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Art and Integrity: The Mass Effect 3 Controversy
Unless you've been living under a virtual rock, you're probably aware of the overwhelmingly negative response that a large segment of devoted fans had toward the ending of Mass Effect 3. You are also probably aware of EA/BioWare's attempt to assuage players by offering them a free DLC to 'extend' the ending. The outrage and subsequent capitulation raises a number of interesting questions about the relationship between developers and players, the nature of video games as consumable objects, and the consequences of the industry's success at tapping player emotions through video games.
On the off chance that you're not familiar with the bruhaha surrounding the latest installment of the franchise, here are the pertinent details: BioWare, the developers of the three-part Mass Effect science fiction RPG franchise, has a reputation in the gaming community (stretching all the way back to Balder's Gate in 1998) for creating role-playing games that give players real choices with real consequences. BioWare released the first installment of the Mass Effect franchise in 2007 to rave reviews from both critics and players and garnered numerous awards, including best RPG from several sources. The second installment was released in 2010 to even more resounding reviews.
The third and final installment was released in March of 2012. While it garnered similarly spectacular scores from professional reviewers, there was an almost immediate backlash from players. The complaints were not based on the quality of the gameplay, which most people agreed was very good, but centered almost exclusively on the last ten minutes of the game. To put it bluntly, the fans did not like the ending. They were so not impressed, in fact, that they formed a protest group, Retake Mass Effect, and raised over $80k US for the children's charity Child's Play as a way to raise awareness for their demand for a new ending to the game.
Before you jump to the conclusion that many industry commentators and prominent game reviewers did, that the fans were simply a horde of entitled, impossible to please, cheet-o eating nerds, it is important to understand exactly why they were so angry in the first place.
It wasn't so much that players disliked the message communicated by the ending (though many didn't), or that they failed to 'get' it, but that they felt that they had been promised one sort of gameplay experience, one that was novel and almost unique to the franchise, and were given something else entirely.
The marketing surrounding the Mass Effect franchise has always emphasized the significance and consequence of player choice, a promise that had, up until the last 10 minutes of the final game, been successfully reinforced throughout 100+ hours of gameplay. Players had been told and conditioned to expect their decisions to matter, and this feeling of agency and responsibility accounted for much of the emotional investment that players had in the game. Players were expecting to have an impact on the game's ending, they had an investment in the outcome, and were anxious to discover how their decisions had helped to shape the outcome of the story.
What they received instead was a form letter, an ending that unmasked the game and re-cast their decisions as empty gestures in an elaborate game of charades. The beef that these players had with the game's ending wasn't based on the content of the narrative so much as the form that that content took. In other words, the problem wasn't that they didn't like the taste of the wine that they had ordered, but that they had ordered a bottle of wine and been given a can of Mountain Dew. The ending didn't fail to meet their narrative expectations so much as it failed to meet their gameplay expectations with the result that it invalidated their entire experience. If you tell players that the decisions they make throughout the course of a game will determine which ending they receive and it doesn't, you're not making an artistic statement, you're delivering a broken product.
I have no doubt that had Mass Effect 3 provided the player with 16 different endings, each of which was a meaningful reflection of their choices, and they had all ended in different degrees of failure, the fans would have been a lot less upset about it. If the developers wanted to make a bold artistic statement about the futility of the human condition, they should have done it in a way that reflected the player's choices, not in a way that invalidated them. And that's the crux of the disagreement.
16 Ways to Fail
The situation was exacerbated by the fact that the players had been told explicitly prior to the game's release that the choices they made during the long, three-game series would have an impact on the final outcome of the game. In a widely circulated quotation, Casey Hudson, the game's director, said:
"At this point we’re taking into account so many decisions that you’ve made as a player and reflecting a lot of that stuff. It’s not even in any way like the traditional game endings, where you can say how many endings there are or whether you got ending A, B, or C…..The endings have a lot more sophistication and variety in them.”
Is it really that hard to understand why some players might have felt lied to and cheated when they discovered that that was exactly what they received?
