Sunday, March 25, 2012

Kotaku, Angry Joe, Gamefront and why we all owe BioWare an apology

Endings are a funny thing. Being the very last piece of the overall package, it's often this final bit will leave the longest lasting impression of your entire adventure. It's the one point where everything you've done, all the decisions you've made, the places you've gone, the relationships you established, the nations you spared, all coalesce into an emotional tidal wave that brings a sense of closure to your experience. For some, Mass Effect 3's ending defied these core principles and in doing so rendered itself incapable of bestowing an appropriate finale upon its fans. Should BioWare submit to those demanding for immediate change or is the ending fine the way that it is? We sound off within.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article contains massive spoilers for Mass Effect 3 as well as Half-Life 2. If you wish to preserve the integrity of the story for yourself, please do not read further. You have been warned.

Failure to complete an acceptable ending can collapse even the strongest of stories, ousting a loyal fan-base and shelling any chance of redemption in their eyes. Moreover, we come upon the scenario ME3 has laid before it; a seemingly inescapable situation in which fans have been clamoring for a 'true' ending, one that brings more closure to the trilogy. While ME3 did contain 16 variations in endings, the way they all ended didn't vary enough for the fans, nor did it bring to light answers that immediately beg to be answered. What of the detonating Mass Relays? Are the fleets of the galaxy doomed to remain in the Sol system for all time? Why was the Normandy fleeing from the final battle? What happened to Shepard and his crew? These are only a few of the questions that were never openly answered and have sent the internet into a berserker rage.

Before we takes sides and begin arguing semantics and such it's important to note that through all of this, and good majority probably don't want to hear this, but BioWare is the one running the story. They are the ones responsible for the inception of Mass Effect, the universe, characters, everything that we, the fans, love and respect about the series. Knowing that, let's get down to business.

You know it's always a start to something great when you can light somebody on fire... with bullets.

Having finished the full game in the opening week, I was completely blown away by ME3. Its presentation, emotional themes, excellent gameplay and unparalleled dialogue truly stand out as some of the best we've ever seen in gaming. Never has there been a console game that has allowed us to carry our character and the decisions they've made over the span of three games (and possibly more). Mass Effect is the first true 'epic' of this generation and I don't think anyone is contesting this. Actually, I don't think anyone is questioning the quality of the game up until it ends. That ending is the catalyst to our entire discussion and quite frankly, I'm disappointed with how the majority have been taking it.

When a game is crafted by a development team that deeply cares about every aspect of their product, it spills over into that fictional world we all temporarily inhabit. While ME3 contains flaws and hitches on every level, the rest of the game is so well defined that those faults are easily forgiven. Could the side missions have been less superficial and more physically involving? Absolutely. Could the mission structure, progress and indicators been more profound? Definitely. ME3 has weaknesses, but we can't get hung up on items like this when we're presented with some of the best dialogue, characters, narrative and cinematics in gaming. I'm not asking you to forget about the game's issues, on the contrary please remember them, but no one should allow an enigmatic ending to exponentially ruin the whole game for them, especially if they enjoyed the core experience. If it were truly this easy, then even the most notable games of all-time would be utter crap by way of a single error or unexplained notion. That's not fair to anyone.

How many games have concluded on cliffhangers? How many games have elaborated on an information rich universe to only provide a few answers to the most sought after questions? Renowned title and legendary shooter Half-Life is a perfect example. Over the course of both games and episodes, we still have absolutely no idea who the G-man is. Actually, he's never even referred to by name as 'G-man' is slang for government man. His random appearances throughout the games are incredibly mysterious and his intentions are largely unknown. When HL2 ended, the G-man stopped time and with it the massive explosion, all just to talk to Gordon Freeman before the next set of events unfolded. The screen faded to black and that was that until Episode One released. Talk about a cliffhanger; I never saw people creating a Retake Half-Life movement after this ending surfaced and its arguably a much more ambiguous story than Mass Effect could ever come close to.

One thing's for sure though, these dudes want to murder your family.

Anyway, much like the Reapers, the G-man operates with intentions we can't and shouldn't know the origin of. It's a mystery and it isn't a bad story-telling device as it allows for interpretation and foreshadowing to play out by word of mouth. Upon completing HL2, you are driven to talk about the ending and its meaning. Your urge to discover what's really going on becomes viral as you discuss the events with friends and maybe even chat up some like-minded fans on the forums. This kind of interpretation is a powerful device, which is why Valve's plot for the Half-Life series, while completely in the unknown, is genius. It gives you enough of a theme that allows for clear objectives like the preservation of humanity, but also a sense of urgency and ambition to find out what the hell is going on. ME3 works much in the same way, but gives more clear-cut answers to desired questions. While we know what the Reapers are here for, we don't know why they absolutely must complete their task, who created them or why they've gone about things the way they have. We just know they must be stopped.

Let me use some more classic examples of popular media that used interpretation to tell a story. How about Pulp Fiction? What was in that briefcase? They never tell you, but they never needed to. You know what's in it. Other films like The Wrestler, Shutter Island, Inception, all of these films never openly tell you what really happened after the final scene fades away, but they didn't need to. This kind of mystery in the narrative creates a much more powerful emotional attachment to those involved than simply showing them what happened. Paying attention throughout the duration of the film is your most powerful resource when searching for the answer and this is also the case with ME3.

