Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Mass Effect Debacle: My 2¢, PART TWO

In the first part of this essay, I discussed the origins and some of the current themes in the ongoing debate/debacle/scandal regarding the ending(s) to Mass Effect 3.  Here, I discuss my reaction to the ending(s).  In the third part, I will give my opinion on the fan reactions and the Retake Mass Effect movement.

First, I want to state the obvious.  I watched the various ending cut scenes both separately and all together at the same time.  They are all essentially the same ending with only minor divergences.  Someone may be tempted to say that the devil is in the details.  Not this time.  This is one ending with slight variations in order to mimic variety.

Secondly, I want to point out that I've watched numerous commentaries on the endings and even read Shamus Young's column on The Escapist.  I recommend it.  I also think that Bioware didn't necessarily lie about the ending, they just employed effective marketing (not necessarily ethical marketing--welcome to dealing with business majors).  It can be argued that there were six endings--would that hold up in a court of law?  I don't know, but they can try to rationalize it.  Advertising lies all the time.  Go watch 1990s Crazy People.  There's the implicit warning: caveat emptor--buyer beware.

Now, I want to tackle something a bit more important--the artistic merit of the Mass Effect 3 ending.  Frankly, the ending is an artistic failure.  It is the product of hubris.  The writers of the ending reportedly did not subject it to peer review like they had everything else in the games' development.  They've revealed themselves to be incredibly arrogant regarding the artistic merit of the ending, refuse to change it despite the outcry, and are only releasing DLC that will explain and contextualize the ending for fans and provide closure in a half-hearted attempt at appeasement.  However, when analyzing the actual ending, the actual artistic merit of the ending can be identified but the ending is marred by the sloppiness of its scripting and the laziness of the writers.  The cut-scene ending is incapable of actually situating the designers' themes and arguments in any meaningful manner.  It has this rushed, impatient feeling, as if it is in a hurry to get to the credits.  Couple with the fact that all of the endings are essentially one single ending with minor differences and you have a recipe for artistic failure.  There is absolutely no love, emotion, or real rumination upon the human condition--and this last point is something that I have to really emphasize.  There is no substantial challenge or question posed to the player regarding the human condition.  They make a half-hearted attempt at doing so and they fail.  Narrative art (i.e. literature) functions by giving us the ability to consider at least one aspect of the human condition critically.  The Mass Effect 3 ending fails to achieve this.

This is not to say that it is not art.  What I am saying here is very distinct: I'm not saying the Mass Effect 3 ending isn't art, what I'm saying is that the Mass Effect 3 ending is an artistic failure.  There's a slight difference and in this case the devil is in the details because upon this statement depends the actual framing and meaning of the conversation.

Not only does the ending fail as art, but it fails as science-fiction.  Science fiction is a legitimate branch of literature that deals with the future and ruminates upon the moral, ethical, and humanistic dilemmas that technological advancement present.  It should come as no surprise that Jules Verne and H.G. Wells helped to birth the genre during the Industrial Revolution, when technological advancement was outpacing the intellectuals' abilities to consider the human responses to such advancements.  Instead of dealing with current issues, science fiction attempts to predict advancement, stay ahead of the curve, and wrestle with difficult questions regarding the human condition in hypothetical situations that have not yet occurred.

The Mass Effect series displays these traits right up until the very ending.  Once the star child emerges into the narrative, however, all of this is completely thrown out of the window and the creators thrust us into The Epic of Gilgamesh.  Moral agency, free will, and humanism are all eschewed in favor of a heavy-handed preachy and ultimately unsatisfying ending.  It's similar to my complaints regarding Dan Simmons' Hyperion Cantos.

First, let me explain what is not wrong with the endings.  The lack of denouement is not a weakness or a problem.  We do not need it.  They're not really a part of the overarching issues that the ending is trying to tackle.  This is an artistic decision that is designed to put focus on the broader, more complex issues.  If we get to see each character's resolution, our attention is drawn away from the difficult discourse regarding evolution, survival, and dialectic.  Indeed, the brevity of the resolution is actually one of the things that the design team did right.  This, however, needed to be tempered by a sense of payoff for the player.  A longer, more complex and challenging climax would offset a lot of player frustration with the ending.

