Why Changing Mass Effect’s Ending Won’t Compromise Art

What Constitutes Artistic Integrity Is Genre-Specific

Video games are not movies, books, or television, no matter how many superficial similarities exist. Each medium has its own conventions that must be taken into account when discussing them. Television is perhaps better suited to serialized storytelling than film. Cinema can convey complex concepts quickly through powerful moving images in a manner not entirely replicable on Television and has no analogue in a novel. Literature is able to give insight into the inner workings of a character’s mind thanks to the first person narrative that rarely works elsewhere. It would be a mistake to judge a work by the standards of a genre it does not belong to, and yet, that’s precisely what seems to be happening with the discussion of Mass Effect 3.

Many critics of the decision, while impassioned, seem intent on talking about Video Games as though they were movies. Central to that argument is the idea that the ending was the result of a singular artistic vision, as though the auteur theory of film applies here (BTW< it rarely even applies to movies). But is that actually true? While it can be argued that as director, the series is ultimately Casey Hudson's baby, the director of a video game has a very different job than does a film director. A game director is closer to a film's executive producer, which means, while they're ultimately responsible for making sure everything comes together, they oversee the creative process more than they ASSUME DIRECT CONTROL of it.

Mass Effect has had two separate lead writers, one of whom, Drew Karpyshyn, largely created the lore of the series but left in the middle of Mass Effect 2. Further, it has had rotating teams of support writing staff that has changed considerably since 2007. And this leaves out the team of programmers, artists and the like. Which is to say, Mass Effect was Hudson's passion project, the chance as he saw it for BioWare to make original IP of lasting importance as opposed to licensed products, but the series did not simply spring forth whole from his imagination. It was a widely collaborative effort from inception. even more so than films tend to be.

But more importantly, whatever else they may be, the central conceit of a video game, no matter how important the story, is interactivity; the story is ultimately meant to be participated in, rather than simply absorbed. This is especially true for an RPG like Mass Effect, in which the player is expressly asked to create their own unique narrative. That they do so from elements created by BioWare doesn’t change the fact that player choice is central to the experience. (More on that shortly).

Interactivity isn’t just a part of the play experience. From the beginning of a game’s development, the player is actively encouraged to become a part of the process through something that has almost no parallel in other entertainment mediums: the beta testing process. Imagine a director inviting his biggest fans to sit in with them during an actual film shoot, giving feedback, suggesting edits, even influencing script or casting decisions. You can’t, because this would never happen. And yet it’s precisely how a video game comes together.

Fans may indeed feel “entitled” to weigh in on the ending of Mass Effect, but that’s because this level of interaction is a liberty extended to them going back through nearly 40 years of video gaming. And it’s a liberty BioWare has depended on.

BioWare Actively Encouraged This Reaction

Finally, ignored by most of the people arguing against the fan push for a new ending is a simple fact: from the beginning, BioWare has engaged in an almost unprecedented effort to involve their fans in the creative process. This started with the concept itself, of course. Mass Effect is a largely unprecedented attempt to make a true, self-contained trilogy in which only by playing the entire series can fans get the true experience. This is explicit in the marketing itself, and while we don’t want to rehash our own problems with the ending, it can never be said too often that the slogan “Experience the beginning, middle, and end of an emotional story unlike any other, where the decisions you make completely shape your experience and outcome” is still prominently featured along the top of the official Mass Effect site.

But it wasn’t just in the concept, but in development of the series that BioWare took great pains to ensure that the fans were an intimate part of the creation of the series. In an early statement about the ending backlash given to Digital Trends, Casey Hudson stated outright that the excellent Lair of the Shadow Broker DLC was created as a response to fan demands. “[I]f you look at Mass Effect 2,’ he said, “we knew that people wanted to spend more time with a character like Liara, and so we created an ongoing storyline with her as part of the comics and then built it into the DLC stuff.”

In this interview with Venture Beat, Casey Hudson even said that fans essentially co-wrote the series, going so far as to claim that significant character development in the series was a direct result of feedback from fans. This level of give and take is evidenced by the return of weapons modding and the immense amount of fan service in the game itself, but it’s a company-wide phenomenon. Dragon Age 2′s Legacy DLC was created as a direct response to withering criticism from fans who hated much of DA2′s mechanics, combat, and levels.

