The first add-on pack, Broken Steel, allowed players to continue open-world gameplay as well as adding new items, enemies, dialogue and quests. And yet, I don’t see gamers left, right, and centre demanding games have their endings altered because they didn’t like them and Bethesda did so. It’s not a simple question of people ‘not liking’ the ending. In the cases of both Fallout 3 and Mass Effect, the endings did not represent the rest of the game: an open-ended world and the premise that actions had consequences, respectively. Fans aren’t just saying “We don’t like this, give us another one” but “This isn’t Mass Effect. It needs to fit.” No precedent is being set by a developer releasing an (optional) improvement to their game.
On his twitter, MovieBob announced his disgust by saying Bioware went from “the Mona Lisa to colouring books”. A little middle school history: Renaissance artists were sponsored, paid and commissioned at the whims of nobles. A little this-generation history: Mass Effect was promoted as a series in which our choices affect the outcome. Sounds a bit like a colouring book to me. The threat of a “dangerous precedent” and the idea of “artistic integrity” is laughable. Bioware wants all the prestige of being called ‘artists’ so they can use it as a defence (now that’s acting entitled) while they always have been, are, and always will be a business first and foremost. Mass Effect 3 includes sci-fi variations of standard shooter weaponry, quick-time-events, online multiplayer (with a luck-based system of buying new equipment with real-life money similar to trading card packs) and bloody screen, so real in an effort to rake in more customers, alongside day one Disc Locked Content, collectable figurines to buy power in multiplayer, and special editions all intent on monetising the game as much as possible, because their end goal is to keep their shareholders and EA overlords happy. Yet when the people that actually supply that profit hope to nudge them towards a better product, that’s when the ‘integrity’ can’t be shifted?
The Story Lead of Aliens: Colonial Marines, Mikey Newman, said that gamers have no right to petition developers. That’s one less game I’ll be buying, then. Bioshock creator Ken Levine was more sensible in his statements when he defended the right of writers to keep whatever ending they pleased, referencing J.K. Rowling’s ending to the Harry Potter series of novels. He has a point, and writers do have the right, though it’s not always the smart thing to do. What he forgot to mention was that Rowling’s original draft of the ending was influenced heavily by her manic depression, and she changed it in the published version at her editor’s advice. This “dangerous precedent” is part of the creative process in other industries. ‘Advance screenings’ of movies are not just a chance for small audiences of the very rich to see it before anyone else, but also to give feedback (similar to open and closed beta sessions for games, wherein far too many participants just see it as a chance to play the game earlier). This often results in changes in editing, scenes being omitted, or even parts of the story changed entirely. This is why some DVD releases contain alternate endings. Arthur Conan Doyle changed the ending to The Final Problem after readers were dissatisfied with the death of the well-loved detective, and never forget that Han shot first.
It is neither unprecedented nor absurd to suggest video games can follow the same path. Bioware has to make a choice between their interests as a business and their customers or a completely intangible concept called ‘artistic integrity’. Considering their decision to improve the ending has made me more inclined to buy both Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3, as it undoubtedly will have for others, it can only be seen positively. When they’re dropping consumer loyalty like ballast faster than you can say ‘TORtanic’ after railing against long-term fans with the failure that was Dragon Age II, a script leak, having a forum that’s become the laughing stock of the internet, and their parent company EA beating out oil corporations and AT&T to win the prestigious award of Consumerist’s Worst Company In America, can you really blame them for finally learning the meaning of the term ‘damage control’ and trying to find some middle ground?
The use of terms like ‘artistic integrity’, ‘clarity’ and ‘artistic vision’ are meant to stop thought and discussion and silence dissent. Bioware aims to claim integrity after slicing off a chunk of lore-essential content to flog as DLC to anyone who didn’t buy a Special Edition. This is a statement coming from the company that used stock images for the epilogue and long-awaited reveal of a widely-loved character’s face after spunking their art budget on virtually rendering an IGN employee (thankfully, she can be killed). Artistic integrity is not present when you leave out 91% of the writing team and ignore central themes in the last fifteen minutes. The moment you use ‘artistic integrity’ as a defence is the moment you show that you have none of it. And to the commentators: if you truly believe that this ‘artistic integrity’ is essential, then remember that Bioware have elected to elaborate on the current endings, rather than change them. ‘Integrity’, if you can call it that, has been maintained, and nobody has won. A mass of confusion set to high piano notes is not ‘art’. The only “dangerous precedent” being set here is that developers and writers might not be so quick to exclude staff, turn their backs on what made people love their franchises and hope ridiculous cop-outs and terribly-executed techniques fly over the heads of players.
