Archive for March, 2012
(Spoilers for Bioshock, Neverwinter Nights 2 and Mass Effect 3 within)
Okay, last post on ME3 for a while (its starting to get on even my nerves…), but there’s something that really does need to be addressed.
One of the major components of the ME3 hubbub is that there’s a strong sentiment that the people complaining about the ending are, to put it bluntly, entitled fanboys demanding that Bioware change the game that they made to suit the opinions of a vocal minority.
Well, questions on how much of a minority the Displeased are aside, this brings up a valid concern: Wouldn’t changing the ending compromise Bioware’s artistic vision? Shouldn’t they stay true to their artistic vision?
Spending your own hard-earned money on something means that you’re allowed to judge a work of art on its measures of quality and entertainment value, and that’s the root of the complaints here.
I realize that I’m differing from big names like Ken Levine on this, but I still stand by it. If you pay money for something, you are absolutely entitled to voice your feedback and tell the makers that they did a horrible job. There might be some standards of decency and politeness that you should be mindful of, but if someone’s artistic vision cannot stand up to scrutiny? Then maybe there was something wrong with it in the first place. Artistic Vision does not mean “Its okay if it sucks”.
All over the internet there are thoughtful, reasoned responses to why, on a substantive level, the ending to Mass Effect 3 is not satisfying and not appropriate with the rest of the ending (AngryJoe’s 20 minute video is one excellent examination of the problems).
It’s been stated by Bioware that, at the end of a long running series, they wanted there to be a lot of speculation about what happened after the end of it all. I can respect that they have that concept, but I feel it should be contested. Ending a series where answering the big questions of your actions with a speculation-heavy non-sequitor?
Because, at the end of the day? Someone’s grand artistic vision can simply be bad. Neverwinter Nights 2 ended with, quite literally, rocks fall, everybody dies, pretty much the worst way you can end a game. Its so bad that a lot of people think its self-parody! Bioshock, Ken Levine’s baby, killed off a fascinating, iconic character in the most impressive way possible, but went on for another hour or so with a replacement villain that ended up just chewing the scenery and being a boring monster in the end. No one forced him or demanded that he change the ending to Bioshock, yes, but then again no one was attacking his detractors for saying that the game ended poorly.
So, yes. Bioware changing the ending to Mass Effect 3 because of fan feedback may compromise their artistic integrity. It depends on how they do that, really, as simply removing the Normandy fleeing and adding a 1-year-later epilogue would address many of the complaints without giving a purely happy ending. But isn’t is also important to know why the ending didn’t work? Isn’t it important to acknowledge when someone’s artistic vision ends up hurting their quality of their work?
In the end, isn’t it important to take that feedback, so you can make it better the next time around, and maybe end your masterpiece in a way that will keep it timeless?
Of course, there’s the obvious caveat: No one should force Bioware to change the ending. While I can imagine that EA has the legal ability to force them to change the ending, even they shouldn’t. We’ve had bad endings in video games before and the world has kept spinning. But nor should Bioware refuse to do so.
That said, I still hope they do. The ending that was given to their masterpiece was based off of a bizarre, nonsensical premise, that players would be happy for an ambiguous ending, as opposed to one that gives them closure. If that premise were stripped out? I would love to see how the whole thing turns out.
So, news! It appears that Bioware is either caving to the fan reaction on the ending, or they’re engaged in a spin campaign to appease the angry fans.
Heh. As someone who tries to appease angry fans on a regular basis, good luck with that…
Anywho, the question is: will Bioware charge for a fix to the ending of ME3?
…well, yes. Duh. Sorry, but development costs are rather high, and there does need to be a financial benefit to creating the dlc. As much as we’d like to say that you should do things for the art, there’s a LOT of financial burdens that prevent that sort of thing.
But, still, there are two good FINANCIAL reasons that Bioware should consider making any fixes for the ending free for all.
To Encourage People to Buy the OTHER DLC
One thing I’ve heard a lot of is that there’s a loss of interest in playing through the game again for a lot of people. I had three saves myself that I was intending on playing ME3 with, and I really am feeling not a lot of interest in seeing how their stories play out, simply because I already know the ending.
Take that and double it for paid DLC that doesn’t affect the ending. What’s the point when the end of the story is a lackluster finale that ignores most of what came before?
