Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Mass Effect Controversy

Okay, spoiler warning. If you haven't finished Mass Effect 3, you will probably want to stop reading. I'm going to discuss the ending, the controversy and give my own opinions on a whole bunch of stuff. Every second person on the Internet is doing it, so I may as well join in the chorus. This is a long way, so strap yourselves in.

I'll start by saying that the discussion and debate over the ending has reached a surprising level of hype and debate. Not since the Star Wars prequels have we seen such an outpouring of fan rage and Internet anger. $80,000 has been raised for Child's Play in the "Retake Mass Effect 3" movement. Gaming sites have been filled with backlash over the ending, and then others telling those people that they are "entitled whingers" and then the usual barrage of EA hatred. This thrust Mass Effect 3 and BioWare/EA into the limelight, and not necessarily in a good light.

Unfortunately for them, they're in a bit of a damned-if-they-do, damned-if-they-don't situation. If BioWare changes the endings, then according to many, they will have surrendered their artistic integrity by "giving in", but if they don't, then they risk alienating tens of thousands of fans who found the ending to be disappointing. Just to clarify my own position, I thought the ending was awful. 1/10 awful. That said, right up until the ending, I was loving the game and would have been verging on a 10/10 score (notwithstanding my hatred for common interpretations and definitions of review scores).

So final spoiler warning now. If you keep reading, don't say I didn't warn you.

No, this is your last warning.

One of the more ridiculous elements of this controversy is the lengths that both sides are going to in order to make their point. Someone filing a lawsuit for false advertising is ridiculous. On the flip side, journalists who go "I haven't played it but, BioWare shouldn't change a thing because of artistic integrity" is equally fallacious. Sites dismissing all complainers as "entitled whingers" is just as unhelpful as those issuing threats against BioWare staff. Debate needs to be reasonable and informed, on both sides.

I'll pull a specific example here, an article from GamesRadar. It starts off with the disclaimer: "I don't know what the ending of Mass Effect 3 entails, and I don't care.". This is right before launching into two pages of discussion as to why the ending shouldn't be changed. This writer forgot rule number one: write about what you know. Later it pulls out the line: "The Matrix sequels were crap, but their crapness wasn’t the biggest tragedy. The biggest tragedy was that a concept so huge and open to almost infinite interpretations was tied to a single linear trilogy following a single narrative path." Of course, since this argument is made without any knowledge of the ending, the writer doesn't realise that this is precisely the issue with Mass Effect 3's ending. Way to shoot yourself in the foot.

Your real choice

Anyone who is going to comment on the ending of the game, please, play and finish the damn game first before you start speaking. Artistic integrity argument or not, you have to know what you are talking about. I respect the concept of artistic integrity, but at the same time, an ending must maintain the integrity of the artistry. Mass Effect 3's ending doesn't do that, because it's filled with so many gaping holes in its presentation that it falls to pieces under even the most cursory examination. The player gets blasted by a giant Reaper laser, which apparently vaporises everyone, except Shepard and Anderson. Yet the rest of the allies believe that everyone is dead and no one survived, so they retreat. Yet Shepard gets up and makes his/her way to a teleportation beam that takes him/her to the centre of the Citadel, where they have a showdown with The Illusive Man and then some Machine God or Reaper deity where they make an ultimate decision to destroy all synthetic life, attempt to control the Reapers, or achieve "synthesis" where man and machine are fused in a final evolution.

Now, if we assume that Indoctrination Theory is incorrect, then we end up with some bizarre and incomprehensible inconsistencies within the final ten minutes. Firstly, it's reported that everyone dies in the laser blast on Earth, which is why they break off their attack. Yet when Giant-Deus-Ex-Machina-Plot-Device (aka the Crucible) docks with the Citadel and locks into place, the military command communicates directly with Shepard. If they knew Shepard wasn't dead, why did they report that everyone had died? We've also got the issue of the Normandy crash landing on some mysterious planet at the end of the game's final cutscene with several members of Shepard's crew - all of whom except for Joker were present on Earth before the final push, and some of whom can potentially be with Shepard in the final attack where they also supposedly got hit (and vaporised) by the Reaper laser.

