Mass Effect 3 ending: Have the fans really won?
22nd Mar 2012 | 12:37
Happy now? Mass Effect's militant fans have been promised a range of new "game content initiatives" by Bioware's Dr Ray Muzyka, "that will help answer the questions, providing more clarity for those seeking further closure to their journey."
It looks like a victory for the gamers who signed the petition (and, to be fair, raised a lot of money for charidee) asking for the ending of Mass Effect 3 to be retconned (just me, or did anyone else picture the fans running out into the streets and firing their imaginary Phaeston rifles into the air?)
In my previous piece about this I was at pains to point out that I don't think this is a case of gamers being self-entitled. The reaction is a natural extension of something a lot of people feel passionate about coming to an end, and the inevitability of that ending not being able to satisfy all of a vast community of users.
For me, it was no surprise that a lot of people were very annoyed. The surprise was quite how many people felt so strongly about it, and for that Bioware rightly takes some blame. Not because I think they can't end their trilogy however they damn well please, but because all the alternatives in that suite of possible final cut-scenes feel rushed and clunkily edited.
And, yes, there are nagging plot holes, although I don't buy the idea that the catalytic starchild is exactly a deus ex machina device. If that were the case, the spooky kid would just solve everything. But he doesn't, he presents you with an unenviable choice, which is entirely in keeping with the rest of the series.
So I haven't changed my mind about the ending. I still found it a satisfying conclusion to my 120 hour experience, and as Olly Moss tweeted: "Surely the whole game is the ending, not the 5 minute sequence at the end?" However, it's clear there is an issue with clarity - and let's face it, getting more Mass Effect means getting more Mass Effect. This is a good thing.
But what exactly will we get? There seems to be a groundswell of support for the 'indoctrination ending', that would enable Bioware to effectively write off several chunks of narrative as hallucination. Or, in other words, Bobby is still alive and it was all just a dream.
I doubt that will wash though. For starters there's the question of how it's delivered. If it's paid DLC, then gamers are effectively given the chance to opt in or out of the new indoctrination content. But the flipside is they're being asked to paid extra to get the 'complete' ending. And we've already had to shell out for the Johnny Four-Eyes content, which couldn't have felt more like an integral part of the game cynically removed and re-sold.
Conversely, if it's a free update it will seem like the new material is canonical and being imposed on everyone. The risk Bioware would then run would be alienating and annoying those fans, which you have to imagine are the silent majority given the number of sales, who had no problem with the original endings and don't see what the fuss is about. Cue new petition.
The likelihood is that there will be no new ending, per se, in the sense that whatever these game content initiatives deliver, your core choice made on the Citadel will remain intact. I suspect the DLC will instead find ways to flesh out what happened to your crewmates in those final moments. (And I'd certainly be curious to find out how your chums got back on the Normandy so sharpish. "Yeah, little help here guys. They're shooting quite big lasers at me...")
If that's the case, I don't have a problem with it. The Mass Effect series has served up hundreds of thousands of words of additional, largely unnecessary, background info in the form of codex entries and planet descriptions. For it to brush over some of the actual bits of plot people cared about does seem oddly glib.
I'm not sure it's entirely fair to say the Bioware has caved though. The reality is that they're part of a massive multinational, and once consumers get angry enough about any product the people who make it are likely to start listening. The real question, then, is an existential one for games developers: where do they draw the line between delivering their own creative vision versus becoming dispensers of fan service fulfilment.
It's an issue I bet a lot of people making Halo 4 at 343 Industries are spending sleepless nights worrying about. Likewise I imagine the team at Ninja Theory rebooting Devil May Cry aren't exactly enjoying the death threats.
Ultimately, if a creative industry spends too much time pandering to its users, it will become paralysed by them. But at the same time games are uniquely interactive, meaning players feel enmeshed in the narrative process in a way they probably don't quite with a TV show or movie (a fair criticism of my last piece).
It's easy to present this story as Bioware simply caving to a shrieky pressure group, but the reality is more subtle. There's a recognition here, that games - especially RPGs, perhaps - involve a collaboration between creators and players. I'm still fundamentally against the idea that narrative outcome should be predicated on what makes most people happy, because that way lies dull blandishments, but it's not like focus testing doesn't already occur in games development, just as it does in movie making. The difference here, perhaps because Bioware were fearful of leaks, is that the fans' discontent wasn't picked up pre-release.
Whatever happens, it's going to be fascinating to see how Bioware's writers try to sashay their way out of the minefield they're in. Partly because I love the series, and relish the chance to return to its closing moments, but more because what they choose to deliver will likely set the tone for dev/fan interactions for some time to come. The pressure is on. There's a lot at stake. Ask yourself this: What would Shepard do?