Mass Effect, Tolkien, and Your Bullshit Artistic Process

It may seem a bit odd that I’m posting this here rather than on my gaming-related blog, since it is about the Mass Effect game series and other related geekery. I debated where I should post it, but ultimately this is about writing as much or more than it’s about gaming, so here it is. Everything that follows is my opinion and, further, is infested with spoilers for both the Mass Effect series and, I suppose, The Lord of the Rings. Reader beware.

In late February, I said (on twitter) that I thought the Mass Effect universe was probably the most important science fiction of a generation.

Since then, the executive producer for Mass Effect 3 has been working tirelessly to get me to retract that statement.

If you follow gaming news at all, you’ll already know that there have been great clouds of dust kicked over this particular story — the gist of it is that Mass Effect was brought to a conclusion with the release of Mass Effect 3 (note: not brought to its conclusion, just brought to a conclusion — more on that later), and while 99% of the game was the same top-notch, engaging, tear-inducing stuff that we’ve come to expect, the last five minutes or so is a steaming, Hersey’s Kiss-sized dollop of dog shit that you are forced to ingest at the conclusion of the meal, like a mint, before they let you out the door.

It’s fair to say that it’s soured many players’ impression of the experience as a whole.

Now, I realize that many of the folks reading this may not have played through the Mass Effect series. First of all, that’s really too bad, because it is very, very good both in terms of play (which steadily improves from game to game) and story (barring one steaming exception) and (I think) completely worth the time.

But secondly, I’d like to keep you non-ME people involved in the conversation, so I’m going to draw a comparison that I think most anyone likely to visit here will understand, so that we can all proceed with reasonable understanding of the issues.

Let’s pretend for a moment that The Lord of the Rings was released not as a series of books, but a series of games. More importantly, the company behind the series decided to do something really hard but rewarding with the game — they were going to let you make decisions during play that substantively altered the elements of the story. That means that some of people playing through this Lord of the Rings story would end up with a personal game experience that was pretty much exactly like the one you and I all remember from reading the books, but that story is just sort of the default. Whole forums were filled up by fans of the series comparing notes on their versions of the game, with guides on how to get into a romantic relationship with Arwen (the obvious one), Eowyn (more difficult, as you have to go without any kind of romance option through the whole first game, but considered by many to be far more rewarding), or even Legolas (finally released as DLC for the third game).

And that’s certainly not all of possible permutations. Some players actually managed to save Boromir (though he leaves the party regardless, but gets you a whole extra army in the third game if he’s alive, and makes Denethor much less of a pain in the ass to deal with). Some folks don’t split up the party, and spend most of the game recruiting supporters through the South and North, from Aughaire down to Dol Imren. For some, Gimli dies at Helms Deep; for others only Merry escapes into Fangorn (which makes recruiting the Ents all but impossible). Hell, there are even a few weirdos who chose NOT to recruit Samwise back at the beginning of the story, and actually play through the whole first game without him (though the writers reintroduce him as a non-optional party member once you get ready to leave Lothlorien).

And what about the players who rolled the main character as a female? That changes a LOT of stuff, as you might well imagine. (Though, thankfully, all the dialogue options with Legolas are the same.)

Are you with me so far?

Okay, so you’re playing through this game — you’ve played through parts 1 and 2 several times, in fact, sometimes as a goody-two-shoes, and sometimes as a total bad-ass. You’ve got a version of the game where you’re with Arwen, one with Eowyn, one with Legolas, and one where you focus on Frodo and his subtle hand-holding bromance with Sam. You’re ready for Part Three, is what I’m saying, and out it comes.

And it’s awesome. You finally bring lasting alliance between Rohan and Gondor, you form a fragile-yet-believable peace between elves and dwarves, and even manage to recruit a significant strike-force of old Moria orcs who don’t so much like you as much as they just hate the johnny-come-lately Uruk-hai.

The final chapters open. You face down Saruman (who pretended to fund all your efforts through the second book, but then turned on you at the end of the Two Towers), which was really satisfying. You crawl up to the top of Mount Doom, collapse against a rock, and have a really touching heart to heart with Sam. It’s over. You know you have all your scores high enough to destroy the One Ring with no crisis of conscious and no lame “Gollum bit off my finger and then falls in the lava” ending, like the one you saw on the fanfic forums last year.

And then out comes this glowing figure from behind a rock, and it’s… Tom Bombadil.

And Tom explains your options.

Oh, and you're totally going to die too. And all the roads and horses throughout all of middle earth vanish. And by the way did you know that Sauron and the Nazgul all actually just work for Bombadil? True story.

