How can something like this happen? My finger begins to cramp from scrolling through all the screaming and virtual facepalming over the Mass Effect 3 ending debacle on Twitter. I eventually felt pressured to race through the game just to see what was going on. While I didn’t like the ending, it was for completely different reasons than all the petitions and flash floods of protests on BioWare’s forums. Most importantly, the nature of the ending didn’t surprise me; it felt completely natural given the structure of the series, which let me personalize the experience but not dictate anything major. The only way someone could be so genuinely upset enough to demand refunds and reparations is if they weren’t aware what kind of game they were playing. However, facing claims of false advertisement and deception, is BioWare at fault for dissonance between its marketing and actual product? Why this conflict exists is layered but predictable, product of many issues in the game industry that we let fester and explode.
Let’s Start with Some Snobbery
First, how can someone be upset with Mass Effect 3’s ending to such an uproar? There’s a usual expectation that endings of any medium stand a risk of being unsatisfying, with a usual negative response “meh, that ending sucked.” I saw this attitude mostly with other game writers and developers, who split on whether or not they liked the ending but didn’t seem surprised or shocked that it existed. Being a part of videogame development and media also distances a person from mass marketing because they are more aware of the relationship PR serves to the process of a game getting sold. So when advocates claim betrayal because the marketing doesn’t match the product, it shows these players have an investment to the culture that surrounds the game crafted by the company. They look back on the series and see BioWare’s catchphrases, everything as a result of their choices and personal stories. Players started to romance the brand of Mass Effect, especially as BioWare became more responsive to its fans.
A critical eye can see that the Mass Effect series does not put player agency at the forefront of the narrative. I mean narrative as the structure and method of how a player experiences game, with only one aspect being the story. Having played the first two games multiple times with varying character and story goals, I went into Mass Effect 3 knowing there was little I was actually influencing. One way to look at what is actually going on is the player brings nuance to the epic story that is Shepard. The ending transcends Shepard from hero to legend, and legends lack nuance. We know the general events, such as saving the Citadel from Sovereign and defeating the Collectors, when it comes to legends, but what the hero was actually like is left to our imaginations. In a sense, Mass Effect 3’s ending clued us in that the player was merely filling in the details this whole time.
The narrative structure of the series never allowed players to change or influence large events in the game; no matter what, someone has to die on Virmire, Sovereign will be overcome despite saving the Council or not, the Collectors will abduct your team and you will watch someone be processed into the human Reaper. There is only one large story choice the player has, and that’s killing their Shepard at the end of Mass Effect 2. The narrative doesn’t allow the player to interact enough with the story to change it radically, only determine some minor details. That’s not to say Mass Effect is a bad series or failed at this, but it clearly doesn’t match what the fans thought the series was all about. These fans are upset that the ending only added nuance to Shepard’s final action, unaware that’s what was going on the entire time. BioWare’s misstep was hyping up this player-centric rhetoric and thinking the simple addition of a dialogue choice was what the fans wanted.
Money is Our Weapon and Hostage
Obviously, there are hobbyists who wrote out their analysis and feelings in an eloquent manner, but the vast majority (at least $80,000 worth) relied on what they perceive to be consumer rights to challenge BioWare. All of us have witnessed this when shopping or eating, when exchanging money for goods, there’s also a power relation where the customer gets as much as they want out of the transaction, including undue respect and service. We really shouldn’t be surprised about this reaction, because it’s endemic to a capitalist culture. Ever heard of “the customer is always right”? It’s now a subconscious mantra that manifests whenever we are displeased in a retail space. However, there is no law that states the customer is forever correct, it’s just many companies enact differing levels of this concept. This is the same with the videogame industry, companies ultimately bending to every whim of the player as long as they are a paying customer. A good fan is one that pays, and they can throw as many tantrums as they want as long as they keep paying. So the system is really what’s at fault here; fans are acting in such an extreme manner because of an ingrained “I give you money and you give me whatever I want” attitude, and companies’ customer service allows fans to be as vile as they want as long as they continue to give them money.
It’s not a secret that the main goal of AAA games is to make money, and “pleasing fans” seems like a great way to make money on paper. This relationship now structures the video game community, with companies and fans trying to figure out how to get as much as they can out of one another, always in some form of money. Mass demand shapes development and media cycles, building up a game with intense hype until it releases, then forgetting about it a couple weeks later. This is why this movement used money as a way to threaten BioWare; they insisted on refunds, raised money to show their financial influence, and tapped into that customer-merchant relationship to imply BioWare owed them something because they paid money. BioWare has visibly become more “whatever you want, fans” by changing their attitude from epic storytelling to compelling action, including modes to satisfy non-RPG fans, and having the masses decide on a canon look for the default woman Shepard. Many decisions aimed to catch more fans while keeping current ones satisfied. The artistic direction the series goes comes into conflict with this, because in the end, videogames are art with creative people making them. There’s often a line between doing something for money and making something for art’s sake. The media is particularly interested in this tension, quick to explain why they think BioWare should or should not modify the game in any way. BioWare tried to stuff their face with cake, but not anymore than most videogame companies. The problem lies in the genuine creativity and progressive nature the company seems to have constantly being at odds with its financial relationship to a demanding audience. They should have seen it coming with the community’s reaction to Dragon Age II and how an artistic expression was ultimately ignored because it didn’t directly serve their customers’ expectations.
The End of the World as We Know It
There are already the typical sky-falling predictions on both sides of the argument. If BioWare stands up for their product and tells fans to deal with it, they hold no value for those who support them. Decide to change the game in reaction to the fans, lose all artistic integrity. Many journalists disparage the fans for feeling entitled to their game, but participate in a media culture that has them remain silent about certain politics to keep readership. There is nothing innately wrong with anyone involved; what is wrong is how much we continue to support the negative aspects of the system we’re in. Capitalism is ultimately exploitative in nature, and things get nasty when that exploitation isn’t mutual. Because the relationship between companies, media, and fans are all monetary, peace is kept only with as much pandering towards the one handing over the money possible. Current events show that artistic and personal integrity are becoming domain of the buyers, and the only way to fix that is to change our relationship to money.