Please, Sir, Can I Have Some More?
One of the other terms that is bandied around in relation to Mass Effect 3 is ‘entitlement’. Most of the time, it refers to (as it originally did) the From Ashes DLC available since day one and finished earlier than that. With regards to the ending, it refers to statements that were made pre-release about the impact of your choices. To this day, even the Mass Effect website makes a similar promise. Many of the quotes from developers speak for themselves:
“As Mass Effect 3 is the end of a planned trilogy, the developers are not constrained by the necessity of allowing the story to diverge, yet also continue into the next chapter. This will result in a story that diverges into wildly different conclusions based on the player’s actions in the first two chapters.”- Casey Hudson
“Whether you’re happy or angry at the ending, know this: it is an ending. Bioware will not do a Lost and leave fans with more questions than answers after finishing the game.” – Mike Gamble
“Pretty much everything that people want to see wrapped up, or to be given answers, will be.” – Ray Muzyka
“There are many different endings. We wouldn’t do it any other way. How could you go through all three campaigns playing as your Shepard and then be forced into a bespoke ending that everyone gets? But I can’t say any more than that…” – Mike Gamble
“I’m always leery of saying there are ‘optimal’ endings, because I think one of the things we do try to do is make different endings that are optimal for different people” – Mac Walters
This story arc is coming to an end with this game. That means the endings can be a lot more different. At this point we’re taking into account so many decisions that you’ve made as a player and reflecting a lot of that stuff. It’s not even in any way like the traditional game endings, where you can say how many endings there are or whether you got ending A, B, or C…..The endings have a lot more sophistication and variety in them.” – Casey Hudson
As customers, we are entitled to factual things that we are promised in advertising, be it in-store, on-box or if bought on seeing a sample (if I say “I’d like to buy that bag” after pointing to a black one, I have every right to refuse a red one). That’s all there is to it, frankly, and as it happens Mass Effect 3 was declared a case of false advertising by the Better Business Bureau. The problem is that those pushing it as a case of false advertising are mainly coming forward with the idea that “it wasn’t true enough.” Yes, we were forced into a bespoke ending. But it’s also equally true that collectively our choices influenced the ending through EMS contributions. Was it satisfactory? No. Did it match the pre-release comments? To be brutally honest, they did. Sort of. Bioware’s quotes can be taken both as outright lies and, admittedly, standard fare pre-release marketing hyperbole. Only time will tell for this, as the Advertising Standards Authority in the UK says it isn’t false advertising. I myself was shocked when Amazon started giving refunds to those dissatisfied with the ending – and even more so when EA’s digital distribution platform Origin did the same. The real question we should be asking is “if this is classed as false advertising by more authorities, will this mean something for game marketing in the future?”
But is it Art?
Bioware, as a company praised for its story-driven RPGs with writing and characterisation as major reasons to play, like to further the argument that games can be considered as ‘art’. In the iOS app The Final Hours of Mass Effect 3, Casey Hudson and Mac Walters, allegedly the only two people who worked on the ending, talk about many decisions in their interviews which can be viewed here. Two of Hudson’s better-known comments sum up the main problem with their attitudes to the writing and design of the ending.
“One of the things I think about videogames as a medium is that there can be a message in them without making a statement.”
“Obviously, some of the early ideas for where you end up in the story involved some kind of giant tentacle creature that would come out of nowhere and be the boss for Mass Effect 3. But, you know, it was just so videogamey and nothing that we did to kind of work it into the themes really answered the fact that ultimately it just felt like there was an end boss for the sake of having an end boss and it raises the question of if videogames are a medium for storytelling, does it always have to have an end boss?”
A large chunk of your time in the Mass Effect series is spent talking to NPCs with a conversation wheel, exploring environments, managing stats or hiding behind chest-high walls waiting for your health (an indication of having little of which in later games is blood at the edges of the screen) and shields to regenerate before popping out to shoot laser guns, grenades and magic biotic powers at humans, aliens, robots, and robot aliens. Each game has put more emphasis on player skill and traditional third-person-shooter gameplay in its combat, and Mass Effect 3 takes it a step further by introducing powerful melee abilities and features an online multiplayer horde mode. It is, in other words, a video game.
