The Leaderboard: On Mass Effect 3 and Serialized Endings

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Paste has long believed that videogames are a vital part of pop culture. Starting this week we’re expanding our games coverage with a new biweekly essay column called The Leaderboard. Every two weeks we’ll be running an essay or editorial from a rotating crew of writers with a wide breadth of expertise and experience within the industry. From critics to designers to academics, The Leaderboard will highlight a variety of insightful voices. Today’s column on the ending of Mass Effect 3 and the nature of serialization comes from pop culture critic and AV Club staff writer Rowan Kaiser.

1. March, 2012

A group of irate gamers take to the internet to complain about Mass Effect III’s ending. What begins as a poll in the game’s official forum with “Make a new ending” as an option starts getting called a petition, and eventually sweeps the internet. Everyone has an opinion about the “petition” and it’s usually negative, largely on the grounds that you can’t force a story to change its ending, even if you’re disappointed. Battle lines are drawn.

This isn’t about Mass Effect III. This is about endings, authorial intent, serialization, fan ownership, and historical documents. This is about how new forms of media replace old forms, and also how the newest forms don’t actually look all that new when you examine them closely. It’s about storytelling, and about story listening.

The Mass Effect series has an emotional hold on gamers the likes of which I haven’t seen since Final Fantasy’s heyday in the late 1990s. I see three main reasons for this. First, the Mass Effect games are really good. Some people disagree, of course, but they’re commercially and critically acclaimed, with a large and passionate fanbase. And most importantly, I think they’re good. Second, they offer the player significant choice. The player-created character, Commander Shepard, is arguably the greatest manifestation of player choice in videogame history. Finally, the games are serialized. The decisions you tell your character to make affect things in that game, in the next, and in the grand finale, Mass Effect III. This is probably the most important thing you need to understand about the controversy surrounding the game’s ending.

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2. March, 2009

The Sci-Fi Channel’s reimagining of Battlestar Galactica comes to a controversial conclusion. To some fans and critics, it’s an emotional ending that resolves the most important storylines while leaving others ambiguous. To others, it’s the final, disappointing betrayal of the most promising science fiction series in years.

Serialization’s main strength can also be a story’s greatness weakness. Serialization gives stories an importance beyond the story itself because they’re told over weeks, months, or years. We think about them, and talk about them, and theorize about them, and plan for them. We obsess over them. To put it simply, serialized stories and their characters become our friends.

Unlike friends, serialized stories have clearly defined starting points and ending points. Some, like long-running comic books or soap operas, don’t have final endings, but they do have endings to parts of their stories. Others, like the most acclaimed TV shows, or long-running fantasy novel series, have clear finales. These finales often disappoint a vocal segment of the audience. It’s almost inevitable, actually. Long-running stories have so many different threads, have so many successes and failures, and often, so many different creators working on them, that trying to wrap all that up in a single episode, novel, or comic is virtually impossible.

There’s long line of distinguished stories with disappointing endings. In addition to Battlestar Galactica, there’s also Buffy The Vampire Slayer, which ended on a decent episode that tried its damndest to salvage one of the show’s worst seasons. Its spinoff Angel had a magnificent finale in my view, but it too has critics who dislike its plot ambiguity and lack of buildup. Lost’s finale has, perhaps wrongly, become the definition of the failed finale for many people. The X-Files’ ending came years after the show’s relevance, and was a footnote to a story that had once been known for its overarching narrative, the “mytharc.” Outside of television (at least partially), George R.R. Martin’s famous fantasy series A Song Of Ice And Fire has been delayed for years as the author struggles with a complex story and the desire to tell it as well as possible.

Many others never got endings, usually due to cancellation. Ask a Deadwood fan how they feel about HBO’s lack of promised television movies. Or a Veronica Mars fan if they’d enjoy a movie to resolve the plot threads left dangling.

There are a few success stories. The Wire’s fifth season is often considered somewhat disappointing, but its finale itself was a success. The Shield is widely heralded as having one of the great finales in television history. These are relatively rare. My personal favorite is Babylon 5, which was planned largely in advance, and was forcefully completed by its single-minded creator, J. Michael Straczynski.

Battlestar Galactica was my great betrayal. I saw it coming—the decisions the show’s producers were making along the way made some kind of disappointment inevitable. But its finale, “Daybreak part 2 & 3,” wasn’t just disappointing. It rubbed my face in how disappointing it was. It took its worst impulses and made out with them, as I was forced to watch. It had dancing robots. I have, in various forms, both facetiously and seriously, struggled with the core question: how can I reconcile my enjoyment of the series as a whole with the disaster of an ending that seemed to counter how I and many others had perceived the show’s narrative?

