13 Mar 2012

Ending The Saga: Mass Effect 3′s Mistake

In case you’ve missed it, last week saw the release of Mass Effect 3. The launch saw most of the internet fall quiet as fans rapidly devoured a game almost universally praised by critics. But as players across the globe slowly emerged from an intense period of gaming, the first notes of discord started to emerge.

What started as a few quiet murmurs rapidly snowballed into an online campaign: fans were not satisfied with the game ending and started to demand that BioWare change it. Seasoned video games journalists called the movement “idiotic” and “angry”. Harsh words indeed.

But is this response from the video gaming press justified, or do the fans have a point? Have BioWare produced an ending suitable for the game, or should they go back to the drawing board? More fundamentally, can a studio enduring a difficult relationship with its fans still have a meaningful dialogue?

I’ll try to answer all these questions and more, but be warned: Here Be Spoilers.

Firstly, I want to address what I mean by a Good or Bad ending.

A Good ending is in keeping with the rest of the game, both in terms of concluding the story arc and providing a suitable end-point for the player’s emotions. It’s also the payoff or reward for finishing the game, the recognition of some 30 hours of gameplay. It doesn’t have to be a happy or even bittersweet ending, but it needs to fit in terms of context, emotion and reward.

By contrast, a Bad ending seems disjointed with the rest of the game. It uses tropes such as Deus Ex Machina in order to conclude the story, or has characters behaving unusually or displaying unknown abilities in order to make the conclusion possible. It also ignores the player’s (and character’s) emotional state, creating an ending that “feels” wrong. There’s also the disproportionate payoff – a 60 hour game ending with a 60 second cutscene would leave players feeling somewhat cheated.

From all of these measures above, Mass Effect 3 exhibits Bad endings. There’s extensive use of tropes in order to conclude the stories, Commander Shepard demonstrates previously unknown abilities, the emotional rebalancing just isn’t there and the payoff is both inadequate and contradictory.

So how did BioWare drop the ball, and why are video game journalists struggling to understand the dissatisfaction?

To answer the first question, there’s a rumour (unproven) that the endings for Mass Effect 3 were changed following a November 2011 script leak. Given that it takes 2 to 3 months to QA and publish a game before release, this would have left BioWare with 2 short months over the holiday season to reuse what they could in order to build something new. That’s a huge task, which (if true) would explain why the payoff is small and the storyline incongruous.

There’s also the challenge of trying to manage a project as large as Mass Effect 3, ensuring all the various aspects line up and the story and characters are emotionally consistent. This is further compounded by the number of side-missions available that the player is encouraged to complete in order to get the “perfect” ending. Trying to develop an ending that fits for a 15 hour action playthrough, a 40 hour RPG playthrough and a 70+ hour trilogy playthrough is going to cause problems.

This is probably what has thrown traditional video game journalists a curve ball. When reviewing Mass Effect 3 in isolation, the downbeat ending works as it emphasises finality. A short mission-focused game coupled with multiplayer sessions will result in a conclusion that newcomers to the series would probably be happy with. But take longer gameplay sessions into account and add to it the knowledge that fans have been waiting 4 and a half years for this moment, and you can see why expectations were much higher.

To put it another way, imagine the final film The Return of the King from Peter Jackson’s epic version of The Lord of the Rings. In one of the final scenes, Frodo and Samwise are on a rocky outcrop surrounded by lava as Mount Doom collapses around them. In isolation the story (although bleak) could have ended there. But in the context of a trilogy of tales, the payoff and conclusion needed to be larger.

Another example is the zombie romantic-comedy Shaun of the Dead. The original ending was incredibly bleak, with the hero and his love interest ending up in the cellar of a burning pub, surrounded by zombies. After testing, the ending was rebalanced to show the Army moving in, the hero being rescued and how life recovered. The change was successful, with the film gaining significant critical acclaim.

So what can be done about it?

The current campaigns for BioWare to “fix” the ending will, in all likelihood, end up with no positive outcome for either the company or the gamers. With no satisfying conclusion to the game and BioWare emphatically stating that they won’t release any new content that occurs after the game, players are left with little motivation to purchase any downloadable mission packs.

