False Entitlement and Narrative in Gaming

When I started posting again, I did so with the intention of keeping this site updated with regular, consistent content. That lasted all of a few weeks- though I’ve actually a valid reason for my lack of activity. See, towards the beginning of February, I came down with a rather nasty throat infection. I’m an insomniac. A plethora of personal problems also decided that this would be an opportune moment to rear their ugly heads.

Surely you can put two and two together, no?

Suffice it to say, that thoroughly unfortunate combination hit with all the force of a nuclear holocaust, effectively disabling all creative faculties for several weeks as I struggled to pull my mind out of its viral mire. It took all of my effort just to complete my paying articles, let alone any of my pieces on the side. Ah, but you’re not here for excuses. You’re here to read- and read, you shall.

I’ll start by saying that this post contains spoilers about the ending of Mass Effect 3. You have been warned- continue at your own risk.

It was a long journey. Five years, and countless hours spent in front of my TV; the soft hum of my 360 my only companion. It had its ups and downs. Sometimes, there were plot-holes. Occasionally, there were inconsistencies. But as a whole, the journey was a brilliant one. I loved the rich, storied universe Bioware created, I enjoyed the fleshed-out, personable cast of characters more than anything else; watching them interact with one another and listening to their conversations with Shepard was half the reason I played the games- and I know I’m not alone in that.

For five years, I watched the galaxy shape and meld itself based on my Shepard’s decisions. For five years, I saw that my actions and choices had consequences, that my decisions actually mattered in the long run. Then, in less than ten minutes, Bioware drunkenly dashed those delusions (for indeed, delusions they now seem to be) against a stone.

I’d gathered the entire galaxy to my side. I’d fought through countless mechanical abominations, as the largest fleet ever known fought a grim battle in the skies above a ruined Earth. I’d united races that none thought could ever be united, brought peace to centuries-long conflicts, brought an end to eons of animosity. My Shepard had done the impossible, and was set to do it again.

I reach endgame. We activate the crucible. I’m given the illusion of three choices- none of which are actually choices at all, in the long run- more on that in a moment. I’m given a reason for the Reaper’s motivations, that falls undeniably flat. It’s not alien. It’s not terrible. It’s not incomprehensible. I’m not told about how their empires once spanned the stars, or how they are so far above us. That they are as our gods, and we are but ants. Instead, it’s explained to me in a few phrases.

To me, it’s something that a pre-schooler could understand. Strike one.

The whole ending seemed vaguely familiar, but I couldn't quite put my finger on why.

The spoilers begin here. Highlight to see them. 

I make my choice. The Mass Effect Relays explode. The Normandy explodes and crash-lands on an unknown world. Operatic music plays, as the camera pans out and shows a chain reaction throughout the galaxy. Crew members that I know to be dead get out of the Normandy and look around- my love interest, who died with me on the final mission, squints up at the sun. A sickening feeling wrenches my gut.

It’s stock footage.

The credits roll. I stare in disbelief at my television. After the credits, I’m treated to a scene with a grandfather and his child, speaking about “The Shepard.” The voice acting is so horrendously bad that I have to wonder for a moment if I’m still listening to professionals. Afterward, I’m given some cloying line about how I can continue the “Legend of Shepard” through downloadable content. Shepard’s standing in front of the Galaxy Map in the Normandy,  just before the final mission. 

Maybe, I think, they’re not all like that. Maybe I got a bad ending. Maybe there’s something better. I take to YouTube, and watch the alternate choices. They’re all nearly identical. Virtually the only thing that changes is the color of the explosion at the end. Thoroughly disheartened, I turn off my 360, and stagger upstairs to bed.

“Entitlement” 

One of the few articles I’ve found that doesn’t outright insult anyone who wants the ending modified is by one Erik Kain of Forbes. I’ve talked of him before, if memory serves. Much of what I say will be in agreement with his piece on the matter.

Entitlement has taken on a very negative stigma in recent days, and seems more and more to be applied to gamers in a derogatory fashion. To be fair, unwarranted self-importance is not in short supply on the Internet, and there’s a lot of people who think they deserve more than they do.

I’ll readily admit it- there are some entitled, whinging little brats who should probably be kept away digital interaction until they’re mature enough to hold a civil conversation. But we’re getting a tough off track.

We’re talking about ME3’s ending. Truth be told; I actually didn’t mind the concept. I saw what they were going for- what they wanted it to be. I get it- they wanted people to talk about what might have happened. To discuss the metaphorical underpinnings, to puzzle over what became of the galaxy. They wanted speculation. Their plan might have actually worked if they’d put a bit more effort into things.

As it was, what they actually accomplished with it was a completely different can of worms. It felt poorly executed. It felt rushed. It felt uninspired.

