Saturday, March 24, 2012

Mass Attack 3: The Democracy of Whining

This post is about the reactions to Mass Effect 3's ending and not the ending itself, so unless you consider the knowledge that the game had a controversial ending to be a spoiler, then you should be safe. But then if you're a gamer who's not aware of this shitstorm by now then you probably don't know how to read so why are you even here?

It isn't as if bad endings are particularly new to video games. Three decades ago, when the form was still in its infancy, it was par for the NES course to be rewarded with "CONGRATURATIONS! YOU ARE GREAT" and a jarring return to the start screen. Even once gaming had moved away from its typically bare-bones narratives, there were still disappointments aplenty to be found amidst the epics. Who remembers the ending of Fable? And though I never played Knights of the Old Republic 2, a trip to Youtube reveals a game that culminates in a visually tedious ten minute conversation, a twenty-second cutscene, and then credits.

Obsidian, however, somehow managed to dodge the public flogging that Bioware has endured lately. Once held on high for their expansive, open-world RPGs, they're currently being pilloried all over the Internet for their handling of Mass Effect 3. Sure, few people were happy about KOTOR 2's famously rushed ending, but things died down soon enough. The fan outrage this time around is unprecedented; relatively level-headed expressions of disappointment, such as the Retake ME3 charity, were quickly co-opted by those rabid folk drawing attention to themselves by filing complaints with the FTC or boasting that they were able to get a full refund from Amazon after completing the game. Few concrete results came from all of this sturm-und-drang, naturally, as Retake ME3 degenerated into a mess of confused and angry gamers and the FTC doesn't care about Mass Effect 3.

BioWare got the message, though: people are fucking pissed. They've poured 100+ hours of their lives into this epic saga, the last ten minutes didn't meet their expectations, and they're going to make the developers pay for it in blood - or at least a new ending. In some ways, I think this reflects a highly industry-savvy attitude on the part of the Internet. They paid for a product, it failed to deliver, and they feel it's their right to complain. Fair enough. That sensation of dissatisfaction is further amplified by the illusion of agency that video games provide; being disappointed with a movie's ending is a completely different feeling than having "been a part" of an experience that ultimately let you down. It thus makes sense to the unhappy parties that their sixty dollars should buy them some sort of compensatory efforts from a business that is invested in giving them what they want. Gaming has been monetized faster than any other medium, but consumers are learning their rights just as quickly.

The question is whether or not the fanbase's understanding of their relationship with BioWare entitles them to exert creative control over them. I'm not trying to determine here whether or not the ending is successful. This is more of an effort to find the line between the "rights" of the storyteller and the "rights" of the consumer. Many fans seem to think that, because they were burned by the consumerist impulse, this somehow grants them free rein to determine how BioWare should be crafting their games. Look at the rhetoric of that GameFAQs poll. The question isn't "Did you like the ending of Mass Effect 3?" but instead "Do you think BioWare should change the ending of Mass Effect 3?" And the choice that 37% of the respondents went for is "if it's what the users want, they should get it."

Of course a smart company is going to play to its consumer base. It's healthy for fans to have an outlet where they can create a dialogue with the content producers. The problem with letting them shape the product to this extent is that peoples' tastes are fallible and they don't always know what they want. Square-Enix learned this the hard way with Final Fantasy 12 and 13, designing the latter as a remedy to the savage backlash the former incurred. I can only imagine the looks on the developers' faces when 13 came out and critical and fan reactions were actually WORSE. If they couldn't win with either an earthy, mature low-fantasy aesthetic or a hyperballistic vomitorium of colors and jargon, and they couldn't win with open-world quest-oriented gameplay or twenty-five hours of crippling linearity, then how were they supposed to win at all? (My bias might be showing.)

Perhaps there's a clear if not pessimistic answer that can be derived from all of this: gamers love to complain. This culture more than any other is perpetually upset over things that are ultimately quite trivial. But now this deepened understanding of the economic climate of video gaming is challenging the nature of that triviality. A movie costs ten bucks, so it's gonna suck if you didn't like the ending. A video game, however, is sixty dollars, plus whatever your investments were in the prequels, plus any DLC you may have acquired, plus the looming possibility that BioWare and EA might take your complaints about the ending and leverage them into making even more money. Not that they would - greedy as EA might be, they would have to be absolutely insane to take the one possible solution to this PR nightmare and use it to bleed their infuriated customers drier still. If anything at all, I think the most disenchanting part of this Mass Effect 3 debacle to people is the shattering of that sense of control that video games often provide us with. Millions of Mass Effect fans created their Shepard, guided him or her through three chapters of intergalactic intrigue and adventure, and found themselves sidewinded by the realization that they really DON'T control their own fates. BioWare does. EA does. People are going to try and "reclaim" that power, but those efforts come from a fundamental misunderstanding about how video gaming and the industry truly work. You're participating in someone else's creation, and although it may be in a different way than films and books and television have prepared us for, they're going to get the final word.


  1. I thought the ending was fine, it just was disappointing that none of your decisions really changed it. Plus a lot of people didn't get the extra ending at the end of the credits that left it open to another game.

