The Mass Effect 3 Controversy: One Year Later

For the benefit of those who have yet to complete Mass Effect 3, I have kept this article entirely spoiler free.

It’s been over a year since Bioware released Mass Effect 3 to the world, and in doing so they invited a firestorm of criticism from fans, critics and even the Better Business Bureau. If somehow you haven’t heard, the ending to Mass Effect 3 was vilified and hated by longtime fans of the franchise and they took to the Bioware forums to vent their hatred. In response Bioware released a special download called “the extended cut” which sought to improve the original ending by adding extra content to the original game. While the exact numbers are difficult to determine, I estimate that less than 50 percent of players are satisfied with the extended cut. Regardless of how anyone feels about Mass Effect 3, the release of the extended cut was an unprecedented event not only in gaming history, but in entertainment history. Never before had a product of entertainment been so swiftly altered in response to its fans. As someone who has invested hundreds of hours into each game, I think it’s long overdue that I talk about the controversy. I’m not going to talk about how Mass Effect 3 should have ended; I simply want to express how I feel about the controversy and more importantly what it says about the industry.

When I completed Mass Effect 3 for the first time, my initial response was confusion. I had heard a lot about the fan response to the ending but I hadn’t had anything spoiled for me. I asked myself “is this really what people are so mad about?” However over the next few days I slowly realized how unsatisfying the original ending was. Leading up to Mass Effect 3’s release, Bioware made a lot of claims about how the game would end. They promised multiple endings that were all different and that every question would be answered. These are just some of the many promises that original ending broke. For this reason, I think that the initial response to Mass Effect 3’s ending was justified (at least partially) based on the fact that Bioware blatantly lied to their customers. Then Bioware released the extended cut the following June, and I (for the most part) was satisfied with the new endings. I have absolutely no problem with people expressing their opinions but I noticed very quickly that on the topic of Mass Effect 3, I disagreed with a lot of people.

You are all entitled to expressing your own opinions (even if some of them are quite retarded)

One of Bioware’s responses to criticism of the original ending was that it fit their “artistic vision” of how they saw the Mass Effect trilogy. This one statement was probably the most mocked and ridiculed quote during the months following Mass Effect 3’s release. Fans believed that the idea of artistic vision meant nothing and that Bioware owed their fans an ending that they could appreciate. Looking back at this statement, I realize that hardly anyone understood what Bioware was trying to say and it saddens me because it’s symbolic of what is truly wrong with the video games industry: people who play video games.

Right now, video games are looked at as products of entertainment, as electronic toys.This limits what games can or can’t be and the reception to Mass Effect 3 is a prime example of this. Bioware sees themselves as artists, and art is an entirely subjective concept. You can’t assess the numerical value of art, you have to decide what it means on your own. Because art is subjective it means that not everyone is going to understand the meaning of a particular piece. A true artist knows that they have to stick with their instincts and create something that they are happy with. Bioware had an idea of how they wanted their game to end and expressed it.

Unfortunately players see Mass Effect 3 as a product that they purchased. Gamers are consumers who see themselves as consumers. People mocked Bioware for valuing “artistic vision” but I think that fans campaigned for an equally ridiculous concept called “product justice.” According to these people, all that matters is that any message the game delivers has to cater to the lowest common denominator. This means that anything that doesn’t make immediate sense is rejected and this is what happened to Mass Effect 3’s ending. I think very few people made an effort to understand what Bioware was trying to say. Most people rejected Bioware’s vision and claimed that they owed them a “good” ending.

The idea that Bioware “owe” their fans is nonsense to me. It’s true that Bioware misled customers and they were rightly criticized for this and probably lost a few fans because of their dishonesty. I draw the line at the fact that Bioware see themselves as artists and as artists they are entitled to write an ending that they are satisfied with. I think a lot of people missed the possibility that the ending that they wanted simply wasn’t one that Bioware would have been happy with. I get that people are going to disagree with this, that’s fine. It frustrates me however, when people mock an artist for standing behind their own decisions.

I see video games as a growing, fledgling art and I think that there is little merit in simply catering to your fans in comparison to an artist creating something that they are pleased with. I wouldn’t mind so much but this controversy affects the entire industry. The reaction to Mass Effect 3’s ending wasn’t just heard by Bioware, it was heard by every game developer. A message that told developers that if they don’t cater to everyone they will suffer the wrath of their own fanbase. This can only weaken the industry.

Just about every issue regarding the games industry that I’ve talked about on this blog stems from a mindset that this controversy reinforces. I think the Mass Effect 3 controversy was a step backwards for video games becoming an art. It’s true that gamers are not solely responsible for how games are perceived, but they are a significant part of it. To anyone reading this who plays video games, it might be time to ask yourself why you play them. To anyone who still hates Mass Effect 3’s ending one year later, if you haven’t already, it’s time to move on to something else. I think that games becoming an art benefits everyone who enjoys them, but if it’s going to happen it’s time that we grow up a little.