Making the DLC for the changed ending alone would encourage players to come back to the game without making themselves feel like they’re being extorted for what they feel they should’ve gotten in the first place.
And THEN you pull money out of their pocket with well designed DLC. Bioware showed with Mass Effect 2 that they were capable of developing great DLC that expands on the universe they created. Quality content is something people will be willing to pay money for. Extorting money out of players’ pockets will just make them less likely to pay money for your games in the future.
For the Future!
Bioware is a big name in the video game industry. Damn near a byword for quality, pretty analogous to Pixar for video games.
That is, this is what they WERE. The Day 1 DLC was not well received, for many good reasons, although it did probably make a metric ton of money (seriously, guys, you couldn’t wait two bloody weeks to release the DLC?). Dragon Age 2 wasn’t particularly well received either, and the Day 1 DLC didn’t do it any favors either. And, well, the rage about the ending to ME3…
In short? Bioware’s stock with their fans is probably at its lowest in a long time.
And they have Dragon Age 3 coming eventually, too. And their going to have other projects coming in the future.
They need to start worrying about their reputation. I know, it’s hard to sell the long view in corporate America. I run into that problem more or less once a week. But ever so often, it has to be done, and Bioware needs to take a long, hard look at how people are reacting to their decisions. Releasing any revised endings for free will do a great deal of good for their public relations.
And, to be honest, they’ve been handling the furor very well. Their twitter feed has encouraged people to voice their concerns on the forums, been very polite all around, and have been quite diplomatic (although they are downplaying the nature of a lot of the complaints, but I can hardly blame them) and in general there’s not much more I can ask of them.
Well, from a PR perspective, anyway.
Still, looks like the Indoctrination Theory is bunk. Which is sad, but not surprising.
Still, can’t wait to see what they do. It’s going to get a whole lot more interesting, I imagine.
So, after spending over three thousand words looking at the endings, I feel like I have to bring this theory up.
Oh, and before I forget…
Because, well, I really like it. Even though I know I shouldn’t.
It Was All A Dream…
One of the more subtle abilities the Reapers have is the ability to subtly control someone else’s mind, to get their victims to side with the Reapers and aid them in their grand plans. This was done to great effect in all three games, and is one of the more terrifying things about them, because the process is slow, the victim believes wholeheartedly that what they are doing is right, and you can never tell if its happening to you.
And so, the theory is that after Shepard gets hit by the mega-ultra-laser that nearly kills him, everything that happens after is a dream, designed to Indoctrinate Shepard. The Reapers are trying to get you to give up trying to destroy them by convincing you that destroying the Reapers is a bad idea, that what you should REALLY do is try to take control of them (anotion that’s quite popular among the Indoctrinated) or have everyone become a merging of Synthetic and Organic material (which, in the end, are what the Reapers ARE).
So, Shepard taking the Destroy option is him fighting the Indoctrination, and taking the other two is him giving in, which is why only the Destroy option has Shepard potentially survive.
Why Does the Theory Work?
There are two real strengths for the theory.
The first is rather populist in nature: It gets rid of the bad endings, and replaces them with the hope for better ones down the line.
Now, that SOUNDS like simple optimism. And there’s a healthy amount of that in this theory, no question. But given the quality of the rest of the game’s story, its hard not to think that the ending was so bad on purpose.
Okay, its REALLY optimistic. But there’s another reason for this Theory’s prominence: It explains a LOT of plot holes. To name a few…
- Why is your ship running from the energy wave, when it was in the fighting around Earth last time you saw it?
- Why are party members who were with you on the ground on Earth suddenly back on your ship?
- Why are the obvious faults in the Reaper Intelligence’s logic never examined or questioned?
- Why does Shepard’s pistol in the end have infinite ammo? Not just infinite clips that he can pull out of nowhere, but infinite rounds per clip?
- Why can Shepard breathe in the final area, considering that it looks like there’s no walls or windows keeping the vacuum out?
- Why does the Reaper Intelligence have a form that looks like a kid that Shepard failed to save at the beginning of the game?
- Why don’t the exploding Mass Relays wipe out entire systems, like the Alpha Relay in The Return DLC from ME2 did?
- How can an energy wave combine all organic life with Synthetic life?
- Why do you hear an NPC say that no one survived the attack while you are limping towards the finish, in clear view of others.