Now, let’s just ignore the fact that the company behind this game has been quoted many times as saying that the game will end with no less than sixteen different endings, to honor all the various ways the story could go, and focus on these three options.

None of them have anything to do with destroying the ring, do they?

Has ‘destroying the ring’ (alternately, destroying Sauron) been pretty much THE THING you’ve been working toward the whole game? Yeah, it has. In fact, it mentions “Rings” right there in the title of the series, doesn’t it? Rather seems to make The Ring a bit of a banner item, doesn’t it?

But no, none of these options are about the Ring; they’re about one of the b-plots in the series, and one which you pretty much already laid to rest a few chapters ago.

So… okay, maybe this isn’t the END ending, you think, and you pick one of the options…

And that’s it. A bunch of cut-scenes play, Mount Doom explodes with fiery red light, you die, and the credits roll. The end.

Ohhh-kay. Maybe that was the bad ending. Let’s reload a save and pick option 2…

Same. Exact. Cut scenes. Except Mount Doom’s explosion is green. What?

Alright… umm… let’s check #3…

Nope. Mount Doom’s explosion is Blue. That’s it.

And, absolutely inexplicably, every single one of these cut scenes shows Gandalf, Aragorn, and SAMWISE escaping the explosion on one of the eagles and crash-landing somewhere in Lorien where they all pat themselves on the back and watch the sun set together.

What? But… Sam was with you. Aragorn and Gandalf… did they start running away halfway through the last fight at the Black Gate? Your boys abandoned you?

So, given this example, it’s possible — even for someone who didn’t play Mass Effect — to understand the fan’s reaction. The ending has no real connection to the rest of the story; barring the last scene and one conversation with an unnamed Nazgul in Book 3, it would lift right out with no one even noticing. It completely takes away your choices at the end of a game about making world-altering choices. It effectively destroys the Middle Earth that you were fighting for 100 hours of gameplay to preserve — no magic? Maybe a completely wiped out dwarven race? No one can travel anywhere without painstakingly rebuilding roads for a couple hundred years and replacing horses with something else? Also, no matter what, no matter how much ass you kick, you’re dead? Yeah. No thanks, man.

And that’s not even paying attention to stuff like how (and why) Sam and Gandalf and Strider ran away at the end. I mean… even if you’re going to do a shitty twist ending, don’t be so goddamn lazy about it. Don’t sit there and claim that criticism of the ending is an attack on your artistic product, because frankly that ending is full of holes and needs a rewrite and probably two more chapters to flesh out. (More on that in a bit.)

So… that’s where the Mass Effect franchise was after ME3 came out. A lot of confusion. A lot of rage. Some protests of a very interesting sort, where the gamers against the terrible ending decided to draw attention to the issue by raising something like seventy-thousand bucks for geek-related charities.

Now, let’s go a bit deeper.

Let’s continue with this Lord of the Rings video game analogy. Let’s say that after a bit of digging, people realized that Tolkien actually left the company to work on other projects before the game was complete. He wrote up a detailed outline, though; something that clearly spelled out exactly how the main arc of the story was supposed to play out, in broad strokes, basically laying out what we would expect the ending to be, pretty much.

But Tolkien left. So they get another guy in. Someone else who’s written stuff about some kind of powerful ring…

They get Steven R. Donaldson.

(Those of you who know me and my history with the Thomas Covenant books can guess that this analogy is not going to be a positive one, because seriously: fuck Thomas Covenant.)

So they get this Donaldson guy in to helm the end of the series, and it turns out he’s the guy who comes up with the Tom Bombadil, fuck-the-continuity-of-the-series ending.

Why? Maybe he’s pissed about being the second choice. Maybe he’s not getting paid enough to give a fuck. Maybe he just really wants to do this kind of story, but can’t be arsed to write a series of his own for which it makes sense. Maybe the original ending outlined by Tolkien got leaked on a forum the year before the last game came out, so people decided it had to be changed, even if the alternative makes no sense. I don’t know.

What I do know is the there was a different ending written out for the Mass Effect series, the short version of which is that the Big Reveal in ME3 is that the Mass Effect itself — the magical black-box technology that allows interstellar travel and powers a ton of other things from weapons to expensive toothbrushes — is causing a constant increase in dark energy in the galaxy, and that’s causing all kinds of bad things (like the accelerated death of stars).

The Mass Effect — you know, the thing from which the name of the series is derived — is the secret behind the Big Reveal. Who would have thought?

So, in the end of the game-as-envisioned, you’re given a choice of saving the galaxy by sacrificing the human race (making humanity into a biomechanical, synthetic-life, communal-intelligence “Reaper” that can stop the Dark Energy decay), or telling the Reapers to screw themselves and trying to fix the problem on your own (with a handful of centuries left before the Dark Energy thing snowballs and grows out of control on its own).

