In an open letter to the Mass Effect 3 community, posted on BioWare’s blog earlier today, Dr. Muzyka offered an apparent olive branch to members of the Mass Effect community who are upset about the ending of the game. Whether this is an actual or a perceived branch is debatable. Just so that my personal biases are clear from the outset, I admit to cynicism regarding the contents of any corporate communication intended for public consumption and hearty skepticism for the rest. For the present, though, it says what it says and its true meaning will become clear in time.
(*Ahem* – tap, tap – is this thing on? OK, we’re good)
As co-founder and GM of BioWare, I’m very proud of the ME3 team; I personally believe Mass Effect 3 is the best work we’ve yet created. So, it’s incredibly painful to receive feedback from our core fans that the game’s endings were not up to their expectations. Our first instinct is to defend our work and point to the high ratings offered by critics – but out of respect to our fans, we need to accept the criticism and feedback with humility.
I’m among those critics who lauded the game itself (you can read my review a bit farther down the page). It really is an awesome game and I was very impressed with some of the improvements from previous games. I was less thrilled with other “improvements”, but accept them in the same way that I accepted Skyrim’s reworking of some of the older Elder Scrolls mechanics. I might not like it, but when looked at in light of overall developer intent, there is at least a modicum of sense to it.
I believe passionately that games are an art form, and that the power of our medium flows from our audience, who are deeply involved in how the story unfolds, and who have the uncontested right to provide constructive criticism. At the same time, I also believe in and support the artistic choices made by the development team. The team and I have been thinking hard about how to best address the comments on ME3’s endings from players, while still maintaining the artistic integrity of the game.
I mostly agree. Games are an art and good games border on genius. The amount of time and effort required to visually present an engaging digital story (and Mass Effect has been a VERY engaging story) rivals and potentially exceeds the amount of time and effort required to produce a fully cinematic story, minus the union headaches, diva stars, and catering bills. Pixels and bits pretty much do as they’re told without much complaint or comment. And, indeed, the necessary level of audience engagement with that story far exceeds that required or expected of movies, where the audience need only be passive observers. Gamers must actively engage with the story in order to drive it forward, and this is especially true of RPGs. No active engagement, no game because “who cares?”.
At the same time, the question of artistic integrity is vitally relevant. No one in their right mind would dream of asking, much less demanding, that Shakespeare change the ending to “Hamlet”, even though it is among the most tragic in literature. Its ending works within the context of the play. But what happens when the ending not only does not work, but does not work in a piece that requires active engagement with the characters rather than passive observation? What happens when a developer, at the very end of a trilogy of excellent games, violates Chekov’s rule (that would be Anton, not Pavel): if you’re going to pull a gun out of a desk in Act III, you make sure that it goes into the desk in Act I. I think Aristotle made a similar observation (minus the gun, of course) in the Poetics, but am too lazy to go verify at this late hour. Perhaps my memory on that point is accurate, perhaps not.
Hamlet’s end, though tragic, came as no great surprise to its audience. Laertes and Claudius discuss their plans and methodology in great detail on multiple occasions so the audience knows what is coming. While the audience might pull for Hamlet to foil or avoid their plans, his failure to do so is not unexpected, but merely sad. Heroically sad, perhaps, but sad nonetheless. The same cannot be said for Mass Effect 3.
Mass Effect 3 concludes a trilogy with so much player control and ownership of the story that it was hard for us to predict the range of emotions players would feel when they finished playing through it. The journey you undertake in Mass Effect provokes an intense range of highly personal emotions in the player; even so, the passionate reaction of some of our most loyal players to the current endings in Mass Effect 3 is something that has genuinely surprised us. This is an issue we care about deeply, and we will respond to it in a fair and timely way. We’re already working hard to do that.
As I said in an earlier post, I have no problem with throwing myself on my sword if it fits with the rest of the story. I might rant and rail about the unfairness of it all, but if I played the game the way the developers intended, then I should get the conclusion I have been led to believe was coming and a conclusion in keeping with the way I played.
There is an old saying that you don’t bring a knife to a gunfight. If I knowingly did that, then I should get what I deserve. But when the developers repeatedly tell me that the Crucible is the only hope against the Reapers, that they cannot be defeated by conventional means, that I need the galaxy working together so that it can do its job, and I do exactly that, then I also have a reasonable expectation that this will turn out to be true and in the way that I have been led to believe.
I should not be told at the last minute, after all of my forces have been recruited, assembled, brought to bear and committed, that everything I thought I knew was wrong. That might be almost acceptable in some comic space opera kind of villain rant just before he gets run through by someone I had previously believed to be dead. But that is not the kind of game that Mass Effect has been, so is it any surprise to find that I am upset by the last minute change up? I’ve run into that sort of writing before. The difference is that it showed up in a cheap paperback and could be tossed at a cost of a handful of dollars and an hour or less of my time. I do not expect this from a $70 game after 30-odd hours of my time.