I cannot blame Mass Effect’s fans for being so vocally unhappy. I’ve been there. Serialized storytelling has that effect. Mass Effect is three games, at roughly 40 hours each. Battlestar Galactica was 75 hour-long episodes. Lost, 121, matching Mass Effect. Most every major serialized TV show is between 60-120 episodes long. These aren’t just stories, they’re stories given importance by time and effort, which also makes them hurt that much more when they don’t end well.

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3. June, 2007

HBO’s hit series The Sopranos ends on a defiantly ambiguous note. Arguably the most important series in modern television history, The Sopranos’ finale would have been an event no matter what, but the sudden cut to black, leaving the main character’s fate unknown, is an instantly iconic and divisive conclusion. Fans and critics are confused, unhappy, angry, and amused, sometimes all at once.

Tony Soprano, the main character of The Sopranos, was not a good person. The show occasionally toyed with making him look redeemable, but always quickly smacked that away, usually through engaging in a bloody murder. By the end, it was clear that Tony was an unrepentant villain, and many expected an ending in which he was brought to justice—preferably bloodily.

That didn’t happen. Or did it? Almost immediately after the episode aired, some fans tried to create a resolution where apparently none existed. Actually, they said, Tony did die. There was even evidence. Lots and lots of evidence, they said. The story of the end of The Sopranos became something other than what was on-screen. It became a constant argument about whether the apparent ambiguity is real or not.

The show’s creator, David Chase, has remained relatively silent about the meaning of the ending, simply stating that it’s all there, which has fueled both sides of the debate. Without a specific authorial statement, anyone can claim that they’re right. What has happened is that a certain segment of the fanbase has, essentially, decided that the original ending was insufficient. They have asserted a kind of control over that ending, changing ambiguity into certainty. They have changed that silent black screen into a gunshot and a bloody mess. The ending of The Sopranos has been patched—albeit unofficially.

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4. July, 2003

The zombie film 28 Days Later is an international hit, but has come in for some criticism from fans of traditional zombie films. They believe that the movie’s upbeat ending flies in the face of zombie movie conventions. Cinemas begin showing a different ending after the film’s credits, prefaced by the words “what if…”

Film is considered a director’s medium, but the director is not usually a dictator. They probably didn’t write the script, for one thing. They have to deal with actors and editors and producers. Studios will show the film to test audiences and often demand changes. This is what happened with 28 Days Later—its original ending was considered too depressing, so a happier ending was added. Fan outcry got the original, more depressing ending included in cinemas. On the DVD commentary, the screenwriter and director say that the original ending is the “true ending.”

This raises a few issues. First, it’s apparent that fan outcry can change endings. The most common rejection of the Mass Effect petitioners is that they’re “entitled” and should have no power to affect a story. But it’s happened—albeit in a place where the creators, or authors, also had a similar impulse.

Second, in big enough projects, compromises are made. 28 Days Later was not the singular vision of a lone author, putting what he or she wanted on the screen for all to see. It was the combined effort of a huge number of individuals, from actors to test audiences. Compromise is inevitable in such a case, and studio meddling provides an obvious case study for how that works. A big-budget game like Mass Effect likely had more people in different groups attempting to create and influence it and its story than a film.

Finally, 28 Days Later’s changes reinforce the idea of the author being the decision-maker. When the director and the screenwriter make the case that one ending is a “true” ending, it’s hard to argue with that—even if it’s still presented as an “alternate” ending. In many cases, we’re delighted to go along with the author’s plan. Ridley Scott’s Director’s Cut of Blade Runner has almost completely supplanted the original Theatrical Cut.

It’s true that this doesn’t seem to be an argument for change based on what fans want. It seems to be an argument that the creator should have that power, if they can ever work around the compromises they’d been forced to make. But sometimes, the creator doesn’t get it right.

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5. January, 1997

The original Star Wars films are re-released in theaters for their 20th anniversary. There are three obvious reasons for this: to make more money, to let people who never saw them in theaters do so, and to prepare audiences for the upcoming prequel trilogy. A fourth reason is that series creator George Lucas believed that computerized special effects could help him create the effects-heavy scenes he wanted to include in the original versions but couldn’t technically finish. This lead to a few major changes, most notably, the scene in which the smuggler-with-a-heart-of-gold Han Solo kills the bounty hunter Greedo in a bar. In the original form, Han is the aggressor, shooting first and killing Greedo. In the Special Edition, Greedo shoots first, making his shooting self-defense on Han’s end. Fans are outraged, considering it a betrayal of Han’s characterization.

There are limits to making your arguments based on the concept of authorship. Nobody denies that George Lucas is the “author” of Star Wars, at least, more than any other individual. And yet his changes to the story—his patches, as it were—are largely reviled. Having grown up with non-Special Edition versions of Star Wars, I still see the CGI additions as something foreign and unnecessary. And while I don’t particularly care about whether Han shot first or not, I don’t see any reason to change that either. And, like many, I believe Lucas’s prequels are extremely difficult to defend, and I’d be perfectly willing to simply treat them as second-class Star Wars films and not part of the canon.

Yet Lucas is The Author. Who am I to tell him that he’s doing Star Wars wrong? Who is any particular fan or group of fans to hold him up as the worst thing about Star Wars for the past three decades? Who are we to declare that Star Wars is ours, not his, and that he is doing the wrong things with it?

Well, all that is relevant if you buy into authorial intent as an important component of storytelling. I tend not to, so I’m perfectly able and willing to declare that yes, George Lucas is doing it wrong—and I’d say the same about any storyteller. The act of telling the story is important, yes, but the act of listening to, and interpreting, that story is what’s most important. When Lucas released Star Wars into the wild, he ceased his role as sole creator. Its viewers and fans started to create that story too, through interpretation and discussion.

The consistent argument against the idea that Mass Effect III’s ending should be changed is that BioWare were the authors of the story, and this is the story they intended to make. It is presumptuous of the fans to demand that that change. But if the author is the most important thing, and if the author says that changes made are changes they wanted to make, then isn’t George Lucas right to change Star Wars however he wants? Wouldn’t it be presumptuous and entitled for fans to petition for the release of the original, pre-Special Edition films? And wouldn’t it then be perfectly valid for BioWare to change the ending of Mass Effect and say they meant it? This turns into a mess.

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6. May, 2009

Bethesda Softworks releases the “Broken Steel” expansion for Fallout III. The game had been criticized for its abrupt ending, where the player’s character could not continue exploring the Wasteland after completing the main storyline. “Broken Steel” changed the story slightly so that exploration could continue.

Are moral and character choices gameplay systems? At GDC 2012, Fallout: New Vegas producer J.E. Sawyer made the clear case that they were. It’s hard to disagree with this regarding a game like Mass Effect, where so much work has to be done by developers to make the choices seem clear and relevant, and so much work has to be done by the player to build the kind of Shepard they want. And if a gameplay system is broken, then isn’t it reasonable to expect a patch?

The core complaint against the Mass Effect III ending is that it seems to render player choice irrelevant. Those choices are, if not the game’s main draw, at least one of its strongest features. It’s possible, maybe even probable, that the gamers complaining about the lack of choice resolution demonstrated in the ending are wrong. But this isn’t necessarily about whether they may or may not be right to complain about this particular game (a subjective judgment anyway)—rather, it’s about whether complaints about story systems could ever be valid. If not Mass Effect III, then what? Is that door ever open?

After all, gamers and games media are used to complaining about things that are broken. Take this editorial from IGN about Skyrim’s massive slowdown problems on the Playstation 3 compared to other platforms. Here is the media, acting as an intermediary between game players and game makers, conveying player concerns in a demanding, and dare I say “entitled” fashion: “This is why Bethesda owes the world a full explanation, the sooner, the better.” Such an editorial is downright laudable in an industry where the media is too often merely deferential to game makers.

Obviously Skyrim’s technical issues operate within a different sphere from Mass Effect III’s narrative issues, but they’re not totally opposed. Take gamers complaining about balance and certain character types being “overpowered” in competitive online games. Or take Fallout III. The great joy of Fallout III was exploring and seeing what the world had to offer. The main storyline was window-dressing at best. But if you decided to complete that main storyline, it simply ended, even if you wanted to continue exploring the Wasteland.

Fans were upset about the dissonance—the best part of the game taken away for a conventional plot aspect. So that ending was changed for the expansion. Exploration became possible once again. The game’s systems and its narrative were patched into harmony, and it would not be unreasonable to suggest that public outcry was a partial motivating factor.

