Let’s Talk About Mass Effect 3; Everyone Else Is.
For the last week or so, it seems like every other video game article I see is about the controversial ending to BioWare’s space epic, the Mass Effect trilogy. I hadn’t finished the game yet, so I had avoided reading any of these articles. But last night my Shepard (a fiery, curt FemShep with a heart of gold), completed her story. Today, I went ahead and looked at what all the hubbub was about. I originally didn’t want to do a piece on this because, well, everyone else was. However, given my chosen subject matter, I think I would be remiss not to talk about it. THERE ARE SPOILERS AHEAD, so if you haven’t finished the game yet, I urge you to do so before reading, and please, try to avoid all the other crap out there until you’ve seen it for yourself.
I think it’s important to start by saying that I love Mass Effect, and like everyone who’s speaking to this issue, I was extremely invested in the story, the characters I’d grown to know and love (or dislike, in Kaidan’s case), and most importantly my very own Shepard, whom I’d crafted for a grand total of around 100 hours by the end. Before this final installment came out, I said that there had never before been a time when I wanted so badly to find out how a story ended.
For those of you who somehow managed to miss all the controversy surrounding the ending, here’s a quick synopsis, as I understand it: Fans have complained that while Mass Effect 3 claims to have 16 different endings, there are really only effectively three, and even then they’re fairly similar, and more importantly, aren’t really affected by the choices the player made throughout the trilogy; rather, one final decision in the penultimate sequence determines the ending. However, I wouldn’t be talking about it here if the issue was just that some (or even most) people didn’t like the ending.
After outcries from the fan-base reached alarming levels, with people going as far as filing FTC complaints against publisher EA, BioWare’s Dr. Ray Muzyka issued a formal statement to the effect that they want to listen to the community’s feedback, and add to the game’s content to help flesh out or modify the ending. This has created two camps: one that believes the story belongs to the creators, and the integrity of their vision needs to be preserved for it to be called art; and one that asserts that we, as players, have just as much of a role in the storytelling of the game, that indeed, the player’s involvement is what makes the art of video games unique.
I don’t know if either side in this debate is right. The New Yorker, of all publications, weighed in on the side of preserving the artist’s vision, but they did it with an air of disdain, almost disgust, for gamers that I find extremely offensive, and many like them already dismiss gaming’s legitimacy. On the opposite side of the issue, Forbes contributor Dave Thier eloquently explains why this debate is so important to video gaming as an art form, and discusses how player interaction is at the core of the medium, but the argument reeks of tyranny of the majority, and I’m having a lot of difficulty reconciling customer complaints with artistic goals.
The precedent that could be established here is not, in my opinion, in line with treating video games as art. Consumer demand modifying artist expression is called “selling out”. While fans were of course actively involved in the creation of the Shepard they guided through Mass Effect’s narrative, they did so within the confines of the game. Mass Effect’s world was influenced by the player, sure, but it was just that: Mass Effect’s world. We were presented with a framework; we never created the story, we simply participated, moved through it as we saw fit. I do not believe we have the right to create the ending, either. We can only experience it. It is a player’s responsibility to help developers craft gameplay elements and to refine software issues by providing feedback and expecting results, but I believe the storytelling should be firmly in the hands of the creators. It is their responsibility to deliver an experience for us to traverse freely, and to involve us in the story they’ve created for us. How it begins and ends is out of our control. We may have the same beginnings and the same endings, but my Shepard is mine, and she is like no other. I DID help tell the story, and that IS what makes video games unique amongst storytelling media. If you didn’t like the ending, well, no art is perfect. Moving beyond the medium and leveraging financial issues to bully a change through defeats the purpose of being told a story, and makes us, as gamers, look bad.
Personally, I do not understand the outrage felt by the ”hardcore fans”. When my Shepard stepped into that beam, giving her life to unite synthetic and organic life and break the cycle, I felt satisfied. I felt the weight of an entire galaxy lifted from my shoulders, and I knew I had accomplished what needed to be done. For me, synthesis was the only choice. I had followed threads leading to it throughout the trilogy; battling the Geth, only to find out that they felt just as oppressed as the people they fought against; understanding that an artificial intelligence can have just as much humanity as any other crewmember, and eventually become a friend; and that working together, while difficult, is always a better solution than mutually assured destruction. While others’ stories may have been different, these are the things I learned from my Shepard.
I think my point is that no matter if you chose to destroy the Reapers, control them, or join with them to create a higher life-form, it doesn’t really matter. Even if, for five minutes in Shepard’s life, the only options were red, blue, or green, each of us had the adventure of a lifetime to live the way we saw fit. We rejoiced at our triumphs, were disappointed by our defeats, mourned the deaths of our friends, and created bonds that we will never forget. When I think about Mass Effect, I won’t remember EDI and Joker stepping out of the wrecked Normandy, or even the touching scene after the credits with the incredible Buzz Aldrin voicing the Stargazer. I’ll remember Wrex and Garrus verbally sparring in an elevator on the Citadel, the sense of dread before moving through the Omega-4 Relay and the loss of Mordin afterward, or the pride I felt at the incredible bravery of my crewmembers and friends in the face of almost certain death in London.
I don’t know if changing Mass Effect 3’s ending would make it better or worse, or if giving more creative control to the player-base will radically change how stories are told in video games. All I know is that Shepard’s final decision, for me, was the only one I could have made, and was ultimately only one of many. It suited me just fine.
Life is a journey, not a destination.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson