March 25, 2012 by dbfeder
Mass Effect 3: Failure of a Narrative
Mass Effect (Bioware, 2007), a role-playing game with sci-fi tendencies, has inhabited a central location in the video gaming world since its release. The game was the first of a trilogy, extending the story across all three games as well as through various forms of outside media such as comic books and novels. The universe created by the series has attracted many gamers not only for its coherence, but its vast strides in player authorship as well. The games allow the player to control an avatar of their own creation through all three titles, making decisions along the way that shape the narrative through the entire series. Decisions made in the initial game have the ability to change the conclusion of the series; this level of coherence represented a new step for the field of RPGs, granting the player a true ability to shape the narrative.
While Mass Effect made strides in the realm of authorship, video games as a medium already differ from art forms in this sense. While a movie or a book is created by an author to be consumed as a set construct by the audience, video games allow for at least an appearance of participation in the creation. Even the most linear storylines have a player controlled avatar roaming the universe, granting a semblance of management to the person sitting in front of the screen. Mass Effect takes this principle to a new level, but is merely enhancing a paradigm that has existed within the medium since it began.
But making a component of the video game medium stronger also enhances the problems that come along with it, and the Mass Effect developers backed themselves into a corner by allowing the player to consider creation an aspect of the game. After developing what was critically acclaimed to be “incredibly enjoyable, but more than just fun: a stellar package with a fierce spirit that makes it engrossing and unforgettable” (Gamepot.com review) through the first two games, the esteemed narrative has taken a hit following the conclusion of the plot. Since the release of the third and final game, fans of the series have been protesting a finale that failed to provide “affirmation, explanation or closure,” as phrased by Shamus Young. Questions were left unresolved, happy endings were replaced by bleak outlooks, and new, engulfing plot holes were created in order to do so. Breaking with the cohesive and comprehensive nature of the previous games’ stories, Mass Effect 3 managed to contradict the universe’s internal mechanics in order to provide an unsatisfactory conclusion.
The resulting outcry has no parallel in other art forms. In the realm of movies, a poor ending is panned critically, and the movie is criticized as an artistic failure; unless the plot was based on an original work, like a book series or television show, there is no complaint of the viewers being misled or duped – simply dissatisfied. A game, however, requires a substantial time commitment – in the case of Mass Effect, three substantial time commitments – and allow the player to feel like a character participating in events. Mass Effect enhanced this result through its revolutionary gameplay, allowing the players to feel cheated by the narrative despite having no involvement in the writing process. Mass Effect was not perceived as a work of art, being created by a distinct group with an artistic vision; it was a collaboration between author and consumer, and by ending in a manner unsatisfactory to the consumers, the response was not the disappointment of those who saw a poorly constructed movie, but of those who saw their own creation ripped from their grasp and altered without their consent.
The result has been a very vocal campaign against the final inclusion of the trilogy, and “the outrage has built up to the point where important people at BioWare are promising to go back and change the game.” A reliance on the player is inherent in gaming, and this becomes even stronger in games which allow greater variability and choice. This necessity presents another difference between video games and other artistic mediums; while coherence and congruity are important for successful narratives in novels and movies alike, authorial control can often be found more important, sometimes for great effect. By allowing consumers to affect the art they inhabit, artistic authority becomes a blurry concept; instead of one writer, director, or group of actors, a much larger conglomeration of authors must be satisfied with the end product – the gamers themselves. BioWare’s reported acquiescence to their customers’ complaints reveals the designer’s knowledge of this truth as well.
Video games distinguish themselves from other mediums in many varied ways, but their allocation of control in part to the consumers has no counterpart in other art forms. The result is a different structure, a different system for satisfying customers, that supplants the author as the final line of artistic control. Instead, the gamers participate in the creation, and their satisfaction with the result must be allocated a higher worth. BioWare failed to consider this necessity in Mass Effect 3, opting instead to stick with an artistic vision and message that have fallen flat with the players. The result has been a revolt among the fan base, teaching the lesson – if still necessary – that an audience with control is more than just viewers, and must be respected as such.