Like it or not, the effort to convince BioWare to deliver a new ending for Mass Effect 3 isn’t simply an uprising of entitled fans – it is the natural outcome of a business model that encourages those fans to take part in the creative process at every step of the way. Far from a betrayal of BioWare’s artistic vision, changing the ending of Mass Effect 3 is in fact its apotheosis. It signals what might be the very thing that establishes gaming’s uniqueness. No film, no television show, no book could ever accomplish the same kind of long term relationship with the audience. That gaming has managed to do so is good not only for the consumer, as it frequently results in a more enjoyable, higher quality game, it’s good for art as well.

What’s interesting about this moment is that we’ve just spent the last 5 years arguing with each other about whether or not video games are even art, so it’s nice that we’ve apparently decided they are. It’s too bad this has happened in the service of naked elitism, but progress comes in tiny steps. But in the future, let’s try to remember that art is more than just a socially awkward genius alone in a room. That’s never more true than in gaming.

No matter how many socially awkward geniuses end up working in the industry.

Join the Conversation   

* required field

By submitting a comment here you grant GameFront a perpetual license to reproduce your words and name/web site in attribution. Inappropriate or irrelevant comments will be removed at an admin's discretion.

35 Comments on Why Changing Mass Effect’s Ending Won’t Compromise Art

Kyle Meredith

On March 27, 2012 at 3:58 pm

Colin Moriarty is dumb

Mark Burnham

On March 27, 2012 at 5:19 pm

“Far from a betrayal of BioWare’s artistic vision, changing the ending of Mass Effect 3 is in fact its apotheosis. It signals what might be the very thing that establishes gaming’s uniqueness.”

Word.

Yogondu

On March 27, 2012 at 5:40 pm

I couldn’t agree more with this very well written article. This is the very thing that is so frustrating when listening and reading other video game pundits. Video games are not movies, paintings, songs or books they are video games. If we put video games in the same category as any of these things limits them rather than builds them up. What really destroys an industry is elitism and BioWare giving in to fan demands will not destroy the industry; it will create consumer trust. This issue that it takes away from video games being art to change the ending is utter foolishness.

Mark

On March 27, 2012 at 6:59 pm

Gamefront,

Three weeks ago I didn’t know your website existed. Now, with the combination of this article and “Mass Effect 3 Ending Hate: Why the Fans Are Right”, you have turned into the number one site (in my opinion) for gaming news/articles. Your pieces are written EXTREMELY well and clearly show intelligence and real thought. They are the polar opposite to IGN posting things like Colin Moriarty’s temper tantrum. You hit the nail on the head everytime. Your articles seem to convey that you do actually have a legitimate background in how to properly analyze a storyline or piece of art. Versus the guys at other gaming websites who have a background in being angry, acting like they are above us all, and overrating the latest COD game yet again. Keep up the good work, and pay Ross Lincoln however much he wants.

Kevin

On March 27, 2012 at 7:48 pm

I just wanted to say thank you for not attacking gamers like some other high profile gaming sites have done. One in particular, Gamesradar.com, put up a ridiculous article about how anyone who didn’t like the ending was a “rabid fanboy”. Needless to say, they’ve been deleted from my favorites. Keep up the good work.

Joshua A. F.-T.

On March 27, 2012 at 7:52 pm

I’m in agreement with Mark. I didn’t know about you guys, but the Mass Effect ending coverage via the intelligent articles reeled me in like a fish to the boat of appreciation. I don’t know if that metaphor even works. Keep on being as fair and critical as y’all can be, be they articles or reviews.

Jerrold

On March 27, 2012 at 8:05 pm

Beautifully written, and well-thought out. I am a professor of theater, who loves the ME series (and detested the ending of ME3), and I completely agree with all that you say about art, gaming, and the impact of an audience upon the medium. We acknowledge audience input in the theater without question, and gaming should be no different.

krohn

On March 27, 2012 at 8:08 pm

i feel as if you are not just a fan who feels betrayed but a journalist who took steps back to see both sides of this and make educated decisions on what is going on. i feel represented in a way that barely ever happens i feel as if you truly understand what it felt like to finish the game a feel like yelling ” DA FUQ IS DIS T!” so kudos to you.
also fyi this website is now my first stop for gaming news.

