Mass Effect 3: Gaming, Stories, and the Democracy of Fandoms

26 Jun

ImageToday marks the official release of the ‘Extended Cut’ of the video game Mass Effect 3 by BioWare.

This is a bit of a deviation from my usual fare of film, television and literature, but I am extremely interested in this event as a fan of Mass Effect, and as somebody for whom a good story is above all treasures.

For the non-gamers in my readership, allow me to explain…

The Mass Effect trilogy is a science fiction Role-Playing Game by developer BioWare. It takes place in the 22nd Century, where humanity is a newcomer in the cosmopolitan galactic community. You play as Commander Shepard, a Human Systems Alliance Marine. More than that is up to you. Commander Shepard can be male or female, look almost any way you like, and you are given a set of options in character background and in the game’s dialogue to sculpt what kind of a person your Shepard is.

Shepard runs up against a rogue agent of the galactic UN, and is given the same status (called a Spectre) to put a stop to said rogue. In so doing, he uncovers an apocalyptic plot eons in the making that forms an imminent threat to the whole of galactic civilization.

Mass Effect 2 sees Shepard continuing to plan against this threat outside the approval of the head-in-the-sand galactic government. Shepard has to pull together a ragtag bunch of mercenaries, criminals, and general weirdoes to help foil the Big Baddies and learn their plans for invasion of the galaxy.

Mass Effect 3 sees that invasion underway, and where in 2 Shepard had to synthesize a group of individuals into a fighting force, he now has to rally whole civilizations for the final showdown.

It must be said I am not a particularly avid gamer. Strategy games like Age of Empires and puzzle games like Myst have long been my fare. Shooters and Role-Playing Games did not interest me for a long time.

Mass Effect stands as the exception to that rule. The sheer depth of the universe is stunning. The civilizations are marvellously original. The music is lovely. The graphics were already pretty good and got exponentially better from ME1 to ME3. The combat was wonderfully exciting, a science-fiction graft onto the fantasy game character classes of warrior, rogue, mage and so on. Just replace swords with assault rifles, axes with shotguns and bows with sniper rifles. Magic is replaced with ‘biotics,’ the power to manipulate gravity by people with ‘element zero’ in their systems. The same element zero is used to power faster-than-light space travel; this is the titular ‘Mass Effect.’

The story and the characters are what make it, though. The story itself is a classic epic quest with a Lovecraftian twist. As Shepard, your piece is to talk to, get to know and help prepare your allies for the mission. By those means, you get to participate in and shape you character arc and those of the other characters, many of which are genuinely heart-wrenching and beautiful. It has become, as a result, hugely popular, spawning a horde of memes, fan art and fan fiction, as well as supplementary comics. I’ve heard it called the Star Wars of our generation.

Unfortunately, the worst implications of that statement came out with Mass Effect 3. Mind you, most of Mass Effect 3 was absolutely spectacular. The dialogue was as great as ever (and for the first time there was a lot of dialogue between non-player characters, as opposed to just Shepard having one-on-one chats all the time). Some long-running plots were settled, and Shepard’s own character started to show a path to resolution.

And then the ending happened.

I didn’t write about it at the time because I didn’t actually play Mass Effect 3 until a month after it came out. I was on an overseas internship and intentionally kept myself locked off from reviews and spoilers until I finally got to play the game. I had heard that the endings were a bit of a letdown. I had fancied that they might have been rushed or just unable to live up to our very high expectations.

There’s not a lot I can say that hasn’t been said already, many times. I’ll recommend these articles to outline the problem:

Gamefront: Mass Effect 3 Ending-Hatred: 5 Reasons the Fans are Right

Doyce Testerman: Mass Effect, Tolkien and Your Bullshit Artistic Process

Suffice to say for now is that as you near the end of the game, and of an emotionally intense and demanding adventure, the last ten minutes seem to come out of a completely different game, a different genre even!  The themes built throughout the game are totally discarded, player choices in the game have no significance, and the end of the game is reduced to three isolated choices. Worse still, the choices seem to make no significant difference apart from the colour scheme of the ensuing cutscene, much of which literally makes no sense in the context of the game up until then.

When I finally reached the end of the game myself, I was at first convinced I had misunderstood something, and wracked my brains for some time to try and fathom it. Then I was furious at the carelessness shown by trying to disguise incomprehensibility as high art. Then I was heartbroken because I realized that without any real closure, there was no appeal in playing the game again.
It was at this point that I thought, “Good grief, Alexander, you’re going through the Five Stages of Grief over a video game!” That’s a measure of how good it was, right up until the end.

BioWare has, or had, a reputation for respecting fan desires and their wish for a choice-heavy game experience. This reputation was enough to cause a sense of betrayal. Worse still, the executive producer Casey Hudson had, up to within two months of release, made several fairly specific statements that the conclusion of the trilogy would tie together choices made throughout the game, that numerous different permutations of the ending would be possible , and that the game would be not just be a bland A, B or C ending. And they delivered the exact opposite of all of those.

