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The good fan/bad fan conversation surrounding Mass Effect 3 is in full swing; admittedly, the "good fans" (e.g. the ones defending the ending as presented) are relatively few in number, but they make up for that by being high in profile; over on the The PA Report, Ben Kuchera makes the case that the ending wasn't unsatisfying at all, and if you think it was, you are wrong.

And without resorting to NO U-style comebacks, I simply couldn't disagree more, but I also want to (for whatever it's worth) distance myself from the howling gamer hordes, bless their infinitely entitled little hearts. While, the $60 (or, uh, $80 for the collector's edition) may not be exactly trivial, the hours of entertainment per dollars spent figure for a game like Mass Effect is still way better than, say, going to see a really excellent movie at a movie theater. I don't think paying the cost of admission entitles me to exactly the ending I want here any more than it does in any other work of fiction. That's not how fiction works, not even interactive fiction.

So I don't give a shit about Day Once DLC or EA's purported nefariousness w/r/t trying to sucker people into buying the game, then buying digital ephemera IN the game, or any of the other variations on the "damn those greedy game publishers!" They're in this business to make money, and if they can convince me to give them ten more bucks after I've given them 60*, good for them.

Nor do I really buy into the narrative of "this happened because Drew Karpyshyn left as lead writer," mostly because Drew Karpyshyn isn't particularly great shakes on his own, and also because the overall, beat-to-beat writing quality of ME3 is as good as it's ever been. The collapse at the end speaks to me of either a deep flaw in the series's fundamental conception, rushed/botched development, or both.

It's been clear from ME2 that the story was building toward some kind of Twist in re: The True Nature of the Reapers, although it seems that the specific nature of that Twist shifted between ME2 and ME3. This is the sort of thing that gets built into these kind of grand epics early on, when you're pitching the basic idea to yourself or others, trying to figure out the general sweep of the whole story.

"So there's this galactic civilization connected by gates that facilitate interstellar travel, only the gates have always been there, and while their general function is understood, nobody has the knowhow to really replicate them or add to the network. Then these giant horrific robots come to kill everybody, and it turns out they built the gates as part of their Plan, so you spend a lot of time fighting them and ultimately you have to destroy the gates in order to kill them."

DISCLAIMER: I don't know if that in any way resembles the initial short pitch for the trilogy.

Except then you start building the thing, populating it with characters minor and major, all of whom have their own stories, and whose stories you spend the bulk of your actual narrative budget on resolving.

But then you get to the end, and there's that pesky outline to deal with, and by gum it says you have to destroy the mass relays so down they go! And anyway that makes thematic sense because of how they were built by the bad guys anyway, so to truly throw off the yoke of intergalactic colonization, they have to go.

But the problem is that in this particular case, resolving the grand outline plot now renders nearly all the character-level plots meaningless, because it destroys the society in which they all operate and upends the assumptions upon which they are all predicated. Kuchera's assertion is:

My choices were meant to mean something in the game, but they don’t! It’s all arbitrary! This is the argument that makes the least amount of sense; the forty or so hours before the ending scenes are filled with meaningful moments that deal with your choices.

What—bafflingly—he doesn't seem to understand is that while those moments were indeed meaningful at the time, they are rendered pointless by the events of the ending. Who cares if you saved this or that character or this or that planet. The entire society that supported them is now gone. He then goes on to say:

Also, the final decisions you make in the game determine the fate of damn near every living thing in the galaxy. Of course your decisions matter, the result of those decision is simply not made explicit.

From the perspective of players wondering what happened to all those characters they've been working to save, the only meaningful distinction between the endings is whether you do or do not choose synthesis. All options result in the destruction of the mass relays, and thus the destruction of galactic civilization. One of those options also involves totally redefining all life in the galaxy, which will presumably have profound effects upon the individuals within it, but we're left to guess at what those effects might be. So yes, the final decision matters, but the scale at which it matters is so enormously magnified in comparison to every other decision we've ever made that it renders all previous choices—the ones players are capable of caring about and being invested in, and have in fact been encouraged to invest in—totally moot.

Kuchera then says that people are most upset because the ending is "sad."

This is one of the amazing things about dramatic works. You begin to like your characters, and maybe even love them, and there is nothing keeping the people who have control of those characters from killing them off or making you feel complex emotions. Good drama is much like life; you don’t have much control over the fate of people you care about. They come and go. Gamers are used to the idea that if they do everything right, they are owed a happy ending and they get to keep the image of their happy avatar forever and ever. Bioware was going for something a little braver, and much heavier.

Okay well setting aside the breathtakingly patronizing tone of that paragraph (I admit to feeling a little patronizing myself sometimes, when trying to address the gamer hordes) I of course take extreme exception to the notion that killing off your characters (or destroying your entire fictional civilization) is "brave," and that ambiguous endings are "heavy."

Hark, dismissive assholes of the world! It is not that I don't like sad things! What I don't like are: Lazy things.

I have spent too many words on this. We'll see if I spend any more. I certainly don't promise not to.

In conclusion:

  • I don't feel owed anything because I paid money for a game.
  • I don't think Karpyshyn's presence or lack thereof has anything to do with this
  • I feel no particular urge to BOYCOTT BIOWARE
  • Narrative betrayal really sucks

*Ha ha, who am I kidding, I bought the collector's edition.

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October 2012

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