What the Mass Effect ending means about gaming

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Lately, it has become pretty difficult to go anywhere on the internet related to gaming without running into something debating the ending of Mass Effect 3 and while I’m not going to actually debate the ending of the game, I would like to discuss the complaints that have been circulating due to the end of the mega popular trilogy.

I’m going to take this opportunity to tell you that you should not fear any spoilers in this article since I have not actually played Mass Effect 3. Last summer I made a goal of playing through the first two games so I could be right there with everyone else when Commander Sheperd saved the galaxy, but the first game took a really long time and I felt pretty drained after it. I took a break with a few smaller indie games and then all of a sudden the onslaught of games that was the Fall of 2011 began and I’ve yet to recover. Fortunately, what I would like to discuss is not the ending itself, but the explosion of debate surrounding it.

Lots of gamers were very pissed off at the ending of Mass Effect 3 and I kind of sympathize. These gamers probably spent hundreds of hours between the three games exploring the world that Bioware created for them. Bioware did something unprecedented with the Mass Effect series. They set out to make a trilogy that gave you enough character customization and narrative choices that essentially meant that by the end of the third game your character and his/her story would be completely different than that of one of your friends. This is really cool stuff. The problem with this is that no matter how many different choices you made throughout the game, the ending was still pretty much the same and this is one of the issues people are having with it.

This is where we have to remember that no matter how great Bioware is at their job, they are still only making a video game and video games have sucked at narrative and endings for a while.

Most gaming narratives are either so simplistic that they really only have one goal, such as rescuing the princess or are so complicated that they become laughable and are incredibly difficult to follow. Most narratives have to force the player into taking an active role in the game on a consistent basis and have to keep coming up with reasons why the character is always having to fight someone. On top of this, most game endings are terrible. They really are, but we tend to gloss over them, because if the game is engaging then we forget how it ended. My best example is the Assassin’s Creed series which almost always ends on a cliffhanger that ultimately leaves more questions unanswered and is really meant as the jumping off point for a sequel.

Bioware makes games and as good as they are at their job, they still only make games. That’s not an excuse, but it’s understandable that they would drop the ball so close the the end. They tried to make an ending that they could control and make as gripping as they could without trying to calculate every decision you made in the game. This is what they tried and here is the thing they did wrong. If you are going to suddenly make all the choices the player has been making mean almost nothing to bring together one ending, then your ending needs to have enough impact on the player and make them feel satisfied about the end of the series regardless of what choices they made. If you’re going to take away all the decisions I made then you had better knock my socks off. Many gamers have been saying simply that the ending sucked. I’m excited about this, because this means that gamers can collectively discuss the ending to one of the great dramas of our medium in a method that rationally breaks down all the aspects of Mass Effect that led up to the ending.

This is an accomplishment itself. One of the ways we can further our medium as art and collectively show the rest of the world that it should be treated as such is to have a drama as well-written and engrossing as Mass Effect be discussed in great detail. To get a degree in English I analyzed and discussed countless pieces of literature. What Mass Effect has done is give gamers another game on a very short list that is both wide-spread and deep enough to be discussed on an artistic level. Yes, let’s talk about why the ending to Mass Effect sucked. I’m excited to become a part of that discussion because I’ve been trying to get people to have similar discussions for years. Be upset. Sit down and think about why you are upset and hopefully next summer when I finally get around to completing the trilogy, I would love to talk about it with you.

Another strange sentiment going around the web is that Mass Effect fans own the story and they want to take it back or something really silly like that. I actually have a hard time understanding why this is such a popular sentiment. I am sympathetic, but I’m not sure what these people really expect to happen. I’ve spent the last several years being really angry at Michael Bay for ruining one of my favorite childhood things, Transformers. I’m sympathetic because my childhood had a lot invested in Transformers, but I don’t own the Transformers. I’ve been gearing up lately for a movie reboot of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles that will probably suck too. It’s the same thing with Mass Effect. Bioware owns Mass Effect and no matter how open-ended they made the experience they still own it. I’m not sure what else can be said about it.

The real scary issue here is that some fans want the ending of Mass Effect to be changed either through a patch or DLC. This actually kind of pisses me off for a few reasons. The first is that the writers at Bioware told the story that they wanted to tell and by giving into fans who don’t like it, they will set a precedent that if you complain enough you can get these things changed. I think even if they change the ending then fans will still be unhappy or they will end up disappointing an entirely different group of fans. Here’s the real kicker: if gamers and Mass Effect fans want Mass Effect and games as a whole to be counted as a narrative work of art that should receive the same serious consideration and criticisms that an equally drama-filled movie, book or play then we need to consider this a completed piece of work and not try and change it to fit our own whims. It needs to be treated as a complete work with all flaws and narrative issues along with it.

Think of that rage that boils deep inside of you whenever George Lucas decides to “update” or “enhance” the Star Wars movies. This is a very similar situation. The Star Wars movies weren’t perfect, but changing it so that Greedo shot first pisses me off and making Darth Vader yell, “Nooooo!” as he throws the Emperor to his death pisses me off too. We can’t start changing one of the most epic RPGs ever just because we didn’t like something in it. We can’t support altering what will become a classic in video games alongside The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time, Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger, Myst or Halo. This is a drama that gamers will discuss for the next few years and changing it just because we were unhappy detracts from it.

Changing the ending to the trilogy along with other games through patches or DLC to meet our own whims is something we need to get over with. If this does not happen then gaming will never grow as an art form and we will never grow as gamers. Our hobby will never be anything more than grey/brown shooters or mindless loot drops. If we want drama in our games then we need to be prepared for what that drama brings with it; disagreement, ambiguity and sometimes disappointment.

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