The Mass Effect series of games are amongst some of the most popular and most critically acclaimed video games of recent times, with each game scoring over 90% on average on Metacritic and GameRankings (The Xbox 360 version of Mass Effect 2 even scoring as high as 96% on Metacritic). Exact sales figures are hard to find, but EA confirmed that 3.5 million copies of Mass Effect 3 were shipped for its launch. Mass Effect 3 (ME3) is the end of the series, completing Commander Shepard’s story-arc in the Mass Effect universe.
The story, quickly summarised, involves the discovery in the first game that an ancient race of highly advanced machines called the Reapers, which have been hiding in the dark space between galaxies for 50,000 years, are about to return to “harvest” the advanced organic races of the galaxy, something they have done over and over in 50,000 year cycles. You spend the next two games trying to learn more about them and how they can be stopped. The final game involves rallying the troops of the galaxy together and building a superweapon in a desperate attempt to destroy the Reapers before they destroy the advanced organic species of the galaxy and head back into dark space, completing this “cycle” of destruction. It is the stuff of epic science fiction, a battle of good versus evil on a grand scale, but with an added element that only video games can allow: you get to make many major (and minor) decisions throughout the series which have wide-scale consequences on how the story advances, developing your “own” Commander Shepard character with his/her own custom back-story and personality. This means that each person playing the games has a huge say in how the story unfolds, creating a kind of immersion in the story that even the best epic science fiction narratives told outside the medium of games cannot allow.
One might think that the critical reception to the final game (93% for Xbox 360 on Metacritic) is a strong indication that the developers (Bioware) have succeeded in drawing the trilogy to a close in a more than satisfactory way. When one looks at the “user score” (a score generated by consumer feedback rather than critical feedback) on Metacritic, however, a different picture emerges. For the Xbox version, it has 4.8/10, for the PC version, 3.7/10, and for the Playstation 3 version, 3.6/10. This seems to show quite a large gap between critical and consumer consensus. This is by all means not an uncommon phenomenon; some of the most popular music receives poor reviews from music critics. The critics’ end-of-year lists on Pitchfork (a widely read music site) bear little to no resemblance to end-of-year sales figures. The same is the case for literature. Dan Brown’s books and the Twilight series are some of the most popular books in the world. Critically, however, they are loathed. The Mass Effect games, however, are both hugely critically acclaimed and hugely popular. Why, then, the backlash against ME3? It all boils down to its ending.
As soon as the most dedicated fans began to finish the game a couple of days after its release, the internet was ablaze with anger. Many people were claiming Bioware had “betrayed” their fans, that the ending was “bungled” or “rushed”. The main complaint is that after 100 hours of highly story based gameplay across the trilogy, the end is split into three choices, each of which results in a relatively similar ending with (seemingly) little attention paid to the hundreds and hundreds of choices you’d painstakingly made across the three games. There are even inconsistencies and plot-holes in the ending you see compared to the choices you have made throughout the games. As Paul Tassi states “One fan aptly described it as if Star Wars was wrapped up with the final moments of 2001: A Space Odyssey”.
Now, fans being disappointed with a product is obviously nothing new. In the entire history of artistic production, products have been made which have displeased fans. No artist has ever had 100% approval of something they have created. To give a recent example, 2000’s Kid A by Radiohead lost them a large chunk of their fan base owing to a dramatic shift in style (the band clawed their fans back over the next 5 years, however, and now remain one of the biggest bands in the world). The outrage over the ending to ME3, however, is unlike anything seen before in the world of fan discontent. Discontented fans complain, yes, and the complaints of consumers can give writers/artists/producers a bad name. But the level of seething outrage over ME3 has been unprecedented.
A website (Retake Mass Effect) was set up to raise money for Child’s Play, a children’s’ charity, with the hope of raising enough money to influence Bioware to change the ME3 ending. They hit their target of $80,000 within a fortnight of the game being released. A poll was set up on the official Bioware forums, with 61,000 votes cast in 2 ½ weeks in favour of changing the game’s ending (compared to the 5,500 votes saying the ending is “fine”). One fan has even filed a Federal Trade Commission complaint against EA and Bioware for “false advertising”. Any journalist who dares to defend Bioware or criticse the fan outrage is hurled a torrent of abuse, such as “So how much did bioware pay you off to write this trash?” , “If you’re that ignorant or blind to the reason, stop writing articles in defense of Bioware” , and “Why the hell does this prick have a job at IGN?”. Perhaps worst of all, several staff members at Bioware have been deluged with insults on Twitter (only a few weeks after a female Bioware employee was harassed via Twitter for comments she made five years ago, with some people saying she should “kill herself” and threatening her with rape). The level of seething rage has been simply astonishing.
Bioware, it seems, have caved in, and announced new “content initiatives that will help answer the questions, providing more clarity for those seeking further closure to their journey”. This is essentially a rather complex way of saying they are making a new ending, and will no doubt placate many angry fans.
Should Bioware have done this, however? Laura Parker of Gamespot argues that the ending of the game is the vision of the writers and, as such, is art.
“Imagine we lived in a world where artists regularly changed their art based on audience demands. Imagine Monet repainting Water Lilies in black and white because people objected to color. Imagine Salman Rushdie trashing The Satanic Verses because people objected to its implications. The very idea of allowing any work of art to be changed, edited, reshaped, reworked, deleted, or destroyed because someone, somewhere, didn’t like it would render all art meaningless”.
