Sunday, April 15, 2012

Mass Effect 3 Controversy con't: The Defense Of The Endings (And Why They're Still Wrong)

Yeah, this is still a thing. Just to catch you up: BioWare has announced an Extended Cut DLC to be released this summer. As of this writing, it's only to contain additional cinematics for the purpose of providing "clarity and closure." No new gameplay, no new endings. So, basically, it's an epilogue. (Something that, frankly, should have been included from the beginning.) As with my previous entry, I'm spoiling the hell out of it for you so you'd best turn back now if you haven't played it yet.

It's gotten very hard to find intelligent conversation about this subject. Most gaming news sites found it easier to trash anyone up in arms about the ending then to diagnose WHY they were pissed. It began and ended with "whiny, entitled fanboys" and the real-world mechanics of changing the ending, not the actual content of it. Which is not only intellectually dishonest, it's not even attempting to address the problem.

Most people (usually people on Renegade/Destroy ending playthroughs... the only variation that allows you to succeed AND survive) seem to stick with the argument of "I liked it so I don't see what the problem is." Which, again, isn't addressing the issues. I maintain that anyone who stops to think about the ending's details will quickly notice that the whole thing falls apart the minute you question it... which is not something that should happen in good fiction.

As a group, the people at Demand A Better Ending... and Hold The Line have put together articles on top of articles as to exactly what it is about the ending they are so viscerally opposed to. They're certainly willing to talk about it intelligently and argue the points if anyone was willing to take the counter-point. This is why, I think, we've all grown to distrust gaming journalists. If you can't debate the substance of why someone is angry, it makes it seem as though you either can't or don't want to for any number of reasons ranging from a general aura of smug condescension (hellooooo, IGN) to wanting to maintain your relationship with the developer to (if you're conspiracy theory minded) an outright exchange of money. All three options hurt your credibility as a "journalist."

Just as an example: Joker's fleeing the battle. Why did he split off from the fight? How did he pick up your companions, especially the ones with you on the final assault? Why did he run for the relay? How did he know that the mass effect relays were going to be destroyed or what the consequences of that destruction would be? It's been in both is own and EDI's character arcs in the game that they were both committed to what was really a final suicide mission for the sake of the galaxy. Even if Joker wanted to chicken out, based on your conversations with her, EDI wouldn't let him. It only makes sense if you chose the Destroy ending because he's trying to save EDI... but that still asks the question of how he even knew what was going to happen in the first place.

Answer? Because it was a "cool" visual and got them to the final shot they wanted. No internal logic necessary. It was for the "Joker and EDI as Adam and Eve" Creation Myth final shot for the Control/Synthesis endings... or to highlight the consequences of being a "whatever it takes" style Renegade player in the Destroy ending. Joker, a physically frail character most likely unable to survive on an uninhabited garden planet, with EDI dead and only a couple of teammates and crew members and a trashed Normandy... all of them likely to die alone because you were willing to sacrifice whatever you had to to win. So, yeah, it didn't matter to them HOW it happened or WHY, just that it got them the ending they wanted.

This is why I'm pessimistic about the Extended Cut DLC. As great as the team of writers at BioWare are, they're going to have to take something inherently illogical and torture the logic until it makes some kind of sense. The ending, whether you believe it was entirely the work of Mac Walters and Casey Hudson or a genuine team effort, was designed to be obtuse and speculative, not to make sense. Working backwards to explain it will only further highlight the flaws.

A month into this protest, the notion of "artistic integrity" has been argued right into the ground. It was the first and most knee-jerk reaction of the people defending the endings and they've fought against that idea hard. The "artistic integrity" argument only works if the end product wasn't already compromised to begin with. Look at the list of promises BioWare gave us and what ultimately didn't make it into the game at the end. The only way it makes sense is if they didn't have the time to implement the things they wanted. It's not a coincidence that Mass Effect 3 released at the end of this year's second fiscal quarter. It's entirely logical, even inevitable, that EA wanted to bump their profits by releasing a tentpole series game right before the quarter wrapped up (March 31st). It's important to note this because it means that BioWare had to buckle under a hard deadline rather than simply claiming that it was their intention all along. And they certainly can't call EA out on it without some vicious consequences.

Also, original lead writer Drew Karpyshyn had an entirely different ending in mind for the series that was abandoned late into the development due to a leak. Which means what we got was a last second compromise and not a well-planned, entirely thought out finale. You can make the argument that it doesn't violate artistic integrity because the game hadn't been released yet but the point isn't to prove you wrong, just to prove that the notion is muddy at best. Claiming some sort of sacrosanct artistic notion is pure pie-in-the-sky nonsense.

We're not asking for a new endings/new Starchild choices because we're "whiny and entitled," we're doing it because we know that video games are the only form of media where it's possible. Comparing Mass Effect 3 to books and movies and TV is apples and oranges and bananas. You can't even compare it to other video games. In other games, we play until we hit a non-interactive cut-scene. The cut-scene expands the characters or changes the plot/setting and then we play until the next one happens. At the end of the game, we're told what the ending is and we can take it or leave it. Maybe it's a thrill ride and maybe it's a ponderous, intellectual dissertation but we're never given the illusion of control. Other games have had light, usually very simplistic "choices" that define which of a limited number of endings we get... but that's it. THIS is why we're upset. In a series of games about choice, it's taken from us at the last second. It was objectively bad writing and, being a video game, BioWare has the means to correct that to some degree.

