Saturday, July 14, 2012

Mass Effect 3: Failure To Communicate

Spoilers! Everywhere!

Okay, so I deleted my initial review of the Mass Effect 3: Extended Cut. Honestly, it hadn't been sitting well with me since I posted it. It was cathartic at the time but, in retrospect, it wasn't fair to the things BioWare got right and only harped on them for the things they got wrong. In my defense, I wrote it after being awake for about 30 hours non-stop... which isn't helpful for anything let alone gathering your thoughts and writing about them. I hadn't allowed myself time (or a good night's sleep) to think about what I had experienced, I just went straight for the throat. At any rate, it was a bad, hacky piece of writing and I'd rather it went away. So I deleted it. I still want to write out my thoughts but in a slightly less sleep deprived, angry and spiteful way. So let's try this again:

More than three months, eighty thousand dollars donated to charity, sixty thousand plus Likes on the Retake Mass Effect Facebook page, countless blog posts, news story comments, and message board posts, BioWare has released the final final word in their landmark sci-fi/action/role playing trilogy Mass Effect 3 with the Extended Cut DLC. It comprises of some additional scenes, dialogue choices, an epilogue sequence and a brief additional ending fleshing out a finale that many felt was perfunctory at best and broken at worst.

BioWare and EA were hammered for months by outraged fans on every front. While there was a lot of disappointment over their previous offering, the rushed, buggy and unsatisfying Dragon Age II, those feelings never really went beyond message board posts and the occasional middling review. This was another beast entirely. Over $80,000 was donated to charity in protest. Fans organized letter campaigns, cupcake and M&M drives, and even reported them to places like the BBB with complaints of "false advertisement." Very much against their will, gaming websites were forced to cover the story ad nauseum. It wouldn't be unreasonable to assume that BioWare had to offer some kind of substantive response. They were understandably defensive in the press, citing the plethora of critical praise they received and passive/aggressively blaming fans for not understanding the ending. (For more on how gaming journalists failed gamers on this subject, see my first entry in the archives from March.)

It wasn't always like this. BioWare was a much loved company with a lot of experience mixing storytelling and role playing into memorable games. They're also one of the most progressive companies out there in terms of portraying women and the LGBT community as equal to men. They were often mentioned in the same breath as companies like Bethesda, Valve and Gearbox for their commitment to quality and their close relationship with fans. For things to go this badly wrong this fast, BioWare had to act. But is it enough?

Well, as with everything on the internet, it's seen as a mixed bag. For the people who really only wanted clarification and a proper epilogue, the fight seems to be over. They're as content with the endings as they can be... in the sense that it's gone from abominable to merely bad. For everyone else, like myself, who see a much bigger, deeper problem with the endings, we have to resign ourselves to calling the game an artistic failure.

The problem with the endings starts at the beginning. On the run after the Reapers (the Big Bads of this universe who are bent on consuming and repurposing all organic life to their own ends) the hero, Shepard, meets a young boy hiding in a vent. The boy makes a portentious statement about not being able to be saved and runs off. Later, as Shepard is leaving Earth, he sees the boy again as he crawls into a departing spaceship... which is then destroyed as it tries to escape. This apparently affects Shepard deeply as he has nightmares over the course of the game where he's chasing after the kid only to see him go up in flames.

This is where they screwed the pooch. Not only does it foreshadow the events of the ending but also the exact mistakes BioWare will end up making.

It's a good scene and illustrates the horrors of war in an effective way... but making the assumption that all players care deeply for this anonymous kid they've known only for a minute shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what kind of game they were making. Mass Effect is a series built around the concept of player choice. The only way it works is if you don't force the players to accept your own morality. By presenting them with different options on how to unfold the story, they get to choose how they feel about things. The writers and developers are simply following those choices to their logical conclusion. The idea that Renegade Shepards who have willingly sacrificed friends, teammates and innocent lives in the pursuit of destroying the Reaper threat will suddenly be struck with this heavy guilt because of one kid is silly. Even my Shepard, a humanist who is loyal to his friends and innocents, willing to give a second chance but merciless towards his enemies, didn't spare an extra thought to a single dead kid. Until they forced it on me. Naturally the game had to get you into the chute and sliding towards the endgame but there are hundreds of ways to do that without speaking for the player.