There is some truth to this. The Western fine art tradition tends to focus on the notion of genius and the individual, where the work of a celebrated individual artist is protected as something special and elevated above the ordinary, removed from mundane concerns of popularity and economic viability. When art occupies this space, it becomes detached from ordinary criticism. When Parker mentions the hypothetical prospect of Monet repainting Water Lillies because people didn’t like the colour, she is indeed stating something many people in the Western tradition would agree with. Monet is celebrated as a painter of genius – his works are seen as elevated and special. Her argument, of course, rests on whether the same thing can be said for the artistic vision of the writers of ME3. Even if one subscribes to the Western fine art notion of genius, it doesn’t look like it applies to ME3. For a start, it is not the work of an individual “genius”. It is a collaborative effort between many writers. Secondly, it was always designed to make money; not, perhaps, as a primary goal, but an important enough goal to have a significant influence on the development of the game.
A second problem with Parker’s argument is that many works of art are made with popularity/economic viability in mind. If this does not factor into the initial creative process, it more often than not factors in before the product is released. Books are edited, films are cut, songs are re-recorded and remastered. This does not render the art “meaningless”. We have all enjoyed films, books and games which have been tweaked for this purpose. Even with popularity/economic viability in mind, art can clearly still have value. Parker is presenting a dichotomy between artistic value and economic value. These two things are not mutually exclusive, however, and this is why her argument fails. For Bioware to change the ending now, then, does not render their art “meaningless”.
Bioware’s “betrayal” of its fans
What’s still interesting, however, are the reasons why fans seemed so angry. The use of the word “betrayal” has particularly interested me. A simple reading of this word seems to be implying that Bioware have a duty to provide the content they expected, even going as far (in the case of the FTC complaint) as arguing that they have a contractual legal obligation to provide this content. The word “betrayal”, however, implies so much more than this. As well as the reneging of an obligation on their end, it carries a sense of deeply personal hurt, as though a close friend has been sleeping with your spouse behind your back. There is a sense of deeply personal trust that has been broken by Bioware. People seem genuinely upset.
This seems slightly crazy on the surface. They are just a company making video games! How can they betray anyone? How can people get so personally upset? I don’t think any Radiohead fans were crying when they heard Kid A. There were no fundraisers demanding they changed the sound of the album. People didn’t violently insult members of the band. No one tried to sue them. Why is it so different for ME3?
The answer lies in the fact that the Mass Effect series is unlike any series of games released to this date. As mentioned before, there are about 100 hours of highly story based gameplay across the trilogy, and each gamer makes hundreds and hundreds of choices across the three games. The player gets to know the characters, and, over the months and years of playing these games really begins to care about them. While each game may offer only 30-ish hours of gameplay on the first run through, many players play them through several times. Couple this with the fact that the games have been released over a five year period and we have a situation where people have been playing these games repeatedly over many years. The level of involvement in the narrative dwarfs anything books and film can offer. Undoubtedly, people care greatly about many characters in books and films. The depth and length of trilogies like The Lord of the Rings trilogy provide almost as many hours of engagement. It is, however, the direct influence gamers can have on the narrative of Mass Effect that separates it from other kinds of narrative fiction. Players have been actively creating their own versions of the Mass Effect world, creating their own Commander Shepards and working towards their own version of how he/she saves the galaxy. In a sense, it may feel to many gamers like they “own” their Mass Effect world, given their level of involvement over the last five years.
Bioware, then, are in a strange position. They both a) have to create the game they want and fulfil the writers’ vision of how the story-arc should end and b) have to create the game that their fans want, given the level of perceived ownership felt by many fans of the series. For the previous two games they have succeeded in achieving both of these goals. Unfortunately, they have failed at achieving b) with ME3.
There is another reason gamers feel perceived ownership of a game. As Erik Kain points out:
“gamers really do have investment in their games – often more than in television, a medium where you hear plenty of discontent from fans (yet no television reviewers, to my knowledge, calling the fans “entitled.”) Gamers are often involved in modding games after release, often with the blessing of the developers. New texture packs, characters, or maps are common in games like Skyrim or Valve’s catalogue. The relationship between gamer and developer, and across the entire community, is a social and participatory relationship. Gamers may not work on the actual development of a title like Mass Effect 3, but they’ve invested their time and money and support into that franchise”.
This is strange situation only found in video games. No other art allows fans this level of participation in the product. This further contributes to feelings of ownership on the part of gamers, compounding the already perceived ownership of “their” Mass Effect universe generated through their decisions made when playing the games.
Perceived ownership, however, does not equate to actual ownership. It may go some way to explaining some of the fan outrage, but it does not provide a case for claiming Bioware are wrong in some way for not providing the ending the fans wanted. The fans do not “own” Mass Effect, no more than a Radiohead fan “owns” Kid A. They have copies of the game, and can freely enjoy it within the confines set by Bioware. They don’t have any right to demand that Bioware produce the game they want. They just simply don’t have the authority to make those demands. As I mentioned previously, Bioware have decided to listen to the fans and made the decision to provide “content initiatives that will help answer the questions, providing more clarity for those seeking further closure to their journey”. But, crucially, they had no duty to do this whatsoever. They have chosen to do this as a kindness (or, more realistically, as a placating move to calm the fans), not because they had to.
The positive aspects of this outcry
I’d like to end on a positive note. The fact that so many people clearly care about the Mass Effect characters in such a deeply personal way is surely a triumph of contemporary video gaming, and this debate shows how much Bioware have succeeded in this regard, despite all the fan anger. This is what we should take from this whole controversy. If the Mass Effect games weren’t so good and didn’t cause people to care this much about the outcome of their decisions in the game then this entire outcry would never have happened. Rather than remembering ME3 as being “the one with the terrible ending”, we should see it as the game that reminded us how much we cared about this incredible series of games, and how far video games have come in recent times.