Roger Ebert was wrong. I’m not sure when it happened, but modern video games crossed a threshold at some point where they ceased being simple time-sinks. Since the Battlezone, Moon Patrol, Gravitar, and Pac-Man days, they spun themselves into a digital cocoon and emerged as honest-to-goodness art.
At this point, it isn’t even an argument any more. The Smithsonian has an exhibit on art in video games. And the California Literary Review and Forbes magazine have featured articles on the impact of games. Fucking Forbes! It’s clear that we have turned a corner, culturally, and the only people still calling games “adolescent distractions” are like those parents in the 1950s who said “this rock-and-roll thing will never last.” Games have won.
Again, I’m not sure when it happened. The Deus Ex series has long made the argument, as biting in its social acumen as any warnings handed down to us from Orwell. The Legacy of Kain series served up a neo-gothic vampire story more original than any Hollywood bloodsucker. Grim Fandango and Psychonauts are in turns funnier and more brilliant than the last ten years of comedies, and Portal 2… well… if you haven’t played it, what’s your problem?
I’ve published on this before, and I don’t really want to spend the time to recap. But I want to talk about Mass Effect, and the company that made it, Bioware.
Bioware’s contribution to the video game industry has been nothing short of a paradigm shift. Don’t talk to me about Halo or Elder Scrolls, which are both tremendous fun and yet represent only a fraction of the skillful writing, masterful character development, and lovingly-crafted worlds which I’ve encountered in Bioware games. They’ve created virtual worlds you can believe in, and characters who you can get emotionally invested in. Jade Empire did this. Dragon Age did it too (as sick as I am of medieval high fantasy. Seriously, why is so much fantasy possessed by the ghost of Tolkien??)
Mass Effect did it better than both. It was not the most original science-fiction universe. It may even have been riddled with the usual tropes (aliens that looks suspiciously human) and pseudo-science (FTL travel) but man… did they ever pull it off in grand style!
Mass Effect rewards the player for getting to know its characters, forming friendships and/or relationships. It’s less a game than a simulation of life. The Companion Wheel common to Bioware games elevated the usual loner-saving-the-world-alone bit to a more satisfying, interactive experience. And the journey is what ultimately made it art.
I’m on the war-torn world of Tuchanka with cure to the genophage in my pocket. The entire krogan race is depending on me successfully delivering this cure to a tower which can distribute it throughout the planetary atmosphere and remove a blight that has been plaguing the krogan for centuries.
The thing is, I’ve decided not to cure it.
In my estimation, the krogan are brutal, savage, and belligerent. Back before the genophage, they aggressively moved against other races, stealing land and provoking war. It was only the introduction of the genophage that culled their numbers and ended the war. If I cure it, I worry that I’ll unleash a new era of warfare on the galaxy.
Mind you, I’ve interacted with many krogan over the course of the series. I even count two of them as close friends. But I’ve concluded they are too dangerous a species to be set free of the genophage’s shackles. In effect, I’ve reluctantly decided to doom them to slow extinction. I feel conflicted. I feel ashamed. But my mind is made up. This needs to be done. The krogan female traveling with me even asks me why I look troubled. I remain silent.
Then suddenly, as I make my way across the planet, I’m forced to take refuge in the underground ruins of a lost city. A lost krogan city. A sunken metropolis of bygone splendors, rich in art and culture. This city belongs to a forgotten age when the krogan weren’t all about battle and bloodlust. In the frescoes and statues I see a different side to the species, and it makes me ponder:
Would I want my own people (Italians, for those keeping track) judged solely by the depredations of corrupt late empire Romans? Am I really prepared to doom an entire species to the fire, because of what they might do?
And so, there in the dank shadows, I change my mind.
Moments later, I arrive at my destination. My favorite character, having accompanied the rest of us, insists on handling the dispersal himself. After all, he had a hand in the creation of the genophage and he needs this closure. The dispersal tower is aflame and rocked by explosions. He enters the elevator. I really don’t want him to go.