And there’s more. A lot more. A lot about the ending doesn’t make sense, only using the logic internal to the game’s universe, characters and technology. I mean, I didn’t write three posts tearing the endings apart for nothing.
There’s also a dark reason for this. You see, Mass Effect 3 is going to have DLC developed and released post-release. Its implied by content in-game that some of the DLC will involve retaking Omega, a space station that was heavily featured in Mass Effect 2. There will likely be more, but, from a business perspective, what’s the point of DLC for a game where the ending is known? Much of ME2’s DLC involved events that its quite likely took place after the end of ME2’s regular campaign.
If all of ME3’s DLC has to take place before the end of the game… well, it doesn’t sound that impressive, from a sale’s perspective…
Like I said, its a dark and cynical reason. but it does make some sense…
Why Does the Theory Not Work?
The obvious reason: Never ascribe to malice what can be attributed to incompetence.
The ending is bad. But Bioware has been bad before. Mass Effect has been bad before, although, admittedly, not THIS bad.
And, well, this was released. If it were any other game, this ending wouldn’t be given a second look, because everyone was hoping for a perfect ending.
It was a Deus Ex Machina, sure, but that was the only way you could beat the Reapers. It had plot holes, but its hardly alone in that regard. The Synthesis ending IS, on its own, an impressive concept. And, if there had been an anti-climax after the ending, explaining what had happened to your companions, the ending would have largely been shrugged off as “Its bad, but how else could it have been done?”
Besides, the dark, cynical reason why it could work? It could only work once. Extorting DLC money to get the REAL ending is the sort of community breaking action that would basically destroy any trust that the players have in Bioware. Even evil corporate overlords wouldn’t go that far.
So, Where Do I Stand?
The rational side of my mind sees the logic in both sides.
…and the emotional side of my mind wants to throw as much money at Bioware as it will take to make a good ending. Please note the “I’m a whiny fanboy and I don’t care” tag on this article…
But. There’s one other side of this.
If this is Bioware’s intent all along? That this ending is really just Shepard fighting Indoctrination? I kinda want to see where they go with this. Its an impressive curveball to throw, and given the quality of the rest of the game…
Yeah. I’d want to see how it plays out.
But I won’t hold my breath.
Yes, this is about the “No happy ending” thing. But, then again, not really.
Getting this out of the way…
At the end, you’re faced with three options. All of which destroy the Mass Relays. All of which you expect to kill you.
The first failing here, is that its just not a sacrifice by Shepard.
Dead (Wo)Man Limping
At this point in the story, you are very badly injured, given that you took a hit from a weapon that tears apart tanks. Its not unreasonable to say that you’re going to die there.
You are faced with three options, and have little to convince yourself that you can survive any of them (unless you looked up that you can survived the Destroy ending if your war assets are high enough, but no meta gaming!).
So. If you take any of the three listed options, you’ll die. If you do nothing, you’ll die.
In essence, you’re dead already, all you’re doing here is picking how you’re going to go out and what will happen as a result.
Imagine if a man had to choose between death by electrocution or death by a gas chamber, but going out by the Gas Chamber means that an orphan would be saved. Does the decision to save the orphan seem heroic? The guy is dead either way.
Because the consequences for Shepard are essentially the same, the decision feels flat. Most of the other choices throughout the series had a clear benefit on one side of the equation. Save the colonists on Feros? You can, but its a lot harder than just shooting them, particularly if you run out of grenades. You might not make it out.
Compare this to Shepard’s actual sacrifice: Saving Joker when the Normandy was being destroyed. Even though you didn’t have control over Shepard’s action there, it felt like a real sacrifice, because Shepard could have let Joker die. But he didn’t, he sacrificed himself willingly and with other options for survival, and made sure Joker got out alive.
That’s why the “Every option for Shepard leads to his probable or certain death” takes the oomph out of the sacrifice. There’s no way for Shepard to get out of there alive. He’s dead already, so he might as well do some good while he’s at it.
But, there’s also the lack of a happy ending. Of course.
Happily Ever After
Let me be clear: No one was expecting a Happily Ever After ending. Well, maybe some were, but its not a deal-breaker for there to be no happy ending.
