All of This Has Happened Before

by Dan H

Dan Suddenly Remembers What Mass Effect Reminds Him Of
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So yes. Mass Effect 3, endings, outcry, backlash, dickhead games journalists talking about how the little people just don't understand, two halfway decent points and a lot of absurd crap talked about how nobody is allowed to criticise a work of fiction because that denies the power of the author.

There's a lot of blame being flung around. A lot of people are angry at Bioware, even more people are angry at EA. I am only partly joking when I say that I put a large part of the blame on Action Mode – a lot of the problems with the game, particularly the ending, seem to come from a game purportedly about choice being designed such that the choices can be turned off without any great impact.

More and more, though, I've had the nagging sensation that Mass Effect 3, the reaction to it, and Bioware in general were beginning to remind me of something I had seen before. Somewhere in another cycle perhaps, between the rise of synthetic life and the coming of the Reapers. Finally, I worked out what it was – Bioware was slowly turning into White Wolf Game Studio, and the CRPG industry in general was going through the same trends as the late-nineties pen-and-paper RPG industry, with all the same unhelpful nonsense.

Because everything goes in cycles, do you see.

The Impossible Thing

Back in the late 1990s the rhetoric of storytelling in RPGs was more or less dominated by the likes of White Wolf Game Studio. White Wolf Game Studio (now, bizarrely, owned by the guys behind Eve Online) traded on a rather one-sided interpretation of the history of the hobby, which insisted that in the Dark Days of D&D RPGs were all hack-and-slash bloodfests, but now they were all about Story and Themes and stuff. Their “Storyteller” games were very much designed to be run by an auteur GM (or “Storyteller”) who was very much encouraged to railroad the players through a prewritten plot in the name of serious mature storytelling (this is a slightly unfair characterisation of the company, but only slightly). WWGS are still going, and as I discovered when I dipped into their New World of Darkness line, they are still basically peddling the same ideas.

One of the major criticisms of WWGS, and the consensus they managed to build in the late nineties was something that indie-RPG pundits (like Ron “Other People's Games Cause Brain Damage” Edwards) described as “the impossible thing to believe before breakfast.” I've got a very ambivalent attitude towards Ol' Ronnie, and think he was basically wrong about most things, but the “Impossible Thing” is actually quite a useful concept.

The Impossible Thing is this: that it is simultaneously possible for the GM to control the story, and for the players to meaningfully be the protagonists of the same story. This is bound up in a certain amount of lit-theory handwaving (or the kind of lit-theory handwaving that you get from science graduates) about what it means to be a “formal protagonist” but the central premise is quite sound. Insofar as the story is driven by the decisions of the protagonist, the protagonist can only be truly player-controlled insofar as their decisions are allowed to shape the story.

Now since computers can't improvise, the Impossible Thing is rather more of a problem in a CRPG. It's easy (okay, perhaps not easy, but not a technological problem) for a human GM to respond dynamically to the player, whereas in a video game anything a player might want to do has to be foreseen and allowed for in advance. If a player creates their own story in a video game, it is a story that occurs entirely in their head, built from elements contained in the game, rather than one which is delivered through cutscenes and dialogue trees. And this in turn can cause dissonance, because the story the player thinks they're telling might not be a story that can ultimately exist in the game.

The first two Mass Effect games held the Impossible Thing at bay by preserving the illusion that the player's actions were truly shaping the story (not the world – that's a different thing). The story of a Shepherd who faithfully follows the Council and seeks to do what is best for the Galaxy is fundamentally different to the story of a Shepherd who hangs up on the Council and only gives a crap about humans. The illusion began to fall apart in Mass Effect 3, when it became clear that whatever happened, this was going to have to be a story about a Shepherd who unites the Galaxy and sacrifices him/herself for the greater good.

The Limits of the Medium

You could make the case, of course, that this is somewhat inevitable. A video game is prewritten, players ultimately can't change the story in the ways they can in a tabletop game.

Except they kind of can.

Bioware has, on occasion, done this very, very right. In Knights of the Old Republic your entire plot arc comes down to one single choice: do you become Darth Revan again, or do you not. This choice changes nothing in the entire game (and even, arguably, wipes most of the consequences of your LS/DS choices – it doesn't matter how many puppies you hugged once you decide that you're damned well going to rule the galaxy), you get a different ending cutscene, different dialogue with Malak, and you fight different people but the Star Forge sequence plays out pretty much exactly the same. And it doesn't matter one bit, because that one decision completely changes the nature of the story. The story of a Sith Lord who is redeemed is very different from the story of a Sith Lord who reclaims his power, and that one decision allows you to own the story as much as you ever reasonably could. It doesn't matter that there are only two options because for pity's sake it's Star Wars and “Light Side/Dark Side” is the only option you could possibly want.

(Ironically, I should say that I found that all the stuff Obsidian and Bioware did with Revan at a later date actually did undermine my sense of ownership – the Revan I played wasn't “neither Jedi nor Sith,” she was Sith through and through, and when the Jedi tried to break her she broke them right back, but that interpretation of the character is no longer really supported).