The fact is, in light of the game’s conclusion, none of our choices mattered- things ultimately turn out near to the same no matter what you do, so long as you have enough war assets. All those civilizations you rebuilt? you don’t get to see where they go and what they do. All those people you formed relationships with? You have no idea what happens to them. All those difficult choices you made, those do-or-die situations you resolved? Swept quietly under the rug. They spent the whole franchise, the whole epic story, giving us choice after choice, and showing us the results, and then, right at the end….

Congratulations! You get a -red- explosion!

They took them all away.

Look, I’ll level with you guys. I wasn’t expecting a happy ending. This is a god damned apocalypse. The Reapers have already ended trillions of lives. By the time the game’s conclusion rolls around, the entire universe is a hairs breadth from total annihilation. A truly saccharine ending in such a situation would seem grossly out of place.

What I wanted was an ending that was…well, actually an ending.

After a five year, choice-driven experience, after pouring millions of dollars into their franchise, you’d think Bioware- a developer known for its writing– could do better.  Consumers purchased this game with expectation that they’d be able to make meaningful choices with real consequences, just like the other titles in the series. They went in expecting the same attention to detail that they were treated to in other titles. What they got, was…well…that.

Many journalists are trumpeting  like irate elephants that anyone who feels that they should have gotten more from the ending is just entitled, and should simply “suck it up.” At best, they’re arrogant and patronizing. At worst, they’re outright hostile. Ultimately, it appears that many of them feel the gamers they write to to be little more than a sub-species of humanity. Reading the responses to the fan uproar, it becomes abundantly clear which personalities actually respect their readers.

Ah, but we’re getting off track again.

Pic related.

To those who feel that the ending’s fine as it is, I’ve a simple allegory. A young man is eating a jar of Nutella (for those of you who don’t know, it’s hazelnut spread, and it’s one of the best condiments I’ve ever encountered). It’s one of the best jars of Nutella he’s ever had. Every spoon-full, from start to finish, is pure ecstasy. Then, he gets to the bottom…and he finds a dead mouse. Should he just “suck it up?” After all, he enjoyed the jar up until he found that mouse, didn’t he?

It’s not a perfect allegory, but it will suffice, because at the end of the day…that’s what Mass Effect 3’s ending ultimately is-a dead mouse at the bottom of a hypothetical Nutella jar.

I’ll try to make you folks understand this a little better with yet another hypothetical tale- how would you feel if J.K. Rowling ended the last book in the Harry Potter series with Harry just…flying off before the final confrontation with Voldemort? What about if J.R.R. Tolkien ended Lord of The Rings at the Gates of Mordor?  You’d be pretty irritated, wouldn’t you? Would requesting that the authors change their endings be entitled? Would feeling like you wasted your money make you a brat?

Of course, there are some key differences between the aforementioned mediums and a video game. Changing the ending of a television or book series is tough- not only could that compromise the entire narrative, not only might it undermine the original idea of the creators; the logistics of rewriting everything are staggering, at best.

While artistic integrity and completeness of narrative are still valid concerns in terms of video games, there are a few key differences.

Narrative and Choice

The first problem is, gaming’s interactive. It’s engaging on an entirely different level from reading a book, or watching television. In a series like Mass Effect, a story-driven experience that centers on player choice, a game where you can create your character and unleash them in your world…people invest more than just cash. They invest time. They invest emotion. They invest themselves, more than they ever would watching some actor on the silver screen or reading a book about some awesome space captain.

They engage. It’s not just a developer’s story anymore- it’s their story. Their characters don’t belong to the author, they’re a part of the player’s own epic tale. When things don’t go as expected, when the conclusion to a series of events ends up letting them down, they feel cheated. They feel slighted.

That goes double for games like Mass Effect. 

The narrative of Bioware’s style of games tends to be more complex- if only structurally- than other narratives, since it allows for player choice. Think about how Die Hard would have looked if you created John Mccain, and controlled how he reacted throughout the films. Consider how Eddard Stark in Game of Thrones would have changed the story; indeed, the entire series, if he were player-created and player-controlled; part of a video game world rather than a written epic. This is the essential difference we’re addressing here- choice

A story for such a game has to be written with player choice in mind. If I’m designing a D&D campaign, I have to account for what the players will do. I can’t simply belch out a story and keep them on the rails. That’s shoddy work, and it’s not fair to them in the least. And that’s what it feels like Bioware did with this ending- got lazy, and locked players into a railroad.

It’s great that they’ve responded. It’s great that they’re listening to fans, and trying to figure out a way to make a new ending; one which will make everybody happy.  It’s over, right? Everything’s okay now?

No, not exactly.  A lot is riding on what Bioware does next- they’re on thin ice. If they manage to release an ending that makes the fans happy and preserves the artistic integrity of the game’s original message, great. But if they botch the ending, they either lose the respect of their fans, or lose the respect of their fellow developers/writers.

Neither one is a path Bioware wants to tread.

I’ve nattered on enough for now. We’ll revisit this later in the week, to examine what Bioware stands to gain- and the industry stands to lose- as a result of changing the ending.

Image Credits: Moddb, Giantbomb, CGHub

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