Posted on March 27, 2012, Ross Lincoln Why Changing Mass Effect’s Ending Won’t Compromise Art
The announcement on March 21 that BioWare had decided to give in to unhappy fans and change Mass Effect 3′s ending may have been welcome news to the members of Retake Mass Effect, but it was met with a collective gasp of horror from industry professionals and game journalists alike. The emerging consensus seems to be, whatever you think of the ending, the fans begging for a change are behaving in a most unseemly fashion, and BioWare’s ‘capitulation’ to them is a betrayal of artistic integrity with dire implications for the creative future of the industry.
While we’re certainly among those who think the ending is not up to the quality of the series overall, we recognize that it is ultimately BioWare’s call, one they’ve made by deciding to give the fans what they want. But was it the right call? Was it a surrender of creative control to mob rule? We don’t think so. In fact, we think that BioWare’s decision, and the fan reaction that prompted it, is instead a demonstration of gaming’s greatest strengths.
More importantly, we think changing the end of Mass Effect 3 doesn’t compromise artistic integrity, and we’d like to discuss precisely why that is.
One of the most common complaints about BioWare’s decision, most famously articulated by IGN, is that it sets a ‘dangerous’ precedent. Apparently, by acquiescing to the demands of Retake Mass Effect, BioWare has performed the video gaming equivalent of negotiating with terrorists, ensuring that developers are now forever doomed to have their every decision second-guessed by fickle fans.
The problem is that for this to make any sense, we have to pretend that BioWare’s decision is unique and unprecedented. Which it totally is, if you ignore every other artistic and entertainment genre in the world. Face it, every entertainment art form, particularly literature and film, contains example after example of creators making crucial changes to their work as a direct result of feedback. Charles Dickens is perhaps the Ur example, having rewritten the ending of Great Expectations after his friend Edward Bulwer-Lytton commented that the original was too bleak. You might have noticed that those lamenting the incoming changes to Mass Effect 3 haven’t pointed to this as the moment when literature lost its soul.
Of course, the most expensive special effect in a novel is the ink used by the printer. Film, on the other hand, is a much closer analogue, and it is impossible to ignore the fact that countless movies have changed their ending based on audience feedback. The superficial difference is that the changes occur as a result of test screenings, rather than release day reactions. Fatal Attraction, for example, originally ended with Glenn Close’s character commiting suicide and framing Michael Douglas for her ‘murder’. Test audiences hated it, so the studio shot a new ending; and this is by no means a rare occurence. Mysteriously, no one suggests that test audiences are entitled whiners, or (in the event the film is improved) that filmmakers have compromised their artistic integrity.
The gaming industry itself has a long history of tweaks subtle and not so subtle, Bethesda’s change to Fallout 3′s ending being perhaps the most famous. Originally, the player choice mechanic was abruptly removed and the player was forced to either commit suicide by radiation sickness, or send someone in to die in their place. This was despite the player having a radiation-immune party member available. After considerable outcry from players, the Broken Steel DLC changed that, allowing the player to use all options they brought with them to the final choice, and to survive for more adventures afterward.
It’s true that while the changes to Fallout 3′s ending weren’t as far-reaching as the still-unknown changes to Mass Effect 3′s are likely to be, they were still considerable, and yet the industry has not since suffered a decline of ‘artistic vision’. Fancy that! Well, unless you count the insistance that video games and movies are the same thing.