Torment illustrates this even more clearly. The plot of the game is totally linear but you are give a lot of freedom to decide what it means to be the Nameless One. The game asks “What Can Change the Nature of a Man?” and it leaves it to you to decide the answer.

Giving players ownership of the story – making them as close to being “formal protagonists”, as Ron Edwards would put it, as the medium will allow – doesn't require you to script boatloads of extra content or record masses of voice acting. It just requires you to let the player decide what the story means. And you can do that with a single choice, and you don't even need to script it (in Choice of the Dragon the choice a lot of people found most important was the option to choose your sex and the sex of your partner, neither of which were actually recorded by the game at all).

But what you do have to do – and what I suspect is harder for a lot of game designers – is let go of your ego.

The Face of the Enemy

The problem that White Wolf had in the late nineties, and the problem that I think Bioware have now, is that they view the interactive nature of RPGs as a problem to be solved, rather than a feature to be exploited. To put it another way, they seem to see players as the enemy.

Now as it happens, I don't support the “Change the Ending Now” lobby – I generally think that once something is in the public domain there's no sense in trying to change it. Changing the ending now doesn't do me and Kyra any good, because we got the original ending anyway, and we're not going to replay the game just to see what gets fixed in DLC. That said, I'm amazed at the number of internet pundits who are freaking out at the very idea that something as sacred as an Author might be asked to change something as immutable as a Story at the whim of something as unworthy as Players. I don't think I've seen anybody call it censorship yet, but give it time, everything is censorship on the internet.

The “The Ending Must Never Be Changed” faction seem to take it as axiomatic that Stories are pure, singular entities created by a single Author (even when that Author is a massive team of writers working for a games company, I suppose this is another good example of what we mean when we say a company constitutes a “corporate person”) and that the sole function of a Story is to convey the Vision of the Author to the Audience. This is, of course, bollocks. Not only is the discourse of CRPG design rehashing ideas that tabletop RPGs were sorting out a decade ago, it's getting stuck on concepts that conventional literary theory got past halfway through the last century.

Indeed ironically the argument so many people are using in favour of the Ending being the Immutable Word of the Author-God is exactly the argument that Roger Ebert used to explain why video games would never be art – a Story, they say, is a specific sequence of events and it ends how it ends, and to change it would lessen the Author's Vision and compromise his Artistic Integrity. This attitude is – of course – completely incompatible with an interactive medium.

This is why I found the ending so annoying. It's not that it was downbeat, I love downbeat. It's not that it was ambiguous, I love ambiguous too. It's that it completely changed the role of the player from “active participant” to “passive recipient.” Yes, you get to pick one of three endings, but they're all stupid, and the logic behind them is stupid, and they're arbitrary. And I absolutely see what the final cutscene was supposed to do – it was supposed to end the game on a note of rebirth and regeneration, of new hope and new beginnings. But by giving us one cutscene, Bioware denied us the opportunity to give our game its own meaning. It doesn't matter what your Shepherd was like, it always ends on a bright new day dawning over a lush, idyllic world. Even if I was a mass-murdering shit.

The problem isn't really that we don't get to control what happens, the problem is that we don't get to decide what it means.

The overwhelming feeling I get from the ending of ME3 (aside from the suspicion that it was set up to allow people who played the “Action” mode to get the same endings at the people who played the regular mode) was that it was a genuine, good faith attempt to craft a real and satisfying conclusion to the story of Commander Shepherd. The problem is that it was an attempt to craft a real and satisfying conclusion to the story of Commander Shepherd as it was imagined by Bioware, and it denies the existence of the stories created by everybody else. The end of a story is often the hardest part to write at the best of times, but in an interactive medium endings become doubly dangerous. Not only is there a risk of their being ordinarily bad, there is the powerful temptation to turn an ending into a conclusion, and a conclusion by its nature defines the story that went before it.

Up until the final moment, Mass Effect Three could have been about a vast number of things. It could have been about idealism versus pragmatism, nationalism versus internationalism, unity versus self-interest, conflict versus reconciliation, or even – if you wanted – about organic versus synthetic life. The final moment, though, strips away all of the other possible interpretations and makes it a game about one thing and one thing only, about an inevitable conflict between synthetic and organic life, and about the necessity for a dramatic solution to that conflict, either in the form of the Reapers, or the the form of Synthesis. The ending removes all textual support for any reading of the game other than this rather tedious one.

Casey Hudson has stated that the “controversy” caused by the ending was intentional because they wanted an ending that would be memorable, and that would create discussion. I believe him, and I also believe that this is completely the wrong way to create an ending for an interactive narrative. Players shouldn't be debating the meaning of the ending of a video game, because they should already feel that they know what the ending means, because they will have chosen its meaning.

