Monday, March 26, 2012

The Retaking of Mass Effect 3

Okay, so I know I'm not the only person on the internet to think that this whole business has been a giant cluster-cuss. Things have gotten so skewed and murky and loud on all sides that I don't think there's a "right" or "wrong" anymore. But there is something that I found a bit. . . well, unique. It'll take me a while to lay it all out, but I think it's fairly interesting.

Now I've gone on record already as saying I'm okay with the way Mass Effect 3 ended. Not thrilled (at least, not by the last 10 minutes or so - nearly everything else was orgasmic), but it felt. . . I guess "appropriate" for my personal Shepard. It also raised some questions and introduced some, shall we say, poorly-established wrinkles to the series in terms of how it chose to handle some story reveals and wrap up (or not) various plot and character threads. It definitely bears the hallmarks of either a confused or rushed ending development cycle (anyone who played Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords is all-too familiar with this), and this is unfortunately a symptom of how game development has progressed this generation.

See, I've heard the arguments on both sides - let's start with the folks who are demanding that BioWare do something about the ending because they didn't like it. Some people want it changed completely. That's a little crazy. I understand the disappointment, but the reaction is pretty extreme. Filing an FTC violation for false advertising (though I can understand where they're coming from considering early publicity for the game) is also kinda crazy. Personally, I think that the emotional attachment behind this reaction (however overblown and/or misguided it may be) is also a GOOD THING. This means that video games are eliciting an emotional response from a large population based solely on their strengths as a narrative medium. These aren't people who wanted more explosions or nakeder tits or bigger guns - these are people who got immensely caught up in a narrative, a world and characters in a medium that's still figuring out how to properly employ those things in the first place. AWESOME.

But this is where things get a little complicated - I am totally, 100% against BioWare completely changing the ending. I do not think they should shake the etch-a-sketch and try for a "Star Wars" celebration happy-time and rainbows conclusion to their trilogy. They still wouldn't be able to make everyone happy anyway. Luckily, they don't seem to be doing that. What's more, a great deal of the fan outcry, if you bother to pay attention past the "Oh they're just being babies" threshold, isn't necessarily demanding this. What fans want is what they've always wanted, what any good ending delivers: Affirmation, Explanation, and Closure. Three key things that were arguably in short supply (if not outright missing) from Mass Effect 3's conclusion.

And asking that of a well-respected and narrative-focused developer is something that I can definitely agree with. A director's cut, if you will, that can incorporate a more fleshed out version of the ideas on display and make the experience feel less shoe-horned, disjointed, random, or cheap. The question is, does this marginalize the Mass Effect series as art?

Now we come to the meat of the issue. The primary argument against the Retake Mass Effect outcry and what I call the Art Defense. "If you want games to be art (and of course you do) then you can't demand BioWare change the ending you didn't like. That would compromise their artistic vision and reduce their creative endeavor to a mere product, and you have no right to demand that."

Now, this works great. . . in theory. . . with some developers and games. . . to a point. . . sort of. However, BioWare has always had a very interactive relationship with its fans. One could argue that the entire Mass Effect trilogy was an artistic experiment to co-create a narrative-driven experience involving the player (meaning the consumer) as much as possible in the execution of the story and beyond. No game has ever been possible without a player, but this series begged for them to be involved as much and as often as possible, going to incredible lengths to evoke emotional responses because of constant control of and investment in the direction of the story. For fuck's sake, the freshman effort demands that you choose which of your loyal crew you leave to die. After Shepard has had about 20 hours to get to know and respect (and maybe even love) these people, you choose which one will get to live and which one will make the ultimate sacrifice.

And that was before BioWare had even started raising the stakes. Fans responded passionately to characters like Tali Zorah and Garrus Vakarian, so the second game offered them as possible romantic partners. Critics and players found issue with certain elements of gameplay (traversing uncharted planets, recycled environments for sidequests) so BioWare streamlined, improved, or did away with these elements. Some bemoaned the loss of customization in Mass Effect 2, so BioWare offered it again (in more refined state than the first game) for the final installment. One could argue that if the core mechanics and character relationships are being partially dictated by fans, the level of consumer involvement in this particular franchise (if not gaming as a whole) has already gone far beyond "You only got to choose your haircut and who to bang - now shut up and let the grown-ups tell the story."

No, that doesn't work. With BioWare and Mass Effect in particular, that has never worked. They invited us in, they started this party. And by having let fans dictate (both in and out of the game itself) the ways this story could progress, they had already - knowingly or not - left themselves open for exactly this sort of response. Did their actions prior to releasing Mass Effect 3 invalidate their trilogy as "art" already? No, and here's why:

Games - as art and as a product - are different from any kind of art before, and I'm not just talking about you pushing a button to make things happen. From their inception, both in the way they're created and monetized, games are more symbiotic with the consumer than just about any other medium. Turn on your television - what do you see? Hundreds of television shows running constantly for your enjoyment and enrichment for the paltry price of a working TV and a cable subscription. . . or less, if you're just watching local channels. Go to the local library, and you can read thousands of books and likely rent hundreds of movies, for free. Local community theaters put on plays for free. Local bands play at bars or put on outdoor concerts for free. The internet (again, available for free at most public libraries) allows me to marvel at the art of Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel, study the details of the Mona Lisa, enjoy the beauty of pottery from the Ming Dynasty, even wonder at the statues of ancient Egypt ALL FOR FREE.

So. . . does someone want to tell me where all the free video games are?

It is entirely and legally possible - even easy - to get personal enrichment from nearly every artistic medium with very little cost, and pretty much no repeat purchasing whatsoever. Games are the only artistic medium exempt from this. They are more heavily monetized than any other form of entertainment, and so involve the consumer more than any art form ever has before. They are art, but they are ALSO products. Even as a budding and wonderful and interactive artistic medium, they are still products - always have been. Their genesis in the arcades of the 70's and 80's was formed around gameplay concepts that existed solely to deprive customers from as many quarters as possible in a single sitting. A practice that seems to have come full circle in the days of Elite services, XBOX Live subscriptions, online passes, and downloadable content.

Then there's the time commitment - I can listen to a Beatles album in under an hour, watch a Star Wars movie in an afternoon, read Ender's Game in a day or so, but Mass Effect 3 took me over 40 continuous hours to finish, and that's not even counting the time I sunk into the cooperative multi-player mode.

So with so much demands of consumers' time and money, more than any other artistic medium requires to get full enrichment from it, is it really too much to posit that games must come to some sort of symbiosis with the consumer? And with games like Mass Effect, players were a driving force in the creative process long before they demanded a different ending to the trilogy. We gamers are required for games to exist at all - they will not be played without us, they will not be bought without us, they will not be MADE without us. Mass Effect would not have been a finished trilogy without its fans, and would have fallen by the wayside like other prospective trilogies such as Too Human or Advent Rising. If people like those behind the "Retake Mass Effect" movement are the reason that Mass Effect 3 even exists in the first place, could one not argue that the consumer is the one who commissions games as artistic endeavors in the first place?

One thing of which I am certain is that games are different. They are not movies, they are not books, they are not music. They ARE art, but they're a product as well, and that's okay because games are different. While their place in our culture is secured, it is one that is as different from films and novels as is their means of delivering emotional and intellectual enrichment to an audience. As such, we simply cannot hold them to the same rules as other forms of art or entertainment (either in their inception, or in their interaction with their audience), so perhaps we should not be so quick to set the rules about what does or does not undermine their artistic integrity.

Or we could just keep shouting and calling "the other side" names.

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