The Mass Effect Thing pt2: Entitlement and What is Art?
Sorry for this taking so long. The original draft clocked in at 4,000 words and was all over the place. It to0k me a while to figure out what to chop out and force everything into a dubious coherence.
Last post I talked about how I think the ending was a subconscious desire by Bioware to be seen as more than just a silly sci-fi game and try to speak to a broader, more humanizing theme.
What follows is going to be spoiler-free, and largely Mass Effect 3 free in terms of specifics in characters, gameplay, plot, etc. It’s more of a launching pad for the point I’m trying to make.
Please join me after the jump where I try to make an argument for videogames being not only art, but a whole new form of it.
Bioware recently announced that “stuff” will “happen” “in” and “around” the philosophically nuanced/trainwreck at the koala orphanage ending of Mass Effect 3.
At no point have they said what this will be. At no point have they said they’ll rewrite it, but they haven’t said they won’t. We don’t know if it’ll be actual gameplay, cinematics, title card filled with text, or if voice actors Mark Meer and Jennifer Hale will come to your home and read the “stuff” to you as you fall asleep in your sweet N7 jammies spooning a hanar body pillow.
All we know at this point is that there was an ending in which a lot of people, either a majority of the fans or a vocal minority depending on who you ask, were very upset and bombarded Bioware with emails, tweets, cupcakes, a fan petition, a charity drive that raised 80,000 dollars, several memes, and the dividing of a pretty solid fanbase.
When Bioware announced this ending “etcetera,” arguments broke out that Bioware had either capitulated or finally listened to their true fans. Arguments about the argument broke out as those demanding change assumed everyone was with them, and anyone on the other side would always, inevitably, use the “vocal minority” argument. I doubt any hard data exists to back up either side of the argument’s argument about who is the majority
The point is, no matter how many or how few wanted something done, it’s happening. Now, most game journalists, writers, and developers are aghast at this prospect. Fans have been called every variation of “entitled” and “crybaby” by the people whose income depends on page views. The only clear winner is GameFront.com, one of the few websites to solidly step up in support of the “Mass Effect Ending Sucks Out Loud” party, and will probably reap the rewards of more visitors and advertising revenue.
The very identity of gaming as an art form has been called into question in light of this. Even though it’s happened before. Like with Fallout 3. Or in movies with director’s cuts. I’ve seen eight different versions of Blade Runner and to be honest, they keep getting better. Have you seen the director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven? It takes the film from “holy shit, Orlando Bloom is not the type of lead this movie needed” into a more balanced epic full of battle scenes, political intrigue, and a rich cast that Orlando Bloom is a part of, and not the anchor for.
It happens with movies before they come out.
Focus testing, market research, whatever you call it, movies are shown to small audiences, receive feedback, and that information can fundamentally change how a movie ends. The most popular counter-argument to “you don’t change art” is Charles Dickens changed the endings of Little Nell and Great Expectations.
I’m not going to debate whether it’s right or wrong, but changing stuff, especially endings, happens. It happened before in gaming and it happened in every other sacred form of art and literature. Whether you think it should or shouldn’t is a different debate.
I’m not going to argue about whether this is an artistic decision or a commercial one. Backing art and backing commerce doesn’t necessarily have to be an either/or decision. Bioware is a business. It has customers who pay for Bioware’s products so Bioware and publisher EA can make money. I like big-budget action movies and I like punk rock. One costs hundreds of million dollars and the other doesn’t sound quite right when recorded perfectly on expensive machines. I can be a fan of both styles.
All I’m going to say is, it’s hard to be a professional artist if no one wants to look at your stuff. You can be an tortured artist misunderstood by the modern philistines. You can make a living off your art by responding to the market. Bioware made their choice. Not necessarily a compromise or a capitulation, but a choice.
Bioware enjoyed a very large, extraordinarily devoted fanbase. The fact that Bioware not only said that they welcomed and listened to fan feedback but actually acted on it is unheard of when most in the industry pay lip service to the idea. Garrus and Tali were never intended to be love interests in Mass Effect 2, but enough fans asked for it, and they got it. I’m fairly certain Garrus is the most popular romance option out of everyone. This back-and-forth got Bioware huge amounts of leeway in terms of nerd rage and won over many fans who are obsessed with Bioware’s work.
Seriously, search “Mass Effect tumblr” and you will discover that most of their fans want to fuck everything in the Mass Effect universe, then marry everything in that universe, start a family in that universe, then ride off into the sunset as ultimate badasses in that universe.
However, with the fanbase divided and hostile not only to Bioware but each other, Bioware had to do something more than say the ensuing controversy was their plan all along, because A.) they seemed genuinely hurt and confused that the fans hate everything and B.) there’s money to be made, goddamnit.
The most important part of this debate is how we classify video games as art. I will argue with anyone, for as long as I have to, in order to prove that comic books are not only a viable and important art form, but that they are inherently different from books. They are not just words with pictures that you read off of a page bound ina single unit with other pages, thus, making them simply a different kind of book. No, comics are something unique with their own history, relationship with their audience, and memes. I mean meme in the cultural sense of having a unique cachet and short hand, not 60’s Spider-Man.