The problem is that, unless you REALLY screw up, all the endings are… well, just as cheerful. Shepard dies (…ignoring the 5k War Asset rating, because “deep breath in a pile of rubble” is just… too much to go into there), the Relays are all exploded, and things change massively.
And, yes, there’s no way to avoid it, no matter how hard you work, no matter what kind of effort you put into building up war assets.
One of the great unappreciated gems of the industry is the expansion pack to Neverwinter Night’s 2: Mask of the Betrayer, a D&D-based Western RPG developed by Obsidian Entertainment.
At the end of the game, which is fairly epic in scope (you literally invade the plane of a god, even if the fun gets curtailed a bit in the end), you’re faced with a sadistic choice:
- Get rid of this curse that has befallen you since the start of the game, one that was destined to kill you, and return to the mortal realm to live out your days. But the Curse also returns to the mortal realm, and will kill and destroy more and more people
- Stay in the plane of the God, keeping the curse with you. It won’t kill you there, but you’re essentially kept as a prisoner.
The selfish choice that puts people in danger, or the benevolent choice that screws you over. Fairly basic end-of-an-RPG stuff, albeit a fair bit darker than the usual fare.
If you went to the right areas, brought the right NPC’s to those areas, did the right thing, and all with damn near no prompting by the game that you should do this? You get two new options:
- Absorb the power of the curse, becoming an amazingly powerful entity with the ability to not just stay, but devour the gods themselves.
- Destroy the curse once and for all, bringing peace to the souls that spawned the curse, earning you the ability to return home, without endangering anyone at all.
This is something TvTropes calls Earn Your Happy Ending. I’ve always found it to be a very effective way of telling a story, particularly in an interactive media. It makes the reward all the sweeter, and makes the bittersweet ending even more bitter, when you realize you screwed up and the sad ending is your fault.
And apparently Bioware agrees with me, because that’s how they did the ending to Mass Effect 2.
Looming threat of the Reapers aside, you could get through the “Suicide Mission” without a single casualty, but only if you worked at it, and worked hard.
Was it all happy? No, a lot of people still died, there was a lot of heartbreak, and a lot of destruction. But you could tell that your actions mattered in the end. And, with Mass Effect 3, they… simply didn’t. Unless you count a half-second gasp of air as the payoff you were looking for.
In The End…
The Mass Effect series is one, at its core, that is about choice. Your choices have weight. They have meaning. And the “Right” decision is often one that’s hard to discern, if it exists at all.
Just look up some debate on the “Geth” question from Mass Effect 2.
You, Shepard, are just a man trying to do the best he can to save the galaxy. And, in the end, the lack of choices betray that theme.
Because, in the end, the choice you’re given rings hollow. For all the size of it, the consequences are the same for your Shepard, the effect they’ll have on the rest of the galaxy is passed over with a shrug, and it settles for reaching for a deeper meaning in that Shepard becomes “The Shepard”, an explicitly deific figure.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the people defending the ending are right. But this doesn’t feel like the ending that three excellent games all about decisions and consequences were building towards.
But, hey, call me a subscriber to the “Death of the Author” school of literary criticism. Because even the greatest writer can turn out a turd every so often.
This theme is probably the least solid of the three I’m going to discuss, but I want to bring it up, if only because I see so many people talk about it as a positive. So, please bear with me on this.
Oh, and just so no one yells at me for this…
In all three endings, Shepard willingly sacrifices himself (gender-neutral ‘him’, by the way. Typing s/he and him/her fifty times in a post makes my head hurt), either to destroy the Reapers, take control of them and lead them away, or to, quite literally, remake the galaxy in his image. This is after conversing with the controlling intelligence behind the Reapers, something fairly justly referred to as a Deus Ex Machina (God from the Machine). And then, in the coda after the credits, we see him referred to as “The Shepard”. Not Commander Shepard, not by his name, but with a term and reverence that makes him seem like a deific figure to these people.
To quote Kotaku’s Katy Cox:
The self-sacrificing savior is the central figure of modern Western mythology, and has been for centuries. That’s the core of Christianity, and it’s a major factor in countless stories. Even at the subconscious level, the story of the redeemer who gives his life for the future of all has become a deep and immutable link in our collective narrative tradition. Shepard is practically the platonic incarnation of the messianic archetype, inevitably martyred for the saving of all.
The inevitably bit is something I’ll save for the next post, but Shepard being a messiah?
