First Person

First Person
Who Really Owns Mass Effect 3?

Dennis C. Scimeca | 30 Mar 2012 19:10
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This article contains spoilers for Mass Effect 3.

The question of ownership is central to understanding the controversy over Mass Effect 3's ending. Fan requests for a new ending are being met with the declaration that Mass Effect belongs to BioWare, such that artistic integrity trumps all. I think that statement depends on a traditional understanding of the player's role in videogames, which may no longer apply in this case. The players who are upset about the ending have accepted the primacy of Mass Effect 3's narrative over its mechanics. They are acting primarily as an editor does in a film production, and film is a collaborative effort.

The fashion in which we're processing the experience of Mass Effect 3 is framed almost exclusively by drawing comparisons to media outside the realm of videogames. We've used the endings of Lost and The Sopranos as context. We've talked about the finale of the most recent Battlestar Galactica television series. This video critique borrows from the method Red Letter Media used to deconstruct Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. This post by Doyce Alan Testerman uses The Lord of the Rings as a metaphor to explain why people have issues with the ending of Mass Effect 3.

All of these analyses have absolutely nothing to do with videogames, yet they function as basis for discussion of Mass Effect 3. BioWare didn't create a videogame with a cinematic narrative attached. Mass Effect 3 is a movie with a videogame attached. The story of the franchise has always been one of questioning genre definitions, and now the primacy of Mass Effect 3's cinematic narrative has trumped the primacy of its game mechanics. It's telling that our discussion and understanding of Mass Effect 3 pretty much ignores traditional mechanics at this point.

Screenwriters pen the script for a film but when the actors and director are on set, sometimes new possibilities occur for how to play the scene. If it works, directors may go with it. They shoot the take just so they have the option at the editing table. When BioWare produces cinematics to support various choices, they're creating different takes of a scene. BioWare's dialogue wheel is the editing table, and it lies in the hands of the player, not BioWare. The final construction of the narrative is collaborative, not dictated.

While I personally agree with criticisms that the end of Mass Effect 3 changes the central conflict of the series, ignores the importance of the player's relationship to the other characters, and introduces a choice whose consequences are never adequately explained to the player before they have to make it, I don't think it's reasonable to suggest BioWare ought to delete everything that takes place after Commander Shepard rides the magic elevator at the end. That would be, in film terms, a massive reshoot.

Reshoots add significant cost. They require logistical juggling that can set back the entire production of a film by screwing up a tight schedule, i.e. when the production has to be off certain sets and when certain assets are available. Even as a critic who thinks the end of Mass Effect 3 is an abomination, I do not support the idea of asking for its complete deletion. That's an investment of time and money that represents an undue demand on BioWare. Asking for an additional take, however, is reasonable if we as editors determine that the existing footage just isn't working with the rest of the film.

Last night I played through all three endings of Mass Effect 3 to decide if any of them might fit with the narrative I've edited together. They don't, because my Shepard would tell the Catalyst to go fuck itself. My Shepard would not play along with any of the three choices offered to her, because they all result in the destruction of the galactic society she has been fighting so hard to save. She has every War Asset prepped. She has made peace between the Turians and the Krogan, and the Quarians and the Geth. Her story is one of doing everything possible to keep the galaxy intact, and she's smart enough to know she can have her way.

There's a road map for an ending which does make sense to my Commander Shepard. The overarching narrative of the television series Babylon 5 concerns two ancient species, the vorlons and the shadows, who influence younger species to guide their development. When the conflict between the vorlons and shadows erupts into open warfare, with entire planets being destroyed in the crossfire, the younger races of the galaxy band together. They confront the combined vorlon and shadow fleets gathered for an apocalyptic final battle and the hero of the story, Captain John Sheridan, literally tells the two ancient species to "Get the hell out of our galaxy!"

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