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.