The controversy that they raised succeeded in forcing a concession from EA/BioWare, in spite of initial attempts to defend the work behind the strongman of artistic integrity. On April 5, 2012 they announced a free DLC to "provide additional context and deeper insight to the conclusion of Commander Shepard’s journey".
In Defense of Art...and Video Games
This raises the interesting question of what, exactly, a video game is. Is a game a product, like a cell phone, a work of art, like the Mona Lisa, or a service, like hotel accommodations? The answer to this question is important for deciding who is at fault in the case of ME fans vs. BioWare/EA.
If Mass Effect 3 is a product, and it has been advertised to include a particular feature and it does not (multiple endings that depend on the choices you make while playing), then the fans have something to complain about. If it's a work of art, and the ending really does express the original intent of the work as a whole (regardless of the choices you make, ultimately, you cannot control the fate of the universe), then the developers have a right to ignore the protests of fans. The problem with the dispute between the fans and the developers is that they are not talking about the same thing.
From the perspective of the fans, BioWare is being cynical in their use of artistic integrity as a defense against charges of false advertising. From the perspective of the developers, the fans are attempting to assert authorial rights over a work of art that they don't possess. In my opinion, both of these arguments are both right and wrong.
The problem is that modern games, with their extensive technological and social networks, are not simply art exhibits. The gaming industry, supported by the technological infrastructure that surrounds it, has always leaned heavily on the input of players, attempting to anticipate and adapt to player interests and expectations. There has always been an element of collaboration in the industry, not unlike the kind of collaboration that arises between a game master and his players. The tremendous growth of the industry, and the rapidly escalating costs of production, have no doubt diluted and formalized this relationship for major game developers over the years, but it can't be eliminated entirely because it's part of the culture of gaming.
This intimate relationship between gamers and developers has resulted in video games becoming a sort of 'commissioned art'. (This observation is underscored by the recent success of Kickstarter initiatives.) Games are rarely developed in isolation as the artistic expression of a single individual. Consequently, the 'art' created by game developers is and has always been highly commercialized, which is one of the reasons why it has had so much difficulty being recognized as a legitimate art form. As a general rule, writers, painters, musicians and directors do not ask their audience for feedback. They create a work of art and take or leave the resulting criticism as they see fit. The game industry does not, and has never, worked this way.
Video games are also different from other art forms in that they are highly interactive. The player must make a bigger investment, they must learn the rules of the game and master the skills necessary to progress through it, and this has a significant impact on the final form of the experience. The player feels that they have, in a certain sense, earned a degree of ownership over their own experience. This doesn't mean that they assume authorial control over the game (after all, they can't experience anything that hasn't already been put into it by the developer) but it does mean that developers need to be careful about the kinds of artistic statements that they make because, in a sense, they are collaborating with the player. I believe this element of interactivity and commitment from the player is at least partly responsible for the close relationship that has developed between players and developers and is partially responsible for the culture of video games, a culture which is different from the culture surrounding fine art, novels, music and cinema.
Games are also different from other kinds of art because, in addition to their symbolic and narrative content, they are technological devices with features that can be listed as a series of bullet points, like the features of a television or coffee maker. (When was the last time you saw a list of bullet points on the back of a novel or on the one-sheet for a movie?) Bullet points highlight the product side of a game, they are things that either are or are not true about the way a product works, and they are something that people can and should be upset about if they are materially different from what is advertised.
For all of these reasons, video games are not 'art' in the same way that the Mona Lisa or Halmet are art and can't hide behind the veil of artistic integrity in an uncompromising way. Video games are products and services as well as art, and there has to be some accountability for these other 'faces'. Consumers need some means of recourse when the product part of the equation doesn't live up to its end of the bargain.
But players need to respect the artistic side of video games as well. Discounting artistic integrity as a defense out of hand is no better than using it hamfistedly to overturn product-side complaints. In light of this, many of the complaints that disgruntled Mass Effect players made were unjustified and unworthy of a response and did not need to be addressed. BioWare never promised players a happy ending, only a number of different endings that reflected player choices.
