Yes, another article about the Mass Effect 3 ending. And buckle in, because it's gonna be a long ride. Trust me, I plan to make it worth your while.
To say that the ending to Mass Effect 3 has caused an outcry on the Internet would be to grossly misrepresent the meaning of the word "outcry." But amidst all these arguments of why it was or wasn't terrible, if it should or shouldn't be changed, if gamers are entitled or whiny, there are only a distinct few arguments that deconstruct the big picture: what does this mean for gaming?
That's what I'm here to talk about.
Now, I will try my hardest not to let my personal feelings on the ending's events affect my analysis of this monumental struggle concerning The People v. BioWare, but it's admittedly difficult. Hell, writing this entire column has been difficult, if for no other reason than the fact that information coming out of this debacle is changing on a daily basis. First, let's get some history and retrospective to help us understand the present situation.
The year is 2005. Canadian developer BioWare, not yet quite the legend we know it as today, releases several videos detailing its next big project, Mass Effect. Looking back, the earliest footage seems hardly recognizable. Commander Shepard doesn't have the impossibly perfect cheekbones of Dutch model Mark Vanderloo. We know nothing of the Reapers, Geth, or anything, really. We only know that it will be set in the distant future. Follow-up videos proclaim, "Annihilation is one decision away," and project director Casey Hudson touts the impact choice will have in the game.
Mass Effect is released in November 2007 to great critical acclaim and commercial success. This spawns development of a port for Microsoft Windows machines and plans for a sequel. That sequel improves on the original in almost every way, and Mass Effect 2 releases in January 2010 for the Xbox 360 and PC, with a PS3 version releasing one year later.
The Mass Effect franchise is far more than a game by this point. It has devoted fans, import technology years ahead of its time, comics, novels, and spin-off games. The Mass Effect 2 launch trailer still holds a special place in many gamers' hearts, as it took second place in GameTrailers' user list of all-time greatest trailers.
This is where things start to get ugly. During the development of Mass Effect 3, spoilers of the game's entire plot are leaked on the Internet. Don't bother searching now -- BioWare sent a cease and desist order to NeoGAF, and takedown orders were issued almost immediately. These spoilers weren't truly detailed scripts, but nonetheless, it was a dark moment that sent BioWare scrambling. In fact, Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk told Eurogamer that, due to these leaks, the company was looking over forum posts to see if those who'd read the leaked script had any good ideas. Here, read this quote from Muzyka, because it's kind of important:
We listen to them on the forums, their feedback from stories. We're reading it all. If we can get ideas out of it that will make the game better, sure. We're not adverse to taking feedback. That's part of our core values, is humility. Any time we get a good idea from fans... they're our audience. They keep us in business.
Now, here we are in April 2012, and talk of the Mass Effect franchise simply will not slow down. Most notably -- what we're here to talk about today -- is the conversation surrounding the petition to change Mass Effect 3's ending. Maybe that argument exists because gamers are "entitled" or "whiny," as I've read so often. Maybe it's because there are, among the crowd, loyalists who have been involved in this series since that first trailer back in October 2005. Maybe it's because BioWare is a company devoted to its fans, that constantly espouses community involvement and listening to feedback. Maybe it's all of these and more. Maybe the impact will be something far grander than the fate of Commander Shepard and his crew.
When Jason West and Vince Zampella left/were fired from/departed/whatever from Activision, much of the focus in the early days of coverage was focused on what this meant for the future of the Call of Duty franchise, and that's fine. Plenty of people were worried -- it is one of the biggest franchises of the last five years, after all. But the real concern should have been what precedent it set (or may set, since the case still hasn't gone to court) for developer-publisher relations.
Now, in the case of BioWare and Mass Effect 3, the discussion should not be whether the ending is indeed terrible or not, as that's all subjective. We could argue for days about the logistics of the ending and why it does or doesn't fit our view of the Mass Effect universe, but in the end, it's just that: our view of the universe. You can't argue someone into changing how they feel; that has to come about organically, naturally.
Leaving that discussion firmly in the past, let's observe what has been one of the biggest and most recent developments in the Mass Effect 3 ending debacle: the "Extended Cut" DLC announcement. BioWare believes that, by providing the additional scenes of closure the DLC is designed for, it can maintain its original vision of the series' end while keeping customers satisfied. However, it is not what protestors have been demanding. On the FAQ page for the Extended Cut, BioWare answers the ultimate question of "Does this mean BioWare is creating a different ending?" with a clear-cut and definitive...