It's telling that between the Mass Effect games, Shepard is always put on ice somehow. In Mass Effect 2 he was dead and in Mass Effect 3 he was grounded and confined to quarters following the destruction of a star system. As a character, he does not exist until you pick up the controller. He doesn't have a life that he's living in-between games. BioWare have gone out of their way to make sure you think of Shepard as an extension of yourself. Which makes their sudden decision to force guilt onto you for narrative reasons all the more confusing and wrong-headed.

Fast forward to the last ten minutes of the game. Shepard is presented with three options by a Virtual Intelligence in the form and voice of the dead child from the beginning of the game. Two of them are poison pills that will end the Reaper threat and the last is presented as the best ending despite have the creepiest subtext. It breaks down like this: Control (a/k/a The Creepy Space Jesus Ending), Destroy (a/k/a Genocide) and Synthesis (a/k/a Happy Happy Good Times With Puppy Dogs and Rainbows). Again, BioWare makes the same mistake. Either all of the endings need to be poison pills or none of them. For one ending to be the "perfect" one, you're tacitly punishing players for choosing anything else. It's no longer their ending, it's the wrong ending.

It doesn't help that the implications of the endings are all an utter mess.

Let's start with Control. Control is what the secondary villain, The Illusive Man, has been after since he was introduced in the second game. By controlling the Reapers, Shepard dies and has his consciousness added to the Reapers where we will take control of them and use their power to rebuild the galaxy. Now, put aside the fact that there are exactly zero people in the universe who would trust the Reapers just because they stop killing everyone and say "Oh, hey, it's cool, bro. It's Shepard. I got this." We have watched every single character over the course of the series who has come in close contact to the Reapers become "Indoctrinated." No matter how strong they are, if you're too close to them for too long the Reapers will eventually turn you into a slave via mind control. It's implied that Shepard may be immune to Indoctrination due to events in the first game but it's never made implicit. And considering the voice over narration that happens during this ending of Shepard with a dead, monotone, slightly auto-tuned voice and the creepy music that accompanies it, you have to wonder if Shepard doesn't eventually lose it. It's not actually Shepard in the Reapers, it's just a copy of his consciousness so it stands to reason there's a finite length on his control. In which case the Reapers come back and kill everyone all over again. So clearly, for those reasons, Control is not the "good" ending.

Destroy. This is the option I think most people would like the best if not for the elephant in the room: you have to kill all synthetic creatures in the galaxy, including your teammate and friend EDI, in order to do it. It's easily the cleanest, most utilitarian option. You kill the Reapers, everything goes back to relative normalcy. The cycle of violence is broken. There's even a chance Shepard survives, though it's only a brief scene where a body lies in rubble and takes a breath and only really seems to be there to make that choice a little less bleak. The Destroy ending won't be a problem if you've chosen to play a Renegade Shepard where the ends justify the means, but if you're a Humanist and you're not interested in impregnating the galaxy with your essence against their will or becoming an immortal synthetic space God, this is clearly the best ending.

This illustrates the other big problem with the endings: BioWare's insistence that "Synthetics will always be at war with Organics." Over the course of the series there have been conversations about the role of synthetics and missions involving VI run amok and the centuries long conflict between the Geth and the Quarians. The Reapers themselves are even synthetic/organic hybrids. The problem crops up because the game always gives you more than one way to resolve the issue. Most famously, in the case of the Geth and Quarians, the third game allows you to broker a peace between them. Which means the game actively works against it's own assertion.

The entire idea is incredibly arbitrary and naive. If Mass Effect is a series that allows us to essentially build a universe out of our own actions, why is BioWare stepping in at the very last second to yank it out of your hands? Why is it working against itself to present a flawed premise that is easily dismissed? Most of the excuses organics use to go to war (religion, money, land) are completely useless to synthetics. The Geth only went to war with the Quarians because they were pushed into it. What's more, so what if synthetics will eventually go to war with organics? Organics will always go to war with organics. It's our nature. It's the risk you take for having free will. If you take the route of giving the Geth the ability to self-determinate, to give them "souls," then the biggest distinction between synthetics and organics is rendered moot. Because they can think for themselves, you'll never get the full force of the Geth going to war, you'll get a faction of them. Which also fundamentally ruins BioWare's point. The idea that they're putting all their weight behind this idea is forehead-slappingly ridiculous.