Exactly what went wrong is unclear. Drew Karpyshyn, lead writer for the first two games, left the Mass Effect project before 3, but left a detailed outline for the others to build on. There was a story circulating that Hudson locked most of the writing staff out of the creative process late in the game and did the ending independently, but I haven’t been able to track it to a reliable source, and I’m ever more convinced that this isn’t true. Many blame EA, which lately became BioWare’s distributor, for meddling in the writing in the pursuit of fan controversy. Again, I have as yet no way to verify this.

Such a popular franchise’s ending would be polarizing, that one expects. But a poll on BioWare’s own site showed about 1000 voters happy with the ending, and over 60000 completely outraged and demanding the ending be changed. For many players, the inconclusive and meaningless ending killed off the appeal of starting a new version of the game, to take Shepard and company down a different path, because that path leads to nowhere worth going.

What followed was absolutely fascinating. For one thing, it exposed a severe disconnect between gamers as a community and gaming journalists. The latter threw many high scores at the feet of ME3. When confronted with the outrage of gamers, MovieBob and other known game critics were utterly savage to the community that they are meant to serve. Even the ever-contrary and intelligent Yahtzee Croshaw came down against what became known as the ‘Retake Mass Effect’ movement (after the game’s advertising slogan of ‘Retake Earth’).  Even other gamers (possibly especially other gamers) sneered at the ME3 fan base as ‘whiny’ and ‘entitled.’

As heartbroken as I was by the ending, for the same reasons as most everyone else, I was inclined to feel guilty about even caring this much. It’s only a story after all, and isn’t it rather reflective of the gamer stereotype of having no life that this is all they can get outraged about?

Happily I found myself vindicated by the way in which the ‘Retake’ movement handled things. Just to make the point about how unhappy they were, a campaign was launched that raised, eventually, US$80,000 for charity in the name of ‘Retake.’ My own empirical investigation of comment threads on BioWare Social Forum, Facebook and the Escapist show, contrary to my usual experience of internet arguments, that the abusive, trollish and aggressive behaviour of commenters comes overwhelmingly (though not exclusively) from the anti-Retake side. Retakers are certainly passionate, and some are extremely blunt, but mostly seem very rational and even responsible.

Forbes magazine has gotten in on things on the side of the consumers and players of the game, which has been taken as a sign of gaming becoming a ‘mainstream’ industry. There were even attempts to formally report BioWare for False Advertising. Perhaps excessive, ultimately unsuccessful, but telling.

After some statements by BioWare wherein they insisted that they wanted an ending that caused discussion and controversy, and that to change it would violate ‘artistic integrity’ (provoking the reply ‘what artistic integrity?’) they said that they would produce an ‘extended cut’ to ‘clarify’ the endings.

This hasn’t satisfied a lot of people, myself included. The endings are so at variance with the rest of the game that it is felt that they are a complete write-off. ‘Clarifying’ them has been regarded as more of a cop-out than a concession. The ‘Retake’ movement has been hesitating to continue their pressure since that announcement, at once hoping and fearing for the outcome.

Apart from my own interest in a worthy ending to such a great story, I think this is a really neat study in the democratization of art. With projects like TV Tropes, people interested in a good story are teaching themselves and others what stories are made of, and becoming informed consumers of stories. Once, only academics and professional critics got to pass judgement on the quality of stories. Now anyone (like me!) can plead a case for them.

Because games can be altered easily with Downloadable Content (patches or expansions of the game’s software that can be downloaded into a computer or console) they are the ideal medium for this process. Some people fret that BioWare’s concession (if such it be) sets a bad precedent of the unwashed masses ordering the professionals and artists around. That not only sells the masses a bit short, but the precedent was actually set in 2009 by Bethesda. They created the Broken Steel DLC for Fallout 3 after fans expressed displeasure with the ending. Their complaint was more to do with mechanics than story, but then again Mass Effect’s misstep is seen as far more serious.

As I wait pensively to hear how the Extended Cut holds up, I look forward to seeing where organized story advocacy goes from here. I fear that if the new DLC isn’t up to scratch, I may need to join the hosts of fanfiction writers using that medium to cope.

Video games stand to become a very powerful storytelling medium (as Yahtzee Croshaw has famously said) because they break down the divide between protagonist and audience. In addition to showing the evolution of an involved and intelligent audience, the ‘Retake’ movement’s charitable concerns have done something almost poetic. A common stereotype of nerds is that we only care about fantasy and escapism while everyone else is getting on with real life. ‘Retake’ rejected this A or B choice just as they rejected the Red, Blue or Green choice in ME3 by helping people through charitable fundraising .

So I wish well everyone embarking on testing this (hopefully) olive branch from BioWare. It would be a crying shame if these superb storytellers lose the great respect they’ve earned for good. We on the fan side will continue to appreciate a good story well-told, and stand for their value in a good world. Or, as we say in the Mass Effect fandom…

We Will Hold the Line!

1 Comment

Posted by on June 26, 2012 in Video Game


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One response to “Mass Effect 3: Gaming, Stories, and the Democracy of Fandoms

  1. Mom

    June 27, 2012 at 12:10 am

    Very well-written and cogent.


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