Friday, 16 March 2012

Mass Effect 3 endings: Questions better than answers?

As I explained in my last post, I've not really done anything film related over the past week due to the release of Mass Effect 3 - a sci-fi video game which concludes an epic trilogy which started in 2007 and has taken me (something like) a combined 100+ hours to complete. I've finished it now and, in lieu of anything filmy to talk about, I thought I'd share some of my thoughts on it here. Well, not so much on the game itself: mostly I wanted to talk about the furore surrounding the game's controversial ending.

I won't explain in any depth why the ending(s) is so controversial. After all, two smart chaps at Game Front have already done that over two incredibly comprehensive pieces in the last few days (see HERE and HERE), and whilst I don't agree with all of their points, they certainly make a very good case for the idea that the story's climax is - at the very best - flawed. (Though, for what it's worth, I think they overstate the amount of genuine "choice" and "freedom" present over the rest of the trilogy, with player choices always simplistic, binary and of little meaningful consequence even before this supremely botched conclusion. For instance the decision of whether to sacrifice Kaiden or Ashley in the closing hours of the first game was completely superficial, seeing as how both characters go on to perform the exact same role, speak the same dialogue, and make the same decisions.)

Anyway, the reason I bring this up on my film blog is that their main gripe ties into something I've wondered about for a long time, concerning whether it is better for a narrative to conclude with questions or answers. Director Terry Gilliam's passionate avocation of the innate superiority of the former has long been an influence on me. Here he explains (correctly) why Spielberg is less good/interesting than Kubrick, but much more popular:

In what can only be perceived as a slap in the face of Gilliam, a complaint the writers of these Mass Effect articles make - and one which is echoed in the substantial comments threads below both pieces - is that the story needed a solid resolution. The ending, the logic runs, is too open to interpretation and raises more questions than answers and this is a very bad thing indeed. In fact it's worse than that: it's an insult to gamers (etc etc etc). One of the writers, Phil Hornshaw, has even responded to several passionate comments below his piece, in each case (tellingly) choosing to reiterate that the success of the ending as it stands is "contingent on BioWare providing more ending content through [downloadable content]". In other words: the unresolved ending is only worth a damn if we're eventually going to get answers, and soon dammit.

This feeling of indignation is so vehement that a fan-led campaign called Retake Mass Effect has quickly raised over $50,000 for charity as it attempts to coerce developers BioWare into releasing an alternate ending. Their stated aims, as listed on their site, are very telling (underlining my own):
We believe:
* That it is the right of the writers and developers of the Mass Effect series to end that series however they see fit
However, we also believe that the currently available endings to the series:
* Do not provide the wide range of possible outcomes that we have come to expect from a Mass Effect game
* Do not provide a sense of succeeding against impossible odds
* Do not provide a sense of closure with regard to the universe and characters we have become attached to
* Do not provide an explanation of events up to the ending which maintains consistency with the overall story
We therefore respectfully request additional endings be added to the game which provide:
* A more complete explanation of the story events
* An explaination of the outcome of the decisions made, especially with regard to the planets, races, and companions detailed throughout the series
* A heroic ending which provides a better sense of accomplishment
Perhaps never has there been greater proof of what Gilliam is saying in the sense of what is popular: people clearly desire answers and a feeling of "success". There have been a lot of fans scrambling to make sense of the ending and vent their frustration at what BioWare have done, but the only voices (I have encountered) who seem to be defending the openness Gilliam-style are the developers themselves, who have come out admitting that they removed explanation from the final scenes believing it made the ending weaker and less memorable. They have admitted knowingly devising a "polarising" end to their story so as to generate (as Gilliam so relishes) a dialogue.

"Are video games art?" is that nebulous, maddening discussion that won't ever die. I come down, roughly, on the side that they probably are - but even I admit that the debate surrounding this issue is profoundly pointless. However, if the game's audience can not appreciate what might be termed a "Kubrickian" ending, then what does that say about the way games are consumed as a medium? Perhaps nothing at all. After all, Mass Effect is a blockbuster and a similar response might have been expected had, say, 'Transformers 3' ended as obliquely.

In any case, I guess what I'm getting at is this: I too was underwhelmed by the game's ending. I can understand first hand the desire to have closure on the story and to know the subsequent fates of characters who had (in a sad and strange way familiar to all RPG gamers) become my friends. Yet this massive fan outcry in favour of "answers" misses the point. It isn't bad that Mass Effect ends on questions - I'm still with Gilliam on that score - rather, it's that the questions is raises ("is Shepard alive?", "did he defeat the Reapers?", "what did his crew do next?") are so uninteresting and narrowly focused.: too embedded in the game's internal mythology, rather than any grander existential concerns. '2001: A Space Odyssey' Mass Effect is not. But I'm inclined to say nice try for not taking the easiest path, so far at least.

It remains to be seen whether BioWare chicken out and give the people what they want, as Spielberg infamously did in his cinematic re-release of 'Close Encounters', which took viewers inside the otherwise mysterious alien spaceship. Money talks, so I have a hunch they will. And I'll probably buy it too. I don't know what to think.

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