Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Mass Effect Debacle: My 2¢, PART ONE

Unless you've been living under a rock when it comes to videogames, you are probably aware of the massive backlash against Bioware regarding the storyline and ending of Mass Effect 3.  If you aren't, I'll give you a quick synopsis: Many fans/customers who purchased the game felt disappointed by the lack of impact previous decisions had on the storyline and downright robbed by the lackluster endings to the game.  They went so far as to create a Retake Mass Effect 3 organization that has actually resulted in Bioware announcing an extended cut for the game.  Even the Better Business Bureau has weighed in on the subject.  The protestors/disgruntled fans/cheated customers claimed victory but numerous voices have warned that this may not have achieved the results for which they were hoping.

In the midst of all of this, a few prominent voices on The Escapist have entered the fray, essentially on opposing sides.  They've not really engaged one-another in direct debate, instead choosing to respectfully attack the issue itself as opposed to one-another's arguments.  I'm talking about Jim Sterling and Bob "MovieBob" Chipman.

Jim Sterling at first wasn't a supporter of the Retake Mass Effect movement.  He did note that the very existence of such a powerful backlash, comparable to the backlash against Lucas' hack-scripted Star Wars prequels, was a sign that games were actually becoming significant as a storytelling medium.  After reviewing the endings to Mass Effect 3, he actually came around to sympathizing with the protestors and arguing in support of their grievances.  He asserts that "art has no rules," therefore it is constantly fluid and changing.  He also seems to agree that the ending to Mass Effect 3 is, in no way, artistic or deep.

MovieBob's position is that the Retake Mass Effect movement is threatening the artistic integrity of video games as a storytelling medium.  Bob sums up his position in this post pretty well:
I don't accept the premise that gaming is fundamentally different from film or literature because of the manner of user-engagement, nor that choose-your-own-adventure structuring and letting you adjust the visual look of a main character makes Mass Effect some kind of sea-change, NOR that any of this represents some kind of important shift in the relationship of audience to artist - and if it does, it's a bad shift. Good art and good stories are not made via democracy. The artist is the superior of his/her audience, with the sole caveat that they may choose to render said artist powerless by withholding support. You take that away and all we've got is made-to-order bullshit, which is where cultural stagnation comes from. People who only ever get what they WANT will never discover what the didn't know they NEEDED.

Also, I still say that the precedent this will set is one of the worst things that could possibly happen to this increasingly-ridiculous industry - YES, it's possible that Bioware's back-to-the-drawing-board approach will yield a "better" ending for this ONE game... but that won't be the end of it. This being so high-profile will have an automatically-disasterous effect on fans, telling them that if they throw a tantrum they'll get their way, and on publishers especially: they're already disgustingly risk-averse, and "Remember What Happened To Bioware!" will be a convenient cudgel to bludgeon the ambitions of any creative team that wants to do something risky or unconventional in the medium...
His two videos on ScrewAttack back up his argument rather well.  It's well thought-out, articulated, and defended, just like Jim Sterling's.  In his Game Overthinker Episode 68: "Crass Effect," he argues that in order for storytelling to be good the story needs to be controlled by the storyteller and that the players/protesters have an attitude of entitlement over their control of the game's story.  The players/protesters have stepped out-of-line by claiming Bioware owes them a new ending.  In his Game Overthinker Episode 69: "AfterMass," Bob explains that by caving to fan demands, Bioware is setting a dangerous precedent that threatens the artistic possibilities of the medium of video gaming.  In addition, he identifies a few films where focus-groups and test-audiences actually ruined films because they didn't like endings that had far more artistic merit in favor of bubble-gum endings that didn't challenge them (I Am Legend is discussed in detail).

But all this dialogue rests on one single premise: Mass Effect 3's ending is bad.  This begs the question--is it?  Objectively, artistically, is the ending actually bad or did people fail to understand it?  Is it challenging in a way that I Am Legend's original and alternate ending was, thereby resulting in confused and illiterate plebians demanding a more pedestrian ending where the good guys win and dance with Ewoks?  Or is the ending simply underwhelming, poorly presented, anti-climactic, and overall empty?