Movies and TV are the same way. We expect different things out of both mediums and creators can get away with different things in each one. A slow burn TV show is daring, thought-provoking, and intellectual. A slow-burn movie, if mishandled is boring and unwatchable. A loud bombastic movie is a 500 million dollar profit, a loud bombastic TV show is noise. It is an assault to the senses, and there is no way to keep up that pace for an entire season, whereas the movie is done in two hours. Both are important. Both are capable of moving us, inspiring us, and making us feel but in their own distinct ways. Distinct enough to stand on their own and be recognized as more than just a cheaper/expensive and longer/shorter version of the other.
Video games, especially in the modern era are capable of everything those mediums are. You can have large, impressive set pieces from movies built into the longer running narratives of TV, set in established worlds, rich with content like in comic books. However, the thing that sets it apart is the interactivity.
Let’s ignore Mass Effect’s ability to let you shape your entire world and the societies in it. Let’s forget that the executive producer has already identified fans as co-creators. Let’s instead focus on something more linear.
In the very first game in the series, Halo: Combat Evolved, the player is put into missions that basically involve getting to the end. Either move to all the places there are friendly troops and rescue them, or infiltrate the enemy ship, it’s point A to point B, and if it takes you five minutes or five hours, or if you shoot every bad guy or beat them to death with your gun, the story doesn’t change one damn bit. If you find a plane you, can’t fly to the end, and if you have a tank, you can’t just roll unchallenged in safety to point B. Things in the game are designed to force you to move in the ways the developer intended.
After that, however, it is a combat sandbox. You can murder whole armies any way you see fit. My freshman year in college, my roommate, Eric, and I very nearly failed out due to this game. If we were awake and not eating, we were playing this game. The exact same levels. The exact same story. However we had vastly different experiences.
Eric’s Master Chief was a sniper. He hung back, taking out officers before they knew he was even there. When we drove in the series marquee vehicle, the warthog, he was the driver. Careful, precise, and always looking for the best place to maneuver the vehicle.
I, on the other hand, was a shotgun wielding maniac. If Halo was an 80’s action movie, I would be the villains’ main henchman. My nickname would be “Mad Dog” and I would be rightly regarded by enemies and friends as a fucking psychopath. I found the biggest thing on the battlefield and ran right at it. In the warthog I was on the chain gun and never once took my finger off the trigger.
Eric’s memories of the game are of being a calm, precise hunter. Mine was adrenaline and screaming. Both are valid. Both served the same story, but both are distinct. This in no way adds or detracts from Halo; it is what it is, but it’s still mine. And it’s still Eric’s. It is a piece of art created by Bungie, but a piece of it still belongs to me because I helped dictate my experiences as Master Chief. The art acted on me, and I acted on the art.
This example comes especially close to home in games like the Mass Effect series because there are actual choices. Not just in what path to take, high or low, a la Gears of War, but in the way the entire story plays out or how relationships with characters will be affected for the rest of the series. To say some gamers were invested is an enormous understatement.
I have another friend, Antony, who I got hopelessly addicted to the series. His playing style, and narrative choices differ from mine on such a huge scale it takes everything I have to not yell at him for making the “wrong” choices. From my point of view, his unique story and circumstances are so bad, I want to tear a hole through all possible dimensions and jump into HIS universe and set things “right.” Yet, I was fascinated at how different his world was going to end up from mine when the smoke cleared.
Except it didn’t matter.
Not with the current ending. Forget the choices in YOUR individual game not mattering amongst the ending choices you’re given by Bioware. The current endings are so uniform, so dismissive of the choices that can be made in the game, that in a world drastically different from mine on a multitude of levels it still all ends up in the same place.
When this debate is examined by journalists and critics a lot of the “art is art” proponents take great offense to the “change the ending” camp’s use of the word “demand.”
I think that this is largely semantics, and trying to pick apart your opponent and not the argument, but I digress; very vocal fans did in fact demand that there be more to the ending. Not necessarily a complete rewrite but an expansion of what we saw. More explanation to tell us how all these people and entire races we came to love will end up after the credits roll is not an insane request in a game that when played becomes unique to the player.
I, we, all of us, helped changed the entire course of the universe’s existence at nearly every possible level, why can’t we ask to see it after we’re gone. I’m not asking for a happier ending, or a completely different ending, I’d just like to know what my choices mean for the universe. Even if everyone’s dead, let me know.
Call me entitled; call me a crybaby, but for a series that never backed down from the hard decisions, or took the easy way out when painted into a corner, that’s lame. It’s a huge cop out to take away choice and the consequences of our actions in a series that was built on those same ideas. Instead they ran from having to reveal any sort of answers, but are now attempting to do right by the fans and the series.
Bioware stepping up to help explain to their co-authors what happened to the world we all made was the right decision.