The other thing that they did right was to emphasize the dialectic struggle of the game.  Essentially, the question is "What form of life should inherit the galaxy?"  If the biological species in Mass Effect represent an existential thesis and the synthetic life-forms represent an existential antithesis, then the "Green Ending" represents a synthesis.  If you chose the "Green Ending," congratulations, you've just selected the Hegelian dialectic writ large.  The war against the Reapers and Geth was essentially a deliberative period and you, the player, designated a sort of union.  Go read Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Marx/Engles, and Derrida.  If your brain doesn't melt, I will applaud you.

The climax makes apparent that there's an existential, dialectical struggle going on.  The star child is engaging in thought experiments on a galactic scale.  This is incredibly poignant.  The fact that we're given the decision as to how to resolve this thought experiment is also magnificently powerful.  The fact that the star child exists introduces an epistemological problem for the player--what's the factual reality about this war against the Reapers?  Is it for our survival or something else?  What does the star child mean when he says we'll be preserved?  Is chaos a moral wrong, as the star child seems to believe it is?

The cut-scene ending, however, fails to deliver on the results of the choice the player makes.  This is absolutely damning of the entire affair because it nullifies not only the impact of player agency in the game but also the narrative, epistemological, and existential power that is introduced by revealing that this is all one gigantic experiment in dialectics.  Again, there is no payoff.  The design team had said they originally had the star child explain everything to the player but then decided that there was a lot of things that the player didn't need to know.  I accept that there are mysteries unsolved and questions unanswered--that's fine.  Indeed, depending on how it's handled, those enigmas can even enhance the experience of an ending.  However, there are enigmas upon which the ending depends in order for it to maintain narrative coherency.

I guess I'm damning the ending with faint praise.

Elements of the ending were certainly inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey.  The Star Child in 2001 and the godlike boy at the finale of Mass Effect 3 are definitely artistically tied.  However, the god child is not the object or result of the game as it is in Kubric's and Clarke's masterpiece.  In 2001, the Star Child is the object of David Bowman's surrealistic and abstract journey--the unknown, unseen, and incredibly highly evolved entities evolve Bowman into something more similar to themselves.  The protagonist is humanity as a whole and the objective for Clarke and Kubric is to demonstrate our future and our evolution into something greater.

If evolution is the objective of Mass Effect 3, then it is actually stated incredibly poorly.  A deep, thoughtful analysis of 2001 is confronted with the Monolith from the very beginning--our australopithecus ancestors are gently pushed by the Monolith on their first steps toward critical thought and creative problem-solving, the very elements that make us human.  It is poignant that homicide is one of the side-effects of this.  The desolation of Africa, bereft of cities or development, is displaced by a ballet of orbital stations and spacecraft as humanity has achieved the ultimate zenith of homo sapiens' potential.  Into this milieu the Monolith re-emerges, this time on the Moon, and beckons our curious selves to evolve into the next step.

If the choices and struggles in Mass Effect 3 are designed to present the flip-side to this coin--the fear of the unknown, the xenophobia and distrust of the "other," and the struggle to maintain homeostasis in the comfort of remaining simply homo sapiens--all couched in a situation where the player actually believes he's fighting for the survival of physical and biological life in the galaxy, then there's some serious artistic merit here!  The potential is staggering.  The creators, writers, and designers of the Mass Effect saga have engaged our primal, less-evolved cave-man faculties and convinced us that we're the good guys.  Instead of 2001, we thought we were playing Babylon 5!  All of a sudden, these existential and dialectic questions are being thrown at us at the ending and we're faced with the sort of choice we never expected we'd have to make!

The problem is if this is what the designers were after, it's not spelled out enough.  The Mass Effect saga hasn't employed the same narrative conventions as 2001.  Kubric used film to tell a story in which humanity is the protagonist and the taciturn David Bowman is a stand-in for all mankind.  You need to pay attention to 2001 because dialogue was not the primary vehicle for storytelling, image was.  In Mass Effect, dialogue was equally (if not more) important than image in telling the story.  There was little or no image or dialogue pertaining to human evolution at the end.

However, the star child simply doesn't have enough dialogue with Shepard, doesn't describe the purpose behind what he's doing well enough, to make anything actually matter.  When confronted by the star child, Shepard basically has as much knowledge about what's going on as he would have had the star child never materialized in the first place.  The only difference is, now the door's been cracked a few millimeters into the 2001 evolution question and the dialectic experimentation theme.  But a few millimeters is not enough.  At least leave the door a foot ajar.

