Will there ever be a BioWare video game that doesn’t stir up controversy? Usually it’s sex – the first Mass Effect game raised eyebrows for being, as Fox News absurdly put it, “Debbie Does Dallas meets Luke Skywalker,” while Dragon Age: Origins provoked similar reactions with its hot elf-on-elf action. Now, with Mass Effect 3, it’s not sex that’s the problem, it’s the ending.
BioWare co-founder Ray Muzyka on Wednesday issued an apology for the ending (there’s actually a few possible ones that are slightly different from each other) and tacitly promised some sort of downloadable fix in the near future:
The team are hard at work on a number of game content initiatives that will help answer the questions, providing more clarity for those seeking further closure to their journey. You’ll hear more on this in April. We’re working hard to maintain the right balance between the artistic integrity of the original story while addressing the fan feedback we’ve received. This is in addition to our existing plan to continue providing new Mass Effect content and new full games, so rest assured that your journey in the Mass Effect universe can, and will, continue.
The apology comes after a host of complaints surfaced online through various fora. Fans were generally upset that the science-fiction trilogy ended on a bittersweet note, and that there wasn’t enough closure for some of the characters.
I’m not going to spoil the ending, but I will say that after playing the game through twice, I couldn’t disagree more with the complaints. I gave Mass Effect 3 a full five-out-of-five stars, since it was as perfect a game as I’ve played. As I said in my review, the game is great because – aside from stellar graphics, sound and gameplay – it requires players to make difficult moral choices that have direct repercussions on the characters and story. Many games try to do this, but they usually do so in a hamfisted, one-choice-is-good, the-other-is-evil kind of way.
The moral choices in Mass Effect games have purposely been more grey, which is how they’ve stood apart from the rest. While most “mature” games are rated so because they contain swearing or gore, Mass Effect 3 truly is a game that appeals to “mature” gamers, which is ironically something I wrote about not too long ago.
As for the finale, I like anything that isn’t a typically schlocky Hollywood happy ending, or an obvious set-up for yet another sequel (a problem that’s endemic in many big-budget movies and games).
With fiction and entertainment being what they are, there’s no way a particular work is going to please everybody. This is especially true for a video game that is customized by each player’s choices, which is something Muzyka addressed in his apology.
In the case of Mass Effect 3, which shipped 3.5 million copies for launch, it’s safe to assume the thousands of online complaints represented only a small percentage of players. The vast majority either liked the ending(s) just fine, or were satisfied with the game overall that it didn’t work them up into a frothing lather.
It’s too early to condemn BioWare’s decision to alter the ending, since it’s not yet known if that’s what is planned, but it does look like something of this sort is going to happen. If so, it’ll be too bad because it’ll set the industry back in its ongoing quest to have its products accepted as art.
After all, how many painters go back and retouch their work after people complain about it (“I like it, but does it come in purple”)? Put another way, a closer comparison might be Battlestar Galactica, the fantastic sci-fi series that also ended on a bittersweet note that many fans similarly panned. Executive producer Ron Moore didn’t go back and redo the finale in response to critics. Heck, even George Lucas didn’t axe the universally reviled Jar Jar Binks from The Phantom Menace in one of his umpteen recuts of that movie.
It can be argued that video games are different; that the player is included in the creation of the art because they’re interactive. That’s true in some circumstances but not in the case of narrative-driven games such as Mass Effect. As advanced and open-ended as games have become in general, story-heavy ones do still have to follow the scripted rules of the technology that powers them, at least for now. Players are presented the illusion of creating the story, but in the end the technology limits the possible outcomes. The art of Mass Effect, therefore, is almost all BioWare’s.
By apologizing and promising some sort of fix to please a small percentage of players, BioWare is trying to avoid having Mass Effect 3 become known as the “game with a bad ending,” and the hit to further sales that would mean. In any regard, the studio is placing commerce above art. Now the question is: will the updated content be given to the players who want it for free, or will BioWare try and sell it to them?