To that end, since the game launched, the team has been poring over everything they can find about reactions to the game – industry press, forums, Facebook, and Twitter, just to name a few. The Mass Effect team, like other teams across the BioWare Label within EA, consists of passionate people who work hard for the love of creating experiences that excite and delight our fans. I’m honored to work with them because they have the courage and strength to respond to constructive feedback.
Building on their research, Exec Producer Casey Hudson and 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.
If we’re back to the artistic integrity issue, and if the team absolutely must have its due on that point, then I’m in favor of something like the “Indoctrination Theory” being declared canon. It lets the team retain credit and integrity for what has already been produced with a “ha, ha, fooled you” as a springboard to a more acceptable ending. I think I’d be outraged to be charged good money for such a resolution, but it would be infinitely better than what we’ve got now.
I recognize and accept that Shepard’s story needs to end with ME3. I knew that going in. Do I demand that my Shepard get “bunnies and rainbows”? No, although a well-earned retirement wouldn’t be a bad thing. Under some rather bizarre circumstances, I could even see Shepard taking the human seat on the council. Considering Shepard’s views on the usefulness of politicians as a source of high-quality fertilizer, there might also be a lot of dead alien councilors in that future, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility or believability. But this whole, “in order to keep you from being destroyed by synthetics, we’re going to use synthetics to destroy you” line of reasoning is absurd to the point of farcical. And let’s not even get into the whole synthesis thing. If that was such a viable option, why does it only show up in the last five minutes of the game? We’re back to the problem of Chekov’s gun.
The reaction to the release of Mass Effect 3 has been unprecedented. On one hand, some of our loyal fans are passionately expressing their displeasure about how their game concluded; we care about this feedback, and we’re planning to directly address it. However, most folks appear to agree that the game as a whole is exceptional, with more than 75 critics giving it a perfect review score and a review average in the mid-90s. Net, I’m proud of the team, but we can and must always strive to do better.
Is it so hard to believe that a great game can have a lousy ending? Give the team all of the credit that they are due. Have pride in them. They made an awesome game. It’s engaging, it’s fun to play, it’s funny, it has many poignant moments, it’s bittersweet, it’s great – except for those last few minutes. It’s not unbelievable that a team can play a great game and fumble it away in the last few seconds. It doesn’t happen often, but it happens. Unlike football, though, a fumbled video game ending can be fixed. The only questions are whether it will be fixed and how any such fix will be distributed.
Some of the criticism that has been delivered in the heat of passion by our most ardent fans, even if founded on valid principles, such as seeking more clarity to questions or looking for more closure, for example – has unfortunately become destructive rather than constructive. We listen and will respond to constructive criticism, but much as we will not tolerate individual attacks on our team members, we will not support or respond to destructive commentary.
If you are a Mass Effect fan and have input for the team – we respect your opinion and want to hear it. We’re committed to address your constructive feedback as best we can. In return, I’d ask that you help us do that by supporting what I truly believe is the best game BioWare has yet crafted. I urge you to do your own research: play the game, finish it and tell us what you think. Tell your friends if you feel it’s a good game as a whole. Trust that we are doing our damndest, as always, to address your feedback. As artists, we care about our fans deeply and we appreciate your support.
Thank you for your feedback – we are listening.
I appreciate that you are listening and considering what I (and other fans) have to say. I feel that I have always been clear that the game is awesome and that my displeasure lies with the ending. If I have failed in that regard, then mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. I have no specific ending in mind. The series has always been about choices, actions and consequences. The only expectation that I have ever had in that regard is that the ending match the choices I’ve made and the actions I’ve taken over the course of the three games. The current ending does not.
I’d love to be able to purchase and play additional content. But with the ending as it is, what’s the point? Life as we know it in the Mass Effect universe is over. It doesn’t matter what kind of new weapons I can uncover, it doesn’t matter how many more forces I can recruit, it doesn’t matter if there is some previously unknown cache of ancient technology waiting to be discovered, it doesn’t matter if there is a set of Horse Armor big enough for the Normandy. Assuming that the ending means precisely what it shows, the only solution to the Reapers is the collapse and destruction of civilization as we have come to know it in the Mass Effect universe. I have been fighting against exactly that ending for three games now and to have it forced on me in spite of every choice I’ve made over three games is just galling to the point of insult.
The only thing I’m asking is that the development team provide an ending that makes sense in light of everything that I’ve done up to this point. As things currently stand, it does not. I’m not sure that clarification of the current ending would be satisfactory, either. There is altogether too much that just appears out of the blue for any amount of exposition to be able to explain it all away in any manner that wouldn’t come off as contrived and an insult to my intelligence.