[Note: This is a companion piece to something I wrote earlier this week on the same subject but from a different point of view. In addition, while there are no spoilers per say, the way I talk about and characterize Mass Effect 3’s ending in the abstract might make it better for people who want to approach the end of the game with no preconceptions to pass for now. For anyone who wants background on the game, or the controversy over the ending, E.D. Kain has extensive coverage here, there, and elsewhere.]
Player backlash against Mass Effect 3’s ending has given way to an interesting discussion about artistic integrity and what it means in an age of interactive media. Specifically, calls for BioWare to create an alternative to the series’ current conclusion beggs the question of just what, precisely, the relationship of creators to their audience is.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, many who identify as gamers and readers support a more cooperative and collaborative approach to video game creation, while the designers who produce them, and the journalists who write about them feel unequivocally that those protesting Mass Effect 3’s ending are out-of-bounds.
For instance, no one at IGN supports BioWare’s decision to re-evaluate Mass Effect’s conclusion based on consumer reactions. And one of the site’s editors, Colin Moriarty, argues that if BioWare did produce an alternative ending it would set a dangerous precedent for other developers, adding that he has lost respect for BioWare as a result of the fact that they would even entertain such a course of action.
The crew of Giant Bombcast is “disgusted” by these requests as well, in part because of the seeming disrespect for developers that such propositions implied. The list of course goes on, all expressing the same basic sentiment: consumers of media can dislike it, but not dare ask its creators to change or amend it.
But these simplistic positions hardly deal at all with the current reality of most “art,” let alone an extremely commercialized form of media like video games. For several reasons, the analogy between an intentionally designed and singularly authored work of art and a deeply collaborative, inherently commercial, and fundamentally interactive game like Mass Effect 3 is not just inappropriate: it’s downright false.
Video games are developed by teams. Rarely are these teams so cogently managed as to allow one head designer complete oversight of the entire project. I can write a book by my self. Most big movies require a cast and crew but can be organized in such a way that auteurship is arguably still possible. But with larger video games, especially AAA titles like Mass Effect 3, it is a fool’s errand to try and trace any of the creative results back to those people from whom they originated. Simply put, video games are deeply collaborative, and extremely technical, leading to more compromises and unintentional outcomes than in most other mediums.
Furthermore, the commercial nature and mission of a game like Mass Effect 3 means that it is necessarily the amalgamation not just of creative impulses, but of marketing and sales goals as well. One need only look back at the first Mass Effect, where the series’ story began, to see just how much the game has been transformed as its popularity and mainstream appeal have grown. In Mass Effect 3 players can even choose to have the storytelling minimized if they would instead prefer to focus their time and efforts more run and gun gameplay. Options about how to experience the game like this one are not just aimed at increasing Mass Effect 3’s potential audience though, they are demonstrative of the interactive, and therefore unpredictable nature of video game narratives.
Because the person who sits down with one of the Mass Effect games has a wide range of options to choose from when deciding how to play. That is part of, if not the central appeal of the franchise. Disparagingly called “Choose Your Own Story” by some, the Mass Effect series aims at providing players with the feeling of inhabiting a believable sci-fi universe combined with the agency to actually affect the contours of how that universe develops. This poses an obvious problem for exercising authorial control as a developer. While the creators of Mass Effect can constrain the ultimate outcome of any set of choices, and, to the disappointment of fans, limit the narrative’s ultimate possibilities, they have almost no direct control over how the player engages with the story and what potential experiences they might choose to pursue or ignore.
A player might skip over certain pieces of dialogue either because they find it boring, or potentially because the fiction of the game makes them feel that such banter is harmful to the mission at hand, and something “their” Shepard would not put up with when life in the galaxy is facing extinction. This latter reason demonstrates that a player could disregard the “written” story, even while reaming true to the overall narrative at work in their playthrough.
And this is perhaps the most damning evidence for why trying to conceive of Mass Effect 3, let alone the series, as a whole, as a unified creative work, is pure folly. Because unlike many other types of media such as movies, books, or television, video games don’t just ask players to empathize or identify with the story’s protagonist, ones like Mass Effect explicitly invite them to become that character. In a way, the developers behind Mass Effect 3 are charged with writing a story, the main character of which is someone they’ve never met, and over whom they have no control. There might be a better or worse way to read a novel, like reading all of it instead of only half. But is there any better or worse way to be someone; a better or worse way to live, act, and behave in a playfully fictitious reality?
Playing Mass Effect is more like doing virtual improve than taking part in the carefully controlled art of another person. This does not at all denigrate the importance of the developer, without whom the video game would not exist, but rather to reaffirm the significance of the player, without whom the game’s story would not exist.
The series has no strict canonical throughline. BioWare has argued this repeatedly. As such, the game has no canonical ending. In fact, the game has several endings; something else BioWare has repeated over and over again. They are all different. And while not as different as some fans would like, many have also pointed out that Mass Effect was never about the end, about winning or losing, or about satisfying conclusions. It was and is arguably much more about the journey. Hence why so little plot development takes place after the first game, and why in part so many fans felt sucker punched by the ending.
Now this observation could be used to demonstrate why player passions are misplaced in arguing for a more satisfying ending. If that has not been what the recent games have been aiming toward, aren’t fans mistaken to put so much stock in it? Not really. The fact that Mass Effect 2 and 3 are concerned more with the individual characters and specific relationships points toward a series conclusion that addresses the nature of these interactions, and the importance of them in the context of a particular player’s narrative. The kind of thing most people who are dissatisfied with the current endings have been clamoring for.
If BioWare chooses not to indulge these demands that is alright by me. I don’t have a dog in this fight. But by that same token, I am not the least bit offended that other players find the endings BioWare has given them to be incongruous. And to the degree that the Mass Effect games have sought to tell a more open story, one in which players are enabled to fill it with their own narrative impulses, and from which they are encouraged to derive their own unique meanings, it is actually BioWare that is hurting the aesthetic integrity of what they’ve helped to create.
The fragmented nature of the Mass Effect universe was well known prior to the third game’s release. In features, blog posts, and forum threads, players every where shared with one another the idiosyncrasies of “their Shepard,” the events that he or she had taken part in, and the physical characteristics and personality traits that made each one unique. Many chided BioWare for creating a multiplayer mode because fans of the series and RPG purists liked the idea of the individual Mass Effect universe they inhabited being theirs, and theirs alone. BioWare doesn’t have to create an additional ending. But it certainly won’t be destroying anything by doing so.