Sunday, March 25, 2012

Mass Effect: Controversy, Failures and Hope

(I'll try to keep the spoilers here as vague as possible but you can't talk about the subject without details so if you haven't beaten the game yet, your best bet is going elsewhere. In fact, don't read any gaming news sites at all. Go into a full blackout until you finish the game to really get the full effect so that you won't be unnecessarily swayed in one direction or the other.)

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 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.

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.

Keelah se'lai.

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