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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