So, a showdown with the man the franchise conditioned us into seeing as an enemy for so long under a design that mirrors the appearance of Reapers, Husks and other enemies we’ve faced in the series is off limits…
…But a literal space ninja introduced in a spinoff book and based on (now-fired) Bioware forum moderator Stanley Woo is a-okay.
When you want video games, or even just your franchise or game, to be considered seriously as an art form (for all the good it will bring, which is another blog post in itself), the last thing you want to do is to all but abandon design elements that are unique to games – especially when it rails against everything that preceded it – at the moment you perceive as the pinnacle of artistic expression. Hudson’s comment seems to carry the (possibly accidental) implication that ‘art’ and ‘videogamey’ are mutually exclusive terms. Quantic Dream’s PS3 exclusive Heavy Rain is touted as being more of an ‘interactive movie’ than a video game, but it makes use of its format by allowing the player’s free will, dexterity, reactions, precision, character control, and prospect of failure to progress the story and alter outcomes of various challenges while keeping consistency in how it plays. It does have an end boss, but it’s handled in a manner that mirrors how the rest of the game plays, carrying the desired atmosphere and emotions via the gameplay and fight’s structure.
By contrast, the ending of Mass Effect 3, with the exception of squeezing off a few pistol shots in the Destroy option, may as well be a DVD selection (much like the early PS2 ‘game’ Hologram Time Traveller, which actually worked on DVD players) whereas the rest of the experience stayed strictly to its form as a role-playing video game, split between combat, exploration, conversation and decision-making (which the ending renders mainly irrelevant). Games like ICO, Shadow of the Colossus, Dark Souls, Flower, Journey, numerous survival horror titles and even action games like Devil May Cry have core mechanics that enhance the desired atmosphere or facilitate emotion. Instead of letting Mass Effect 3’s faculties as a game act as a vehicle for the artistic intent, the ending takes all control away from the player save for basic movement and shooting. It’s comparable to ignoring the concept of ‘show, don’t tell’ in writing, because it doesn’t make use of the medium’s strengths. No, not all games require an end boss – but they do require a sense of accomplishment, a moment of climax, and above all, effort put into them.
In response to the community’s hubbub over the ending, a smug Hudson revealed that he wanted people to have a polarising, confused reaction, similar to one of James Joyce’s comments on the structure of Ulysses. He wasn’t alone in this, as an excerpt from Mac Walters’s notes drafting ideas for the ending culminated in the phrase “Lots of speculation from everyone!” The ending’s intent is to spark philosophical discussion on the final choice it offers, but a lack of narrative coherence, the removal of the primary antagonist, absence of closure and recycled assets in endings only leaves one question running through the minds of players: “What the fuck did I just watch?”
The gaming media, when it comes to discussion of games as art, the angle almost always seems to be either a list of reasons why games could be considered art, or acting as an authority that poses a when or why not question. “When will games be considered art? Why not call them art? When will critics stop seeing games as toys for children? Why not have games on every media studies course in the world?” Arguments always consider the (almost invisible) benefits the label of ‘art’ would bring to games, rather than what games can contribute to the concept of art. Mass Effect 3’s ending epitomises these attitudes. The only things in the ending that may be considered ‘arty’ are superficial things associated with art, which is a much-tried and very risky theory of defining what ‘art’ is. All the aspects seem to be there purely for the sake of being there rather than working together in a cohesive whole. The end result jumps around and screams “Look at me! I’m art! Important characters dying! Ambiguity! Pretty colours! A strange child! Heroic self-sacrifice! Faux symbolism! Plot twist! Sad piano music! Ham-fisted allegory! A character that might be God! It’s like Deus Ex meets Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann! Lots of speculation from everyone!” like a vile insult, both to other things considered art and the players that it hopes won’t look past the superficial qualities to see a crumbling mess.
A few years ago, two of Bioware’s founders, Greg Zeschuk and (doctor) Ray Muzyka gave a speech at the BAFTA awards, entitled (whoops, there’s that word again) “Can a computer make you cry?” Though I will admit that the speech didn’t particularly focus on qualities unique to video games (except, at a stretch, the time investment required of some role-playing games), the lecture gives a more convincing and inclusive argument for how games could be considered art than the ending of Mass Effect 3, and more importantly, it respects the ability of art to transmit emotion, the ability of games as a storytelling format and the ability of the player to connect and involve themselves with the medium.