It doesn't help that the Starchild itself is an untrustworthy character. It created the Reapers and has a vested interest in seeing it's own ends brought to fruition yet BioWare uses it like an omniscient narrator and not an antagonist to be overcome. Which is what he actually is. Worse, it openly advocates a particular ending: Synthesis. This goes back to the problem at the beginning of the game of BioWare essentially forcing their morality on you. If Synthesis is the ending that BioWare wants you to pick, what's the point of having other endings? Not only does the Starchild want you to choose it, it's only available if your War Assets rating is high enough, making it "special." Both in execution and content, the other endings are clearly inferior. Synthesis is the reward, Control and Destroy are the punishment.

So let's talk about the Synthesis ending. Creepy, creepy Synthesis. BioWare positioned the endings to make a case for capital "A" Art, so I don't think I'm out of line judging the series as such and picking through it looking for subtext. Because what's important to note about the creepiness of Synthesis isn't on the screen, it's just underneath the surface.

What Synthesis means is essentially that all sentient life in the galaxy is smooshed together to create a single hybrid race of synthetic/organic beings. BioWare uses this as a jump off to tell you that everything turns out great: no more war, everyone likes each other and is now immortal. Yay! If all you are looking for is a generic happy ending, nevermind the subtext, this is the one to pick.

Unfortunately for BioWare, they can't have it both ways. They don't get to make Art and then tell us to ignore the obvious ramifications of their "happy ending." What they don't tell you in selling you the Synthesis ending is that you are making this change for every sentient being in the galaxy against their will. We're talking about genetic rape. Forced eugenics. It's presented as a Utopia but the whole thing reads like a sci-fi Nuremberg deposition. Hilariously, it's also what the main bad guy of the first game, Saren, wanted. So essentially the guy you killed a few years ago was right all along. Oops?

Either they didn't know what they were saying (in which case it's crystal clear that the writing team at BioWare was fighting way above their weight class) or they actually believe it... in which case: ugh. Until one of the writers is willing to comment otherwise, I'm going to assume that they just didn't see that pretty obvious spin on what they presented. They wanted a rainbows-and-puppy-dogs happy ending and thought that this was somehow the best way to go about it, heedless of the really, really obvious subtext. Which makes me wish they would stop using the words "artistic integrity." They haven't earned it.

It feels like a bunch of people living in a bubble, working insanely long hours and drinking the corporate middle-management Kool Aid of "everyone should get along and work together and everything will be great." It's painfully naive and has no real application outside of a corporate culture. Hell, I work for a big corporation and even the people promoting "synergy" don't believe it. It's a tool they use to keep people in line. That's it. It's not about kindness, it's about control.

If we were all a part of some big, homogenous society, then there's nowhere you can go from there. You need differences and diversity. You need conflict. That's how you grow and learn. This is ultimately where BioWare's failings lie: hubris. Ego. If they had made all three of the endings "happy endings" then there would be plenty of room for speculation and discussion about the merits of each one versus the others. Instead, BioWare chose to advocate one over the others and it's blown up in their face.

None of this was a foregone conclusion. The former lead writer for the Mass Effect series, Drew Karpyshyn, had a much different idea on how to end the series but he left halfway through the development of Mass Effect 2 in order to work on Star Wars: The Old Republic before retiring from BioWare entirely to focus on his own work. In his place, BioWare installed Mac Walters as a lead writer. This is purely a matter of opinion but, having read some of Mac Walters solo Mass Effect work, the best thing I can say about it is that it's "workmanlike." I've personally found it to be very stiff and boring with very generic characters. The character in the third game he's most responsible for writing, James Vega, is the definition of a generic space marine. His only real personality trait is his propensity for giving people nicknames. He was salvaged somewhat by a good voice acting performance from Freddie Prinze, Jr. (yeah, I just said that) but he's hardly the most popular member of the cast.

