Hi! This is a re-post from my blog: http://electricdragon80k.blogspot.com It was the result of an entire Saturday, from about 1 PM to 5 AM, with an edit here or there after the fact. It's long enough that I have to break it up over two different blog posts. (I definitely need to work on my sense of brevity.) Still, I think I avoided blind hate or name-calling, so it's got that going for it. Hope you like it.
Part 1: This is going to take a while...
The biggest thing in gaming so far this year has been Mass Effect 3, the conclusion of an epic space opera trilogy that allows the gamer unprecedented choice in how the story of the game proceeds. It builds on the events of the first two games and the choices you've made, all of which comes together into what everyone hoped would be a giant, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink conclusion. Who you loved and who you hated, who you killed and who you saved, all of it coming together in an effort to save a universe you have created. To anyone who played all three games, you're looking at a total time investment of over a hundred hours of gaming.
The biggest thing in gaming news has also been Mass Effect 3. Longtime fans are up in arms about an ending to the series that they perceive as too brief, too ambiguous, as well as illogical and in direct conflict with the themes Bioware has nursed throughout the series. It crumbles under even a brief application of their own internal logic. Worse, it breaks the illusion of choice that was a centerpiece of the series by offering three endings with no real difference other than a color choice. It also effectively renders the universe you've created broken and suggests that you are responsible for the deaths of billions of innocent people. (Hardly the heroic sacrifice fans had girded themselves for.) These disappointed fans have started a campaign to change or expand the ending of the series. You can find them on Facebook, on Twitter, on the web, and on every gaming site's comment threads and message boards. They've already raised 80K for charity, which has become a controversy of it's own, and a new one started a few days that has, at the time of this writing, raised over $3000 in only a few days. Their backlash has a backlash of it's own, from developers, fans, and nearly every major gaming news site in existence.
Those who take the time to scroll through the user comments on the 50,000+ strong Demand A Better Ending To Mass Effect 3 Facebook page will note that (excusing the occasional troll or conspiracy theorist) they are an unusually earnest and well-behaved group. It really is like watching people find solidarity through mutual disappointment. Stick around long enough and you can see new members actually going through the different stages of grief. They have their own memes, their own rallying cry ("Hold The Line!") and their own mascots like the very funny Marauder Shields, Harby The Reaper, and BetterME3Ending Twitter accounts that mine the touchy topic for comedy. Overall, they're organized, polite and motivated.
Not that you'd be able to tell from the news coverage.
One of the most fascinating things about the controversy has been the disconnect between the fans and the media coverage surrounding it. The Retake Mass Effect crowd has been derided as "whiny," "entitled," "idiots," they've been compared to the psychotic Annie Wilkes in Stephen King's Misery, they've been laughed at, condescended to, misrepresented and dismissed. IGN in particular has been nearly Fox News-ian in it's negative coverage. It seems been lowered to a simmer now in light of most outlets not wanting to insult their own readers any more than they already have. "Passionate" seems to be the term now.
The argument against Bioware changing the ending is largely about "artistic integrity." You're welcome to dislike it, you're welcome to outright hate it, but that was what they created and you're stuck with it. It's a subject worthy of a lively debate, which I'll address in a bit, but that debate has never happened. Instead, we get dismissive, condescending or insulting articles based on little or no research which play to to prejudices of the writer. The disconnect throws an intense light on the breakdown between gaming journalists and gaming fans.
It's not hard to understand. Find an article on IGN or G4 or GameSpot and go into the comment thread. You will inevitably find trolls, condescending assholes and that special kind of douchebag who mistakes cynicism for maturity. Everyone has an opinion and everyone seems to think that they honor-bound to tell you exactly what it is. It's easy to imagine that, if I were some kind of paid gaming journalist and I had to wade through the unrestrained id of a comment thread or message board supposedly populated by "fans," I'd get very cynical and very disenchanted very fast. (It's part of the reason why I have comments here turned off.) I think it's a prime factor in why gaming sites reflexively beat the drum of the "whiny, entitled fanboy." And that's saying nothing of the day in, day out job of playing games and the emotional distance you get just out of sheer repetition. More than anything Retake is in search of a sense of closure that wraps up the series in a logical but emotional way that pays off the work they've put in. The gaming media, I think, can't allow themselves the emotional attachment that fans have.