Raven

On March 27, 2012 at 8:12 pm

People who say BioWare shouldn’t change the ending have no right to make such claims as “betrayal of artistic integrity.” In fact, it makes them that much more ignorant for saying so. If tens of thousands of people told Da Vinci that the Mona Lisa was terrible and ugly, of course he would toss it out and change it.

BWchief117

On March 27, 2012 at 8:12 pm

I continue to love Gamefront more and more! Awesome article. It’s hard enough convincing people the endings need to be changed, let alone arguing this artistic vision stuff right along side it.

Greg

On March 27, 2012 at 8:32 pm

Great article. Well evidenced, thoughtful and free of name-calling. Gamefront has won a new reader in me.

septerra

On March 27, 2012 at 8:51 pm

Mark +1

I am three weeks old to this website, and you guys are the best out there. Articles that actually mean something.

noble1988

On March 27, 2012 at 9:01 pm

great article, aid everything i have been thinking

Zack F.

On March 27, 2012 at 9:47 pm

Well said! Thanks For a well reasoned and well written argument. My game is as much my art as BioWare’s, and in a much more pragmatic way, it’s my darn money invested in the game, and my time as well. I’m not going to waste my limited gaming time in a game I’m not going to enjoy, and I won’t waste my money buying add-ons for something that disappointed me as much as the last bit of ME3 did.

Herple Derp

On March 27, 2012 at 9:56 pm

Video games are not art. They are an interactive product with artistic merit.

Name*

On March 27, 2012 at 10:01 pm

EXPERIENCE THE BEGINNING, MIDDLE, AND END OF AN EMOTIONAL STORY UNLIKE ANY OTHER, WHERE THE DECISIONS YOU MAKE COMPLETELY SHAPE YOUR EXPERIENCE AND OUTCOME.

I haven’t played Mass Effect 3 yet. The game shipped with a glitch that prevents me from importing the face I’ve used since I booted up Mass Effect five years ago.

EA and Bioware have completely betrayed anyone who bought into this trilogy because of promises like the one quoted above. In Mass Effect 3 my face doesn’t matter, and my choices don’t matter. All that matters is if I buy DLC. That wasn’t what I signed up for.

Frank

On March 27, 2012 at 10:03 pm

Artistic integrity stands mostly for the artists working alone and willing to die in hunger if needed. In that case they didnt had to please the audience to sell paintings, statues, etc. they could fulfill their vision. And if someone liked their work, then he/she could bought it. (so they decided first, paid later…)

But for those who worked for order had to paint what others want, and even make some changes sometimes (plus they usually made people look better than in life). And those lucky few who had a patron had to completely surrender their own art, and realise the patrons vision from time to time, whether they wanted to be on the painting of Jezus born, or look 2-3 feet taller on their portrait.

As the Monty Python sketch shows (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w1IJiAXjj7k) it was a buyers market.

Chris

On March 27, 2012 at 11:21 pm

Great job on this article, its nice to see someone actually doing their homework rather than just stating their opinion while attacking a group of people like colin moriarty at ign.

BRBonobo

On March 28, 2012 at 12:46 am

I read the article, put my thoughts and opinions together, and realized that Mark had already said them. I came here from a link on an ArsTechnica comment about a week ago and read “Mass Effect 3 Ending-Hatred: 5 Reasons The Fans Are Right.” This site is now at the top of my RSS Reader and Ross Lincoln is my new favorite voice on the subject of video games (since Anthony Burch rarely posts any analysis anymore).

Kenrae

On March 28, 2012 at 6:55 am

I hate the use of test audiences on movies and series, so you can guess what I think about this :P .

SXO

On March 28, 2012 at 9:25 am

In the interest of full disclosure, let me start off by saying I think the current ending(s) is/are terrible, but I’m also against changing the ending. Changing the ending will not magically erase all the other plotholes and retcons that go as far back as Mass Effect 2. Regardless, I don’t think Bioware is actually changing anything. What you’ll see is some sort of ticker update, or something equally small, that will detail what happened to each of your crewmates after the end.