“It had to me,” he says. “Someone else might have gotten it wrong.”
The elevator doors close like a funerary curtain. He reaches the top, humming a favorite tune, and then he throws the switch. The cure to the genophage bursts off the top of the tower like dandelion spores to be carried far and wide. A second later, he dies as the tower explodes.
At the base of the tower, krogan stare in silent awe at the dispersal. I see the fatalism they’ve been living suddenly swept away, the hope kindling in their eyes.
A game took me on this emotional journey. That’s more than a book or film or TV show can do, because I had the power of decision. I made it happen and, depending on my choices, it could have unfolded in other ways.
That’s the unique power of this art-form. In Mass Effect 2, I embarked on a suicide mission to save the galaxy. It was evident that the stakes were high and our chances were very, very grim. I’ve grown to attached to everyone on my crew and so it’s with a heavy heart that I select each of them for various missions in the final battle, aware that this could be the last time I see them again. I’ve trained and prepared them, and I feel my decisions are logical, but doubt enfolds me.
Turns out, all my preparation and decisions made a difference. I lose only one squadmate (RIP, Jacqueline.) Standing over her coffin at the end, I think of the snarky jabs we’ll never share again. Behind me stand all the people I helped save, but this single coffin feels like a failure to me. When Mass Effect 3 rolls around, she’s still dead, and the universe is a little less complete without her.
A game did that.
Also in Mass Effect 3, I encounter a former crewmate who is working with refugees. She tells me that she’s happy to be helping others, inspired by my example of helping others.
Since she is being hunted by extremely merciless enemies, I have the option of telling her to go into hiding, or to continue doing what makes her happy. I choose the latter option. She smiles at my supportive speech. I walk away, feeling good.
Some time later, I’m back on the station looking for her. She’s nowhere to be found. Strange. Is she getting some much deserved rest? Did she have to step away for a while? Suddenly I overhear two people talking. “You know that girl who was working with the refugees? Yeah, the Cerberus troops found her. They asked her name, put a gun against her head, and then just pulled the trigger.”
My heart drops into my stomach. There’s nothing else, no follow-up. She’s dead. A spur-of-the-moment decision from me ended her life.
A game did that.
In other forms of art, a character dies because they are scripted to die. In many of today’s games, they die because you let/made them die. Choice itself becomes an art-form.
Not everyone wants games like this, and certainly the overwhelming number of games are still games in the classic sense.
It’s for all those reasons that the ending to Mass Effect 3 has upset, enraged, and offended so many players. Adding insult to injury is the way Bioware has callously dismissed these complaints as the disgruntled mumblings of gamers with an overdeveloped sense of entitlement. It’s not about entitlement, it’s about common sense and the recognition that Bioware’s equivalent of the Mona Lisa was at 95 percent complete, hastily finished by a last-minute crayon-and-airbrush job. Mass Effect 3, an otherwise triumphant piece of storytelling about the cost of war on civilization, collapses into a thoughtless, senseless, illogical heap in its last hours. Its ending is so inane that it effectively ruins the series.
Others have written plenty on why the ending sucks so badly. Take a look at the reviews on Amazon. Take a gander at the discussion boards. It’s a strawman argument to say that the complaints are coming from trolls. Sure there are some — this is the Internet after all, and more trolls exist here than in every D&D campaign ever run by a shoddy Dungeonmaster. Heavily outnumbering the trolls, though, are tens of thousands of thoughtful, heartfelt criticisms.
Over and over, I run into people repeating the same sentiment: “I didn’t expect a happy ending. But I expected an ending that made sense!”
From a business standpoint, Bioware’s ending to the Mass Effect legacy has been a disaster. The cash cow is dead, if the current ending stands. It is impossible to make sequels. It is ridiculous to expect that anyone would buy future DLCs, games, or merchandise associated with this universe. But we can do prequels! the developers have said. We can do stories concurrent with Shepard’s adventures, but told from a different perspective and set of characters.