What's so spectacular about this is that, through persistence, clusterfuckery, and a bit of dumb luck, Mass Effect 3 has prompted a discussion of "artistic integrity" vs. catering to the demands of a whiny, self-entitled subculture we call "gamers." You might call them "Bob." Or "Susan." Or whatever. Point is, they're consumers, and they're arguing for something I find to be, quite frankly, pretty reasonable. Meanwhile, the loudest argument against changing the ending that I've heard is that doing so would compromise BioWare and gaming as a whole by setting bad precedent. In other words, if someone doesn't like the ending to a game, why not change it to meet demand? After all, BioWare did it.
But videogames are art, or so we like to proclaim at our most high and mighty. You can't change art. Can you?
Actually, you can, and the funny part is that this happens all the goddamn time. Now, the following examples aren't perfect; there are some variables that are quite different from BioWare's current predicament. My point isn't to say, "This is exactly like when... ," but merely to point out that artistic visions have definitely been altered to suit the social climate of their time.
In 2007, several radio stations, both domestic and international, banned music artist Sean Kingston's hit song "Beautiful Girls." Concerns over the "copycat" nature of suicides led to a surprisingly high percentage of listeners requesting the song be either altered or removed entirely. The song, while perhaps not the most artistic intellectual property, nonetheless had part of the lyrics changed from "You'll have me suicidal, suicidal when you say it's over" to "You'll have me in denial, in denial when you say it's over" in acquiescence.
Why did no one argue "artistic integrity" over Sean Kingston's lyrics? Because it was being sensitive to a popular culture issue? Because it was "just another song" about how pretty girls are? Either way, why do we not use these same reasons for Mass Effect 3? Would it not be prudent for BioWare to be sensitive to a popular, consumer issue? Do we intend to hold Mass Effect 3 up as art when it stars, as many deriders of the series would describe, "just another bald space marine"?
Films are also frequently edited and changed. Advanced screenings for test and press audiences will often gauge a potential film's success. After receiving feedback, filmmakers may cut, re-arrange, or insert or remove scenes entirely. Even post-release, films can be changed. Don't think so? Well, let me ask, who shot first, Han or Greedo? Regardless, the point remains that cinema, often considered one of the greatest forms of modern art, can be, and often is, changed.
Remember Van Helsing, starring Hugh Jackman? I know, it's kind of painful for me too, but stick with me. We're going somewhere with this. Recall how the character Van Helsing is bitten by a werewolf, causing him to transform into one of those great, lumbering moonbeasts himself? At the climax of the film, Van Helsing is stabbed with a curing serum. Originally, in his transformation back to human form, Hugh Jackman wasn't wearing any clothes. BAM! Wolverine ass! Sweet, delicious... I'm sorry, what was I saying?
Actually, reactions like mine to un-clothed Jackman are why the digital effects team added pants in the final version of the film. Director Stephen Sommers figured the audience would be too distracted by the taut buttocks on-screen that they couldn't pay attention to what was actually happening. And since this all occurs at what is supposed to be a heart-touching moment, it was kind of awkward to be staring at bare man cheeks. Artistic vision changed? Hardly.
Maybe we should look towards the gaming industry, if that's what we're really talking about. Has anything like the compromise of "artistic integrity" happened before in the same medium? Well... yes, actually. The ending of Fallout 3 originally had the player's avatar sacrifice him- or herself, thus putting a definitive period at the end of the story. However, western RPGs are known for their open-world design, including the ability for players to complete quests and explore at their leisure. Gamers were hardly satisfied with Bethesda's return to a classic franchise if it didn't let them explore the world they knew and loved.
Therefore, Bethesda changed the ending with the addition of the "Broken Steel" DLC. It never made sense, anyway. By that point in the story, you had a companion immune to radiation poisoning, and you yourself likely could've swam in radiation like a fish. Yet virtually no one is even using that against BioWare now. With regards to Mass Effect 3, you'll see message boards rife with dissatisfaction, with talk of plot holes and the feeling that nothing mattered and anger at the lack of closure, but you don't see 300 posts saying, "Well, Bethesda did it! You should too!"
The truth is that BioWare is being put on a pedestal, as are the Mass Effect games. I agree that BioWare is a great studio with fine writers and imaginative vision, but it is also a business. When it creates an artistic vision, it does so as part of that business, just like music, just like movies. I admit, it's also hard for me to think of "artistic integrity" as being truly at stake when we see quotes from Casey Hudson that show him being excited over the "polarizing reaction" because he "didn't want the game to be forgettable." It's hard for me to worry about the creator vs. the consumer when Mac Walters writes "speculation for everyone" in regards to the game's script.
That's not integrity or vision. That's selling your product.