ME3's ending can be pretty hard to grasp, especially if you're relatively new to the series or just aren't deeply involved in the over-arching story. The final sequence contains Shepard and company leading a final charge to the beam that will supposedly get them to the Citadel. Harbinger, the rather angry main Reaper, is standing in your way and vaporizes everything in front of you with a massive blast; your world goes dark. It's here where I believe ME3 takes a bold shift into the unknown and the internet calls it the 'Indoctrination Theory'.

After Harbinger's blast, ME3 changes. If you've been paying attention throughout the duration of the game, even the series, you should know the events that follow that fateful explosion are different for a reason. This is where Shepard is truly tested, where your mind is played with to represent something the series has showcased since its creation - indoctrination. How else would Anderson make it into the control room before you? Why is Anderson moving strangely, puppet-like during your confrontation with the Illusive Man? Why can't you control your actions and decisions like Shepard normally could? What are the black wisps on the edges of your screen and why does Shepard grimace in pain, clutch his head and hear a Reaper noise repeatedly? There's millions of other questions and oddities that provide overwhelming evidence that something else is at hand.

This video gives the best evidence along with an incredible explanation about why indoctrination makes sense.

With all of that said, the internet didn't want to hear it. To them and other infuriated fans, ME3 committed to a lethargic ending that didn't explain anything and left too much room for interpretation. Could BioWare have provided a better indication that you were, in fact, indoctrinated? Perhaps, but I am personally against further elaboration. Imagine the whole final sequence where you are fully aware that your Shepard is under the influence of the Reapers and battling for his sanity. Your encounters, decisions, thought process, everything would be altered and have a cataclysmic impact on that final moment. The 'Catalyst,' or child Shepard sees, would automatically be seen as a threat and everything it says would be thought as a ploy to get you to do what it wills. By only providing subtle clues of your indoctrination, BioWare manages to put you in a situation where you think you're doing the 'right' thing, but in reality you're conforming to the Reapers' agenda. Brilliant, I say.

How are people not seeing this? I'm not quite sure. Maybe the majority wanted a simple good/bad/ugly ending scenario or maybe people went into the game already wanting to hate the ending. I can't be certain, but when an ending shows you this much difference within multiple characters and environments, one would think that you'd stop and take a moment to think about what's going on. What hurts me more than people proclaiming the ending as lazy and abhorrent is the notable media outlets that are further fueling the fire for this pointless internet crusade. People are jumping aboard a ship that has no destination and websites like Kotaku are partly to blame. Kotaku recently wrote an article entitled 'Fail State: Why Mass Effect 3's Ending Was So Damn Terrible" and it covers exactly what you think. I indulge those reading this article who have an open mind to read this spiteful work and realize its ignorance.

During that final sequence, when you first are transported to the Citadel, as the player you should know that something is up. Even if you don't, when you reach the control room with Anderson and the Illusive Man it should all become overwhelmingly obvious that greater forces are playing a role. How could you not know? Shepard is pointing a gun at his friend and colleague and shoots him because the Illusive Man wills it. Why would Shepard do such a thing? My theory has already been provided, but here's what Kotaku had to say:
"Anderson gets shot. That's...unfortunate, I thought. No sooner has his body hit the ground, though, than the Illusive Man points the gun at me. Again, a Renegade prompt, again, I leave it, because that's not how I play. He shoots me. Game over. I was speechless. I was being forced to take a Renegade option, even though this was the polar opposite of the Shepard I had built over the trilogy. Why was there no Paragon option? Why had the binary system built to power the games suddenly not working? Why tell me there's a choice when it's not a choice at all?"
A short time later, the writer further elaborates on his displeasure with this statement:
"Swallowing the need to be a little meaner, I reloaded, shot him as quick as I could, and sat back as the endgame began to play out. When the time came to make THE ULTIMATE DECISION, I was again floored. This time, because the decision had suddenly become unclear. I had no idea which was the "good" ending I was after. All three choices I'd been presented with seemed ambiguous. Which was surely another creative decision on BioWare's part, but a poor one, because this one interfered with the trilogy's most basic assumption: that you can build the story the way you want to. That's why every single choice you made previously with regards to Paragon or Renegade pathways was so obvious; because it needed to be. People were invested in building their character the way they wanted to."
I've shared this much with all of you because this is the kind of ignorance that's not acceptable on any level. While I respect anybody's opinion, a thought process like this one can only be stated as wrong.

Even Tali is upset with the way people have been taking the ending.

The writer proclaims that the Paragon/Renegade system failed to work during the encounter with the Illusive Man, but it was working, just not in the way he was used to. The system set in place for Mass Effect isn't based on good or evil, it's the way Shepard goes about his job. Making Renegade decisions is oftentimes more aggressive and it sometimes results in greater good than choosing Paragon. Remember Garrus's loyalty mission in ME2? If you don't allow Garrus to kill the monster that slaughtered his men, you're a terrible friend. That's my opinion, but in case you decided to reason with the murderer, an interrupt appears. While not Renegade, if pressed it keeps the target close to you, not allowing Garrus to take the shot. The man was with Garrus for a long time and knowingly sold information that betrayed Garrus, getting every single person in his squad killed. While the option for saving him ostensibly seems like the 'good' way out, going against Garrus's will is also to be thought about.