The original Mass Effect creates this sense of ownership extremely well. Nobody debated the meaning of the end of the first game, because they knew exactly what it meant. It meant that humanity had to stop thinking only of itself and become part of the galaxy. Or it meant that humanity had to look after itself because no other bugger would do it. Or it meant that even in the face of chaos, ruthless people seek their own advantage. Or it meant that in the face of a terrible enemy, sacrifices had to be made for victory, even to the extent of sacrificing civilian leaders. Or it meant that in the face of a terrible enemy, sacrifices had to be made for victory, even to the extent of risking everything to protect your civilian leaders. Everybody knew what the choice was, and everybody knew why they made it, and everybody got exactly the answer they wanted because it was an answer they created themselves.

The Protest

So people are yelling for the ending to be changed. In large numbers. Casey Hudson say this is because the ending is “polarising” although as we've discussed in the comments of other articles, it really isn't. A lot of people are utterly outraged by this suggestion (this is a typical example) – no matter how bad the ending is, they say, it can not be changed because then it would no longer be Bioware's story. Then it would no longer match their creative vision

This, more than anything else, is the problem with the ending of Mass Effect 3.

“This” in this context being “the fact that the vast majority of people in the games industry have ludicrous out of date notions about the nature of texts.”

Long-time followers of Ferretbrain might remember our podcast about Anonymous in which Kyra explained at some length that the British obsession with the “real” Shakespeare is stupid and nonsensical because Shakespeare is only interesting at all because of the texts he created. Hamlet is Hamlet whether it was written by a glovemaker, a duke, a time-traveller or an alien. Similarly, Mass Effect is Mass Effect whether its ending was written by “Bioware” (which again, is apparently a single person capable of having “vision”) or by five hundred randoms from the internet. It is never remotely useful, helpful or meaningful to ask how a text reflects the intentions of its creator, because the creator is nobody. Or if you prefer, everybody. Man.

People On The Internet seem genuinely offended by the idea that Bioware might change the ending (the probably won't, and I really don't care if they do). The consensus, even amongst people who agree the ending sucked goat dick, seems to be that it is better to have a stupid ending that stays “true to Bioware's vision” than a good ending that may not. This is an attitude which I cannot even begin to fathom. I don't mind people liking the ending and defending it on its merits, but I can't wrap my head around people who hated the ending believing it should be protected because it's “Bioware's story.” About two minutes ago I was reading a comment on kotaku from somebody who claimed that they “didn't like the ending” but thought it shouldn't be changed because it had “depth and cognitive impact.” I don't even know how to parse that idea – how can you at once believe something has “depth and cognitive impact” and also dislike it? Isn't that like hating a book for being too well written?

There's an episode of the West Wing in which Bartlett complains that the American People will always support the rich over the poor, because they are all dreaming of the day when they themselves will be rich. I rather think the same is true of the attitude the games industry has to writers and game designers. People freak out at the idea of Authors being asked to surrender creative control to mere Readers because they are all busy dreaming of the days when they will be Authors, and they will create Art which will channel their Ideas direct and unpolluted to the waiting minds of their Audience. The idea that – when that day comes – the Audience may not respect the absolute necessity of all of their artistic decisions clearly fills these people with dread.

Indeed the driving force behind all of this seems to be fear of engagement with the audience. Bioware gave their game a near-as-dammit non-interactive ending because they were afraid to just let go. They did so damned well for two and a half games at letting you make Shepherd your own, but at the end they forced you down a single road. In the final moments of the game, there is no option to sacrifice the Aliens for the good of Humanity, or to side with the Illusive Man, there is no possibility of failure no matter how few War Assets you have built up (which at least means that you actually aren't forced to play multiplayer).

Mass Effect 3 is set up specifically to give everybody who plays the game the same experience, because that is clearly how Bioware – hell, the whole freaking games industry, if the backlash against the change-the-ending campaign is anything to go by – thinks that art is supposed to work. Even in an interactive medium.

After the credits, we see a short cutscene, set some unspecified length of time later, in which Buzz Aldrin is telling a child about the events you have just played through, and the trilogy ends with the child asking to be told “one more story about the Shepherd.”

If you played default Shephard this makes perfect sense, because Shepherd is a noble man who sacrificed himself to save the galaxy, but for anybody who made any effort to make their character their own it's completely absurd. “Daddy daddy, tell me the story of how Shepherd lied to his friends and doomed the Quarians to extinction!” “Daddy, tell me the story of how Shepherd had a lesbian affair with her Coms Officer!” If your Shepherd was a hero, it's fine, if your Shepherd was a borderline sociopath suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, not so much.

The tragedy of Mass Effect 3 is that, having seen everything Bioware have said since, they seem to have deliberately decided to limit the influence the player could have over their game experience. I don't believe it was interference from EA, I just think they decided that they wanted to make damned sure that everybody experienced the story of Commander Shepherd they way that the designers intend. Because games are all about the designer's creative vision.

Perhaps we should all have just sucked it up, and played the damned thing on Action Mode.
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