Wednesday, March 28, 2012

#14: The Mass Effect 3 Ending Debacle

It has been a few weeks since Mass Effect 3 has been released, and the controversies surrounding it have been going strong. People throughout the internet have discussed this issue to death. The fan backlash has been truly astounding. Bioware has reached George Lucas levels of hatred because of the way the ending played out. This week, I will weigh in on the issue myself and give you my own opinion regarding the fan outrage and how Bioware should respond.

But before that, I am going to make one thing clear. Like the vast majority of the internet, I also heavily disliked the ending. I thought that it was a betrayal of the series and its fans. However, I will not discuss exactly why people hated the ending unless it directly pertains to the point I am trying to make. I will not spoil specifics, but there will be general spoilers abound. The best part about discussing a topic a few weeks later is that there is already a mountain of sources describing what exactly went wrong. People have a lot of opinions that ultimately boil down to whether or not the ending needs to be changed.
First, we will discuss the ways people are moving for a change of the game's ending. One of the most well known of these is “Retake Mass Effect.” Retake Mass Effect is a group who opposed the ending and protested by donating to Child's Play, one of the most renown video game charities out there. As of this writing, they were told to desist the charity drive because it was becoming unclear that the two were unaffiliated with each other. Before the charity drive was stopped, the group raised over $70,000. I admit, I was pleasantly surprised when I heard about this. It is a good way to channel fan rage and raise aware (whether or not this awareness needs to be raised can be debated, but that is an unrelated topic). However, I sincerely doubt this could amount to anything in the long run.

The next method that people used to express their outrage was by filing a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission on the ground of “false advertising”. While this does at first seem to be extreme (and even with extenuating circumstances, still is to a degree), there is some merit to this course of action. The complaint comes from several press releases by Bioware. Among them were claims that the game would have sixteen distinct endings, that the player's choices in all three games would affect the ending they received in many different ways, that this game would offer closure of the trilogy, and that there is an ending in which the protagonist, Commander Sheppard would lose to the main adversaries, the Reapers. While the latter two can be debated depending on what you consider to be “closure” and “losing to the Reapers”, the first two are impossible to refute. Neither condition was met. There are exactly three endings to Mass Effect 3 which are extremely similar to each other. And the choices you made really only affect whether or not the player gets a short ending clip if they choose one ending and whether another ending is available. Bioware did lie to their fans when making these claims, but it debatable if this is indeed false advertising. Quite frankly, I am glad that people are calling Bioware out for their blatant disrespect of their fans and this is a much more proactive form of protest, but my gut tells me that this will not affect EA and Bioware in any significant capacity.

But, not everybody wants the ending to change. People who simply liked it and argue against changing on that merit (or did not argue at all) are fine by me. That is their opinion and they are more than entitled to have it. I will not discuss this group farther. What I will discuss is the group of people, critics and consumers alike, who argue against changing the ending on the merits of “artistic integrity.” In my opinion, the people who make this claim are incorrect. Do not get me wrong, I am fine with games making an artistic statement. In fact, I would have been fine if the choices the player made did not matter in the end and that Shepard lost in a valiant last stand regardless. That would have been an artistic statement. However, one cannot argue “artistic integrity” in this case. In the case of Mass Effect 3, the ending does several things wrong. It throws out and even opposes several themes of the series and creates plot holes with the narrative devices it makes use of. Furthermore, it violates the most basic of narrative structures in a way that does not make it sense. It tries to introduce plot points at the very end of the plot, which is where the exact opposite is suppose to happen. The game uses these elements to explain the Reapers and their motives, something that did not need to be done since the whole point is that they are unknowable and beyond understanding. The ending is the wrapping up of the events. Instead of doing what it needs to do, which resolving the problem and the character arcs we have been introduced to, it opts to explain what did not need to be explained. It is difficult to defend Bioware's artistic statement when either no statement or a very weak one is being made.

And before someone says it, I am aware of the popular fan theory out there (and the significantly better fan fiction ending). While I do support the theory and have chosen to make it my canonical ending, I admit it too has the flaw of not providing closure and resolution to the events of game, perhaps more-so than the actual ending we were given. This is a side topic that needs to be brought up to preempt my audience.

So what is my opinion on the matter? Well, I might surprise people to learn that I do not support changing the ending. There is one critical reason for this, and while I harped on critics for saying this earlier, it has something to do with “artistic integrity.” In my personal opinion, if Bioware truly believed that the ending we were given should be the way the series comes to an end, then they should stand by it. They should inform the fans of why they went in that direction, the point they were trying to make, and the logic behind their choice. I could support Bioware doing this and would be open to it. However, if the change the ending, or if they dare to charge for an alternate ending, then something would be made clear. Something that I am beginning to suspect, but do not want to admit. It would reveal that Bioware knowingly and deliberately released a product that they knew they could not stand behind. That would be completely unacceptable. I would be disappointed and ashamed that I was a fan of Mass Effect if Bioware sold me a product they would not support. Since no writer has come out in support of the ending, I have to presume that this is the case, but I would be open to being proven wrong.

All in all, I think this controversy surrounding the endings makes for an interesting case study. I wonder how people will think of this down the line. Without the benefit of precedence, it must be difficult for EA and Bioware to figure out how to react to this. I hope the game developers and publishers are watching this very closely, because there is a lesson to be learned here and the way this plays out has the potential to define how the business-side of video games is handled from here on out.


WPaverd said...

First, complaining to the FTC is not a proper course of action. If this were acceptable, Mr. Molyneux would have been out of business for the past decade and a half. There are, I believe, 17 different endings to Mass Effect 3, they are simply not distinct endings.

I will also argue for the artistic merit of this game. They should not change the ending simply because fans demand it, even if they did make mistakes. Picasso or Dali made crazy pieces that many people don't appreciate, but they didn't and shouldn't demand a change. This goes beyond one measly game, this is about defending electronic entertainments precarious position as an art. Art is the vision of the author, and it should not be changed, no matter the outcry.

The only reason I can think of to change the ending would be EA. If they had pushed Bioware to finish quickly, as they likely pushed Bioware to make the Prothean DLC, then I would accept a different ending, of even the same ending with more closure.

newdarkcloud said...

I can see where you're coming from with that train of thought and I agree the FTC thing will probably go nowhere. Like I said, if Bioware were to just come out and support it. I'd be all ears.

However, I've begun to suspect that EA has alot to do with the ending. I'm afraid the ending was compromised so that the game was released on schedule. (It had already been delayed once.)

I'd rather not discuss the Prothean DLC. I intend to discuss that in next weeks article about DLC.

I have mixed feelings about the "Games are Art" thing. I agree that video games have artistic merit and can be just as good, if not better, than other mediums. However, people had the chance to see paintings before they bought them. Even if they didn't, the patron had to approve of all sketches. That still happens today in commissioned work. Also, the fans who didn't appreciate these paintings did not have to pay $60 to see them.

I think the worst part of the ending is how it completely overshadows the rest of game. That's a shame because, in my opinion, everything else was done right. The story (sans the ending) made sense. (*SPOILERS* I was kinda peeved that the Quarians went to war despite my warnings, but that makes sense from a lore and narrative standpoint and I can understand why they would make that choice.) The combat was probably the best in the series. They brought back the RPG aspects of it. And, while I wasn't asking for it, the multiplayer is damn fun!