During an appearance on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” for the 20th anniversary of his play Angels in America, Tony Kushner let slip a detail of the “very specific sense” he had about what happened to Joe Pitt—one of the play’s central characters that disappears very ambiguously from the story’s end. Neal Conan, the show’s host, must have realized the incredible opportunity he had in the studio with him—a rockstar writer was dishing out spoilers about his most famous work. Running out of time for the segment, he asked Kushner to stay on after the break. When they came back, you could hear the thrill in Conan’s voice (keep in mind this is NPR) as he asked, “So what happened?”
“Oh, well, I don’t—I’m sorry,” Kushner responded, flustered. “I didn’t know you’re extending the segment just so that I would say that. I actually won’t tell you.”
This moment came to mind frequently this week as BioWare, the studio behind Mass Effect, the legendary sci-fi epic of videogames, prevaricated on the furious demands of pissed-off gamers shouting through all corners of the internet for blood. The problem? It wasn’t the game wasn’t good—almost everyone agreed that the final act in their classic trilogy was a perfection of a form for which they had been striving since Mass Effect was first released in 2007. No, all the anger was with the final five minutes of a series that takes well over 100 hours to complete. Gamers and critics chafed at the ambiguity, the sudden lack of choice, the varying degrees of irreversible tragedy. Over those hundred-plus hours it had become their story—so why couldn’t it end the way they wanted?
Like a lot of writers playing Mass Effect 3, I received a review copy that could not import any settings from the previous games. And in my rush to finish it, I ended with what YouTube tells me is the worst possible ending. I was struck with moments of overpowering indignation—choices I had labored over in the previous two titles were suddenly erased, and I was forced to deal with a much less charismatic and organized Shepard than I had hoped. [spoilers] People didn’t trust him. I destroyed entire civilizations in my blundering attempts to make peace. And at the end, even though I had won the war, everyone was dead.
It was a strange feeling of impotence, one that forced me to quit the game in frustration rather than face the difficult choices ahead of me, and well up with tears uncontrollably as I saw characters I had knew and loved look at me with confused non-recognition as I sent them to their deaths. But ultimately it showed me the brilliance of BioWare’s final act, the plunge they were never willing to make in the first two games. In a war as extreme as the one fought in Mass Effect 3, death is a fact. To pretend otherwise, as I had in the last two games, was a bizarre and destructive form of self-denial.
For a studio with a long line of stellar titles (Baldur’s Gate, one of BioWare’s first games, is widely regarded as one the most influential role-playing games in the history of the form), BioWare sure takes a lot of flack. The first Mass Effect gained notoriety when conservative pundits said it was little more than interactive porn. Dragon Age did pretty well for itself. But then Dragon Age II was panned by critics and fans as being little more than a mash-up of the original game’s universe with the rigid combat stylings of Mass Effect 2. The Florida Family Association recently charged the company with bowing to LGBT activists in their new MMO Star Wars: The Old Republic. Their drafted letter of protest warned that this bacchanalian orgy of tranarchists might soon spawn a new queer menace: Darth RuPaula.
But the criticism over the allegedly abrupt ending came from a different group. This time, the game’s most ardent fans were the ones getting mad. And boy, did they get mad. They started a charity petition called “Retake Mass Effect.” It raised over $40,000 in its first day. They wrote angry emails, letters, and tweets. They posted assiduously on Bioware’s forums. They successfully petitioned Amazon to offer partial refunds to players who were “not satisfied with the quality of Mass Effect 3.”
BioWare at first remained firm in its stance. The series’ long-time creative director Casey Hudson said last Tuesday that the ambiguity of the ending was “part of what’s exciting about this story,” hoping that it would be something that “people can talk about after the fact.” Then, little more than a week later, they buckled under the mounting pressure. On Wednesday, Bioware’s co-founder Dr. Ray Muzyka posted a letter to Mass Effect 3 players on Bioware’s blog. Writing with the war-weariness of Commander Shepard himself, he began, “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.
“To that end, 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.
So, Bioware gave in. But did everybody get what they wanted? Did anybody? Almost immediately, Twitter exploded in a new challenge: Bioware was sacrificing any modicum of artistic integrity it had for a bunch of angry nerds! “For SHAME, BioWare,” Justin McElroy of Vox Games wrote after hearing the news. “Caving to the internet is like negotiating with terrorists. It just makes it harder for the next guy.” “It’s not about which ending we get,” an aspiring game designer wrote to Stephen Totilo of Kotaku (one of BioWare’s staunchest defenders on this issue), “it’s about the total disrespect and destruction of the artistic integrity of gaming’s best.” Some twenty minutes after his first tweet of dissent, McElroy followed with a more invasive attack against the developer: “This shouldn’t be a surprise, Mass Effect 3 constantly puts fan service ahead of plausibility and narrative momentum.”