Corporations are not a meritocracy, and I'm sure the position of Head Writer is as much about management as anything else, so it ultimately doesn't matter. Maybe he's just a really good Big Picture guy. Compared to Karpyshyn however, a talented and well-respected sci-fi writer, it's hard not to see it as a step down. The end results go a long way to proving that theory. Especially when it was hinted that he and Executive Producer Casey Hudson wrote the endings separately from the rest of the writers. BioWare and the writer who allegedly talked out of turn have both denied that it was him but... well, that depends on how much trust you have in a company that was already in serious damage control.

Neither Walters nor Hudson have endeared themselves to fans in the time between the game's release and now by insisting on sticking to their "artistic integrity" and passing off the litany of problems with the game by passive/aggressively telling fans that they didn't get it. I have never met a writer who was completely confident of his writing. Not once. They almost universally think they could have done something different or better. So when Walters and Hudson refuse to show the slightest bit of humility or humanity by addressing angry fans like people and not children, they've only made the situation worse. Fans are baying for blood and no amount of free multiplayer DLC is going to change that.

This situation casts a pall over the entire Mass Effect series, over BioWare's next game Dragon Age III, and over the entire company going forward. This is an albatross they'll be dragging around for ages. It also didn't help their parent company EA won Worst Company In America while the controversy over the ending raged. To paraphrase a writer I'm quite fond of (who, ironically, liked the endings), corporations are beasts... and beasts need to be fed. If you don't feed them enough, you become the food. When you consider the amount of money BioWare left on the table with Mass Effect 3, you better believe that someone at BioWare is going to become a snack.

If they had stuck the landing to this game, BioWare would still be doing victory laps. They'd be on all the year end Best Of lists. Good word of mouth would sell even more copies. The multiplayer packs they've been releasing for free could easily have been sold for five bucks a pop and if I enjoyed the game all the way through, I would have been happy to pay it.

Artistic integrity doesn't keep the lights on. While they have paid single player DLC lined up for the future and micro transactions in the multiplayer, there's a lot of money that BioWare isn't making right now. The game was marked down to half price about a month into it's release (to compare, Bethesda's Skyrim was released in November and still sells at the full $60) and stores like GameStop were coming up with all kinds of desperate marketing to get people buy it.

I deliberately avoided mentioning that final ending BioWare added to the Extended Cut until now for a reason. It's the Refusal ending and, intentionally or not, it's BioWare blowing a raspberry at fans. One of the most popular complaints was that no matter what, you had to blindly follow the Starchild's choices even though it didn't seem logical and none of them were appetizing. Not having the option to just say "no" seemed really out of place. To that end, you can now either shoot the Starchild or plead your case to him. As a result, he tells you "so be it" in a creepy voice and walks off. The entire galaxy then goes down fighting. The epilogue involves a beacon left by your teammate Liara giving all of the information on how to defeat the Reapers for the next cycle which they use to defeat the Reapers on their own. It was revealed in a tweet from one of BioWare's community managers, though, that the next cycle doesn't somehow preempt the Reaper invasion, they build the Crucible and use it themselves. Which means that not only does Shepard doom the galaxy, he dies a coward who couldn't pull the trigger.

What's interesting about the ending isn't so much the content but the meta idea behind it: fans now have a chance to give BioWare the high hard one and reject the game and all of the botched endings it contains. It gives you a chance to beat the game your way and damn the consequences. You're not just rejecting the game, you're rejecting BioWare. Despite the low blow they give you on your way out the door, you still get to walk away. It was probably the most cathartic ending in the game to me. Their petulant reaction to your denial ("So be it!") actually made me feel better for choosing it. Like BioWare was saying "Fine! Screw you! Just leave! We don't need you! We don't need any of you!"

Regardless of the critical praise heaped on it (mostly by journalists who have vested interest in staying on EA's good side) the ultimate fate of Mass Effect will always be seen by fans as a giant, glaring missed opportunity. Ambition is a motherfucker if you can't pull it off. While the stakes for the Dragon Age series aren't as high (they don't have the benefit of a single protagonist or overarching conflict that players have been sitting with throughout the series) we will hopefully see a game that learns the lessons of Mass Effect and makes a better game for it. Then maybe BioWare can start to win back the fans they so badly let down. If not? So be it.

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