Last Minute Messiah
Lets be clear: To list off every theme that the Mass Effect series has touched on would take a long, long time. But, looking back, the games have a very non-theist slant to them.
I can think of only two party members where religion comes into play: Thane (who has a HEAVY atoner streak) and Ash. Its even explicitly mentioned by Ash that her religious beliefs aren’t exactly common within Humanity in Mass Effect’s era. As for the religions of other races?
Its generally not focused on. The Turians seem to have a religion, but its really never mentioned outside the codex. Asari worship a Goddess, but the nature of that worship is generally glossed over, with “Goddess” being used more or less as an all-purpose swear word. That is, until Mass Effect 3, where its turns out that the Goddess was a Prothean. Quarians are very much not religious, their trademark term “Keelah Se’lai” turning out to be a vow of sorts, that they’re doing this so they can return to their homeworld. The Hanar explicitly religious: They worship the Protheans, and are generally seen as a nuisance by the rest of the galaxy for their insistence on pushing their faith into other people’s faces.
Oh, yes, and some of the Geth worshiped the Reapers.
As for Shepard? You get one chance to decide if he’s religious: One dialog option with Ash. It never becomes a central theme of the games. Its generally treated more like an element of a group’s or species’ culture, and how it reflects on them.
Thane’s a good example of this. His strong religious beliefs are deeply tied into his guilt for his actions and need to atone. He doesn’t seek out Shepard for forgiveness (perhaps he does in the romance, though), but its more about coloring his character and what his urges and concerns are.
She’s Just a Woman (or He’s Just a Man)
The other problem with this is that there’s very little in the games, aside from the last several minutes, that has a religious connotation.
His name does, sure, which makes me wonder if this was the eventual intent from the start, but everything else has a decidedly mortal bent to it. Yes, he saves lives and soothes souls, but more through hard work, courage and persuasiveness. He saves the galaxy, but it comes with a heavy cost, and, in most playthroughs, a lot of decisions that, in the end, turn out to be costly mistakes (my playthough, going heavy paragon, got some people killed that could have been avoided).
He can talk someone down and ease tensions, sure. But he’s more than willing to kick ass and take names if it comes to that. Not exactly ‘turning the other cheek’.
Honestly, though, its the rebirth thing that really cements the non-theist theme that the series has.
Shepard is killed at the start of ME2, because he went back to save a friend. Its heroic, absolutely, and serves as a new player’s introduction to Shepard: He’s willing to take that sacrifice.
But being put together? Its explicitly said that it took an unimaginable price and two years of hard work to do. Its done by a known, sinister group, but one that’s on the right side of the fight (at least for now). And in the end, it feels like its done for a PR boost. Shepard reborn isn’t greeted as a savior: He’s greeted with suspicion, distrust and, in some cases, disgust. The religious aspects of it are never brought up by other characters (as far as I know: It wouldn’t surprise me if Ash brings it up, but my Paragon playthrough had her in the grave since Virmire), I don’t even recall a joke about “Did you get to heaven?” or “Was there a bright light, or was that re-entry?”.
But the ending of the series? You’re a messiah for an entire galaxy now. You’re not longer “Shepard” or “Commander Shepard” or “Bob” (Spacer Shepard. Born on Board. Marathon fans would be laughing now…). You’re “The Shepard”.
And pulling religious symbolism out at the end of a massive series that generally avoided faith? Just rings hollow.
In the words of James Vega:
Don’t get me wrong, you’re good. Probably one of the best. But I know you’re human, just like me.
EDIT: Please read the comment section. It turns out that the Mass Effect universe does have more religion than I gave it credit before, although I do stand by my statement that the religious connotations with regards to Shepard are still weak and sudden, being-returned-from-the-dead aside.
Oh, Mass Effect 3.
I really don’t know how, but you somehow managed to piss off oh so many people.
Well, rather, I do know. There’s a lot of reasons for it, from the palette-swapped end cinematics, to the lack of a solid epilogue for your companions, to even simple gameplay mechanic failings. And, while those are fairly valid points (Its a sad statement when the most fervent supporters of something have to admit that its pretty lazy), there’s some heavy, underlying issues with the end: The ending to Mass Effect 3 simply clashes with the themes that were so prominent elsewhere in the three games.