About Sam Hale

Autistic, young adult and lots on my mind.

Posted on March 28, 2013, in Editorials and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. I completely agree with you I have been with the mass effect series from the very beginning and I thought the end even though controversial was the right ending for the game. when people go into a art gallery and don’t like a painting the artist isnt going to change the same should have applied for mass effect 3. Throughout the game you felt the pressure that had been put upon shepherds shoulders and with each ally shepherd lost you knew it was leading to his ultimate sacrifice to save everybody and I think that’s what the people behind mass effect wanted you to experience.

  2. While I agree with your premise that games can (and probably should) be considered a form of art and I would never deny that an artist or game developer has a right to defend their work. For me the problem was not the quality of the work but rather its content. The ideas, questions, themes, etc that were presented in the endings felt very disconnected from the rest of the game. So while I do applaud the effort put into the extended cut and Bioware’s responsiveness, it didn’t fix anything from my point of view. The endings in their current state are simply inappropriate for Mass Effect and always will be.

  3. What about those who have just played through the game for the first time and find the ending to be horribly inadequate. The ending was completely phoned in and it was just lazy. Most people have moved on and have forgotten about it. I had just played though the Trilogy and I had heard about the ending controversy. So, I knew that the ending was going to be bad and I still do not feel I was prepared enough for that level of terrible.

  4. I don’t have to respect a racist parable that celebrates collateral genocide, unethical human experimentation and slavery/autocracy…

  5. Mass Effect Fan

    Bullshit. The Mass Effect 3 ending was not art. It was horrible. There was art in Mass Effect 3, no doubt. But it was not in the ending. This has nothing to do with “catering to all fans”. It has something to do with making a truely artistic piece, and I am all for that. Video Games must be recognized as an art form, but Mass Effect 3’s ending, and everyone supporting it, is jeopardizing this. So thank you, you idiots!

  6. I think the problem with the “artistic integrity” argument was that their artistic vision was stupid, badly-written, and violated central themes of the series.

    More to the point, Mass Effect was, in essence, commissioned art. We, as consumers, paid BioWare for their art, with certain expectations attached to that payment. When art is commissioned, the artist accepts that they have to meet the demands of whoever’s giving them money. With ME3’s ending, they did not meet those demands.

    The other problem was the fact that Casey and Mac didn’t bother getting any feedback on what they’d written for the ending. This is something that most art does. Books, movies, TV shows – they all have someone reviewing it and editing it before it’s finalized. ME3’s ending didn’t have that. And books, movies and TV shows make changes based on feedback from editors or audiences.

    There’s also the fact that BioWare is a company that tries hard to make their fans feel like a part of the creative process. They’re not trying to make their games in a vacuum. They want to know what the fans want. Tali and Garrus became romance options based on audience feedback, for example. For the ending, though, they largely ignored what their fans wanted. And have continued to ignore what their fans wanted.

    EDI’s cameltoe also casts their “artistic integrity” claim in a questionable light.

    And honestly, the Extended Cut – for all that it didn’t do what it should’ve done – was at least a step in the right direction. They didn’t make the changes they should’ve – specifically, removing that stupid, stupid Star Brat – but they made an effort. They tried to listen to their fans. When gaming companies show a willingness to listen to their fans, that’s a Good Thing. It doesn’t make them any less valid of being seen as art, any more than cinema is less valid art because some movies change the endings based on focus groups, or books are less valid art because changes are made by an editor.

    For that matter, there’s a difference between an arthouse film and a blockbuster movie. The blockbuster can have a totally valid artistic message, but in the end, it’s still about giving the audience what it wants. The arthouse film can appeal to a wide audience, but it’s largely about the message. Different expectations for different audiences. Mass Effect is a blockbuster. It’s Star Wars. It’s The Avengers. It’s big and exciting. Other games are doing the arthouse thing. Those ones are expected to hold true to their artistic visions, because that’s what’s important to that game. Something like Mass Effect is expected to cater to its audience, because that’s why the Mass Effect games were made in the first place, was to appeal to a wide audience who wanted to shoot things and zoom around the galaxy sleeping with blue space babes.

  7. I think a lot of people who reacted to the A, B, C, ending thing have it wrong. I personally see the entire game as the ending, and previous choices affect how the game as a whole plays out. From big things like what Cerberus did with the Collector Base (human Reaper at their HQ), as well as little choices such as a side quest which had something to do with Asari writings came up as a dialogue option. Or a random couple that I helped during the first game showed up on the Citadel (Family Matters mission)

    It specifically states previous choices affect how the game as a whole plays out. Or previous choices affect the war, not the ending. The war against the Reapers is essentially the entire third game. Even, the pre-release statements said something about the game being an all-out galactic war.

