I think the real question that needs to be answered is this; Can Video Games, as a form of art, follow established narrative structures, or do they need to develop their own? Audiences expect an amount of "headcanon" as someone put it, to fill in where their suspension of disbelief begins to fail during a play. The reader of any novel is similarly expected to make leaps of logic, as there are just some things that words alone cannot express. Movies leave less to the imagination, but there is no interactivity in the medium, and so you take a movie at face value more often than not. Video Games on the other hand are the youngest Art form. Game developers have tried many structures for their games, and have had varying amounts of success. But does the act of Playing a Video Game stimulate the mind in the same way as a book? A Play? I would say that it truly does not, even when watching a cut scene. I believe that the difference lies in the mediums ability to bring a sense of "Self" to the protagonist. A player does not wonder, "How will Jack get out of this?", instead wondering, "How will I get out of this?" I believe that this fundamental difference in how characters are perceived in games lends itself into what expectations a player has during game play, and especially regarding the ending. If a Novel ends badly, the reader is not so heavily invested in the affair, after all it didn't ever put him at risk. A player on the other hand feels an amount of Empathy towards their character, and that empathy builds as their adventures go on. At the end of such a titanic series like Mass Effect, you have built a character up in the minds of most players, that it may as well be them sacrificing themselves, or making that moral choice to enslave a race, or force evolution on the Galaxy. The ensuing emotions often lead to bitter resentment if an ending didn't meet or exceed the players expectations. I would like to see a study done, counting the number of players who were upset with the original endings, and those that were not, and then finding out how much of the series each group played on average. I would speculate that perhaps those who were not so upset or vocal did not play from the very beginning of the Trilogy, and so were not as heavily invested. Or not.
Why Releasing Mass Effect 3 Extended Cut Was A Mistake
With Mass Effect 3 Extended Cut making its way onto gaming platforms, I figured I would take this very prime opportunity to beat a dead horse. Now what follows is a hyper-intellectualization of something we are not supposed to intellectualize. Starting with a discussion of Mass Effect 3 Extended Cut, we will broaden our scope to address video game narratives as a whole. I know that what I have to say will ruffle a few feathers, but I am not doing this merely to provoke a reaction or cause unnecessary controversy. I feel strongly enough about the subject that I just have to say something. With this preamble I would like to thank the readers who hang in there until the very end. If anything I have said is unclear (it is a lot easier for authors to understand their own words after all), please let me know and I can attempt to clarify.
Although the hype is there for the Extended Cut, I find it hard to get excited for something I view as a demonstration of what is wrong with the current attitude in gaming: an attitude of entitlement. Since its release, scores of gamers, upset that Mass Effect 3’s ending hasn’t lived up to their expectations, have taken to the internet and let their feelings be known. While generally I don’t have a problem with opinions and the free expression thereof, I do have a problem in this case with certain commenters’ approaches, and with the end result. The situation, as we all know, quickly became toxic and divisive, leaving a dirty black eye on the industry, and more specifically, on gamers. Remembering just how vitriolic the controversy became will bring us clarity and hopefully move us forward in a positive direction.
In its present state, gaming is caught in a strange tension, a tension which it shares with literature, film and music, and which arises from being both consumer product and art. To create a marketable product, game developers must be responsible to consumer demands, and when these demands are not met, gamers feel more than compelled to let developers know in what ways they’ve failed. The problem with these consumer expectations, as we will see, is that they sometimes interfere with the artistic side of video games. Let me be perfectly frank: video games are art, and if anyone tells you differently they are simply being closed minded towards new ways of stimulating the imagination and the intellect.
The primary difference in patronage of the electronic arts versus other, more “tradition,” media arises from the fact that video games, unlike film or print, are entirely interactive and wholly depend on player immersion. This means that developers have to find some sort of hook for gamers to sink their teeth into: enter ideas of player freedom and the evolving narrative. Because the narratives are interactive and depend entirely on the player to progress them, it feels as though we control how the narratives unfold, and we are increasingly seeing video games offer ways to meaningfully impact the narrative through player choices (games like Heavy Rain, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and BioShock all fit this mold). Mass Effect 3, even if we are unhappy with its ending, several inconsistencies and plot holes, does still offer us a way to affect the overall narrative. Perhaps it is not as in-depth as we would like, but then again, we are never truly free to direct the narrative as we see fit—and here’s the kicker: we never will be.
Video games can at best offer us an illusion of freedom and control. This illusion is built through player immersion which, in turn, serves to inflate players’ sense of responsibility for how games will unravel. This sense of responsibility, however, can bring on dismay, indignation, or anger in players when the narratives fail to conform to their expectations. This is what has happened with Mass Effect 3. Players, thinking their choices would matter more, have become quite upset when realizing their choices don’t matter as much as they want them to. But if we take a step back, we can see that we, as players, will never be in control of the narrative. We are never creating a unique, personalized narrative; we are only playing through a finite number of possibilities, therefore it is ultimately the developers who decide where our choices will lead.
In Mass Effect 3, BioWare offers us three choices for ending the game. On top of those choices, many of the choices from past Mass Effect games serve to open or close doors to various assets when dealing with the Reapers. Just as choosing to gain character loyalty in Mass Effect 2 determines who survives the suicide mission, gathering assets, which affects our Effective Military Strength, determines what options are open to us at the end of Mass Effect 3. On top of that, Mass Effect as series takes into consideration players’ paragon/renegade levels, offering choices only available to certain levels. It’s not that our choices don’t matter or don’t have an impact, it’s just that they play out much more subtly than some of us would like, and this makes us feel as though we’ve lost control over the narrative. It is as if we, the collective gaming community, suddenly realize that we are playing BioWare’s narrative, not our own. But what we need to realize is that it has been BioWare’s narrative all along. The fact that we feel it is our own is really a testament to BioWare’s ability to maintain the illusion of freedom until the very end.
So where does releasing the Extended Cut damage the artistic credibility of Mass Effect? Due to an inability to maintain an illusion of player freedom and control over the narrative, BioWare, as we know, has faced extreme backlash from the gaming community. Here, consumer expectations have trumped artistic merit. We’ve demanded that BioWare fix Mass Effect’s shortcomings—feeling entitled to closure—and BioWare has complied. The fault lies with both parties.
Is Mass Effect 3’s ending perfect? No. But the series as a whole sets a bench mark for video game narratives, demonstrating just how well games can be used to deliver a compelling story. The characters are engaging and continually develop (watching Shepherd deal with the burden of saving the galaxy is just one example), the imagery is rich (hello, the main character’s name is Shepherd), and prior to this Extended Cut, Mass Effect 3 has been a game that leaves it up to us to fill in some blanks by not wrapping everything up in a neat little package. I would go as far as to say that the imperfections in the ending add character, giving us something to discuss and making Mass Effect 3 a flawed masterpiece. However, by releasing an Extended Cut, BioWare is not only legitimizing the culture of entitlement, they are also acknowledging that their artistic vision is worth less than our commercial satisfaction. So what if some of us were dissatisfied? Art is supposed to be uncompromising. It is never possible to please everyone, but rather than spoon feed us, BioWare should remind us that we are, after all, playing their narrative—their vision—not our own.
Look, I studied literature for five and a half years, which gave me an opportunity to read some of the greatest works in the English language. Not everything provides closure, nor should it. Some things are better left unsaid, unknown, unaccounted for. The “fun” comes in determining what is meaningful to the story untold. We live in a post-modern society rife with ambiguity, relative meaning, and uncertainty. Until the Extended Cut was released, Mass Effect 3’s ending strongly embodied these post-modern qualities: the plot holes, character inconsistences, and lack of closure together wove layers of depth. Unfortunately by trying to appease us with additional closure, BioWare has inadvertently damaged its game as an artistic endeavour. They have admitted that they, as artists, are wrong, and that we, as consumers, are right. But are we?
You bring up an interesting point at the end. Mass Effect isn't Brave New World, it's moral dualism 101. It's exactly the kind of story that people expect closure from. By following a very generic pattern for the vast majority of the experience and then abruptly tacking on some ambiguity and existentialism at the end, Bioware has, in my opinion, thrown their player base somewhat of a curve ball. But I agree, they shouldn't be catering to our every whim.