BioWare apology a blow for video games as art

22 Mar

Will there ever be a BioWare video game that doesn’t stir up controversy? Usually it’s sex - the first Mass Effect game raised eyebrows for being, as Fox News absurdly put it, “Debbie Does Dallas meets Luke Skywalker,” while Dragon Age: Origins provoked similar reactions with its hot elf-on-elf action. Now, with Mass Effect 3, it’s not sex that’s the problem, it’s the ending.

Does George Lucas have more artistic integrity than BioWare?

BioWare co-founder Ray Muzyka on Wednesday issued an apology for the ending (there’s actually a few possible ones that are slightly different from each other) and tacitly promised some sort of downloadable fix in the near future:

The team are hard at work on a number of game content initiatives that will help answer the questions, providing more clarity for those seeking further closure to their journey. You’ll hear more on this in April. We’re working hard to maintain the right balance between the artistic integrity of the original story while addressing the fan feedback we’ve received. This is in addition to our existing plan to continue providing new Mass Effect content and new full games, so rest assured that your journey in the Mass Effect universe can, and will, continue.

The apology comes after a host of complaints surfaced online through various fora. Fans were generally upset that the science-fiction trilogy ended on a bittersweet note, and that there wasn’t enough closure for some of the characters.

I’m not going to spoil the ending, but I will say that after playing the game through twice, I couldn’t disagree more with the complaints. I gave Mass Effect 3 a full five-out-of-five stars, since it was as perfect a game as I’ve played. As I said in my review, the game is great because - aside from stellar graphics, sound and gameplay - it requires players to make difficult moral choices that have direct repercussions on the characters and story. Many games try to do this, but they usually do so in a hamfisted, one-choice-is-good, the-other-is-evil kind of way.

The moral choices in Mass Effect games have purposely been more grey, which is how they’ve stood apart from the rest. While most “mature” games are rated so because they contain swearing or gore, Mass Effect 3 truly is a game that appeals to “mature” gamers, which is ironically something I wrote about not too long ago.

As for the finale, I like anything that isn’t a typically schlocky Hollywood happy ending, or an obvious set-up for yet another sequel (a problem that’s endemic in many big-budget movies and games).

With fiction and entertainment being what they are, there’s no way a particular work is going to please everybody. This is especially true for a video game that is customized by each player’s choices, which is something Muzyka addressed in his apology.

In the case of Mass Effect 3, which shipped 3.5 million copies for launch, it’s safe to assume the thousands of online complaints represented only a small percentage of players. The vast majority either liked the ending(s) just fine, or were satisfied with the game overall that it didn’t work them up into a frothing lather.

It’s too early to condemn BioWare’s decision to alter the ending, since it’s not yet known if that’s what is planned, but it does look like something of this sort is going to happen. If so, it’ll be too bad because it’ll set the industry back in its ongoing quest to have its products accepted as art.

After all, how many painters go back and retouch their work after people complain about it (“I like it, but does it come in purple”)? Put another way, a closer comparison might be Battlestar Galactica, the fantastic sci-fi series that also ended on a bittersweet note that many fans similarly panned. Executive producer Ron Moore didn’t go back and redo the finale in response to critics. Heck, even George Lucas didn’t axe the universally reviled Jar Jar Binks from The Phantom Menace in one of his umpteen recuts of that movie.

It can be argued that video games are different; that the player is included in the creation of the art because they’re interactive. That’s true in some circumstances but not in the case of narrative-driven games such as Mass Effect. As advanced and open-ended as games have become in general, story-heavy ones do still have to follow the scripted rules of the technology that powers them, at least for now. Players are presented the illusion of creating the story, but in the end the technology limits the possible outcomes. The art of Mass Effect, therefore, is almost all BioWare’s.

By apologizing and promising some sort of fix to please a small percentage of players, BioWare is trying to avoid having Mass Effect 3 become known as the “game with a bad ending,” and the hit to further sales that would mean. In any regard, the studio is placing commerce above art. Now the question is: will the updated content be given to the players who want it for free, or will BioWare try and sell it to them?


Posted by on March 22, 2012 in bioware, video games


8 Responses to BioWare apology a blow for video games as art

  1. beyondmarathon

    March 22, 2012 at 2:48 am

    I couldn’t agree more - regardless of the actual quality of the ending, there’s an important line here about what the product it, and who has the rights to demand changes to it. More worrying (to me) than the damage it does on the videogames as art front is the horrifying precedent it sets - to me, this is the first step onto a very slippery slope, with nothing good waiting at the bottom of it.

    I refuse to believe that, indulged once, we won’t see other groups (and the exact same groups again, under a different name) try their hand at altering aspects of other games, and we’ll very quickly have the major decisions on how our games (story driven or otherwise) made by whoever shouts the loudest, or (similarly) whoever has the least respect for the ability of developers to produce things that we’ll love.

    If there’s a better usage for the ‘I don’t want to live on this planet anymore’ meme, I haven’t seen it.

  2. MKlwr

    March 22, 2012 at 10:26 am

    While I pretty much agree with you, and I didn’t mind the ending (though apparently the variance between the possible endings is just different pretty colours, for all the work you put into raising your assets…), one of my friends put it best:

    GAINAX Ending!

    Instrumentality was achieved. This means that there is going to be an End of Mass Effect.

    And of course people will have to pay for the DLC! I’m sure BioWare is as good at milking cash cows as GAINAX is. :-P

  3. Matt Demers (@MattDemers)

    March 22, 2012 at 10:34 am

    Could you not argue that Mass Effect 3 put commercialization before art by saying “Continue the legend of Shepard with DLC” after the end credits?

