Monday, March 19, 2012

Thoughts on Mass Effect 3

I finished Mass Effect 3 on Sunday and have spent the last several days following the various fan reactions and arguments for and against BioWare releasing DLC to change, expand or provide additional options for the ending. I figured I'd add my voice to the conversation.

Before I get to the game, though, I need to talk about art, because my view of art impacts how I view this situation. Other people view art differently than I do, and that's fine, but I don't think I will be capable of reaching agreement with those people in regards to Mass Effect 3.

Art is not special.

Art provides a number of functions. It can provide a snapshot of a culture at a given time or steer a culture in a different direction. It can speak to people on an emotional level that a purely rational discussion won't be able to reach. We can use art to teach people -- about history, about religion, about people who are different from us. Art can make us laugh or cry. Art is a wonderful thing.

But art takes work. I say this as someone who has studied music for most of his life and who majored in writing. There are objective principles that can be used to judge the quality of art, even art that breaks the "rules", regardless of the observer's personal tastes. A person can dislike rock and still appreciate that individual rock songs are well-crafted. That same person can love jazz and recognize that some jazz tunes are not put together so well.

Artists are not special.

Our culture is weird about creative people. We act like creativity and artistic ability are things people are born with. Try it out: Create something, and see how long it takes for someone to sigh and say, "I don't have a creative bone in my body."

Creativity isn't The Force and artists aren't Jedi. Anyone can train themselves to be creative and develop artistic skill.

What this has to do with games.

If I buy a chair and it's missing a leg, I get to take it back and get a new one. If Toyota makes a car that sometimes accelerates when it's supposed to brake, they have to recall it and fix the problem at the manufacturing level. These are defects that cause the product to work in a manner that is decidedly not as advertised or expected.

Note that I'm not saying that chair makers and auto manufacturers are on the hook for customers deciding they don't like wood grain or leather seats. That's the kind of thing you know you're getting into.

I'm also not saying that a guy who makes chairs and stores them in his basement is in any way obligated to people who happen to observe his creations. He made them for himself, outsiders' expectations be damned.

Video games are an art form. In most cases, they are also a product that is sold. They differ from other art forms in that they have the potential to be interactive, to allow the observer to assist in creating the final product. In the original Super Mario Bros., how many castles does Mario visit before he saves the princess? When I play, it's two castles.

They also differ from many other products that you can buy in that you're pretty much never allowed to return them anymore. If I buy a coffee table and it ends up being too big for my living room, I can box it up and get a refund. If I buy a video game, most stores won't accept a return if I've opened it and no digital services offer refunds. Once I've forked over my money, it's gone forever, no matter the quality of the game.

That means it's very important that video game creators manage their customers' expectations and deliver a product that meets those expectations. They need to make sure their advertisements match the product, that the comments they make accurately reflect the direction that the development is headed, and, if the game is (for example) the conclusion to an epic trilogy, that they take previous games in the series into consideration when building the conclusion.

Which brings me, finally, to the game in question. Though obviously each fan has their own idea of a perfect conclusion, they basically expected two things:

  1. Multiple endings that reflected the decisions they had made throughout the trilogy, right up to the end

  2. Endings that logically followed from the events that preceded them

Now, despite the outrage at the, erm, striking similarities between the ending cutscenes in ME3, I don't think the similarity is the real issue. The cinematics for the previous two games were largely identical, but utilized to tell different stories. Did you save the Council or not? If not, are you creating a human-only Council, or one with Asari, Turians and Salarians? You see a lot of the same footage no matter how it goes, but with modified conversation trees mixed in and the understanding that your decisions affected the entire galaxy.

No, the issue with the ME3 endings is that they are largely non-interactive and that your decisions don't matter much in the grand scheme of things.

And then the endings just don't make sense. Shepard rolling over and accepting the enemy's conditions for victory is completely out of character. The AI god-child claims that synthetics will always rise up and destroy all organic life, a claim that could be refuted if the little bastard would look out the damn window at the Geth and the Quarians fighting side-by-side (well, if you managed to save both races; seems like it would be kind of a big deal to the AI kid). All the mass relays in the galaxy are destroyed, which should mean that they go supernova and destroy the systems they are in. The crew of the Normandy, most of whom were on Earth when things started exploding, crash land on some mysterious jungle planet. Game Over. Roll credits. Listen to Buzz Aldrin tell some kid about "The Shepard".

No. That is not the coffee table I was sold. If BioWare wants to make high art, they can create a new franchise for that purpose and market it as such. I want the end to the epic space opera that I was promised and for which I gave them money and for which I am willing to give them more money, if that's what it takes.

But I'm never making the mistake of pre-ordering a BioWare game again.


A bunch of things I read that I basically agree with:
Game Front: Mass Effect 3 Ending-Hatred: 5 Reasons The Fans Are Right
BioWare forum: Musings of a Screenwriter: The Ending Thread
Game Tourists: Mass Effect 3 has Broken My Legos (More Musings about the Endings)