    1. The role of the player's decisions is something I intend to explore in the next post. I think that sense of "choice" is tied to the ending in a very delicate way that would definitely disappoint a lot of people.

  2. I believe the gamer fan base is so upset with the ending of Mass Effect 3 because it made absolutely zero sense. There was no logic behind it and the writers did away with a lot of the core concepts that were true throughout the series. Instead the writers gave the players the idea that they were going to have an impact on the ending when in fact they didn't. Add on top of that, the game up until the ending was very well done and had quite an interesting story.... which leads to the shock of the ending being a great disappointment.

    However, upon further examination the ending begins to make sense. There are many clues throughout all three games that lead to an alternate spin on how the "ending" is portrayed. If this theory is in fact Biowares' intention, then they are absolutely geniuses and this whole incident can be summed up as a PR stunt. ( I like this idea)


    If in fact this wasn't their intention and the ending we received was in fact "The End" I will gladly jump on the anti-Bioware bandwagon.

  3. I was going to put this on FB, but it became far too long winded.

    Something your blog misses is the information where in multiple interviews, and many times over, that Hudson sees Mass Effect as a collaborative effort, and that the game itself changes organically to work WITH their players - something many in the industry don't do, and for the most part Bioware does successfully.
    Some of the rabid gamers are a bit over the top - but then your blog title sort of discredits any of their milder concerns. Do you believe someone on the other side will engage a healthy debate if your primary title calls those upset whiners?
    But I digress. As someone who felt disappointed over the endingS, it wasn't so much the lack of choice. You mention our current culture from one standpoint, but negate to mention the general age of those playing the game, and the overall situation many of those gamers can be in culturally. For me, Shepard became a symbol that withstands the odds. They are the person that stands and fights when no one else can, in this dark hopeless universe. When others have lost hope, Shepard picks them up, dusts them off, and proves that we can endure.
    I believe it was Penny Arcade quoted with saying "Heroes die". Heroes DO die, but the character so many people cultivated became a beacon of hope on their own accord. The way Bioware follows through with their endings, it feels like they lost that understanding. No one wants to see their symbol for hope die in vain. (Probably good idea for me to state that I don't mind my Shepard's death, if the sacrifice is necessary...I'm not one of those looking for a super duper happy ending)
    It was more that Bioware missed an amazing opportunity to reshape a genre and elevate video games to a NEW artistic level that disregards their static nature - as DLC tries to curve. For me the weakest argument to defend the ending is to say it was creative choice. That doesn't change what they did to be artsy or cutting edge. It's used as an excuse as to why it is bad. And as an artist I feel offended that people will use ART as their shield, when art was never meant to be used in such a way.
    And while there are MANY who are trouncing around asking for the ending to be fixed, many more just want DLC of some sort to explain the ending and explore the universe, which makes sense because people have invested so much time into the games. And I don't know if you follow anything on the BNS, but there are just as many threads regarding this standpoint, as there are 'Omg liek gimme happeh endings'

    But let's be serious. What the fuck went through their heads when they got rid of the PERFECTLY FINE mission menu from ME2.. and how the heck did they make ducking for cover a retarded backwash version than what it already was? (I do so much in multiplayer because the game things I want to duck, when I'm just trying to run -_- )

    1. Thanks for the insightful comment! Good to hear from you. I've seen a couple of your posts about the game on Facebook and was hoping this might open a discussion.

      - There are definitely creative decisions from game to game in the Mass Effect series that fans have had clear influence in implementing, which I think is admirable. The final decisions lie within BioWare's purview, however, and I think they took an enormous gamble with their fans in pursuing an unexpected creative direction. Clearly this gamble was not all that successful; I'm very curious to see how the "game content initiatives" coming out in April that Muzyka mentioned will change this landscape.
      - "Whining" may have been an overly harsh word to use. I just liked the sound of the title. There's whining on both sides of any debate.
      - I know that there are people who are disappointed with the ending not necessarily because of perceived incoherence or OMG ALL THEY DID WAS CHANGE THE COLORS but because it really is a dark, sad note to close the series on. Seeing one's Shepard, someone they've spent so long and overcome so much adversity with, unable to truly subjugate forces beyond his or her control is understandably frustrating. This bleeds into discussions of the content of the ending, which I wanted to get to in a later post, but I think that sort of bittersweet, resigned end note is a daring way for the Mass Effect saga to conclude. I personally really like it, but different strokes for different folks, y'know?
      - Extrapolating from that, I don't think they missed any sort of artistic or innovative opportunity at all. Video games ARE static and they will be static for a very long time. What they did do that is especially impressive to me is create a game world wound around the "power of choice" and then subvert that same power at the very end as a final challenge to both Shepard and the player. Just about every game with a morality/choice system still regiments players along one set path through the course of the game regardless of which credo they adhere to - that notion of choice is an illusion, meant to add artificial texture to the act of fulfilling objectives that bring the player to the endgame. Mass Effect 3 is the only game to really look this stale mechanic in the eye and do something with it.
      - I totally agree with both of your final complaints. The quest log is straight-up doodoo and I'm still trying to master the cover system. It becomes especially glaring playing a Krogan in feels like I'm trying to drive a fucking truck just getting from one end of a room to the next and randomly taking cover when I don't mean to doesn't help.