The problem with the controversy, and the reason why it has become so polarized and irreconcilable, is that, in this case, there is some truth to both sides of the argument. If a player demands that BioWare change the ending of the game because it didn't turn out the way they expected, or even that it wasn't very well done, BioWare has every right to reject their demands. The meaning of a work of art, and the success with which it is executed, are not subject to claims of false advertising. If, however, a player demands that BioWare change the ending of the game because it does not conform to the implementation that was promised (it does not provide meaningfully different endings based on player choices but a single ending with only cosmetic differences) then BioWare should feel obligated to do something about that. In this case, they have failed to deliver on a product-side promise, not an artistic promise, and you can't pretend that just because your game is also art, that it is not also a product.
BioWare's response, to add clarification to the ending without providing meaningfully different endings, actually goes about solving the wrong problem and is unlikely to have its intended effect (unless that effect is to regain credibility in the eyes of an uninvested and relatively uninformed public, which I am sure is at least part of the intent). BioWare is clearly choosing to emphasize the game's artistic elements over it's gameplay elements because it is better for them to look like misunderstood artists than a business that failed to supply consumers with an advertised feature. (In fact, they may be both.) Revising the ending of Mass Effect 3 to provide players with 'more closure' makes sense from a business (and service) standpoint, and will no doubt satisfy some players (so it's not entirely a bad thing) but it solves the wrong problem for what appear to be rather transparent financial reasons: rather than tackle the much more difficult and expensive task of consistently implementing player choice right up until the final moments of the game and giving players the meaningfully different endings that they were promised (which, incidentally, would not necessarily require them to change the intended meaning of the work), they are 'clarifying' the meaning of the work for players who were not satisfied with it as it is. I hope their writers manage to avoid patronizing their audience in the process. (For an example of a company that does understand fan loyalty, humility, and responsibility, I refer your attention to Stardock.)
Barbarians at the Gates
Are players justified in their complaints? I think that they are to a certain extent. Was it serious enough to warrant a protest? I don't know. Developers will certainly think twice about promising something they can't deliver, so I think it's a good thing for the consumer, arguments about artistic integrity aside.
Does BioWare's capitulation set a dangerous precedent, as some have argued? Will it lead to further stagnation and timidity in the industry? Will it 'ruin' video games as an art form? I doubt it.
It's easy to be pessimistic about these sorts of things, but if there was a precedent to set, Bethesda already set it with the Broken Steel DLC for Fallout 3 and I wouldn't be surprised if many Mass Effect fans were not aware of this precedent until someone drew their attention to it. I think it's safe to say that it wasn't responsible for the protest. Did Bethesda's 'capitulation' lead to more stagnation and mediocrity?
The Mass Effect situation is somewhat unique because it failed to deliver on more than one level: artistically, and from a product perspective. It's also unique because the franchise inspired a great deal of devotion from its fans and it was the method it used to create that devotion (meaningful choice in a well-written narrative) that ultimately led to its downfall. (There is also some conspiracy theory-esque speculation that the developers would have delivered the ending they promised if not for interference from EA, which as you may know, does not score well in popularity polls these days.)
I don't think a protest like this would have ever gotten off the ground if it hadn't been for all of these factors, so short of another game of comparable quality failing to deliver on multiple levels after similar player investment, it's unlikely you'll see a similar protest any time soon. (And that comes from a devoted Skyrim player who's seen every imaginable--and unimaginable--complaint that can be raised against a game.) Unequivocal statements for or against the players' right to demand an alternate ending seem like shallow, knee-jerk reactions that fail to do justice to the complexity of the issue.
As the pundits have repeatedly pointed out, gamers are a notoriously picky and argumentative group, but that works both ways. The very forces that make them dangerous when united are the forces which serve to keep them in check. Gamers are critical and exacting and easily divided into opposing camps. If a lot of gamers are suddenly uniting in a massive protest, something is up, because their tremendous energy is typically expended in tearing each other down.
If I am permitted to have one hopeful outcome, it would be that the participants of Retake Mass Effect have learned something about collective power--and responsibility--from their ordeal and bring the same dedication and passion to solving problems in the real world. Because it is real, and we actually do have a chance of saving it...if we can find the courage to work together.