In almost any other scenario, I’d say that sounds swell. Not here. Why do a prequel — and ask players to invest themselves in that universe — when we all know it ends horribly? This is not the story of the Titanic we’re playing through. The sinking of RMS Titanic did not END THE UNIVERSE. It ended the stories of 1,514 people, but civilization went on.
Ok, you say, perhaps Bioware wanted to tell a story about the end of all things. Isn’t it their right to do so?
The problem with that argument is that Mass Effect was not the result of one man’s work. There were dozens of writers, artists, voice actors, and producers who collaborated on its universe. As a writer who has collaborated with many other artists on various projects, I can recognize the texture of such collaboration. It’s unmistakable. In such an environment, you toss lots of ideas around, and they are instantly peer-reviewed and discussed. If you’ve got a good group — and Bioware definitely does — then this process keeps the good ideas and throws out the bad ones. Hell, it’s the reason that writers often let others read their works before publication. Orson Scott Card did it with Ender’s Shadow, letting a few trusted readers peruse the document and helping him identify some problems in the manuscript with continuity and character.
It was this process that made Mass Effect what it was.
It is this process that absolutely was NOT done for the last hour of Mass Effect 3.
There is no doubt in my mind that the collaboration which made Mass Effect possible was not present in that tacked-on butcher-job of a conclusion. It was without doubt the result of one or two people, perhaps backed up against the wall by deadlines or producer pressure, who slapped something together and then brandished the cheapest of defenses: “It’s art! Don’t question it!”
Besides, speaking as an artist, there reaches a point where what you’ve created doesn’t entirely belong to you anymore. It’s shocking to say it, but when a piece of art touches so many people, there are considerations beyond an insular vision. And neither do I buy the nonsensical argument that the artist always knows best. George Lucas invented Star Wars and then served up The Phantom Menace in three debilitating installments. J. Michael Straczinski brought Babylon 5 to television audiences and then followed it up with a vile chaser that was The Legend of the Rangers. The lean, thought-provoking The Matrix somehow gave birth to the bloated mutant freaks that were Reloaded and Revolutions.
Mass Effect IS art, and it was art that was only possible because of compromise and spirited discussion. Hell, Warren Spector said the same thing about Deus Ex. But Mass Effect 3‘s conclusion is spackle thrown onto a masterpiece to hide an unfinished bottom corner. The ending is so out of joint with the rest of the game that it’s akin to creative blasphemy. And yet instead of acknowledging it, Bioware has dug in their heels and repeated, “This is art, man!”
To that, my response is: “No, it’s pretentiousness. And laziness.”
And I don’t buy the straw man argument that to change the needing of Mass Effect 3 sets a bad precedent. When you screw up, it’s good sense to own and fix it. Clean off the spackle.
Speaking of precedents, we’ve seen this before. Consider the example of Fallout 3.
A really good game (though paling by orders of magnitude to Mass Effect). Atmospheric, often compelling, and chilling. Yet it did have a little problem: Its original ending made no goddam sense. For the uninitiated, I’ll put in succinctly: don’t ask me to enter a radiation-steeped room to die, when I have a comrade standing right next to me who is immune to radiation and who has repeatedly demonstrated this. Demanding self-sacrifice under such circumstances felt artificial and forced. Because it was artificial and forced.
The developers acknowledged this error. They changed the ending so that it was possible to turn to your radiation-friendly pal (provided you brought him with you) and then send him in to finish the job, thereby making it possible to continue the Fallout story and make sense within the context and internal logic of the Fallout universe.
Mass Effect has become too beloved to be tarnished — or destroyed — by last minute artsy pretensions. I despair when I think how this decision is going to taint the entire legacy of the series. And it really will if it isn’t addressed. The upcoming DLC scheduled for this summer is unlikely to address it adequately, since Bioware has repeatedly stressed that it doesn’t change anything.