Jen

On March 28, 2012 at 9:26 am

Just… <3. Thank you.

Steven F

On March 28, 2012 at 10:05 am

It is well known that art is evaluated in the eye of the beholder ;)
In my opinion the series as a whole is Art but unfinished. Imagine you get an offering to buy a Paining base on the personal account of the Artist. You know his former works of Art and decide to buy the paining based on his account without seeing it before. As you get the Painting it is as described and match perfectly with the former Art of the paining accepted that the white spot at the bottom left. He just stopped painting and sold it earlier because hey it is art Right ? Right ;)

Kerry

On March 28, 2012 at 11:01 am

I really like how you handled this. You at least backed up your arguments with examples. IGN bordered on what I imagine being a mouthpiece for Bioware’s private criticisms of fans. They relied totally on fear. That said I do disagree that are no negative consequences to this decision. Look at Spielberg and 1941. The movie was a flop but the next project he worked on was Indiana Jones. I would like to think such a failure drove him to do better on his next project in order to salvage his image.

beema

On March 28, 2012 at 12:16 pm

Wonderful, well-written article. I would love to see more thoughtful pieces like this from the gaming media. Gamefront is fast becoming my favorite gaming article site. Keep it up!
I feel like a lot of people railing against the “Retake” movement are the very same who said Roger Ebert’s opinions don’t matter because games are so unique from film or literature that they shouldn’t be judged the same way. There’s definitely some latent hypocrisy going on there.

Lucas

On March 28, 2012 at 6:41 pm

the problem is: bethesda never destroyed the fallout world (again) killing the main character, Bioware destroyed the entire mass effect universe with the ending. It was like Neo from matrix, he did a lot, he bled tons, but in the end he achieved almost nothing! no wonder its one of the most anticlimax productions from hollywood.

It doesn’t matter what happens with shepard, as long as it means something!

I really dont wanna games like star wars, where u need to put an “old” on every tittle.

Beckett

On March 29, 2012 at 1:05 am

Thanks to your articles about ME3, I finally found a place to stop by for some sense. Not like on IGN, which I can now leave with a smile on my face.

Thank you Gamefront!

eXodus2287

On March 29, 2012 at 9:53 am

well written article

keep up the good work

Jim

On March 30, 2012 at 11:47 am

Wow…I had no idea who you guys were until today. I have since read a few great articles about the end of ME3 and, while I don’t agree with every point made, I appreciate that the points are well thought out and well presented.

I’m hoping that some of the DLC (preferably free stuff) offers a bit more closure to Shep’s story. One of the things that has kept me hooked on the ME universe is the level of detail given to the galactic history, and the quality of its presentation. It’d suck if they did such a good job on that, just to botch the landing. Barring that, I’d hope for some kind of key combo that’d allow you to punt the VI kid into space…

And, if it turns out that Bioware has been planning this whole thing from the beginning, it will just prove my theory that Andy Kaufman is alive and a Reaper.

Orion

On March 30, 2012 at 6:55 pm

Well played, Filefront! I really enjoy reading such fine, honest and fair articles. I find them to be both unbiased and professionally written. To be honest, I was fine with the ending and didn’t get all the tantrums and fits and stuff… Now that it seems they will rewrite the ending, I honestly am very excited.

Since BioWare does a lot of good work, I’m excited to see what they do with the new ending.

Dwigt

On April 2, 2012 at 8:04 am

The whole coverage of the Mass Effect 3 ending on this site is first rate. You have explained a lot of things that many players couldn’t articulate as well.
I’ve just heard (I’m late for the game) about some early plans to explain the actions of the Reapers because of a more dangerous threat, the erosion of the entire galaxy due to some dark energy. In these plans, the Reapers wanted to put together a force that could bring this menace down, hence their periodical “harvesting” of any intelligent species, so the essence of its species could be incorporated into additional Reapers. The dark energy was responsible for the supernova in Haelstrom (the mission in ME2 in which you recruit Tali). The ending would have involved Shepard deciding between processing all humanity into grinders/reapers (given the importance of the threat), or getting rid of the Reapers forever, even if it implied starting from scratch against a much more threatening menace in the future.