    The ending you get is based on your EMS, which fluctuates based on choices. I’d say they lived up to that promise. Just, people were expecting their choices to manifest themselves in the final minutes and have a different ending for each individual choice. If anyone who paid attention during the game, previous choices affected the game as a whole.

    I honestly don’t get the whole “choices don’t matter” argument. The ending may be similar, but the game as a whole can play out very differently, so it’s not the same exact story.

    At any rate, going back to my example, if you just played Mass Effect 3 with no importing, certain characters won’t show up (eg. Miranda, Wrex, etc, will be presumed dead by default. I haven’t tested this, but they won’t show up if you didn’t play Mass Effect 2 or if Miranda didn’t survive the suicide mission, so it’s a different story). Your EMS will also be extremely low, and so you won’t get to unlock the secret ending which requires the most EMS, because your EMS isn’t high enough.

    I was then greeted by a post that said “finally, someone who understands just how this game trilogy is supposed to work”. A lot of people I talked to said “the entire game can’t be the ending” or “I expected an ending for every choice, or 16 different endings, even though there are technically 25 different endings based on EMS. Visually they look similar, but thematically and the implications of each choice are not the same. Say, destroying Reapers, controlling or synthezing with Reapers may look the same visually, but controlling Reapers is not the same as destroying Reapers. That’s what they mean when the endings are thematically different.

    At the end of the day, I still find it sad that people are still going on about this. Sooner or later, people have to accept it and move on. Otherwise they are going to be trapped in an endless cycle that may affect their real life stuff.

    As for listening to the fans, when they made EC for the fans, they were disappointed. Same with the fans specifically asking for an Omega DLC and the fans following up with stuff such as “this thing wasn’t very good”. So, they listened, and the fans were disappointed.

    Thing is though, there is a lot more fans out there than on Twitter, Facebook, or any social site, such as Youtube or their own forums. Probably people who play the game and never talk to them about what they want. So the vocal fans aren’t the only ones they should listen to. I guess the silent ones would vote with their wallets if there was an issue.

    As for the ending still not making sense, it only doesn’t make sense if people take it literally. The devs said it is a non-literal ending. As in what happened may not have been what actually happened during the last 20 minutes. Some may call it a dream, hallucination. I personally see it as an internal mind battle or a virtual world concept built by the Reapers. This has been foreshadowed since the first game. This is not some new concept that just chalked up in the last 20 minutes as some see it. When asked about this ending theory, the devs said, “we want the content to speak for itself”. Speak for itself? As in it doesn’t need an explanation, that it was meant to be pretty obvious that’s what the ending was supposed to be.

    This whole sequence has been in place since last summer, so that’s more than enough time to change it if they needed to.

    Regarding closure for everyone. Even TV shows that I’ve spent 200 episodes watching only wrapped up what happens to the main character. In Mass Effect’s case, that would be Shepard. They do not show how every character you met along the way lived happily ever after.

    As for not answering every question, some fans that weren’t extremely vocal outside of maybe a blog post stated that they liked the idea of not spelling out everything and the idea of a vague ending was a good idea. Sci-fi unlike fantasy doesn’t wrap up every single question. They leave some stuff open to interpretation and the readers imagination.

  8. I don’t have a problem with Bioware having an artistic vision–that’s part of what I play games for, after all, to see someone else’s vision. The problem arises when the work is shoddy or ill-crafted. Just as we can malign a film or novel for being poorly constructed, we can malign games in the same way.

    I have problems with Mass Effect 3 from a narrative standpoint. Though it may have been the creators’ vision (well, not the creators’, since the original team behind the genesis of Mass Effect was gone), they manifested that vision poorly and amateurishly.

    After masterpieces like Baldur’s Gate 2 and Dragon Age: Origins (and I would argue that Mass Effect 2 is nearly there, as well), I expected much better from Bioware than what we got out of Mass Effect 3. The ending is the most problematic example of the game’s haphazard construction, but there are plenty of other examples as well. The narrative as a whole is really full of problems.

  9. Sorry, but you’re completely off-the-mark with this. Bioware were, and are, entitled to execute whatever artistic vision they so desire. Their ‘vision’ of Mass Effect 3’s ending. however, was ill-conceived, unoriginal, poorly-written and completely at odds with everything that came before it – a vague, lazy mish-mash of metaphysical double-talk masquerading as high art. *That* is what people took issue with. The criticisms were not borne out of some sense of ‘entitlement’, but merely out of disappointment with an objectively rushed and sub-standard piece of work. The bottom-line is this – the game needed another year of development. There’s really no more to it than that.

  10. Ending doesn’t make sense? Watch this:

    Ending is fine. The answers to explain it have been in the game since day 1. It just wasn’t spoon-fed to people.

    They created an ending that made you think and was not easy to understand. They did what we all want developers to do all the time: they didn’t pander to the lowest common denominator intellect level. There was subtle cues from Mass Effect 1-3 leading up to the ending.

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