So, how SHOULD they change the ending? I don’t know. Personally I would have changed the final three hours. Make the War Assets actually matter, like in Assassins’ Creed Brotherhood where you’re tasked with sending your forces against Reapers around the galaxy in a strategic, side-mission element to the game.
That aside, I’d ask Bioware to have the courage to show the aftermath of the war, rather than to drop it all into an acid-bong. Show what the galaxy in which the Reapers are defeated, the merciless harvesting cycles over, and through ash and fire, death and anguish, the galaxy has to pick up the pieces. Instead of being little more than krill for some OCD machine race to swallow, galactic peoples have now thrown off the yoke. History has turned a page.
Maybe Shepard is dead. Maybe he’s indoctrinated. Maybe, depending on your playthrough, he survived as a physically scarred savior who now has to contemplate the “ever after” period. Do the Batarians get an embassy? Do the krogan? The quarians? If your Shepard survived, does he want to be the next Citadel councilor? Does he retire to some quiet colony and help them rebuild? Does he become a recluse, unable to deal with the loss of so many friends and allies, and assist Liara with archaeological digs under a false name where no one will find him?
It’s not sunshine and rainbows, and it’s not wrist-slitting absurdist nihilism either. It just… is. Life goes on. Friends and civilizations have gone into the fire. Now it’s about picking up the pieces. Play your cards right and your Shepard walks off Citadel’s sunset with Tali or Ash or Liara or Jack (or Cortez or Garrus or Traynor or Kelly) and give us their closure. Don’t give us an abstract painting.
Tali: “What does the savior of the galaxy do now?”
Sheperd: “Mourn those we’ve lost. Make their sacrifices mean something.”
Tali: “And then?”
Sheperd: “Sleep. For the first time in a long time, I’ll be getting some sleep tonight.”
Tali: “Oh? Says who?”
Or something. Fuck, I don’t know. I do know it would be better than what we got: a mystical deus ex machine, something that makes as much sense as having Lord Poseidon show up at the end of Jaws to hand Roy Scheider a magical trident and say, “With this wand, you must destroy all technology throughout the world. Set everyone back five hundred years. Why? Because sharks and people will never get along. Also, spackle. SPACKLE!”
For Mass Effect, it’s actually worse than our Jaws metaphor because in a series celebrating choice, it’s a narrative cattle-prod. Do this! Confused? It’s art!
What to And this way, you address three of the unquestionably solid reasons why people are upset:
1) Jettison the Starchild nonsense. This last-second bit of fantasy is so supremely silly it makes a mockery of the series. It reduces a patiently-designed, nuanced, and complex universe to a truncated logical fallacy.
2) Give players back their choice. I know people who finished Mass Effect 2 and lost nearly everyone in their crew. They earned that ending by rushing through. Others were rewarded by careful exploration and research, and they earned a satisfying victory. Mass Effect 3 should also offer this option. This includes the option of Shepard saying, “Hey Starchild! I’ve heard your speeches before. They were wrong then, and they’re wrong now.”
3) Keep the door to the universe open. If you’re wondering how, see points 1 and 2 above.
Then you begin Mass Effect 4 some decades later, when Shepard is either an honored statue or an active politician, and you step into the shoes of a new would-be hero. I don’t know what the next series would be about. Perhaps Mass Effect 4 starts with the diplomatic problem of the Yaahgs having achieved spaceflight and wanting in on the galactic pie. Perhaps the Batarians and Geth are extinct except for a few individuals who, when they are gone, will end the story on those fascinating cultures. Perhaps we find out that the Leviathan of Dis is a slumbering entity that lived alongside the Reapers before they went all neurotic. Perhaps a new Mass Relay is found that leads to another galaxy, complete with its own races, factions, and dire threats.
As it stands, Mass Effect 3 has ended all that. Even Dan Simmons’ Hyperion series ended in such a way that the story can (and did) continue. And though that series got trippy towards the end, Simmons never betrayed the meticulously constructed logic of his creation.
Mass Effect 3 does.
Great art deserves better than that.