These sketches (that were not developed after ME2) wouldn’t have fixed some of the issues that make people mad, even with some polishing and development, but they would have made a little more sense. And this suggests there was actually some kind of regression over the course of the development of ME3. I now think that the conclusion was more or less sacrificed. You give the example of Great Expectations and there are actually tons of examples in classical literature of some endings being changed because they were more organic to the story. The new ending wasn’t was the authors had in mind, but so was the rest of the book. Ultimately, coherence should prevail. If your story becomes a tale about overcoming hardships, the reader doesn’t need a final slap in the face, even if you wanted initially to have a pessimistic take.

I don’t see any way to make the ending of ME3 more organic. The current ending takes a few elements from the plot, mixes them with other sci-fi ingredients and has a go with it. Sure, you can change it, but the plot is more concerned with presenting a good, even great conclusion, to the conflicts between species and characters depicted in the previous episodes, than with having an overarching theme that would bring the game to its natural final development and organic alternatives.

Josie

On April 2, 2012 at 9:47 pm

Thank you very much for this article. Fellow fans (and especially my brethren in Retake Mass Effect), these are the sort of articles we should be circulating among each other. I notice this page has somewhere around 30 comments and only 1,000 likes (which, considering how many people are upset about the end, comes as a surprise to me). Plenty of people have written on this subject, but every one of them brings a unique perspective to the table (I even read one where someone compared the “God-Child” in ME3 to a third-act rewrite of LoTR where Tom Bombadil shows up when Frodo is about to chuck the ring and we get three different colored explosions as a result).

Please. Let’s pass these stories around. I’ve already put this article on both my Facebook, posted it on one of the many FemShep Facebook profiles out there and plugged it into my Pintrest. I encourage you to do the same.

SeanHarper

On April 20, 2012 at 5:12 am

I thought nothing could compromise my joy of this triology, I even disregarded my friends sayin this end is absolut bull, then I ended the game myself and up to the point where Shepard gets lifted up it all felt good, though I missed Aria and the mercenaries in the ground battle…, whatever it was horrifying to see this end unfolding!!!!!
What the hell, it does answer nothin but gives you headaches what the idea behind this was and how drunk or mad the developer must have been!
Sure I, “we” created the reapers and control them because we don’t want synthetic beings to overcome their Creators, so we kill, ohhh sorry preserve them by diggesting them through synthetic beings every 50000 years.
And we let the biological beings build a crucible that does only work with the citadel and with the being controlling the reapers, then when they really manage that we say ups our plan does not work anymore…am I to sober to understand this end or does it simply lack a reasonable not to far fetched not even necessarily philosophical end that most likely most finds would prefer!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
And like everyone else I want more of my decisions to affect the end! Let it be as simple as Repers once created to get some order in solar systems took that to serious and beagn to destroy everything chaotic but creators managed to develop a plan for a deathswitch that would kill or make them signicifantly weaker, which was found and developed by organic beings every 50000 years… wahtever but NOT this end they have now!

Calum

On April 29, 2012 at 11:32 am

Amazing article. Just amazing

Disenfranchised Gamer

On July 10, 2012 at 2:50 pm

Mass Effect is NOT art to begin with. ‘Artistic’ and ‘art’ are not the same thing. Mass Effect was made for one reason alone – to make money. They may have wanted to tell this excellent, mostly intelligent story as well, but this was always a consumer franchise first and foremost. The development of the third game especially has been hugely affected by EA’s quest to earn more money, and artistic integrity has taken a backseat at best. Therefore, it is flat-out DELUSIONAL of people to say that changing the ending to make it actually consistent with the rest of the series is somehow compromising the artistic value of the franchise. If anything, this constant lashing out from the mainstream press and refusal to acknowledge a single one of the legitimate arguments against the thematic contradictions in the ending – as well as the fact that Bioware simply lied through their teeth for months about the level of interactivity and resolution in the original climaxes – proves that they themselves have utterly, unequivocally failed to ‘get’ the artistic value of the series.

Gamefront continues to represent the true fans in an impartial, articulate and balanced manner, and for that I am very thankful.