My epic long-windedness continues:
Part 2: Now would be a good time to get a sandwich or a drink. Maybe take a nap.
My reaction to the ending was like everyone else I know. My best friend and I both took a few vacation days so we could dive right into Mass Effect 3 without delay. We had done the same thing with Mass Effect 2. We ended up beating the game within twenty minutes of each other. When he heard the ending theme playing, he knocked on my door and asked me what I thought.
He agreed with the sentiment. He chose Control, I chose Synthesis. We compared notes and realized that our endings were almost entirely the same. For the rest of the night and into the next day, we both thought about it. We both got progressively angrier. He was able to find the energy to play the multiplayer and continue another save he had. I put the game away. I haven't touched it since. I understood absolutely what they were going for. The Synthesis ending was essentially a creation myth and, out of the choices given, it was the one that made the most sense as a definitive ending. But what about the plot holes? What about the fact that I was forced to choose only the options given to me by the enemy I'd been fighting for three games? Why, at the last second, was I forced abandon any hope of reconciliation between synthetics and organics when I had spent my entire playthrough brokering a fragile peace? Didn't destroying the mass relays make my Shepard a galactic mass murderer and cripple any future games in the series? How could this be the complete and definitive ending they promised? What the hell were they thinking!? And so on.
Rather than lengthen this article even more by going into the fans' complaints about the ending, I'll instead link you to an article passed around a lot as a comprehensive list. It's as spoiler heavy as you can get, so reader beware: Mass Effect 3 Ending-Hatred: 5 Reasons The Fans Are Right
I did some research. I found that the original ending to Mass Effect 3 had leaked. It was a strong ending and a fantastic set-up for another trilogy with a new character. Unfortunately, Bioware blinked and had the ending changed. That was their first mistake. While not being nearly as story-driven, the ending and details to Modern Warfare 3's story leaked early as well. No changes were made. Rather than allow a small number of basement dwellers to be content in the knowledge that they knew the ending of a video game prior to release, something that would have been quickly forgotten, Bioware went ahead with a new ending. An oddly specific message board post by someone claiming to be a writer for the game got attention and was quickly tamped down by Bioware and the writer himself as a fake. It painted a picture of a developer worried more about a leaked ending than a good one. It could be an elaborate hoax or just damage control but it was enough to get people talking, feeding the idea that this was a top down decision brought on either by EA giving Bioware a hard deadline or a Producer and Lead Writer assuming direct control, presumably for security purposes. There's also the very popular and slickly produced Indoctrination Theory:
Personally, I don't buy it. It's nice. With a little tweaking, it could absolutely be an excuse for DLC with a "real" ending. But I still don't buy it. Most of things it mentions as proof were accidents or necessary design choices, not cleverly hidden clues. The bit with the kid is genius, though. Bioware has stated, however, that it's not true and I believe them. Which leaves us the last option floated as a possible alternative: refusal. At the finale, the game gives you three options that break the illusion of choice because they are all provided to you by your enemy. You're told that it's the only way. Why? To use a line repeated several times of the course of the games: "There's always another way." Any moment in the previous games would have allowed you an opportunity to make a renegade choice and go your own way. Take your chances. It's an elegant choice that requires little tweaking. If your Galactic Readiness is too low, you succeed in firing the Crucible and you die with it. If it's high enough, they re-use the "Shepard takes a breath" scene. Simple. And it allows for the one thing almost everyone related to Retake wants: an epilogue. A chance to see the results of three games worth of hard work. Even just a montage of scenes showing you the results of your actions in the short-term. If your Shepard lives, maybe a scene with your love interest. If not, a funeral with friends (if you have any left). Or, if you suck at universe saving, a scene of a dead, empty universe and the burned out husk that's now Earth. Nothing Bioware can do will please everyone, but at least a proper send off and a sense of closure will get most of the fans off their back and playing the game again.
That is the part that boggles my mind the most. With all the work you've done crafting a universe, the game forces you to destroy it. Not because you want to, just as an inevitable consequence of whichever decision you make. As the ending of a trilogy and the set-up for another series with a different lead character, it's baffling. Either the next game is a prequel, which are never as satisfying because it's always in the back of your head that everything has been decided before you got there. Or the next game takes place so far in the future as to make all of your previous choices moot. Which is fine as a start for a new series but presents an entirely different set of problems. For a story-focused game that shipped 3.5 million copies in the first week, I'm not sure they can get away with the Final Fantasy approach. Producer Casey Hudson wrote a press release after the initial fracas saying that he wanted the endings to be "polarizing" in order to get people talking. However, having your most ardent fans questioning your ability to tell a story and the wisdom of your choices is not the conversation you want people to have. It's a conversation that leads to people not wanting to play your games anymore. To fans, the narrative of the game has already been changed to either "great game, crap ending" or "SHUT UP!" and that is not helpful at all to the health of the series going forward, financially or creatively.
This is all wildly optimistic. Bioware has announced "content initiatives" to give "clarity" and "closure" but we have no idea what form those will take. If the story about Casey Hudson and lead writer Mac Walters writing the ending of the game in secret is true and they've gone back to using their greatest resource, their team of writers and the checks and balances they provide, we might well get an ending that maintains their their original theme of sacrifice but gives the games the sense of closure they're after and doesn't ignore the other themes of friendship and unity. This is where the big question comes in: should they?
Who are we to even ask this? Video games are art and Mass Effect specifically falls into that category, if only for the emotions it manages to provoke. (Up until the last minute, anyway, where the emotions take a drastic turn.) What right do the masses have to charge or alter the art someone else has created? And what about the people who are okay with the ending? Should their experience be changed to suit a faction of disgruntled fans?