Before we go too far down that dark road of finger pointing and name-calling, selling a product is not a bad thing. No one discriminates against the artist for charging money for a painting; it's the nature of the business. You walk a fine line between creating art and creating a product people will want to buy. Some worry that shoving the Mass Effect 3 ending back in BioWare's face will compromise the structural integrity of the studio and the industry at large, as well as doom us to cookie-cutter designs due to creative minds' being too afraid of backlash.
I call bullshit, and I have two words to evidence against that claim: CCP Games.
Interestingly enough, as I was writing this column, I was sent on assignment to check out DUST 514 at CCP Fanfest in Iceland. CCP, for those who don't know, also makes EVE Online. That game received some huge backlash last summer for the Incarna expansion, which introduced some very, very, very expensive aesthetic options for avatars. These options, however, forced prices to skyrocket for everyone else, and the community was distraught to say the least. A game about spaceships and forming corporations was now most well-known for... a monocle.
EVE Online has a democratically elected group of players who regularly confer with CCP developers, and in the midst of the Incarna fiasco, these players were flown out to Iceland for an emergency meeting. That was in 2011, but since letting bygones be bygones wasn't enough, at every keynote at Fanfest 2012, CCP acknowledged its failure in providing something that, while artistic and cool, didn't serve the consumer in the way that the consumer wanted.
You know what? EVE Online has still seen growth in its subscribers for nine years in a row, and those apologies, saddled right alongside promises to refocus the game into what the players wanted, weren't met by boos from the crowd or accusations of endangering "artistic integrity." They were met by cheers and even standing ovations. The EVE fanbase is probably the most feverish one I've ever seen, but if CCP Games can face that wrath and still come away the following year with the largest number of Fanfest attendees ever, then BioWare can survive customers' being unhappy with their product. So can the industry. We are not so weak as to let criticism defeat us.
Frankly, if the human creative drive were so fragile as those who warn of BioWare's setting a dangerous precedent claim, we'd have a lot more to worry about than a videogame about giant killer space robots.
This is an opportunity for BioWare, both as a business and as a collection of artists. The business has learned a powerful lesson, one that should be particularly poignant in this age of apathy and restlessness over the lack of originality in games: gamers demand quality. This is BioWare's chance, perhaps more than ever, to do something different.
There are those who think that if BioWare "gives in" to demands of a new ending, game design will take a dive into the mud, the programmers and writers now too afraid of rebellious fans to poke their necks out creatively. I argue just the opposite. Gamers have shown that they expect quality from BioWare and that they want quality in the future. If publisher Electronic Arts really wants to compete with arch-rival Activision by having the better product instead of aping its designs, a la Battlefield 3 vs. Modern Warfare 3, this is a chance to show that a collection of industry professionals is willing to work with the gaming public rather than exploit them.
On the artistic side -- I almost hate to say this -- I'm glad people are calling BioWare out on what they feel is sub-par writing. Whether it is or is not is irrelevant; beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as they say. What's important is that all artists must realize they will and should face criticism. Criticism helps art grow, take new shape, and define its place in history. No artists ever grew to be a legends by being told "Yeah, that looks great" their whole life.
BioWare has been the legend of videogame writing over the past decade, but lately, we've seen some pretty fantastic stories being told from companies that were never on the radar before. Many who adore the Uncharted series do so for its plot and quick, snappy dialogue. These are games made by Naughty Dog, the people who made Crash Bandicoot. Would you have guessed 15 years ago that same company would be where it is today? Ubisoft, the studio behind that weird, limbless Rayman, now has one of the most legendary and community-adored stories in contemporary gaming thanks to the Assassin's Creed series.
BioWare has competitors now. It cannot rest on the heels of its legacy as the studio behind Neverwinter Nights and Baldur's Gate. Gamers expect more than that. Gamers have a right to desire quality, and as consumers, they have every right to point out where they feel BioWare has failed. BioWare itself has invited feedback from fans for a long time now, as quoted twice in this column alone. It would be a shame if it was only listening to the positive feedback, don't you think?
Should BioWare be forced to change the ending? Absolutely not. That would be setting a bad precedent. But can BioWare own up to its failures and still retain a devoted fan following, if not one that expands to include new individuals? Absolutely -- CCP Games did. Can BioWare maintain the artistic integrity of Mass Effect and future projects while pursuing a successful business model? I believe so -- we don't see Sean Kingston or Universal suffering by balancing the two.
I believe BioWare should change the ending of Mass Effect 3, not because I'm personally disappointed with the ending or the superficial subjectivity of its interpretation, but because gaming is an art form. The more we are willing to treat it as such instead of something to fight over, the bolder and stronger it can become. That's the industry's future, if it wants it to be.
As for me, I'm happy to just be along for the ride.
A toast to endings. And beginnings.