Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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New England Gamer
March 2012


To some degree at least, I am a writer.

It's ironically one of the things about me that has been most consistent. From about the first grade on I've been jotting things down (with gradually improving spelling and grammar), and told people proudly that someday I wanted to be a writer. There was a brief time in the second grade that I wanted to build robots, and during my high school years I had visions of myself as the front man of a 1980s metal band, but through all of those flights of fancy, my desire to put pen to paper has remained consistent and strong.

It's not an easy thing to do. As cliché as it sounds, you put a lot of yourself into the words you write, something evidenced to me by the fact that some of the best regarded pieces I've written, here and otherwise, have been things that incorporated my own personal experiences, stories, and insecurities. I can tell you that there have been occasions where I've almost considered not submitting an article or sharing a story because it delved into parts of myself that I wasn't quite comfortable venting to the world.

Criticism, in turn, can be one of the scariest and most painful things a writer goes through. Take all those fears about exposing your work to the world and then imagine someone coming back and pointing out the mistakes you made. "Your comma usage sucks." "This article blows." "This guy has no idea what he's talking about!" I've heard countless professional writers talk about the necessity of tuning out those negative voices, but it's something I have yet to master. It's hard and no matter the level of your talent (mine being exceptional, of course), it hurts.

It's for this reason that I have a lot of sympathy for Bioware.

One of the most talented game development studios of our time, Bioware released Mass Effect 3, arguably their magnum opus, earlier this month. Capping off the incredibly highly regarded Mass Effect series, it wouldn't be too far off to call it one of the most highly anticipated games of the last ten years. It was a title of unparalleled ambition; incorporating two prior games worth of player-choice driven narrative into a finale that tied up all of the loose ends and brought to a close a franchise that, in many ways had become as important to gamers as Star Wars was to film.

And people hated it.

Well, the ending at least. The general consensus amongst many hardcore fans has been that until the last ten minutes the game is an absolute masterpiece. It's just absolutely powerful, painting a picture of a total galactic war that feels serious and poignant. I've played games in the past that have elicited an emotional reaction, but this would be the first game that I would say outright moved me.

Then, in the last ten minutes, it completely switches gears. It's the equivalent of if, at the end of Star Wars, instead of Luke destroying the Death Star he's pulled out of the battle by God and told to pick a button to determine the fate of the universe. It's unsatisfying, contradicts established story points and lore, and just leaves you feeling empty inside.

Suffice it to say, fans weren't happy. Bioware's official forums exploded with angry conversation about the ending. Some went so (too) far as to harass Bioware employees. Others even established petitions and charities with the aim of raising awareness about the ending and hopefully convincing Bioware to change it. One customer actually attempted to report Bioware to the FTC for false advertising.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are people -- many of them gaming journalists -- who find it outrageous that consumers, who didn't lift a finger to make the Mass Effect games, would even suggest that its creators should change the ending just because the fans don't like. Some have compared to changing the Mona Lisa because you don't like her smile. Others have simply looked at dissenters and stamped them with the increasingly popular label of "entitled."

I stand somewhere in the middle.

I will confess that my initial reaction to the game's ending was the complete and utter rage that many felt. I never agreed (and will never support) with the harassment of Bioware and its employees, but I still watched with relish as fan efforts organized and began petitioning Bioware for a change. I was disappointed, and not in a "the store was out of Cake Batter ice cream" sort of way. I felt betrayed; like the dozens of hours I'd spent playing the three games and the emotional investment I had in the characters and choices were all wasted.

Because despite what some have said in the game's defense, the ending to a story does matter and a horrible ending can ruin an otherwise fantastic experience. It doesn't have to (Bioshock was a great game with a bad ending), but under the right circumstances a last minute narrative misstep can invalidate everything else that's happened. For instance, I might have called The Life of David Gale a solidly made movie until the twist that takes place in the last thirty seconds of the movie. Such is the case with the ending of Mass Effect 3.

And while I would agree that many fans have overreacted in their response to the ending, I would say that many of Bioware's supporters have succumbed to similar kneejerk reactions; albeit for the opposite reason.

After two weeks of debate and controversy, the heads of Bioware announced that more content was coming that would "[provide] more clarity for those seeking further closure to their journey." At once there was a chorus of people proclaiming that Bioware had set a dangerous precedent that had forever doomed creative freedom in video games. The same people, who had days before trumpeted Bioware's freedom to choose their own ending, revolted when Bioware supposedly "caved in." Never mind that "providing clarity" is hardly akin to changing the ending.

No one held a gun on the Bioware staff and told them they had to change the ending. It was a choice they made for themselves. The fact that their fan base was in a state of outrage may have worried them, but it wouldn't be the first time a popular franchise had fallen under the gloom of unhappy fans (cough Star Wars cough) without the creators cracking. And even if Bioware did break down under the pressure, who's to say that means anyone else has to do the same in the future? Why are the actions of one developer the end-all-be-all of the storytelling in video games?

Add in the fact that it seems more and more likely that Bioware had something else planned all along and the entire controversy seems even sillier. Granted, the creators of Mass Effect probably didn't want their game to be lambasted the way it has been, but the more people delve into what actually happens at the end of the game and the more they look at Bioware's own comments on the subject, the more it seems like they intended the ending to be incomplete with the intention of continuing the game via downloadable content later on down the road. If this winds up being the case then not only will a fair segment of the gaming community have made asses out of themselves, but they'll have done so in the name of something that wasn't an issue at all to begin with.

Even so, it will do little to quell the turmoil. In fact, such a revelation would likely only fan the flames even further as fans will suddenly be able to angrily say that Bioware (or more likely, their publisher Electronic Arts) intentionally sold an incomplete game because they knew people would buy whatever they put out afterward to find out what really happened. For many, it will be the moral equivalent of selling someone a book and on the last page telling them they need to give you another dollar before they can know how it ends.

It's not a good position to be in for Bioware, but the way things look, there isn't a good position left for them coming out of this controversy. Whether they've the scorn or not, there is a portion of their once dedicated fanbase that will never trust them again. It's a shame because Bioware is genuinely one of the most talented development studious out there. They're one of the few developers that truly understand the importance of good writing, and at the end of the day Mass Effect 3 was still a fantastic game. To have peaked on such a high note wouldn't be a bad thing. It's just sad that the note has been so off-key for so many.

Read more by Stewart Shearer

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