That's the argument. The idea that if a creator's work can be changed due to fan outrage, it sets a precedent that forces everyone down a slippery slope. The more hysterical journalists and commenters predict a future of compromised integrity and crowd-sourced games where developers are too scared to go with a tough, uncompromising ending for fear of alienating their audience.
It's a fair point. Bullshit, but a fair point.
Video games are still a young form of expression. In most cases, they require an entire team of people to create them, not just the vision of a single writer. Moreover, they exist to interact with a user. You are never a passive observer and that is the most important thing to remember in why people feel like they are within their rights to ask for a better ending. Between patches and bug fixes and DLC, what you get out of the box is no longer the entire experience. Mass Effect 3 is a unique case even within video games. It's a game about choices and their ramifications. It's never been entirely successful in maintaining the illusion of choice and you can see the puppet strings being pulled from time to time but overall, it's a fantastic success. It's got a fascinating history, interesting characters and alien races, excellent design and visuals, and a whopper of a story. In the end, however, we didn't fail the art, the art failed us.
The notion of artistic integrity is a nice sentiment but expecting it to hold fast over the wishes of the people paying to experience that art is more naive than those who want to change it. All art is a compromised. The end result is always distilled through multiple drafts, editing, input from people who finance it or publish it. It's not even safe after the fact. Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Dickens, Stephen King, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott... all of them have retroactively changed their works of art either by their own choice or due to a fan outcry. Comic books kill and bring back characters regularly and makes retroactive changes without anyone crying about the artistic integrity of the original creators. Musicians used to sample other artists liberally before that was regulated. Artists cop corporate logos and pop art and twist them to their own ends on canvases and the sides of buildings all over the world. A few years ago, Fallout 3 released a downloadable pack expanding the bleak ending of their game to general acclaim. It allowed people to not only continue the story of their character but to continue to explore the world inside the game. The sky has yet to fall.
The thing that ties all of those examples together is popularity and the money that comes from it. Mass Effect 3 shipped 3.5 million copies in the first week. That's a pretty big fucking deal. They have books, comics, merchandise, a movie being planned and an anime series being created as we speak. We're looking at a series that could be (or already is) the next big thing in sci-fi. The next Star Trek or Star Wars. Both series opened the door for work-for-hire writers and fans to expand the universe they created and in both cases it improved the health and longevity of the series. In some cases even eclipsing the work the original creators. Mass Effect is on the cusp of the same thing but if fan sentiment turns against them, they have a long way to fall and a lot of money to lose. This situation represents more than just an angry faction of fans, it represents the future of the series. If Bioware doesn't handle this issue carefully, they'll damage the brand in ways they can't fix. And they may never get those fans back.
Under different circumstances, I can see how repugnant it would be to have a group of people demanding change. But this isn't ignorant villagers with pitchforks we're talking about. We're talking about the combined brainpower of over 50,000 angry nerds. And those are just the ones who joined the Facebook group. Neither side of the argument can logically claim ownership over the silent majority but who needs it when you're talking about more than 50,000 angry nerds? That's a lot of emotionally invested, mildly obsessive and dangerously smart people. The biggest tragedy to the schism between Retake and those vocally against it is effectively nerds eating their own. Claiming that it's all just needy children who don't want to stop playing with their toy does not hold up to scrutiny.
In a later press release, Bioware alternately touted the litany of terrific reviews from gaming journalists and the idea that devoted fans were always a part of the creative process. Fans wanted more of Liara in Mass Effect 2, so they gave us the excellent Lair Of The Shadow Broker DLC. Fans wanted more RPG elements, so they introduced the weapon upgrading in Mass Effect 3 and branching skill paths. Bioware has tenuously opened the door to a compromise. It'll be up to the calm, level-headed people on both sides to fix things. Fans to suggest changes for the betterment of the series, developers to listen to what the fans really want and to hopefully patch some of the holes in their own storytelling. Bioware has a duty to maintain their relationship with the people who genuinely liked the original endings but they also have to address the people with legitimate concerns. That's just smart business. And the people who just want to start some shit or wag their fingers from the sidelines? Well, they'll never be happy anyway.
Part 3: Ending this thing right...
The hope is out there. For all the conspiracy theories about Bioware and EA as the Great Satan and how this was all planned from the start to charge fans for vitally important content before and after the game's release... well, unless Deep Throat surfaces and releases some e-mails, we'll never know. In the meantime, we know for a fact that Mass Effect is created by a lot of people... most of whom just want to make a good game. Game development is not a job you just happen to fall into. Whatever the corporate structure is and whatever decisions get made at the top, it's still a legitimate labor of love for a lot of people. Big, blockbuster movies can make a lot of money on a mediocre product. Games don't have that luxury.
That goes to for the flipside as well. Intense, motivated fans are not necessarily immature, broken man-children looking to escape their lives. It's an easy and lazy generalization. For every internet troll, there's five people able to hold a real conversation with you. For every arrogant, posturing, overcompensating douchebag, you can find plenty of well-adjusted people with lives, jobs, friends and loved ones.
Bioware, if they're smart, will be able to fix this in a way that may not make everyone happy but will at least address the legitimate concerns of their fans. Not for nothing, but they gave us an entire universe to play with... and provided they didn't blow the whole damn thing up for the sake of a "arty" ending, we'll come back to hang out with old friends as often as we can. Good fiction enhances reality, it doesn't replace it. You may be able to escape into it but it will always follow you home. Most of us, we just want the satisfaction of knowing that there was a universe that needed saving... so we saved it. And, as trite as it might sound, maybe apply some tiny part of that to our own lives.
However, I think we can all agree that gaming journalists are miserable sons-a-bitches.
Mass Effect: Controversy, Failures and Hope, Pt. 2
Blog entry posted by The Defenestrator, Apr 10, 2012.