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7. August, 1861

Charles Dickens’ classic serialized novel, Great Expectations, ends on a down note, with the main characters going their separate, non-romantic ways. Dickens ends up changing the ending to a happier one, with a marriage at the end.

Our understanding of pop culture and media tends to be fairly simplistic—an author creates a work, and then you experience that work. This is a very modern point of view, and one which is largely possible due to the technological changes altering the way people experience culture. Recordings changed the usual mechanism from live performances into experiencing media in the home. A play is going to be at least slightly different each time it is performed, and every director will have a different vision.

Revised editions of works were common, even with novels, the most “authorial” of all media. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has multiple different versions, with later drafts incorporating more complex language and more overt references to Shelley’s personal life. This was still relevant even into the 20th century, as J.R.R. Tolkein and his editors altered The Hobbit in order to align it more with Lord Of The Rings.

Post-World War II culture has tended to be defined by this experiential model of media, thanks to the increasing popularity of recorded experience like films, albums, and novels whose future editions tended to only correct minor mistakes, instead of altering narrative. The Internet, however, started breaking this idea apart. Media has become increasingly participatory, from multiplayer games to fan remixes of songs and movies and rampant, communal speculation about television shows, often at least potentially read by the creators of those shows.

The idea that media and culture were primarily the works of strong authorial voices was a delusion of the late 20th century. That’s the delusion which insists that there’s suddenly a rash of remakes in Hollywood, apparently indicative of Hollywood now being devoid of creativity, even though remakes have been a staple of culture for centuries, and movies for decades. Stories have always been malleable, the result of a give and take between teller and listener. The mechanisms for how that give and take happens have changed and will continue to change.

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8. March, 2012, again

My first reaction to hearing about the “petition” was, like so many others’, disdain. Seriously? A petition to change a game’s ending? How ridiculous! But I’ve struggled with that ever since. This only get worse when BioWare releases a statement claiming they’ve heard gamers’ concerns, and are working on content that may address them.

Yes, I find the idea that gamers are trying to petition a new ending into Mass Effect III laughable. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that I can’t really figure out why this seems distressing. It’s not that they’re so upset about a story. After all, serialized stories can cause that. I’ve been there. I’d be delighted to see a non-terrible ending to Battlestar Galactica. And it’s not that fans haven’t taken the lead and aggressively (re)interpreted endings before.

Nor is it something new or extraordinary in media. It’s especially not something that makes games a less valid form of storytelling, or less worthy of being called (ugh!) “art”. Films have their Director’s Cuts and remakes, novels are edited and amended, and plays are constantly being reinterpreted and cut up according to each different director and production. Virtually any piece of media involves some level of compromise between a creator’s vision and a final product, especially a big-budget game like Mass Effect. And what’s happened to Star Wars since 1983 is a good reason to be wary of demanding that all such decisions should be in the author’s hands.

Videogames are in a unique position to adapt to changes. It’s demanded and even expected when it comes to gameplay systems, and it’s particularly easy to consider Mass Effect a game where narrative is part of the gameplay system. These changes have even been made before, in Fallout III, one of the Mass Effect series’ closest comparisons.

Perhaps the annoyance at the petition and BioWare’s caving to entitled gamer demands is the issue. But even that’s not right. The wording of this story has, naturally, tilted towards sensationalism. The “petition” is actually just a poll, being called a petition because that’s (clearly) an effective way to gain attention. And BioWare’s concession? It neither admits they did anything wrong, nor does it state anything other than that they have more content—to be downloadable for a fee—which may address some concerns. If only every time I “caved” in an argument I could make money off of it!

In the end, I’m left with no answers, only questions. The arguments being made about changing the ending of Mass Effect III, both for and against, almost all seem to interpret culture in a narrow and ahistorical fashion. The voices which are loudest and most certain inevitably seem to be the ones that frustrate me the most. But this isn’t actually a war, or a crisis, or anything inherently harmful (outside of some heightened emotions and dramatic overstatement). It’s the opportunity to discuss the nature of videogames, serialized storytelling, authorship, and fandom. It’s the chance to see conceptions of media and culture changing before our eyes, embracing and rejecting ideas both new and old.

Rowan Kaiser is a fashionably underemployed freelance writer living the San Francisco Bay Area, and has been published in The A.V. Club, Salon, The Escapist, Joystiq, and more. He tweets often @rowankaiser and blogs rarely at renaissancegamer.blogspot.com.

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