Oh, and this should go without saying, but hey: THERE WILL BE SPOILERS. Venture on at your own risk.
I’ll get to the other two in future posts, but I feel like the most prominent failing of Mass Effect 3 is simple: Your decisions have weight.
Recap: Here’s How the Saga Ends
At the end of Mass Effect 3, assuming you have gotten enough war assets, you are presented with three options by the creating/controlling intelligence behind the big bad of the series, The Reapers: You can:
Control the Reapers, killing your Shepard so that you can force the Reapers to leave the Galaxy alone.
Destroy all Synthetic intelligence in the galaxy, which includes the Reapers, but also includes the Geth (who may be buddies at this point), EDI (an AI that IS your friend) and probably your Shepard, since due to the events of the first game your Shepard has a few after-market synthetic parts. This is the only ending where its possible to survive, and you only get that if you have a REALLY high War Asset rating.
Use your Shepard as the blueprint to reshape all life in the galaxy, Combining synthetic and organic life, creating an energy wave that changes everything.
After you make the decision, the super-weapon you’re in creates the energy wave, killing/forcing-away all the Reapers on and around Earth, and it propagates throughout the galaxy via the Mass Relays, destroying them (making interstellar travel severely less convenient) but doing the same to all the Reapers in those systems. You see your ship fleeing the energy wave, before the wave catches up, knocking it to some far away, gorgeous planet, where you see the survivors of the crash climb out, looking out on the beautiful world. Roll Credits.
Oh, and after the credits we’re treated to an old man (voiced by the one and only Buzz Aldrin!) finishing up telling his grandson about The Shepard, ensuring that life will continue on. If you have the super-high War Assets rating, you will then see Shepard in some rubble, taking a gasp of breath.
Sounds impressive on paper, maybe. But there’s a problem:
All three endings have, aside from the color of the energy wave and other, minor changes, the same cinematic.
Palette Swap: Not Just for Monster Sprites Anymore!
This is, frankly speaking, a massive event. Either all Synthetic life is destroyed, the Reapers are controlled by Shepard, or the very nature of organic life is changed at the single most fundamental level across the entire galaxy! Not to mention that the basic method by which people travel the starts is gone, and would take forever to rebuild, if it could be rebuilt at all.
Say that you were reading a book, and at the end of the book, due to some powerful event, all oil disappeared from the Earth, and that’s where the book ended. You might be able to reason out what might happen as a result, but it would still not have the same impact as if the book explored a world without oil for a little, showing how the world reacted to the sudden loss.
Now, lets look at the end to Mass Effect 2. The entire game is building up to what seems to be a suicide mission. You build a team, gain their loyalty, devotion and focus, have the opportunity to upgrade your ship, and the stakes get raised when most of your crew is taken by the enemy. And then the choices start coming.
Here’s a Sadistic Choice for You…
Do you leave immediately to save your crew, if you’re not completely ready? Wait too long, and members of your crew will die. But if you go immediately and you’re not ready, you might lose some of your teammates in the attack.
Did you remember to upgrade your ship? If not, you can lose three loyal teammates on the attack run.
You’re faced with choices throughout the attack, on who should do certain jobs (hack a system, lead a secondary fire-team, create a pseudo-science bubble). Choose the wrong teammember, be they unsuited for the task or not Loyal? Someone’s going to die as a result.
When you get to the kidnapped crew, do you send someone to go back with them? If you don’t, the crew doesn’t make it, but if you do, your team is weaker, and you might lose someone else later on.
This is what all of Mass Effect did so well, up until the final ten minutes: Show you how your choices influenced things. Even in the third game, there were choices within the game, as well as choices coming from the previous games, that paid off, for better or worse. Sometimes an off-hand comment, sometimes with dead bodies.
But there was no payoff for the final, and most important choice. I remember sitting there in my playthrough, stunned at the possibilities. What’s the right choice? What’s the choice I would do in that situation? I made my choice, but before taking it, alt-tabbed out and backed up my save. I just had to know what would lie at the end of the three roads.
Imagine the impact it would have had if you had seen Earth, ten years later. The surviving party members, meeting up in a recovering London and discussing how the galaxy had changed, and maybe discussing their good friend Shepard, who couldn’t make it.
But, instead? All Bioware could deliver was a shrug. And that’s perhaps the worst way to end a franchise.