The few, more nuanced, arguments in defense of the endings like to state that we were never SUPPOSED to have more choices at the end. Thematically, they argue, it was always going this way. This is false for the same reason that the Indoctrination Theory was always false: it assumes too much of BioWare. Yes, from a design perspective, it was always going to have essentially a Boss Fight or button press for a finale. But thematically? No, that doesn't scan.

The notion of Cosmicism and Pre-Determination, the idea that it was all some kind of inevitable Ragnarok event, were aspects of the series but never used as central themes the way "unity," friendship," and "sacrifice" were. What's more, the idea of pre-determination in the context of a video game about choice is outright silly and counter-productive. It actively invalidates the central premise. That's not a risky literary device, that's outright breaking the game. We have been trained from the minute we pick up a controller to believe that our actions in a virtual world effect the outcome... even if it's just shooting people until we reach the end of a stage. Going against that is not evidence that BioWare is playing on an intellectual level we never noticed, it's evidence of a fundamentally bad decision. The inherent lack of logic in Joker's actions, for example, is proof of that.

Even people who like the ending can admit that their implementation of the "synthetics vs. organics" argument was either flawed or an outright failure. For those of us who played as Paragons or Para-gades, the first thought in our heads was "but I united the fucking races!" The notion that it's been pre-determined that synthetics and organics will always be at war only fits during a Renegade playthrough. Because the Starchild doesn't deign to explain this fundamental flaw in his logic, it utterly takes us out of the game. Personally, I know that this was where the game lost me... which made everything that came after all the more unreal and false. I can suspend my disbelief for a Starchild taking the form of a child I feel guilty for not saving. That doesn't mean I can suspend it when he acts like a dumbass instead of an ancient synthetic StarGod.

Part of the argument is that it shouldn't matter that the Starchild doesn't explain himself. It's a VI without the ability to self-determinate. It's just going through it's programming. But if you are willing to accept that, why do the Reapers essentially give up when Shepard arrives? Why do they agree to allow themselves to be controlled or destroyed or to magically force the universe to integrate? If your presence is enough to make them give up and offer you three ways to save the universe, you should be able to reason with it for a fourth or fifth option by addressing their giant leaps of logic.

The casualties were always going to be high. A war without sacrifices would have felt even less logical than the one we got. Even if the mass relays didn't blow up and the Reapers just keeled over, you still have a crippled, nearly decimated galaxy... but one with hope. Not exactly a party-on-Endor "wub wub" ending, especially if you factor in the almost inevitable death of Shepard. Anyone being honest would admit that they were expecting or at least prepared for it.

The "you just want a happy ending" argument was always a facepalming over-simplification if ever there was one. What we always wanted, and what we were lead to expect coming off the first two games, was an entire range of endings from happy-ish to nihilistic. Achieving an ending where Shepard lives (without committing genocide) should have been very hard but not impossible to do. That's how you motivate people to continue playing the game: so they can see all of the different permutations of their choices and how those choices play out. That's what we got in the second game and we had every reason to expect it here.

If we're going by traditional literary trilogies, there's almost always some kind of epilogue or denouement to tie everything together. I've heard and read people defending the endings by saying, ostensibly, "well, they always end that way... don't you want something different?" Well, sure... if there's some kind of creative variation. The problem with ambiguous endings is that, in the wrong hands, they're an easy cheat and a time-saver. Instead of taking the time to tie everything up, you just cut to black. Clearly, this was not the right time for one. Yes, they are hopefully providing that in the Extended Cut DLC but why wasn't it planned from the outset?

An impressionistic ending at the end of a 15 to 20 hour game is fair... but at the end of a 100+ hour trilogy of games? There was no way people weren't going to get whiplash. Casey Hudson's attitude during the first press release about the furor over the endings didn't help either. He may have wanted the endings to provoke discussion but this is definitely not the kind of discussion you want your fans having. We're in this situation now because BioWare made a huge miscalculation about the kind of game people thought they were playing.

People wanted emotional catharsis and not ambiguity and Big Sci-Fi Concepts. This kind of disconnect from the writers is surprising considering how tightly plotted the series had been up until that point. The sense of ownership people have over their characters is only there because BioWare so successfully lead us to believe we had some illusion of control over the game. Under that light, it makes sense that people are demanding an entirely new ending. We're just playing out in real life what BioWare gave us in the game. This may be the ending the developers and writers have chosen but if it doesn't meet the standards they've previously set then you could argue that it was always going to end this way. Fans are angry because they've been genuinely mislead and lied to, not because we don't "get it."

More than a month after the games release, attitudes have cooled off a bit. That's lead to heads hardening and opinions crystallizing. I'm not expecting anyone to take these counter-arguments seriously. I'm just trying to push the argument forward and not just fall back on some facile statement of "entitlement."

Keelah se'lai.

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