The job of the video game journalist has also just become that much harder for titles like Mass Effect, where the experience of the returning gamer is as important to consider as that of the newcomer to the series. A game can’t be considered in isolation any more, but rather how it builds upon the artistic endeavour and legacy of the franchise.

But do gamers have a right to demand such things from our developers? Absolutely. Although video games are a form of artistic expression created by the labours of a development team, as paying customers we are the ultimate critics. It is our job to assess if a package of entertainment is worth buying, guided by reviews and developer history. If a game does something we don’t like, we should be free to explain our displeasure clearly, accurately and reasonably.

While the saga of Commander Shepard draws to a close and with it a trilogy that has defined an era of gaming, it’s also shown that there’s a huge amount the gaming industry still has to learn. From developers understanding how the expectations of fans can grow over a series, through to journalists understanding how their approach on epic gaming sagas needs to change. Fans also need to work with developers on how concerns and grievances are aired, discussed and responded to – an area where the MMO industry is leading the way. Not everything needs to be a boycott or campaign, but more open dialogue is needed.

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19 Responses to Ending The Saga: Mass Effect 3′s Mistake

  1. QuixoticMage says:

    why can’t there be a positive outcome, such as a patch or dlc that expands on the already existing ending? why is this so hard to do? it happened with fallout 3.
    QuixoticMage recently posted..This should have been the “secret end” sequence for…My Profile

    • Gazimoff says:

      Fundamentally, it’s because BioWare have no plans for DLC that continues the story. That said, they may feel persuaded to release some anyway.

      Regardless, Fallout 3 had a single ending, while Mass Effect 3 has 16 possible. Creating DLC that continues on beyond that many divergent points will be incredibly challenging.

      • Tim says:

        That’s not entirely true. While technically there are 16 endings, they are really just defined by subtle differences in dialogue and similar small changes that most players won’t even really pick up on. When it comes down to it there are really only three different options for the ending all of which are way too similar and way too depressing.

  2. Winter says:

    I think a pretty big problem is that the journalist did not state the problem with the ending in their reviews. Many gave it a 5/5 or 10/10 with little regard to many of the glitches and plot holes that are easily visible to long time followers of the series. What the journalists have failed to do is take into consideration that this is part of a saga rather than a stand-alone game; in order to appreciate mass effect, all 3 games must be considered.

    There has been a rumor going around that many of these gaming sites are getting paid or forced into providing high review scores in order to be allowed early release in their websites. If this is true then it is atrocious and entirely unethical.

    The problem with open dialogue is that, up to this point, it has been one sided. fan are crying out and asking for answers or a simple response by the devs but nothing has even arisen. It’s as if Bioware and EA are blindsiding the fans and just concentrating on the good things that people have said while ignoring the ever increasing backlash that the ending has caused.

    • Gazimoff says:

      I don’t really believe the rumour that gaming sites are pressured into providing positive reviews. As you said, it’s unethical behaviour that I don’t think news outlets would tolerate. They’d be able to make more news from disclosing unreasonable influences than the review anyway.

      What I do think is that there’s a disconnect between the experience of the journalist and the experience of the long-term saga gamer. With a 2 hour movie both the critic and the audience have the same experience. With a saga as complex as Mass Effect, this is much more difficult to achieve. I’m not making excuses for the journalists here, but I do feel that had they played the game in context then their review may have been somewhat different.

  3. Zhijn says:

    You nailed it. Well written!. =)

  4. Pink Poptart says:

    Is it worth then to play Mass Effect 3? Do you think they’ll leave the ending as it is or even make a small attempt at rectifying the situation?
    Pink Poptart recently posted..WTF Healer?!: How to Break Your HealerMy Profile

    • Targeter says:

      It’s definitely worth it to play … the final 10 minutes of Mass Effect 3 does not negate the stellar 35 hours before it. Or the two games prior. It’s just a sad lesson on how not to end a game.
      Targeter recently posted..Mass Effect 3 – The EndMy Profile

    • kingkujoe says:

      One faulty aspect of a thing should devalue as whole. Story is still pretty much solid, game play is fluid and responsive as ever. It’s like watching the best boxing match ever but the fighters are just to tired in the end and they’re throwing punches like pillows.