  4. BT

    March 22, 2012 at 11:53 am

    So you’ve got a problem if an ending is an obvious set-up for another sequel, but not if it’s an obvious set-up for DLC?

    And no, it’s not safe to assume the thousands of online complaints represented only a small percentage of players. By that logic, the hundreds (if that) of online compliments on the ending represent an even smaller percentage of players. Sure, there are players that liked the ending(s) or are still satisfied enough with the game overall to ignore the problems with the ending. There are also players who just wanted to forget about it, or felt that airing their criticisms would fall on deaf ears and be a waste of time. Assuming most of the players who haven’t spoken up fall into the first group is a poor leap of logic, just as assuming most fall into the 2nd group would be.

    As for the ending itself, I really disagree with your assessment of it.

    I wouldn’t call the ending bittersweet - I’d call it badly executed on multiple levels. Going into the final sequence, I wanted there to be more, I didn’t want the game to end yet. Half way through the final sequence, I just wanted it to be over with. It was jarringly out of sync with the preceding 2.95 games. There was no actual game play to it and the big moral choice felt empty and irrelevant to me. It was, without exaggeration, the low point in the story for me, across 3 games. I received no sense of satisfaction from the ending. No joy, no sadness. No relief or dread for my companions. For a game that was, up to that point, so adept at tugging at emotions, getting none of that from the ending was a disappointment.

    And the multiple endings? Pretty much the same, in 3 different colours and maybe 5-10% slight differences in the cut scenes. There’s no meat on those bones. You’ve got to make up your own differences, because they don’t really give you any of consequence.

    I get that they made an artistic decision as far as the direction they wanted to take the ending, and I get your argument about sticking to it. It was the execution of that decision that was flawed. There are examples out there of endings with a similar artistic direction that were executed well, so I certainly think it’s possible for them to “fix” the ending (save a handful of plot holes) without changing that direction or even removing what is already there.

  5. RBN

    March 22, 2012 at 2:01 pm

    I’ll have to disagree with you on this point. The problem that I had with the ending was largely that Mass Effect was always marketed as a game where your choices mattered, and much of the PR building up to this game was such that the outcome would change dramatically based on what you did in all three games. The actual ending, however, only had tiny variations (colours and textures, a few seconds at the end) and they were based pretty much exclusively on a decision you made in the last couple of minutes and ignored the rest. For a franchise that was always marketed as a story where the player is an integral part, to end in such a hardwired way was incredibly off-putting.

    The tricky thing with games (and RPGs in particular) is that unlike other forms of art, the player is partially an author of the particular story that they are seeing. Naturally, technical constraints mean that it’s very difficult to let people stray too far from a handful of paths, but until the final scene Bioware does a very good job of balancing control with practicality. Unfortunately, by smashing everything back into one path at the end you are tearing that sense of control away from the player and stealing any sense of authorship they might have had. All of those critical choices are mashed together into a numerical readiness index, and that is the only thing that has any (minuscule) effect.

    Don’t get me wrong, I don’t necessarily have a problem with the ultimate outcome - just the way it was delivered. The arguments that the antagonist makes in the end are patently ridiculous, and Shepard doesn’t even attempt to argue against them. Even if those arguments were unavoidably shot down and you ended up in the same place, the fact that an individual who has been able to talk his/her way out of pretty much anything doesn’t even put up a fight was quite annoying (especially if you managed to get the best outcome on Rannoch). Further, the fact that the squadmates that were with you in the final push are somehow back on the ship unscathed and running away was a little puzzling and could use a bit more explanation.

    I think a lot of the people dissatisfied with the ending would be fine with a DLC ending that just fleshed things out a bit more. It’d be easy to work some choice dependant components into the segments that they fill in (ie show the aftermath of the ending on various parties (Earth & other major planets, the assembled fleet, etc.) more explicitly, and how your decisions factor into things). Doing so wouldn’t impose on the creative direction of the studio as it wouldn’t actually change the story, but filling in the blanks would do a lot to satisfy players. Leaving stuff up to the imagination is fine for a static movie, but for a game controlled by the player (ie their imagination should already be factored in) one expects proper closure.

    As for the argument that only a few thousand people complained out of millions, that doesn’t really mean a whole lot. I don’t know anyone who actually enjoyed the ending as it was, and most people who didn’t like it just put the game aside and moved on to something else rather than playing it again to try out different choices (ie they aren’t yelling or screaming, but they’re still unsatisfied). Naturally, that doesn’t mean that the majority didn’t like it (statistically insignificant sample size), but the fact that millions aren’t picking up pitchforks doesn’t mean that they did.

    • crs

      March 22, 2012 at 2:13 pm

      Exactly how I feel.

  6. Marc Venot

    March 22, 2012 at 2:43 pm

    here is a link on what we are talking about, a spoiler in French:

  7. craigbamford

    March 22, 2012 at 8:35 pm

    In the case of Mass Effect 3, which shipped 3.5 million copies for launch, it’s safe to assume the thousands of online complaints represented only a small percentage of players. The vast majority either liked the ending(s) just fine, or were satisfied with the game overall that it didn’t work them up into a frothing lather.

    C’mon, Peter, this line of reasoning is just silly. You can’t assume that people are fine with the ending of the game—haven’t seen it, so can’t judge personally by the by—just because they aren’t posting on the Internet about it. That’s roughly akin to assuming that everybody who doesn’t bother to vote is just fine with the current government, and therefore should be chalked up as votes for the incumbent.

    They might be displeased, or even angry, but not inclined to use the Internet to bitch about it.


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