[EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article is completely spoiler-free and the writer has yet to experience the ending of Mass Effect 3 for himself. He was, however, so annoyed by the whole ending debate that he felt he could simply not let this pass without sticking his oar in as well.]
Something is amiss. Between customising our Facebook timelines, making sure our Xbox 360 avatar looks just right and wondering what we might stream on Netflix tonight; we have forgotten something incredibly important. So important even, that it will likely shake each and every one of us to our very core when we remember what, exactly, it is that we’ve forgotten. We chewed over this on our fledgling Default Prime Primecast yesterday, but never really reached the thorny heart of the issue. What am I talking about? Well, let me tell you. In short: developers make videogames, we play them. Not the other way round.
Videogames are impressive for any number of reasons. As the PlayStation adverts used to tell us back in the day, they let us live a double life. We can help the downtrodden, recover lost treasures and triumph in the face of adversity all from the comfort and safety of the sofa. Death and destruction, life and salvation; we can hold these things and more in the balance. We have the power to stand up and make a difference. When you start a Zelda game, you know that whatever humble beginnings Link might have, he will rise up and achieve greatness. The fact of a videogame is you know from the very beginning that in most games, the character you play is going to be the hero and is going to be the one who makes the difference. It is drilled into us through experience that games function this way.
Not only do videogames give us the ability to do pretty much anything we want in one of the millions of games out there (hell, we even have Street Sweeper Simulator 2011), but we can tweak characters’ appearance, environment and vehicles to look exactly the way we want. In some games you can even make your character sound the way you want by choosing from one of several voices. A few games even take it to such extremes that they find ways to explain why you might want to re-customise your character halfway through. Fallout: New Vegas gave the player the option to redistribute ability points and perks, as do many RPGs for little more than a small penalty to the player. Everything we want to change in games, we can; and all of it so we can enjoy the journey through the game as much as possible.
The gamer has been empowered in such a way that he has more control than ever before. You and I can play the same games, but I bet we create completely different characters. You and I complete the same quests, but I bet we find different personal justifications for our actions, if we bother at all. I can role-play however I want in my game and still enjoy it as much as you. We have had some of the most beautiful, intricately carved narratives ever created grace our medium. Such is the diversity of videogames. I thought we had it better than ever before, I honestly did. And then Mass Effect 3 was released and suddenly many of my fellow gamers decided that despite all of these things, they hated the game’s ending. That would have been acceptable, but many went on to argue that not only did they hate the ending, but that in retrospect it spoiled the entire series for them. Suddenly, after a few minutes of a game’s story, they turned their backs on an entire saga, just like that. Still not content to stop there, a movement then appears on the internet to actually get the game’s ending changed. This is a genuine “wtf” moment.
This has made me wonder if we’ve been empowered so much by the games we play, that we honestly believe we have the power to save the characters from their own existence. There is a definite parallel to be drawn between Shepard saving the galaxy from the Reapers and gamers saving Shepard from the ‘terrible’ ending of Mass Effect 3. What I really fail to understand is why? What is so special about Commander Shepard that we have to take a giant petition-sized shit all over the game’s writers and developers? Does the team of people who worked on it really deserve this treatment when this game is the creative vision that represents the final achievement of their work? Apparently these things simply do not matter. These people need to learn that games are not always going to end how we want or how we expect, just like any story and just like real life. Sure, discuss and critique it to your heart’s content, but do not try and get the ending changed just because you didn’t enjoy it or because it somehow ruined your entire time with the game. A story has to end, and no matter how it ends someone is going to be left disappointed. This is where game criticism is far behind other media; film aficionados can argue and pontificate for years about an ending and have done so, but will ultimately accept the ending. And game fans? They will petition to get the ending changed. And that brings me back to customisation.
Do we think that because we can dictate so much about our lives both in- and outside of videogames that we should be able to get what we want in areas that have, up to now, been beyond our control? Have games with multiple endings been paving the way for an event like this for years now? Who knew the straw that broke the camel’s back would be Mass Effect 3? I almost get the impression that it is wrong to think that a long story, crafted over time, should have only one ending that merely varies slightly depending on your choices. What is wrong with a fatalistic vision? If the final message is “no matter what the journey is, the outcome was always going to be the same”, what difference does it make to us as gamers? Life rarely has a happy ending, so why should every single game have a happy ending where all the characters die happily of old age in cardigans knitted by their wives?
To conclude I want to leave you with one final point, perhaps more scary than a mysterious belief that power in games gives us power in real life; more worrying than the thought that the business relationship between gamers and developers extends to rewriting the game because of an ungrateful but loud group of people; more upsetting, perhaps, than anything else, is the possibility that thousands upon thousands of gamers have missed the point. Is this a case of people failing to understand the ending before they go on the internet and discover that their opinion is, in fact, outrage? Perhaps in their desperate rush for the computer they missed the profound statement that the series has been building to from the very first. If this is the case, then gaming is heading into very dark days indeed… and I say that before we even know how BioWare is going to react to the whole thing. If they bend over and allow themselves to violate the integrity of their work, setting a terrible precedent in the process, then I think I’ll just give up gaming and leave. I hear the fishing on Mars is quite good this time of year…
Video games were a part of Chris's life from the Mega Drive onwards. He has many happy gaming memories, including the first time he collected all the chaos emeralds in Sonic 2, collecting all SSBM's trophies (yes, all of them) and, more recently, collecting far too many platinum trophies on his PlayStation 3. In the real world, he has a degree in French and is currently living in Frankfurt, Germany. Follow him on Twitter @DPrime_Chris
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