  5. Targeter says:

    It’s not that the trilogy ends on a downbeat note … I can handle a sad or tragic ending. It’s the ending that makes no sense that absolutely infuriate me. All my choices in all three games boiled down to what color light I chose to screw the galaxy over with. That’s it. Relays destroyed no matter what outcome I choose.

    Now, if you buy into the Indoctrination theory (which I do) then you’ll realize that the events on the Citadel are the result of Harbinger trying to warp Shepard. So does that explain how the crewmembers (even the ones in London with me) wound up on the Normandy and were, for some unfathomable reason, fleeing an energy wave? And why they were sucked into a vortex (where the HELL did that come from?!) and marooned on some weird planet? I mean, really.

    Now throw into the mix Casey Hudson’s condescending remarks about ME fans and the ending and BioWare may have honestly broken me. I’ve been a staunch supporter of theirs; KOTOR, Jade Empire Special Edition, DA:O Collector’s Edition, DA:2 Collector’s Edition, Mass Effect, Mass Effect 2: Collector’s Edition, Mass Effect 3: Collector’s Edition, and TOR: Collector’s Edition, but this last one hurts deeply.

    Hopefully they are planning some extension of the game that will finish the ‘true’ ending … who knows. At this point, I may not care anymore. It’s sad, really. Mass Effect came in like a pulse-rifle wielding lion, and now it goes out like a senile, self-important lamb.
    Targeter recently posted..Mass Effect 3 – The EndMy Profile

  6. kingkujoe says:

    I’m just going to state this first. I do not think Mass Effect 3 is a bad game and enjoyed it for what it was. With that that said I would like to state that I am disappointed with the ending. Even if I accept the fact that last 15 mins or so of gameplay (as in I still control the character and able to something) is probably meant to be part of the ending, it’s what comes after that upsets me. It seemed rushed and left far to many questions. For a game that was defined by the choices there was little done let you know what impact your choices had after the fact. Then there was lack of emotional payoff. All the effort spent to save certain characters and developing relationships and I have no clue what happens to most of them. True it’s a game and in the end it doesn’t really matter, but after 100+ hours of trial and error just to see what happens, you’d expect a little more in the epilogue.

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  8. Milady says:

    There’s no mention in your post about the story itself and how it unveils the answers to those questions that any narrative carries since its beginning (in the case of Mass Effect, who are the Reapers, what is their purpose, etc). For me, it was much more anticlimatic, to the point of bathos, to be answered in such a “juvenile” (as you said) way. Much more than caring about a fictional Earth, I was seeking a satisfying conclusion, a final gathering of all loose threads, and met with the completely illogical and terribly clichéd answer about chaos, life-cycles and promethean (from Prometheus, not the Proteans) rebelliousness. The emotional dissatisfaction was not much noticed after my perplexity at the wrapping up of what ought to have been the intellectual culmination of the series, the awe at the much expected question of the galactic struggle. Indeed, it did exhibit all those features of bad endings that you sum up, but an emotional response to such an instance necessarily follows the intellectual acceptance of some premises, so as to be engaged with the narrative. The first step would have been to get the story right; then, to make it compelling.
    Milady recently posted..[ME3] EndingMy Profile

  9. sadpanda says:

    In common with most other posters loved everything up until the SPOILERS AHEAD
    final encounter with The Catalyst. What really bothered me wasn’t the fact that the ending was cerebral or potentially downbeat, it was that it just didn’t make sense – the whole idea that organic and machine life can’t coexist completely flies in the face of a major theme of the series as embodied by the Geth and Quarians finally ending their war and EDI gaining her humanity. Also, how did my companion characters magically transport themselves back onto the Normandy to outrun the big space bogey at the end? Stupid, stupid ending to an otherwise excellent franchise.

  10. Guy UK says:

    Very disappointing ending indeed, I am however interested to see who came out of the Normandy after it had crashed, but man – Bioware…what the heck is your problem? Not cool!

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  12. Kyle USA says:

    This was why it didnt make sense

    Problem: Sythetics will destory all organic life if left unchecked
    Solution: Destroy all organic life

  13. Kyle USA says:

    *solution: synthetics destroy all organic life

    didn’t follow any logical pathway