My apologies if you're all too familiar with the introductory material. I originally wrote this for a non-gaming audience.
With the final installment of the popular space trilogy released, developer BioWare has added a chapter to the “games-as-art debate.” Even if they don’t intend to, it’s the irate “Mass Effect” fans who are arguing games can’t be art. Shortly after the release of “Mass Effect 3,” it began getting trashed by the fans on Metacritic. Though the Xbox 360 version has a very positive 93 out of 100 from critic reviews, more than 2,000 fans have awarded it a 4.8 average score out of 10. On PC and PS3, that average drops to 3.7, and almost all of the hate is directed toward the final 10 minutes of the 30-hour game, ignoring the preceding fun, well-crafted experience.
“Unfortunately the game ending as it stands ruins everything,” wrote a Metacritic user who rated the PS3 version one out of 10. To generalize the matter, fans are concerned about allegedly poor writing, plot holes and an apparent lack of choice at the end of a trilogy spanning some 90 hours or more. They’re also upset that their decisions in the game have not made as much of an impact as they would have liked.
A movement calling itself “Retake Mass Effect” raised more than $80,000 for the Child’s Play charity and to increase awareness of the issue before ceasing collections on March 24. The group’s only real directive is to “Demand a better ending to Mass Effect 3,” according to its Facebook page. “We are here to show a company that their devoted fanbase has been hurt.” Publisher Electronic Arts and BioWare have both noticed this uproar. On March 21, BioWare co-founder Ray Muzyka wrote, “Exec(utive) Producer Casey Hudson and the team are hard at work on a number of game content initiatives that will help answer the questions, providing more clarity for those seeking further closure to their journey.”
Shortly after this announcement, Retake Mass Effect responded, “Even if they do (make a new ending), it doesn't mean that it will be good.They could slap together a 5-minute epilogue...Until we get an ending worthy of Mass Effect we will Hold The Line!”
Sure, raising money for charity is great, but where do these fans get off making demands? Also, if their current tone is any indication, then it seems unlikely they will ever be pleased. "If computer games are art then I fully endorse the author of the artwork to have a statement about what they believe should happen,” said Paul Barnett, senior creative director at BioWare Mythic. “Just as J.K. Rowling can end her books and say that is the end of ‘Harry Potter,’ I don't think she should be forced to make another one."
Barnett raises a good point. All good things must come to an end, and the final installment of any successful trilogy in any medium often has a difficult time living up to the expectations of fans. Should “Matrix” fans have asked the Wachowski’s to remake “The Matrix Revolutions”? Should readers have raised money to have Stephen King write a new ending to his “Dark Tower” series? Sometimes books and movies end in unfulfilling ways, or raise more questions than they answer as those final credits roll.
Furthermore, there is a certain theory about “Mass Effect 3’s” ending. Most of the angry Internet posters who castigate BioWare’s poor writing seem to ignore this theory. If the theory is true, it’s not only a savagely brilliant ending, but it also nullifies nearly all of the complaints fans are making. Regardless of the theory, fans are only proving that a substantial number of gamers are childish. Some are even returning the game to Amazon and other retailers for a refund. They aren’t being critical. They are being angry consumers who are upset because they feel they didn’t get their money’s worth.
Get over it.
It’s as if the fans are saying, “We can’t handle high art. Please spell everything out for us. Screw your artistic integrity because we’re paying you money. Oh by the way, when does the next ‘Call of Duty’ come out?”
The only viable argument to alter the game's ending comes from Kotaku editor Stephen Totilo. He argued games "are malleable works that benefit from improvement and transformation." Totilo continued, "More than one smart game developer has described the medium as a conversation between game players and game creators."
It's interesting to think of game development as an open conversation between players and studios. Certainly, player feedback does influence future development decisions and even patches to exisiting games. What Totilo fails to understand is that, at least right now, this is not a conversation taking place. The "Mass Effect 3" fans who want a new ending have offered a list of vague demands. They know they want a new ending, but they don't know what they want it to be. Even if the fans could come up with a list of things they are looking for in an ending, it's difficult to imagine they could agree on anything as a collective. Also, giving fans creative control could take the fun and mystery out of a video game if players know how it will end.
The only upside to this debacle is it makes a solid argument for the emotional impact of video games and their power as storytelling media. BioWare, though presently scorned by many of its strongest admirers, created a story—neigh, a universe—that people care deeply about. They care deeply enough to cry out when they feel something is wrong and enough to raise $80,000 for charity. Now if only they could show that same respect for the programmers and the writers—the artists behind the “Mass Effect” canvas. If only they could trust their fellow humans to do something daring with their own masterpiece, maybe then games could truly transcend and become art.