Mass Effect 3′s Refusal Ending: ‘Artistic Integrity’ Achieved
At Last, Real Artistic Integrity?
Of all the missiles lobbed at critics of Mass Effect 3, perhaps the most infuriating is the claim that by registering their complaints and demanding BioWare do better, the fans have committed a sin against the artistic integrity of the creators behind the game. We’ve previously demolished the notion that changing a work after the fact is somehow an artistic compromise, but we have not yet commented on the question of whether or not the endings of Mass Effect 3 actually constitute ‘art’. Frankly, they do not, at least not in the sense intended by those screaming about the quest to change them.
In the mind of the counterbacklash, Mass Effect 3 was created in an environment similar to an author toiling away in obscurity until his or her masterwork was completed. In fact, from the beginning it was a group project with the input of several dominant voices, the scope and scale directly affected by the dictates of the business in which it was made. In this it resembles less an auteur film made by someone like Woody Allen, and more a rather competent, highly enjoyable blockbuster.
That isn’t to say that you can’t make art under those circumstances; in fact, the Mass Effect series was very frequently artistic, managing to wring real emotional responses and grapple with dense, divisive concepts. That’s the work of a very excellent team of writers. But, those writers are employees of one of the biggest business conglomerates in the United States, and for better or for worse, this conglomerate managed to effect a degree of what some might call artistic compromise on a scale far greater than the combined cries of a few thousand gamers could ever accomplish.
Though we are only speculating based solely on information from the public record, it’s worth noting that the Mass Effect 3 Multiplayer seems to have been prioritized over narrative elements many fans would have preferred. This is likely why series-critical characters like Aria are reduced to fetch-quest generators. ME3 multiplayer is popular enough to justify its existence though, and not necessarily a bad idea. Less popular is the decision to put Javik the Prothean behind a DLC paywall. Doing so indisputably weakened critical moments in Mass Effect 3. Throughout the game, Javik offers dialogue that greatly expands the overall story. In fact, the mission set on Thessia is quite clearly incomplete if you don’t take Javik in your squad. Cosmetic changes to the endings are significantly less far reaching than either of these elements. For better or for worse, changes were made based solely on economic realities, in essence the definition of artistic compromise.
As for the original endings themselves? They are indeed challenging, but only because of the massive lore and gameplay problems they contained. That they also require the player to fill in large gaps with their own imagination, something even Hudson and Walters have admitted, makes them further problematic. Vagueness does not equal ‘depth’ anymore than nudity equals ‘adult’, a point all would-be artists should commit to memory. It’s safe to say that real art, the kind you protect from compromise, should provoke the observer to consider its themes deeply. There’s a difference between that, and challenging the observer to do the work of the artist for them.
We don’t claim to define art for all time, but it could probably be said that ‘real’ art challenges the observer meaningfully, while offering keen insight into the mind of the creator that even their own autobiographical materials omit. And with the Refusal Ending, Casey Hudson and Mac Walters have done precisely that.
The imposition of absolute failure on the player who rejects the Catalyst’s choices, the sad and all too brief cutscene implying that the people Shepard failed never learned anything about precisely why he or she failed, the fact that the only option in this case is to die free; this is complex stuff and worth hours of discussion. One may be justifiably annoyed that it feels like a giant middle finger, and more so that the Refusal Ending renders the bullshit inherent in the War Readiness system painfully obvious. But for what it’s worth, had it been present in the original ending, we would probably have been happier with it.
More importantly, by quoting verbatim from fan-written suggested endings, by making Shepard’s refusal to submit sound like a hissy fit, and by flinging failure in the face of the player, Casey Hudson and Mac Walters have, perhaps inadvertently, revealed their own mindset going into the creation of the extended ending. They are not, it seems, very happy about the controversy and kind of wanted to lash out. Let us be absolutely clear: This isn’t a bad thing. The artist’s job, after all, is not to make friends, it’s to communicate something vital or, at least, something they consider important. In doubling down on the ending everyone hated, and rubbing salt in the wounds of those who hated it, they have finally achieved what they previously failed to do: assertion of their artistic integrity.
And with all respect, and quite honestly, that’s a beautiful thing to behold.
So Be It
BioWare accepts that you don’t like the ending, even if it does punish you for your insolence for questioning the plan. You pay the price with the lives of your friends in the Mass Effect universe, but you can pay it. “So be it,” the Catalyst bellows, making a statement that BioWare should have made from the beginning.
While the endings as shipped for Mass Effect 3 were broken at a basic level, lacking both continuity and catharsis, BioWare didn’t necessarily have to deal with players asking or even demanding more. As much as the endings to the game were problematic, it could be argued that BioWare’s handling of the fallout was just as bad. The company played PR games with fans rather than talking with them frankly; it decided to make the Extended Cut, while maintaining that it would do so on its own terms, as some means of saving face. Neither of those plans of action was necessarily the right call.
The Refusal Ending, however, allows BioWare to make the stand it should have from the beginning. Players are capable of making their choice, and though BioWare treats them a bit like petulant children for asking for it, it also signs off on that decision. The endings are bad. You don’t like them. And that’s fine. You might not want to buy more BioWare products (as many have said they will not). That’s fine too.
The Catalyst makes its peace with Shepard’s decision and BioWare makes its peace with players’ decision with those three words. DLC and multiplayer might go on, but in terms of the conversation on Mass Effect 3 — that’s closed. For better or worse, this cycle is over.