Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Mass Effect 3: A Lesson in Player Investment

I don't often post about other games here, but I wanted to take a look at the uproar over Mass Effect 3 and the endings, and something it says about games and gamers in general.  I promise there is a tie in to Eve at the end, but to explain the ME3 situation will require a lot of background.

<There are ME spoilers here, so be warned.  Also I have always played a paragon female Shepard, so I refer to Shep as "her", and may have only directly experienced portions of the game available to a paragon.>

If you have been living under a rock for the last few weeks you may not have noticed the anger amongst players of ME3 over the various endings available.  There are a few complaints, briefly:

  • The ending is illogical, employing a dues ex machina once the Crucible is activated.
  • The behaviors of the team mates are illogical, with them all teleporting to the Normandy, as is the consequence of the Mass Relays being destroyed.
  • The sudden change of the nature of the synthetic-organic conflict does not take into account anything the player has done.
  • The 3 endings are, aside from colors and types of explosion, identical.
  • The 3 endings are all "bad", in that Shepard dies, all life is either destroyed or is scattered, and the mass relays are gone, making everything Shepard and team have done a pyrrhic victory at best.
I'll tackle these, but in a different order.

Although the actions in the Crucible do reek of deus ex machina, I think that is somewhat unfair.  There is plenty of subtle foreshadowing, especially as you get closer to the end.  However, if you chose to save the Geth and Quarians, and invested in EDI and Joker's lives, this ending is a deus ex machina, as the only thematically hostile synthetics in the game are hybrids: Cerberus and the Reapers.  More on this later.
The disappearance of the Normandy makes no sense.  When and why did Joker jump the ship?  Where was he going?  How did people get back on?  If the Mass Relays are destroyed, you are essentially setting off a pile of supernovas throughout the galaxy.  The endings all show this, and given the layout of the galaxy, this is equivalent to letting the Reapers kill everyone anyway.
The ending videos themselves, when viewed side by side, are an exercise in either a rushed ending or a lazy ending.  The color varies (green/red/blue) and the effect varies (energy glow, explosion, lightning), but every other part of the cutscenes is identical.  This is garbage, and an offensive way to claim multiple endings.  Those are not alternate endings, those are alternate costumes for one ending.  Bioware must have expected this sort of response to palette swapped videos, and I am a bit shocked they appear confused.
I would call all 3 endings "bad', in that they end tragically.  That's fine, except for one main problem.  The endings, at least for a paragon/neutral Shepard, are not thematically relevant in any way.  For a bad ending to work, go watch Blade Runner, or Gladiator.  Shepard gives up everything around her, and her life, and this outcome only satisfies a thematically jarring plot device, and ignores player's actions in the game.  The renegade option, oddly, seems to leave Shep alive, no longer in space.  What?  When did Shep become John Constantine?  None of these endings work thematically.  This leads me to my main complaint, and aside from the lazy videography, my fundamental issue with the endings.
The framing of the conflict between Organics, Reapers and Catalyst does not stand up to any scrutiny of the preceding narrative.  No evidence is given for why synths will take over, either in the conversation with the Catalyst, or in the preceding games. The Geth, if you played paragon, are actually victims of speciesism via the Quarians, and if you follow Legion's side quests throughout ME2 and ME3, you learn almost all the reasons the Geth are "Evil" is because they were just trying to survive or were essentially indoctrinated.  The only open hostilities in the game are lead by the Salaarians, the Quarians, the Reapers and the Krogan.  All all organic or hybrids, none are synthetic.  EDI, the ship AI, is consistently moral, or seeks to be moral, or at least wants Shepard's (organic) approval for her actions.  The whole premise of the Catalyst is baseless in the fiction provided, once you understand all the parts.

To take this one step further, the Catalyst is an AI controlling Reapers (hybrids), and is the only major force seeking to do the very thing it claims to be combating, wiping out all life.  The Catalyst is making a solid case only against itself, or maybe only Organics, in a really tortured, self-contradicting philosophy.  Some Organic made the Catalyst, or the AI that then made the Catalyst.  Russian dolls!  Then, also mysteriously, the Catalyst implies that Shepard making it to the Catalyst has broken the cycle the Catalyst is using to maintain order and life.  Only Shepard can make the choice of what to do next.  But, all those choices, if you play them out, lead to roughly the same outcome as letting the Reaper keep going.  This, oddly, is not a choice.  At the last choice of the game, literally an intersection, you have 3 choices that make no sense and do not consider any of the rich storytelling, world building, or decision making that the player made.

And this, I think, is the crux of the problem of Bioware has stumbled into.  They built three beautiful, engaging, vibrant games that focused heavily on players impacting that world.  There are small impacts (each decision) and the aggregate decisions (paragon or renegade) that dramatically influenced both individuals and civilizations.  The end of the series throws all of that development at the feet of a nonsensical and irrational child who gives you the choice of which end of the world you prefer, with all three options destroying the galaxy you tried to save.  This insulted the expectations of the players.

That is the key - expectations Bioware built over years both through marketing and gameplay.  Games are interactive, unlike movies, novels, or any other form of media.  The players invest in the characters and story.  They explore the options, the nooks and crannies of the game world.  They make dramatic relationships, kill vilains and heroes, and I would wager no two ME trilogy play-throughs are identical for any two players.  At the pinnacle of this series of choices and investments, the model was changed, the rules were tossed out, and the creative capital players invested into their Shepards turned out be about as valuable as CDO in late 2008.

I think this is something MMO players, and Eve players in particular can identify with.  How many times have you heard the "Dream of Eve" tossed into a discussion to validate opinions?  How many players rage when the game is changed away from the way they learned and loved it, or even from their concept of what Eve is?  Some critics have called gamers entitled or overly critical of Bioware, citing the dev's artistic license to end the story how they want.  Sorry to break it to those critics, but in a medium where emotional investment determines the future of a company, player opinions and desires are a very real concern.  When a TV series or novel ends, it's over.  Also, a novel or DVD generally runs a lot less than $59.99.  Game makers ostensibly want to keep selling games, and a big enough let-down of player expectations and trust can sink not just a franchise, but an entire company.

Incarna was the case example of this in Eve.  The dream was betrayed for a rushed, incomplete piece of game that combined hardware failures, a poorly implemented Cash Shop, and nothing for players to invest in emotionally.  The results were profound.  Mass unsubs, riots, threadnaughts, The Mittani becoming a champion of the players, and tangentially, layoffs, corporate reorganization, and thankfully a heartfelt apology from Hilmar and one of the most dramatic turnarounds in product development to ever have been seen in the gaming industry.

MMOs actually have the finest measurement for player emotions:  Time spent playing, logins, and subscription numbers.  If the devs are making poor choices, the players will speak through these metrics.  Traditional games do not have a rolling metric to show how people feel.  Once the $60 has been spent, the only feedback in on forums, blogs and Youtube.  I hope Bioware, and the rest of the gaming industry, learns from the lessons of the player reaction.  You can patch and iterate in Eve or another MMO.  When the next Bioware series comes, the iteration will be seen in sales numbers, and an all-or-nothing proposition has a lot less margin of error.

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