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In ‘Mass Effect 3’, Do the Means Justify the Ends?

“Does the ends justify the means?” is often referenced ethical theory in popular culture but when it comes to the ending of the much loved and criticized Mass Effect saga it might be more appropriate to ask “Do the means justify the ends?”

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Although Mass Effect 3 received critical praise across the board from video game critics and journalists alike, it experienced a backlash from fans (or a subset of fans) immediately upon release.The outrage led to blog postings, forum flame wars, YouTube videos well thought out and poor. One of the most thought provoking videos was a 39 min mini-documentary detailing the popular fan-created “Indoctrination Theory” created byMrBtongue. While MrBtongue addresses a lot of fallacies and narrative oversights BioWare seemed to blunder in the final moments of the game, the argument results in little more than conspiracy theory. And like all conspiracy theories, if you listen to them long enough they start to sound plausible. Then a group of outraged fans dubbing themselves The Mass Effect Community created the “Take Back Mass Effect 3” campaign demanding a new ending(s) to their beloved franchise. With over 4000 contributors, 25000 likes on Facebook, and 3000 fans on Twitter the campaign raised 80000 dollars for the Child’s Play charity.

So why such outrage and action? Game endings have been criticized before but never to this extreme. The arguments spawned from criticism of the 2-3 endings offered. Most commonly, fans felt the three options didn’t represent what “their” Shepard would really do. All of the endings resulted in the death of Commander Shepard, the space marine that the player has been guiding through three games and approximately 90 hours or more. The theme behind the game play of Mass Effect series is, choice. Your Shepard is customizable and like snow flakes each one is different. BioWare constantly reassures fans that there is no canon to the Mass Effect universe. Your choices create the action and the consequences thereafter. Mass Effect is the ultimate choose your own adventure. Another common criticism was with the inconsistencies of the final moments. Sometimes squad members would have died in the endgame and be seen exiting a ship later or shipmates who were on the Earth’s surface with you are shown suddenly escaping with Joker aboard the Normandy. And fans wanted closure and an epilogue to explain what happened to the characters they grew to love. It is possible to see where these fans are coming from. They are emotionally invested in the characters, the world. They have spent possibly hundreds of dollars on the franchise and they felt cheated. But are they really entitled to feel this way? Critics and journalists began to refer to the protesters as “entitled.” The argument became framed as, artwork isn’t simply changed because fans don’t approve. Manet didn’t change his classic painting Olympia because the public thought it was vulgar. George Lucas didn’t remake Star Wars: Episode I because nobody liked it (although that remains to be seen).

This opens up another debate to whether video games can be considered art or not. Roger Ebert, for one, was under the staunch belief that they could not, although he may have changed his tune. On the other hand, The Smithsonian recently opened the exhibition “The Art of Video Games.” I’m not going to to argue whether video games are art or not. That is part of a much bigger discussion. But what does come into question is what is the nature of video games? Video games were originally created as entertainment, a distraction, usually geared toward nerdy white males. Somewhere along the line they were marketed as children’s entertainment in spite of the content of the game. Nowadays games are prevalent in all parts of our culture. The first generation raised on video games has grown up and they do not intend to stop playing or grow out of it. That aside aside, games are an interactive medium. Unlike film, theater, or viewing art in a museum, video games were meant to be played with. Video games are often compared to film and there are some similarities. They both use visuals to convey a narrative. Audio and visuals work in tandem to direct the gaze and emotion. They are both also viewed on a screen of varying size. However, this is where the similarities end. Film, like theater, like traditional art, is passive. They are spectator sports. The creator is in complete control of your experience. The audience is a passive viewer with nothing to add to the experience. Games can possibly be more accurately compared to books. Games and books stimulate the mind and imagination of the player/reader, forcing them to think. The player/reader is actively engaged with the experience and is not a bystander. Where games differ from all mediums is interactivity. While reading activates parts of the brain the book is still written. There is an author. Nothing the reader can do will change the outcome of the story, unless said story is a choose your own adventure. Games are different every time you play. They are designed with boundaries in place but within these boundaries there are countless outcomes of game play, of course this differs from genre to genre and game to game. Where the designers of Mass Effect hit a wall is trying to end a game based on the accumulation of all the player’s personal choices within the confines of finality. All things must come to an end and after an end, there can be no more choice. It’s a game designer’s conundrum.

With a medium based completely on interactivity between games and players is it surprising that players would eventually demand interactivity from games studios?
The situation can be looked at from different angles. If video games are art, then by the conventions set up throughout history, the ending to Mass Effect 3 should not be changed. If video games are simply a product, toys, it can be argued that there is no issue with changing the ending to Mass Effect 3. Again, I am not here to debate what art is. And whether video games are to be compared to art or not is irrelevant. The video game industry is still in it’s infancy compared to theater, books, and film, and video games have always played by their own rules. Content, up until recently, was diverse and often quirky to even personal. When no one is paying attention designers have the most freedom. Even marketing, pricing, and game communities developed on their own, without the influence of the mainstream, also until recently. Is player/designer interactivity really a bad thing? If players influence the outcomes of what games will become and are produced will they be any less palatable? The answer to these questions are unforeseeable but are of concern. BioWare may have set a bad precedent with creating the Mass Effect 3: Extended Cut. BioWare didn’t completely cave in to the Take Back Mass Effect campaign but seemed to compromise. BioWare promised that they wouldn’t change the ending but would add an epilogue for clarity, although BioWare did add one option, the choice of not to choose. Are we looking at the future of video game development. Like test audiences for film, the masses are not always right. It will remain to be seen.

What the Take Back Mass Effectors missed, in all of their gripping glory, was the point. Games have never been about endings but the experience. When Mario finally rescued Princess Toadstool in the final castle, was it satisfying? When you beat the end of Street Fighter 2, were those few still frames of revenge glorifying? Even Bioshock, one of the best games of this generation, had a rather less than satisfying ending. While Bioshock presented two endings based on your moral choices, neither was particularly appeasing. In the end did the Take Back Mass Effectors get what they wanted, no. Because everyone’s story is different, no fixed number of endings would ever satisfy everyone. Did BioWare achieve what they wanted, maybe. They claim to read all constructive feedback from their fans and consider it while creating their games. This is apparent in the Mass Effect 3: Extended Cut. However, it’s important to remember that games, like life, are about the journey not the destination. This is not to say that game designers and writers should not explore ways to make video game endings more meaningful and impactful, it’s just that gamers should focus on what makes games great in the first place.