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!”
My Commander Shepard would point out to the Catalyst that synthetics and organics were working together to fight the Reapers. She would point out that in her cycle the Geth were dealt with, and in the previous cycle the Protheans had dealt with their own problems with synthetic life and maintained the balance themselves (Javik tells this story in the “From Ashes” DLC). My Shepard would refute the Catalyst’s bad solution to a nonexistent problem, and is smart enough to realize that any species which has the insane technology to build devices like the Citadel, and the mass relays, and the Reapers is also smart enough to know how to turn off some, not all, of that system. She would tell the Catalyst to destroy the Reapers and then get the hell out of her way.
Maybe this option would only be open to players who have maximum Reputation, who have earned the Achievement for getting the preponderance of War Assets ready before the final battle, who saved the krogan from the genophage and made peace between the quarians and the geth. Maybe this is a meta-choice only available to players who have clearly laid the foundation for it, the same way only players with enough Paragon or Renegade points can make certain, other choices during the three games.
I might feel arrogant proffering this idea if I didn’t feel BioWare had disrespected the intelligence of their audience by leaving such gaping holes in the plot. I’ll address only one specifically: There’s an energy beam that Shepard can throw herself into, in order to synthesize all organic and synthetic life into a new paradigm. Why didn’t the species that made the Reapers just grab an organic, throw in the same sorts of cybernetics Shepard has (an easy feat if they can build the entire mass relay system and the Citadel) and then toss their guinea pig into the beam and create this synthesis themselves? If their goal was to end the cycle of organic and synthetic conflict, that’d do the trick, wouldn’t it?
I’m down with a weird ending if it makes sense in the context of the narrative. 2001: A Space Odyssey has one of the most bizarre endings I’ve ever seen, but it’s supported by the narrative and the tone of the rest of the film. I’m down with a sad ending if it folds into the narrative properly. I love the ending of Glory even though every character I care about gets slaughtered. But all three, current endings of Mass Effect 3 don’t hold up to even the most surface-level analysis. BioWare made the same mistake M. Night Shayalaman continues to make over and over again, throwing in a high-concept ending for the explicit purpose of trying to shock the audience.
BioWare can give some of their editors the footage they need to complete the story those editors chose to splice together, up until the point of penultimate decision. A fourth option is a professional, respectful compromise, not bowing to a mob. The existing endings would stand for anyone who wants them, and the experiences of those players would be honored and protected. BioWare saves face, any reasonable option to complain melts away, and the industry learns a valuable lesson: If you’re going to make a blockbuster Hollywood movie with a videogame attached to it whereby you nominate the players as your editing staff, commit to your decision. Understand what it means to make the player the editor, and give them the raw materials they need to cover all the angles like a good director would.
I think it’s worth giving up a little creative control to maintain the positive experience Mass Effect was up until its very end, rather than having it collapse into a divisive, angry spectacle. That’s not what I want to remember when I look back at the series twenty years from now. A compromise might turn this into a story of understanding the collaborative potential of videogames, and that’s what we’ll remember.
Image courtesy of Kate Cox.
First Person is a weekly column by Boston, MA-based freelancer Dennis Scimeca. You can read some of his other musings on his blog punchingsnakes.com, or follow his random excitations on Twitter: @DennisScimeca.