If only Shepard had magical plot armor earlier on

This is even ignoring the issue of the Mass Relays exploding, which from The Arrival DLC, we're told will obliterate the entire system with a supernova-like explosion. BioWare staff have supposedly issued statements saying "That relay was special" or "this explosion is special", but there's no indication as such given by the game (and I've not seen these reassurances). If anything, we're led to believe those explosions will destroy everything - because Joker is desperately trying to escape from the coloured explosion shockwave, but gets hit by it and it forced to crashland on a jungle planet. That hardly indicates that the explosion is harmless, but instead explicitly demonstrates to the player that it is. I could go into many more details, but how about I just leave a link to this article and be done with it?

I'd hate to think that BioWare's writers were so short-sighted as to not realise how awful and inconsistent the ending is. If they didn't, then I'm afraid I have little faith left in their writing abilities, nor the ability of any of the playtesters or design team to not see these problems. I was concerned enough by the inability to import faces from previous Mass Effect games into Mass Effect 3. How did the designers possibly think it was acceptable to have import a Shepard and have that face appear entirely different in the third game? Players who have played through the first two games are going to be attached to their Shepard - and the developers have the greatest responsibility to allow continuity for those players, as the whole point of the series was to chart the journey of Commander Shepard. Needless to say, if Indoctrination Theory isn't correct, then BioWare have their work cut out for them to explain all these inconsistencies. If it is correct, then they've pulled one hell of a stunt... and all I can say is that the DLC that provides the real ending had better be provided to players for free. Else they can kiss lots and lots of fans goodbye right now.

I hope the end is Shepard fighting against becoming another Saren

In order to understand why is Mass Effect 3's ending such a failure, it is important not simply to analyze at a superficial level. Let's analyze it as part of the series. More importantly, and this is where so many writers and reviewers and others are missing the point, let's analyze it as a game. To analyze Mass Effect 3's ending purely as a narrative structure is to undermine the entire medium through which it is conveyed. We cannot analyze story-telling in video games in the same way that we do books or film media, because the gameplay should inform the narrative and vice versa.

Mass Effect is an adventure in the classic sense: it's a journey of discovery and exploration, where you come to know your true enemy as a result of the twists and turns of the plot. You get to know the universe, the characters, who gets along with who, and who doesn't. What are the burning historical issues that inform the backdrop of the setting and individual conflicts. As part of this, in a gaming context you're given two decisions that have a real impact on the game and the series: Does Wrex die and does Ashley or Kaidan die? Now, while these may feel like trivial points, and some people hate Kaidan/Ashley, it's a significant because as part of the same game, it can have a direct impact on your ability to play the game. You're romancing Kaidan, but you've traveled with Ashley all the time for the firepower? The player is forced to pick between Kaidan or Ashley, and they potentially lose Wrex as well. There are potential real gameplay ramifications from player choice.

 Who died on Virmire?

Mass Effect 2 brought a few changes. One, for the sake of gameplay, the infinite ammo guns of the first game were taken away and replaced by a standard ammo system. Many fans were up in arms about this "rewrite" and "lore breaking rubbish", but it was included for the sake of gameplay. Personally, I had no issue with this; the change helped improve the gameplay significantly over the firtst game which started off with you having to meticulously watch your heat meter, but you could ignore it entirely by the end of the game and hold down the trigger indefinitely. Here the established writing and lore was "re-written"/"reworked" so as to improve the gameplay. From a pure writing perspective, it's a cheap and poor device, but the writing changed to suit the gameplay. You won't see this in other media, which is why games can't be treated the same as other media.

Plot-wise, the game also forced the player to work with Cerberus (whom most probably didn't like), and had them gather a number of allies to their cause. The player did missions to ensure their loyalty (or at least attempted to) and as a result of player choices, there was a definite possibility that characters could die during the end game. If the player did badly enough, even their character could die. Again, this kind of story-telling is exclusive to video games. The player is responsible for what happens to individual characters, and thanks to their emotional involvement, that resulted in some players being distraught when their favourite squad member(s) died. (Of course, some deliberately attempted to get certain individuals killed) Again, this can potentially have an impact on the player's ability to succeed in the end-game - a favoured squad member with complementary abilities to the player's can die (or be needed elsewhere), forcing them to adopt new strategies and tactics in order to succeed in gameplay.

 Maybe you lost Miranda's loyalty in an argument. She might be dead.