I'm reminded of the ending to The Matrix Reloaded, where Neo encounters the Architect.  Granted, the Architect represents heavy-handed philosophical wankery of the most poserish and pedantic caliber.  The star child doesn't.  However, the brevity of the scene is simply too short.  The star child insists that organics have choice, "more than they deserve," and then puts the decision regarding how to deal with the Reapers in Shepard's hands.  Therein is the thread that the designers needed to expand--the moral authority that the star child represents and the implications as to where the star child, the Catalyst, gets his morality.

One of the purposes of society and the ultimate dilemma of free will is the very struggle between order and chaos.  We surrender our freedoms willingly in order to live together in a society and avoid the Hobbesian nightmare world.  The star child seems to imply that the "chaos" that organic life represents is this sort of conundrum writ large--where does the good of the individual end and the good of all begin and vice-versa.  This spectrum is dealt with in the series, but the resolution of this very human puzzle is relegated to one or two lines.  So, too, is the inevitability of synthetic and organic life in perpetual conflict--this is relegated to a single line.  I'd be tempted to argue that this entirely ignores Asimov's Three Laws, but the star child seems to be the embodiment of the Zeroth Law.  While this is interesting, it's another idea that's discarded without adequate expansion or discussion by the final dialogue.

This is all nit-picking, so far.  The dialogue with the star child is only the tip of the iceberg and it, alone, doesn't condemn the entire existential dialectic upon which the ending has come to rest.  The decision that Shepard is faced with is excellent and reflective of the very meaningful premise of the series.

The agency of choice is nullified by the sameness of the cut-scene endings.  What was needed was a far more conclusive exposition of the very existential results of Shepard's choices producing greater variety in the endings.  One of the basic tenets of narrative structures is to provide a reward or payoff for being the audience.  There needs to be some sense of satisfaction.  The player's thirst needs to be sated in some manner.  The brevity of the ending is essentially a cop-out--the uniformity of the endings cheapens the experience even further.

The build-up to the ending should have included cut-scenes that demonstrate the impact of the player's choices as the great battle for Earth is joined.  This was Bioware's opportunity to stun and amaze us with incredible space-battles, futuristic ground combat on a titanic scale, and a sense of grandeur like a Cecil B. DeMille epic set in space.  What we should have seen was the greatest space battle ever put on a screen.

Similarly, our decisions should impact what we see once Shepard makes his ultimate choice--Green, Blue, or Red.  I understand that decisions made in the game determine which endings are made available.  That's great.  However, the sameness of all three completely undermines our choice.  The payoff is gone.  Of the three red, two blue, and one green ending we're given, the differences that our decisions in-game have made are so minor, so forgettable, so inconsequential as to minimize the very value of free will in the narrative.  Basically, if Bioware is making a case for determinism and fatalism, they're doing it in an extremely heavy-handed and brutal fashion without any real substance or introspection, Zeus-like in the arbitrariness of where they fling their thunderbolts.

As for the Indoctrination Theory, given the coherence of the ending, I'd say that this theory is a product of over-rationalization on the part of fans.  This is not 新世紀エヴァンゲリオン (Neon Genesis Evangelion).  The ending isn't so full of abstraction and intertwining plot threads and semiotic notions.  Indeed, the entire game is presented incredibly straight-forward in comparison to Eva.  Indeed, Eva's ambiguous ending was largely the bi-product of Hideaki Anno's self-reflection after emerging from a deep depression, although rumors that Gainax was running out of money (resulting in increasingly rudimentary animation culminating in rough still-frame shots).  This ambiguity made the ending incredibly open-ended (both of the TV and of the film endings), especially since it was entirely psychological, leading to a plethora of interpretations.

It's also worthwhile to mention the lack of artistic integrity among the developers in designing elements of Mass Effect 3.  This image demonstrates the sloppiness and lack of creativity regarding their ending.

In sum: the sloppiness of the final cut-scene's composition and execution which is why the end is an artistic failure.  I understand some arguments that say it is because Shepard's story is at an end and we're not supposed to see the consequences of his choice.  I understand but disagree because the ending violates basic narrative demands for a richer exploration of the ramifications of his choice.

Next, I'll discuss my opinion on the Retake Mass Effect movement.

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