I don’t know what the ending of Mass Effect 3 entails, and I don’t care. I haven’t even played Mass Effect 3 yet. Hell, I’m still working through the first one at the moment. But despite that lack of personal contact with and investment in the issue – in fact because of that - I can already see very clearly that it is imperative that BioWare do not back down over the current fan protests. The content of the existing ending you see, is irrelevant. There are much bigger, potentially wider-reaching and longer-lasting issues at play here, and if BioWare get this wrong, it could be disastrous for games. And if you read on, I shall explain all.
Above: BioWare backing down on this one would be a monstrous punch in the face for games
First and most obvious things first. If BioWare give any ground on Mass Effect 3’s ending, the precedent set for future creativity in video game narrative will be abominable. We’re at a stage of gaming’s development right now when storytelling ambition, technology and delivery techniques are bursting out in a whole stack of exciting new directions. Interactive narrative and creative experimentation are making breakthroughs all the time, and it feels like we’re finally at the dawn of a new era for games as a full-blown medium rather than a mere plaything. Now is absolutely the worst time that a developer of BioWare’s stature and storytelling significance should give away the creative control of one of its most significant, most narratively-driven franchises.
To do so would give the impression of admitting a lack of faith in its own world staff. It would give the impression of admitting that a crowd-sourced ending-by-committee dictated by a bunch of literal amateurs is more worthy than the work of its own creatives. In short, it would take away the power of the writers pushing this stuff forward, and hand it to a bunch of inexperienced outsiders who think they know how it works (and should work) simply because they enjoy consuming what someone else has poured hundreds of hours of effort, ideas, experimentation and creative iteration into creating. And it would set a deadly precedent for creativity.
Above: Creativity is the one on the right. And in the bottom-middle
“Hey, BioWare caved in for their fans, so you can bloody well do the same”. That is the mantra that will spread across the already disgustingly self-entitled online gaming community any time a developer did anything a few fans didn’t like. And lo, a thousand writers will lament, as the years of work, development, training, self-improvement and downright bloody earning their professional positions are cast asunder in the face of the knee-jerk wish-list of a bunch of non-qualified, non-professional ‘fans’.
Let me just point something out here. BioWare’s writers are the same people who have spent the last five years crafting the stories and universe that made Mass Effect’s fans so attached and passionate in the first place. To suddenly claim that these people cannot be trusted to do their job operates on a level of irony and self-serving selective memory that would be funny if it wasn’t so ungrateful.
Above: I couldn't find a proper metaphorical screenshot for ungratefulness, but a rifle butt in the face isn't nice either
But I’m not here to kick the protesters. This is about more than the details of this specific case. And there are more ways in which the outcome of this one is going to be important. Let’s consider the most recent statement on BioWare’s blog from co-founder Dr. Ray Muzyka. While Ray has (thankfully) not stated that the game’s current ending will be changed, he has heavily inferred that the approach taken to Mass Effect 3’s DLC might well now be under scrutiny as a result of this protest.
A happy-medium compromise? Tweaking the DLC in order to have it tie up more loose ends (a major criticism of Mass Effect 3’s ending by its detractors) could well smooth things over a little without requiring a complete retcon patch for ME3’s current ending. But here again, I see problems. And again, they come about by way of the limiting the potential of games.