There’s a sense in statements like these that videogames have now paved the way for a new and terrible bastardization of art as we know it. But is any of this really unique? When novels were serialized, writers like Dickens and Dostoevsky frequently changed their writing in service of their publisher’s whims for want of easy cash (probably in Dostoevsky’s case, given his crippling gambling addiction) or critical esteem. Hollywood films and television shows have are often as rigorously examined as political candidates thanks to a revolution in focus testing in 1978. Endings in literature and film are no more clear-cut, and they always bother people. Die-hard Matrix fans were up in arms over the philosophical oddities and deliberate ambiguities of each successive chapter. And even the most passionate Lord of the Rings fan yawned at least once during The Return of the King‘s saga of a completionist ending.
Casey Hudson sounded like Tony Kushner last week. What happened in time between then and Muzyka’s apparent abdication? In a certain way, BioWare had already doomed itself to lose this fight. Speaking about the game, its designers and writers highlight player choice as the game’s core value. As Mac Walters explained to me, his guiding question was always “who is my Shepard?” They talk up player agency so much you almost start to forget that compared to a giant sandbox of a game like Skyrim or Minecraft, Mass Effect 3 is still rather limiting. “Each decision you make could have devastating and deadly consequences,” the box reads in promotional hyperbole. A friend joked that the game’s name should really be Choice Effect 3: Galaxy of Choices.
But there’s a deeper story here than whether or not BioWare did the right thing. What the Mass Effect 3 furor shows more than anything is the growing tension between two distinct forces within gaming that is finally erupting. Choice, whether or not it’s genuine, empowers people. And empower them is exactly what BioWare told its fans it would do.
The internet recently flexed its political muscles in the battle over the SOPA/PIPA legislation. And by most accounts, it won. Gamers are particularly adept at using these new tools to their advantage. Last November, fans of Uncharted successfully petitioned the game’s developer to change the gunplay mechanics they didn’t like. The crowd-sourcing platform Kickstarter, meanwhile, is giving communities of fans and followers power to directly shape the success of their favorite projects independently of the usual financial strife and internal politics of the game industry. Gamers, essentially, have taken the lesson of “player agency” to heart in more ways than the game industry probably wanted.
All of this is met with excited predictions that online movements will finally turn the AAA game space away from the geezerly, profoundly risk-averse behemoth many fear it has become. It’s certainly going to do something. But it’s hard to say what that will be.
“Game designers need stronger identities,” Jamin Warren argued in a recent essay. These recent protests (if we can truly call them that) show that gamers do too. Rather than seeing the creation of art as a zero-sum game, a contest fought between these two ill-defined forces, the furor over Mass Effect needs to be understood like any form of popular culture. That is to say, it should be seen as a vibrant piece of that very culture. And for videogames, this is still very much a culture groping for its own boundaries. Mutual antagonism can only risk cultural stagnation.
What stopped Tony Kushner from spilling the beans on NPR wasn’t just some vindictive urge to tease his fans. He even admitted during the talk that he briefly had a fantasy of continuing to write episodic content for Angels. What he was ultimately saying was this: the play ended. He had a time when he thought it would be his only defining work. But he realized an important part of his evolution as an artist: he needed to move on. I can’t say whether the new ending of Mass Effect 3 is good or bad, but I can guarantee that it will make someone very angry. Like Kushner, BioWare needs to move on. Even more so, its fans do.
The point that all these angry gamers seem to miss is that if this Shepard truly is yours, and thus your story is whatever happens to Shepard as he cavorts around space, his death is the ending of that story. And [spoiler] he does die. There’s no way to bring him back, very few ways to save him.
But that flies in the face of the gaming’s ultimate lie, its final and most transcendent flight of fancy. You play games because your character doesn’t die just once, or twice, or even an infinite number of times. No matter how bruised and bloodied, he gets back up and keeps fighting.
So why, after all the inherent solipsism and self-aggrandizement of role-playing, does death suddenly have to be so real? Maybe that is the most profoundly human, the most eerily artistic part of Mass Effect 3: the shocking irrelevance of Commander Shepard’s life following his death. “Nothing that literature contrives, after all,” Jack Miles once wrote, “is so artificial as its endings.”