It’s possible to make an argument why a franchise like Mass Effect could be considered art, but the final scene would be less of a crown jewel and more like a coiled turd, best left out altogether. The last choice contained ambition, but almost no artistic achievement. There was ‘art’ in the Mass Effect franchise, but it wasn’t in the A-B-C ending. It was when we got to explore a galaxy with its own unique history and races, with sci-fi tropes used to great effect. It was when we put off the salvation of several races to listen to Wrex’s stories, not caring if he was reminiscent of Canderous or not. It was when the sun, sea and sand backdrop of Virmire was superimposed with excitement, panic, full-blown dread and last-minute decisions we had to make as snippets of conversations flitted through our heads (also, the music was awesome. Just saying). It was when we got to tailor Shepard’s interviews to the public and speeches to his own crew. It was when we stopped to admire little details like a drunken Tali, Mordin’s singing (especially in the second instance), radio plays and an ad for a rendition of Hamlet with an all-Elcor cast (SHUT UP AND TAKE MY CREDITS). It was the non-stop apprehension as we undertook the suicide mission. It was the surreal, creepy conversations with Sovereign, Harbinger and the Rachni Queen. It was when we read the Shadow Broker’s files on teammates, not because of the thrill of voyeurism, but because we liked the characters enough to soak up inconsequential details like what they did for fun and what they used their credit cards for. It was when we were given a chance to let Saren and The Illusive Man leave with some semblance of dignity and self-control. It was when we fell in love with the characters we fought alongside (perhaps a little too much). And it was especially when we did their loyalty quests not because of any rewards it may bring, but because we wanted to help them. The ‘art’ in Mass Effect is in all the little details. With the ending, Hudson and Walters tried to get as far away as possible from traditional Bioware conventions, carrying the mindset that clichés, by default, are bad.
It’s been a quarter of a year since Mass Effect 3 hit shelves and the shitstorm started. Defence and criticism has gone from poster to poster as arguments and speculation for and against the indoctrination theory grows and grows. Articles are saved and statements are catalogued. These three posts, adding up to around fifteen thousand words, are a collection of many conclusions I’ve come to, heard from others, or built upon. All I can really ask now is “Where do we go from here?” For now, all we can do is wait. Perhaps the Extended Cut DLC will leave players feeling a little more satisfied. After that, maybe even more criticism will follow, or people will focus on things that “clarity and closure” can’t fix. There’s even the possibility we might just shrug our shoulders, say ‘at least they tried’ and move on. A second round of stamping our feet for an altered ending does sound dangerous, but it’s also unlikely. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. We’d be better off seeing what Bioware does next with post-release DLC, another game set in the Mass Effect universe or Dragon Age III.
That’s where we need to look – whatever comes after this entire issue has been put to bed. Are we going to see changing attitudes to gamers voicing criticism of disappointing, poorly-written endings or putting pressure on developers? Will there be an overhaul in Bioware’s corporate culture? And most importantly, to Bioware at least, are we going to see a new frontier in the idea of games as ‘art’?
As of right now, my answer to all the above is a blunt ‘no’. It’s easy for gaming journalism to sweep up gamers all with the same brush, and profitable because of the surge in page views it brings. Words like ‘entitled’ or ‘integrity’ are still going to be thrown around without looking at the issue. Bioware needs to bow to EA’s oft-misguided demands for the funding and advertising they need, and EA would like to stay risk-free with relying on established IPs and the (false) idea that you can get Call of Duty’s market by making a simple game with guns. Why make Mirror’s Edge 2 when you have the same team able to make something big, loud and explodey involving fields and battles? The biggest ‘no’ is awarded to the ‘art’ question. It’s not attitudes to games that call them toys for children that stops games from being seen as art. Nor is it titles like Duke Nukem Forever and Call of Duty or events like Spike TV‘s VGAs. It’s certainly not ‘entitled fans’, ‘dangerous precedents’ (that are neither dangerous, nor unprecedented) and surrendering ‘artistic integrity’ to your end users and critics that care instead of the people that sit around meeting tables and don’t play games. It’s a lack of respect for the player, ignoring your responsibilities as an artist, and the insulting, pretentious, infantile opinions of art that belong to people like Mac Walters and Casey Hudson.
End of line.
Line ends here.
Be excellent with one another.