That’s right boys and girls, it’s time for another discussion about games as art. Emergency exits are in the top left and right corner of your browser. (But please don’t go, I feed upon the internet’s validation.)
Disclaimer: As of yet I have not played through Mass Effect 3. This action is not a form of protest against the franchise or BioWare. Rather I’m a cheap-ass gamer, and I’m waiting for the title to go on sale with a DLC bundle. Moreover, I know I would probably have a hard time being objective within this missive if ME3’s ending is as awful as the internet would lead a person to believe.
To my eyes, this situation speaks to the relationship between a given work of art and its audience. As indicated, legions of angry Mass Effect fans hate the ending to the final chapter of the trilogy. As such, BioWare has announced that they are redoing the ending. This retooling may be as simple as addressing the deficiencies in the dialogue selection within the game’s ultimate scene, or it might extend to an outright retcon. For the sake of this discussion it doesn’t really matter. The artist has presented a given work; the crowd has found it wanting; now the artist is changing his/her art to suit the audience’s taste.
BioWare’s decision to cave into public pressure creates a bit of a slippery slope. On the one note it is highly irregular if not completely unprecedented within the gaming world. Games have long since offered multiple endings, some more canonical than others. Design studios regularly patch technical problems within a title or offer additional content. But to delve into a game’s plot/game structure, something that within the Mass Effect franchise is layered, philosophical, and richly developed, is a bit unusual. Especially if, like myself, you are inclined to view games as art. Why is that important? Because art is allowed, even encouraged at times, to alienate its audience.
When the 19th century saw the separation of art and state, artists found a freedom in expressing their own unique vision through the creative process. In that model, a viewer who engages with art while being true to their taste can’t possibly like everything all the time. Thus emerges an essential paradox of modern art: if an artist wants to sell their work, they need to give the audience what they want.
Some people call it good business to work within that framework. Others look at pleasing the crowd before pleasing an internal artistic vision as being a whore.
Consider for a moment the situation that Eidos Montreal created with Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Their game found near universal praise from gamers and game critics save for one detail: everybody hated the boss battles. They were deemed to be a one-way street within a game space that rewarded creativity and lateral thinking. In this scenario, the alienation is more accidental than by design. Still, that did not stop Gameplay Director Francois Lapikas from issuing a public apology.
[The boss fights] were a big part of the game, and we should have put more effort into them. I’m truly sorry about that. Next time we’re gonna think about it more. Via gameinformer
I commend BioWare for following in the footsteps of Eidos and offering a mea culpa. But to what end? If the altered ending doesn’t receive critical acclaim, will they change it again? Will the original ending remain intact for players like myself, who want to see what the developers had in mind before the mob demanded that Caesar offer a different sacrifice for the arena? And perhaps the most important question, if BioWare refuses to take their lumps and move on to new projects, should we still talk about Mass Effect 3 as art? Since I subscribe to a school of thought which states art must have the courage to stand or fall on its own merits, I don’t know that I can. Make no mistake, I want to view ME3 as art. The aesthetic of Mass Effect’s universe is beautiful, familiar, and alien. The story is the embodiment of sophisticated space opera. But if public controversy leads to a culture of change rather than conviction and growth is it still art, or just a prostitute that appeals to a sci-fi fetish?
Though it’s taken as a maxim that art is never done, at some point, the artist has to step back from the easel and frame the damn thing. I won’t condemn or condone BioWare beyond that point except to say that they are moving into a dangerous Lucas-esque territory.