Which, in a word, would have been better. Certainly FAR better than some kind of stupid Tom Bombadil/Star Child explanation where we are told that the (synthetic AI) Reapers destroy advanced organic civilizations every 50 thousand years to prevent organic civilizations from… being destroyed by synthetic AIs.

Now we don’t just have some gamer complaints about the terrible ending, we have a demonstrably better ending that was actually supposed to be the one implemented. Complicates things, doesn’t it?

But Why All the Hate?

The simple fact of the matter is that Mass Effect is a story, and it’s a very good story — in my opinion, it’s one of the best stories I’ve ever experienced. People can hem and haw about what constitutes a story — about whether a game can really be a story if people can play it — as though a story is only a story if it’s spoken or written or projected up on a movie screen. That’s like saying a person is only a person if they walk or ride a horse or drive a car… because we all know the vehicle in which the subject is conveyed changes that subject’s inherent nature.

Some people say it’s not a real story because the player’s choices can alter it. I think they’re full of crap, and I say the proof of its power as a story is right there in the story-pudding — it affects me as a story does — and that’s all the criteria met. Walks like duck, quacks like duck, therefore duck.

But the problem (if you’re BioWare) is that human beings understand stories; we know how they’re supposed to work, thanks to thousands of years of cultural training. Mass Effect (until that conclusion) is a nigh-perfect example of how a story is done correctly, thanks in part to the medium, which allows (if you’ll permit me the slaughter of a few sacred cows) a level of of immersion and connection beyond what a book or movie or any other storytelling medium up to this point in our cultural history can match, because of the fact that you can actively take part in that story from the inside. Heresy? Fine, brand me a heretic; that’s how I see it.

And since it’s such a good story, people know how the thing is supposed to proceed, and they know how it should end.

You start out in ME1 trying to stop a bad guy, Saren. He’s the guy who gets us moving (because he’s a bad guy, and that’s what they do — bad guys act, and heroes react to that and move the story along). As we try to stop him, we find out there’s something bigger going on than just a rogue cop on a rampage. The picture keeps getting bigger, the stakes keep getting higher, and we keep getting our motivation and our level of commitment tested. Are we willing to sacrifice our personal life? Yes? Okay, will we sacrifice one of our friends? Yes? Okay, how about the leaders of the current galactic government? Yes? Okay…

It goes on like that. You fucking invest, is what I’m saying, and that’s just in the first game.

In the second game, the fight continues, as we have merely blunted the point of the spear, not stopped the attack. Our choices in ME1 had consequences, and we start to see them play out, for better or worse. Meanwhile, we’re trying to stop Evil Plan #2, in a suicide mission that could literally cost us nearly every single friend we’ve made. In the end, we get the joy of victory mixed with the sadness of the loss of those who didn’t make it, and it’s all good, because it’s a strong, healthy, enjoyable emotional release.

And now it’s ME3, and the stakes are even higher. We’re not recruiting more individual allies — we’re recruiting whole peoples — whole civilizations. Planets are falling. Worlds are being erased.

In the words of Harbinger, this hurts you.

Why? Because you know these people who are dying. You’ve spent over a hundred hours traveling this setting, meeting people, helping them, learning about each of their little stories; building relationships with, literally, hundreds of individuals. Every one of these planets going up in flames has a face (even if it’s a face behind a breathmask), and no one falls in this final story that wasn’t important in some way to you or someone you know.

(By contrast, the enemy is faceless and (since the reapers harvest your former allies and force them into monstrous templates) largely indistinguishable from one another — as it should be in this kind of story. You do not care about a Husk, though you might mourn the person killed to create the thing.)

In short, you aren’t just playing this game to get the high score. You’re fighting for this galaxy of individuals you’ve grown very, very attached to; to protect it and, as much as you can, preserve it. You’ve spent several hours every day on this, for months. It matters.

"Hard to imagine galaxy. Too many People. Faceless. Statistics. Easy to depersonalize. Good when doing unpleasant work. For this fight, want personal connection. Can't anthropomorphize galaxy. But can think of favorite nephew. Fighting for him."

(Best of all, you get to shoot bad guys in the face while you’re doing it, which takes this heavy topic and makes it engaging at that level as well. It’s like soaking up all the gravitas of Schindler’s List while enjoying the BFG-toting action of Castle Wolfenstein at the same time.)

The end comes. We talk to all our friends. Everyone’s wearing their brave face, talking about what they’re going to do afterwards, which beach they’re going to retire on. You start to think that maybe the end is in sight and maybe, just maybe, you might even be able to see some of that ending.