The Retake movement is by no means perfect. Bioware's Twitter feeds have been awash in angry, disappointed and downright mean fans venting at the people they see as responsible. Message boards and comment threads have as many people who hate the endings and the equally immature people who hate the people who hate the endings. (I've been called a "faggot" more than once in the few times I tried to weigh in on the subject publicly.) Metacritic and Amazon.com user ratings for the game are in the toilet, first from the homophobes railing against the possibility of a gay male relationship in-game, then by the people up in arms about the day one DLC, then finally by the people protesting the ending. As much as Retake denounces those actions on their Facebook page and in the comments, there's always someone new coming along to kill the possibility of an intelligent discussion, regardless of which side they're on.
The thing that got the ball rolling, a poll on the Bioware message boards with tens of thousands of votes, had fully 98% of voters in favor of a "brighter" ending. You could give up a full 20% to trolls and ballot stuffing and you still have 3 out of 4 people unhappy with the ending. Whatever they intended the ending to be, that's an unmitigated failure on Bioware's part. Unfortunately, the poll was also kind of a misnomer. The reporting of the poll stuck to the idea that fans wanted a happier ending but if you read enough of the comments, that's not exactly the takeaway. Most people seemed fine with the concept of a heroic sacrifice (in fact, it was expected) but for those who maxed out every possible stat only to be confronted with three abrupt endings with no real difference... well, that was too much. Sacrifice is fine if you get to see what you sacrificed for. Die hard fans never got that closure. A lot of people who wanted a brighter ending only wanted it for the people who worked the hardest to get there. This seems to be a sticking point for a lot of people but, in a game that is supposed to reward you for your choices, not having a range of different endings goes against the fundamental concept.
The initial press blitz about the Retake movement used that "brighter ending" line almost exclusively and that attitude towards reporting has followed the group going forward. When one angry fan reported Bioware to the FTC, Retake denounced him even though that fact wasn't well reported. Others have tried to lump Retake in with the douchebag homophobes angry about the possibility of an in-game gay relationship. When Retake organized a charity drive through Child's Play that netted $80,000, some sites responded by calling it "cynical" and claiming to be "disgusted." Even the most cursory glance at the comments from Retake and you'll find that they're just trying to find a constructive use for their disappointment or were using it to show Bioware by example how committed they were to the idea of a new ending. Child's Play eventually shut down the charity drive after it reached their cap due to being "buried under mail" by people who thought "that they were paying for a new ending to Mass Effect" with "a high number of people asking for their donations back." Proof of those claims has not been provided but Retake denounced those asking for their money back to little fanfare. (And, seriously, asking for a refund from a charity? What the hell is wrong with you?) In response, they've started their own charity, Full Paragon. They've also organized a cupcake protest, sending Bioware's Edmonton offices 402 vanilla cupcakes with red, blue and green frosting, a cheeky dig at the three interchangeable endings they were given. Even this very clever use of "killing them with kindness" managed to get reported with snark in most cases.
And so it goes. Cynicism in the face of what seems like an endless series of trolls making personal attacks is one thing but it's no excuse for lazy journalism. There is a damn good conversation to be had about whether or not art is malleable and who really controls a work of art once it's presented to the masses. When game journalists feel like tackling that argument, I'll be happy to read it. Until then, I'm choosing where I get my news very carefully.
To Be Continued!
Mass Effect: Controversy, Failures and Hope, Pt. 1
Blog entry posted by The Defenestrator, Apr 8, 2012.