Mass Effect 3 sees the conclusion of the hero's journey in the final trial, the attack against the ultimate enemy. By gathering all allies together (though potentially losing some along the way), the player is getting together all the military might possible in order to assist for the final battle. Throughout the game, the player has a bar that builds showing them the potential chance of success of this final onslaught. Yet ultimately this doesn't appear to have any real effect, and there is virtually no appreciable game difference from not having built up anything, nor from your decisions during the game, or the past three games. At best, it's possible to lose/gain one single party member as a result of choices made in Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3, but this party member only appears in the final third of the game. The only other difference is the ending to destroy synthetic life will indiscriminately target everyone on Earth should the player have insufficient war assets.

This is where Mass Effect 3 fails so terribly as a game in terms of its narrative. The previous two games have set the stage of a game where choices have real and concrete effects on the way that the game plays out. The player will suffer as a result of bad decisions or be forced to sacrifice others and potentially make their own gameplay more difficult. The narrative affected the gameplay. However, Mass Effect 3's ending (not to mention game as a whole), summarily dispenses with this concept and expectation. The travesty is that it is a mess not only in terms of the details of its execution in a narrative sense, but in it entirely forgets the responsibilities of the trilogy as a game.

 Give me back my game. Now.

Now, the odd thing personally, is that while I've seen many people argue that BioWare shouldn't change the ending because of reasons of artistic integrity, and plenty of articles on why it's a terrible ending, I've seen very little from arguments of those who liked the ending as to why it was a good ending. I have a friend who is a writer and budding game designer who gave his thoughts on the ending. I have to give him credit, because he's done better than "professional critics/reviewers" who have failed to develop a single coherent argument as to why the ending is good except for "the writers made it that way." I'm sorry, but from people who get paid to write articles, that's simply not damn good enough. If you're going to declare the ending is great and deride everyone picking (serious and significant) holes in the delivery and details, then you'd damn well better be able to back it up with something better than "that's what we got given."

The funny thing is that thematically, I can see the argument that the ending is well written. The argument that the entire series has always been about order versus chaos does strike a little bit of a chord. However, the problem is that it is a retcon (retroactive continuity) of a theme. i.e. The writers decided to change the ending of the game, from the originally intended one, and forced people to reinterpret existing material in a new way. This change is why the first and second game don't entirely gel in a thematically consistent fashion with the third. Mac Walters took over as the lead writer during the development of Mass Effect 2, and in hindsight you can see that divergence and some of the dropped plot ideas from the first two games... just as you can retroactively see the theme of order versus chaos come through. The problem is that it takes until you talk to the dying Reaper on Rannoch before the concept of order versus chaos is finally presented to the player in any sort of coherent manner.

Tali doesn't think it's about order and chaos

For two entire games, the Reapers are insistent that they "are beyond our understanding", but when we reach the conclusion they say "actually, you're all going to be killed off by synthetics, so we kill all advanced races so that doesn't happen." Hate to point this out, but that's an idea that has been floating around in human culture, and specifically sci-fi, for decades. Given you've studied us (and all other races), you'd know that. Heck, when the dying reaper said that on Rannoch, my thought was "Really? You're just recycling the idea from Battlestar Galactica? That's your idea of 'beyond understanding?' Please tell me you're just trying to get inside my head." It's just such a ham-fisted and simple explanation that it doesn't do justice to the catch cry of the Reapers thus far, nor their vast power and arrogance.

The problem is that Mass Effect has explored some interesting themes, put players in some difficult moral quandaries, and likely put them through the emotional wringer with character deaths. There are so many good points to the series that the inconsistencies and retroactive application of thematic ideas throughout decisions and events in the series doesn't do justice to universe that has been created for players, nor the experiences they have had within it.

 So we explored for what purpose exactly?

This isn't simply an issue of the ending failing to live up to player expectations, it's an issue of the ending failing to live up to the rest of the narrative experience provided by the Mass Effect games. It is a failure to live up to the gameplay experience delivered by the rest of series. True enough, a story should be about the journey, and not the destination, but the issue is that every single destination is exactly the same. For the ending we have, it turns out that Harbinger and the Reapers were right. You can struggle all you want, but nothing you do will make any difference in the end. Kind of makes you wonder why you were fighting throughout all three games.

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