The last big conflict starts. You fight some unkillable things and kill them. You face off against an old nemesis and finally end him.

And then…

And then you’re given three choices, none of which result in anything any different from the others, and none of which have consequences that have any connection to the goals we’ve been working on for the last hundred hours or so.

Those people you were just talking to? They’re gone. Or stranded on an alien world. Or dead. All those planets you helped? They’re gone too — cut off, or starving, or maybe just destroyed in manufactured super-novas. Nothing you did or accomplished in the last three games actually matters — it’s all been wiped out by one of three (red, green, or blue) RESET buttons you pushed, because pushing one of those buttons was the only ‘choice’ given to you at the end.

As a species, trained for thousands of years in the way stories work, we know this is a bad ending. Not “tragic”. Just bad. Poor.

This isn’t about a bunch of priviledged gamers complaining about a sad ending, because there are well-done sad endings that make contextual sense.

This is about a mechanical ending to the game that doesn’t end the story — that provides no emotional release — one so disassociated from the previous 99% of the story that the fans of the series collectively hope it will later be revealed to be a dream (or, in the context of the setting, a final Reaper Indoctrination attempt).

Dear writers: If you create something, and your readers hope that what you just gave them was, in reality, an “it was a dream all along” ending, because that would be better than what you wrote, you seriously. fucked. up.

Is the ending, as an ending (taken out of context with the game we’ve been playing), a bad one? No. It’s an interesting theme that was explored extensively in a B-plot within the series and which could certainly be the central thread of a series of its own.

But it’s not the ending of this story. Our goals — the one we’ve been fighting for — are never addressed. There is no closure, either happy or sad — we want our emotional release as it relates to the game we actually played. Maybe that means tragedy at our own stupid hands — maybe victory wrested from the biomechanical jaws of defeat (and at the cost of a greater looming danger ahead).

The ending we got? It didn’t make me angry or sad or happy. It left me unfulfilled, because it ended the game talking about something I didn’t actually care about, and left me waiting for that emotional release that ME1 or ME2 pulled off so well.

The idea that the player’s should just deal with the ending, because it’s Bioware’s ending and not theirs is one of the interesting points in this debate, simply because it rides this weird line where we don’t really have a cultural context for what the Mass Effect series is: Is it a game? Is it a story? If if it’s a game, then who cares about the story, and if it’s a story, then treat it like a book and stop pretending you get to influence it, stupid consumer.

The answer is more complicated: Is it a game or story? Yes. Moreover, it’s a game that’s welcomed player input into the narrative from the first moment, and as such, should be committed to honoring that input throughout. It’s a story, but it belongs to everyone telling it.

But It’s Art!
There’s a recurring tune being played by Bioware in response to this outcry, and it goes something like this: “We might respond to these complaints, and we might flesh out the ending we presented, but we’re not going to change anything, because this is art — this is the product of artists — and as such it is inviolate and immutable in the face of outside forces.”

Which is, speaking as a working artist, complete and utter horseshit.

If you make a movie, and you put in front of focus groups, and they categorically hate the ending, you change it. If you’re writing a book and your first readers tell you the ending is terrible, you fix it. (Ditto your second readers, your second-draft readers, your agent, your editor, your copy editor.)

Or maybe you don’t — maybe you say “this is art, and it is inviolate and immutable in the face of outside forces”, which is certainly your choice — but don’t expect anyone to help you bring that piece of crap to print.

Anyone can tell a story. You can sit in your special writing nook and turn out page after page of perfectly unaltered, immutable art and be quite happy — you’re welcome to, in fact.

But when you decide you want to make a living off it? Even if you want to just make a little spending money?

Then the rules change. Then it’s work. Then it’s a job. More importantly, then it’s part of a business model, and those golden days of your art being inviolate and immutable blah blah blah are well and truly behind you. Name me a story that saw print, or a movie that saw the Big Screen, and I’ll show you art that changed because of input from someone other than the the original creator — from someone looking at it from the point of view of the consumer.

Bioware is a company. Making their stories into games is their business model. Hiding behind some kind of “but it’s art, so we’re not changing it” defense is insulting, disingenuous, and flat-out stupid. Worse, it perpetuates the idea that the creator’s output is in some stupid way sancrosant and, as art, cannot be “wrong” or “bad”. If you as a creator imagine that to be the case — if you think that kind of argument is going to defend your right to never do a rewrite or a revision or line edits or to ever alter, in any way, your precious Artistic Process — discard that notion.

Or become accustomed to a long life as an “undiscovered talent”.

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