Devin Faraci of BadAssDigest found the ending to Mass Effect 3 to be "spectacular."  He writes:
The endings of Mass Effect 3 are, essentially, infinite. You see the decision your Shepard made - domination, destruction or co-existence - and a quick glimpse of how that immediately plays out. But what happens next is for you to chew on, to mull over. What does it mean that you chose to control the Reapers, and how will that impact the galaxy? What does your decision to destroy all synthetics tell future generations about your Shepard? And what does your decision to co-exist say about you, as a player? These are exciting, fun questions. Just as the ending of 2001 doesn’t bring the Starchild all the way to Earth, the ending of Mass Effect 3 doesn’t follow the impact of the final choice all the way through history. The game designers at BioWare assumed that you’re smart enough to understand that they’re leaving the next steps unfollowed on purpose.
He goes on to say this at the end:
In the end Mass Effect 3, like any other narrative video game, is a story being told to us. We have some control over the peripheral business but the meat of the story belongs to BioWare. This is the tale they’ve been telling. This is the culmination of what they’ve been doing since the beginning of Mass Effect. And I love it. This is true scifi, a story that examines the nature of conflict and humanity through the prism of imaginative, speculative fiction. I’ve never played a game where the decisions I made felt so powerful in the abstract; I wasn’t worrying about whether or not one choice would give me a better power up, I was worrying about the moral and ethical implications of the choices. And after all of that the final choice was so obvious, so true to what had come before, that I was kind of irritated at how slowly old Shep moved.
Perhaps MovieBob has a point.  Ken Levine, creator of BioShock, expressed disappointment over the whole debacle.  And he's not alone.  According to Casey Hudson, the executive producer and director of Mass Effect 3, the endings were intended to "polarize" the audience.  If the endings were meant to be deliberately ambiguous and generate so many theories (such as Shepard is actually indoctrinated by the Reapers or is actually dead) and spur discussion and multiple interpretations, there's a lot of artistic substance there.

If the indoctrination theory is correct, well, I'll let Phil Hornshaw and Ross Lincoln at GameFront explain:
Indoctrination is a long-standing and very big feature of the Mass Effect universe and the Reaper war itself. The idea of loss of control, manipulation and subservience to the enemy comes up a lot, in the games and in the expanded universe of the novels. This is a huge theme; it would make lots of sense to find it in the ending.
Furthermore, if the endings as they stand are fake, then the resulting vitriol regarding them may well have been planned. Think about that one for a minute — BioWare might have manipulated us into hating the ending of the game. In essence, BioWare would have indoctrinated just about every Mass Effect player into thinking, like Shepard, that the events as they stand are what happened, when that assumption is actually untrue. It wasn’t just Shepard, a cartoon you control, who was indoctrinated — you were indoctrinated, forced to make the Reapers’ choices just as he was, whether you wanted to or not.

Your video game would have basically brainwashed you. Welcome to the only possible situation in which that would be simply awesome.

If that’s BioWare’s design, it’s a staggering feat of gaming. Mass Effect has always harped on player choices, interactive storytelling and immersion, and this would take those ideas to a level never even attempted before. But it only works if there’s more to the story. And that means a hidden ending somewhere, or further DLC releases. Because without additional material for the ending, an indoctrinated Shepard makes things even worse, not better.
That's got some pretty damn heavy artistic merit, there.  After discussing some of the plans, scripts, and storyboards the design team had and the decision to omit a lot of stuff about the Mass Effect universe that the player "didn't need to know," Hornshaw and Lincoln had this to say:
It looks a lot like whatever plans they had were scrapped along with a lot of important dialogue for reasons that may never be known. It’s probably wise to bet that the Indoctrination Theory isn’t true because there is no true version of events at all.
That's pretty heavy.  And it kind of contradicts what Devin Faraci said above.  Hell, the entire premise that you'd have choice and those choices would have visible, definite, tangible consequences on the games' universe kind of disprove Faraci's belief that this is "Bioware's story" and not the players'.  If there is no true version of events at the end of Mass Effect 3, then there is no official ending therefore it's up to interpretation.

This is awesome... if it's done right.  The question is, do we have a Stanley Kubric or a David Lynch at the helm of Mass Effect?  Or do we have a Hideaki Anno?

In the end, I had to just cave in and watch the endings myself.

I'll talk about that next time.

No comments: