I wasn’t going to write anything about Mass Effect 3 and the Not-So-Great Ending backlash. I really wasn’t. You’re probably as sick of reading about it as I am. What’s more, I’ve been less-than-enthralled with the Mass Effect games. Saying crass things about BioWare’s beloved sci-fi opera and defending the way they ended it? I must be suicidal.
But then I read that the Better Business Bureau was looking to get involved. Or already is, weighing in on whether BioWare “misled” consumers about the ending. And so I’m compelled to say something, because I think fans — and now a consumer watchdog group — are taking things a space-time bridge too far.
If you’re just joining us, a bunch of Mass Effect fans — precise numbers unknown, so maybe lots, or just a vocal minority — have been up in arms about the way BioWare ended Mass Effect 3, the big trilogy finale that launched on March 6, 2012. The specific reasons why vary, depending who you talk to, but range from complaints about the number of alternative wrap-ups (“too few”) and the narrative depth of the existing ones (“too superficial”) to the tenor of the ending (minor spoiler ahead — “too bleak”). Poke around and you’ll find online petitions and Facebook pages demanding “better” or “happier” endings.
That culminated in BioWare sort of capitulating and promising a freely downlodable “extended cut” for the game sometime this summer that it says will offer “a more fleshed out experience for our fans.” But while BioWare promises the DLC “will offer extended scenes that provide additional context and deeper insight to the conclusion of Commander Shepard’s journey,” they’re clear that “no further ending DLC is planned.” You’ll get more context from the DLC, in other words, but Mass Effect 3‘s endings will stand as-is. The company adds that it “strongly believes in the team’s artistic vision for the end of this arc of the Mass Effect franchise.”
Obviously that’s not going to placate the most zealous of Mass Effect 3‘s detractors, but that’s to be expected. What I wasn’t expecting: to find the Better Business Bureau weighing in on Tuesday, arguing that the game’s advertising doesn’t add up.
“Consider this,” writes Marjorie Stephens, communications director for the BBB of Northern Indiana. “If you had purchased a game for $59.99 or $79.99 for the digital download version and were told that you had complete control over the game’s outcome by the choices your character made and then actually had no control over the game’s outcome, wouldn’t you be disappointed?!”
Well yes, I suppose most people would. But as Stephens herself admits, that’s not exactly what BioWare promised. On the official Mass Effect website, under “About,” the company entreats players to “experience the beginning, middle, and end of an emotional story unlike any other, where the decisions you make completely shape your experience and outcome.”
The key words here are “completely,” “experience” and “outcome.” If you read that strictly, as Stephens does, you might walk away thinking Mass Effect 3 offers a limitless number of endings. But I think most gamers are savvy enough, both about the Mass Effect series and the way games like this work in general, to know BioWare was talking about the overall experience, and “outcome” not in terms of the game’s final 15 or 30 minutes — is that even describable as the “outcome,” as if the game were just a mammoth math equation? The problem word is “completely,” which is just marketing hyperbole and rightly scorned, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call it false advertising.
Mass Effect always felt more like a play-along novel than a roleplaying game to me, an adventure game punctuated by combat and ability-tweaking, where you mostly listen and watch between action or exploration sequences. It has far more in common with a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book than, say, games like Skyrim or Grand Theft Auto. And like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book, it has limited outcomes. You can’t tell as on-rails a story as BioWare does in the Mass Effect games and still deliver a please-all wrap-up. There’s just no way. People were bound to be disappointed. This is mostly Bioware’s story, after all. Choosing to save this person or that one, picking friendlier conversational phrases over dictatorial ones — that stuff’s there to help color between the lines, but in the end, those lines are drawn. We’re all (spoilers ahead) joining the Spectres, fighting Saren, getting our prize ship pulverized, dying, coming back as kind-of-cyborgs, joining a nefarious shadow organization, rounding up a posse and taking the fight to an intergalactic menace. Mass Effect is in that sense more a story-telling than a role-playing game. Or someone else’s dinner party: You can pick which utensils to use and maybe choose whether to have your salad before or with the main entree and coffee before or with dessert, but in the end, everyone’s having the same thing.
Sometimes endings go wrong. Sometimes people love bad ones. And sometimes they hate great ones. While I love the way much of the novel Under the Dome’s written, I can’t get past the Twilight Zone-style zinger Stephen King drops in the wrap-up. Like many, I was seriously bummed about Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse’s sentimental Lost series finale. And I mostly enjoyed Vincent Ward’s What Dreams May Come until…yep, the ultra-schmaltzy ending. But never once did I feel my creative distaste, my “I would have done it this way, or maybe this other way,” could be righted by demanding and receiving a ret-con (or worse, a crowd-sourced one). Who’s to say my ideas for those endings would have been better ones?
Storytelling run through a crowd-sourced blender too often looks like Easy-Cheese. It’s simple math, the law of averages. The best endings are more often the controversial outlier ones. I’m not saying that’s true of the way BioWare ended Mass Effect 3, but I’m also not saying it isn’t. All I am saying, is that demanding storytellers change endings is wrongheaded. We don’t have to like them or say nice things about them. We may even write elaborate critiques. But handing creators a list of demands, requiring that they deliver a certain number of endings, some of them happy, etc. only diminishes what storytellers do. And the question we’re left to answer, really, is: How much satisfaction did we derive from playing the game before the curtain finally fell?
I’d like to leave you with this, from the coda to Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, a series that itself elicited both praise and scorn for the way King chose to wrap things up after seven books and a readership that followed the tale for decades. I think it gets to the heart of what’s at stake here.
I’ve told my tale all the way to to the end … I can stop now … Yet some of you … are likely not so willing. You are the grim, goal-oriented ones who will not believe that the joy is in the journey rather than the destination no matter how many times it has been proven to you … I hope most of you know better. Want better. I hope you came to hear the tale, and not just munch your way through… An ending is a closed door no man … can open. I’ve written many, but most only for the same reason that I pull on my pants in the morning before leaving the bedroom — because it is the custom of the country … There is no such thing as a happy ending. I never met a single one to equal “Once upon a time.” Endings are heartless. Ending is just another word for goodbye.