Everything isn't always clearly labeled like this writer believes it is or should be, which is why when he says "that's not how I play" I immediately become aggravated. Blindly selecting the Paragon/Renegade commands because 'you want to be a good/bad guy' isn't just foolish, it's plain wrong. Even if you're the nicest guy in the universe, if someone threatened to kill someone close to you, forced them to their knees and then swung the weapon around to aim it at you, would you just sit there and allow him to take your life? Of course you wouldn't. Your dialogue selection brought you to that point and when the situation calls for it, sometimes you have to make the hard choices. My Shepard is mostly Paragon, but I have a healthy serving of Renegade adorning my bar as well. This is part of the reason why Mass Effect can be so magical.

You can build Shepard whatever way you want to, but this goes back to my initial claim that BioWare is the one in charge of the story. The writer didn't like the ending because it was too ambiguous to him and the choice wasn't completely clear. So what? A game ending can't be good now because the choices aren't black and white? This isn't something you can hold against the game because it was its intention all along. It's like influencing a book Stephen King is writing. Sure, he might ask his fans to give him an idea of what to write about, but once he has the core idea down it's now Mr. King's story to craft. We're going through ME3's story like Mr. King is going through his writing process. We can influence the direction of the story, but we're really being taken through an elaborate, structured story someone else decided upon. It's important not to forget that.

ME3 still allows us to mold a character to our specifications, but every Paragon/Renegade decision wasn't completely obvious, especially when one decision carries over into another game. Sometimes you have to go with your gut as there are no indicators of what you chose is right or wrong. This is something else I greatly respect about the series.

Whatever armor you're wearing, doesn't effect the outcome of the game. Can you believe it!?

Another reviewer I respect quite a bit, Angry Joe, also shares his hate for the endings of ME3. You can watch his "Top 10 Reasons Why We Hate Mass Effect 3's Endings" and immediately see that this whole indoctrination idea completely flew by him. The points he addresses are valid ones, but again, these are points of interpretation that don't immediately need to be explained to be accepted. Alright, the DLC for ME2 Arrival showed a Mass Relay blowing up, destroying an entire star system. What happens in ME3 isn't a giant asteroid hitting a Mass Relay, it's a device specifically designed to change the energies within the relays, shooting forth whatever it was to quell the universe of the Reaper threat, also dismantling the relays. What's so hard to accept about that?

Angry Joe nit-picks and says he wanted to see more involvement in the final battle from the assets you garnered throughout the game. He wanted to see the Rachni sweep in and attack the Reapers, he wanted to watch as Grunt's squad jumped in and hammered home a few enemies. The thing is, the final battle is a wash. We never see any of those capital Reapers die, only the lesser ones and while I do agree that I would have liked to have seen some more of those assets kick in, seeing everyone come together for one purpose was enough for me. At no point where we ever going to see Samara and Wrex single-handedly destroy a Reaper, it never went hand-in-hand with the situation everyone was in nor the canon of the series. There wasn't any possible way anyone could beat the Reapers, all of this was just a diversion to slow them down for the Crucible to be put in place.

If there's one thing these websites and more have in common, it's that every single one believes they were stripped of player choice. With everything I've said, I call shenanigans on this one.

Gamefront wrote an in-depth article entitled, "Mass Effect 3 Ending-Hatred: 5 Reasons The Fans Are Right" and it's a good read if you share in the same thoughts. Their number one reason was that player choice is completely discarded. Like Angry Joe and Kotaku, Gamefront believes that the final sequence takes away everything Mass Effect ever stood for and does not allow you to commence the final cinematic with the proper tools in place. They believe you should have been given more options to select, you should have been able to clearly know which path to take and Angry Joe simply hated the fact that he was introduced to a new character at the last minute of the game, the image of the child, the 'Catalyst'.

After the final events of the game play out, even Joker doesn't know where to go.

The thing is, the 'Catalyst' isn't a new character, it's Harbinger grabbing a familiar image in your mind and talking through it. Being indoctrinated and having dealt with the Illusive Man only moments ago, you have no idea what's real anymore and then you're sucked to the surface of the Citadel with no space-worthy gear? Come on. The pieces through this entire ordeal have been screaming to be noticed. Not understanding the choices the 'Catalyst' gives to you is part of the whole plan and you, as the player, are the one that needed to be paying attention.

Specifically, the choice argument points directly to BioWare's advertising and messages such as this:
Being blinded by rage, I can understand how people immediately point this directly at ME3's endings. While they hardly vary, statements like this aren't talking about ME3 by itself. They're addressing the entire series and what you've done to get to this point. ME3 is an ending altogether and Penny Arcade agrees with this statement. You've literally shaped your story from nothing but scraps and, in ME3, you have the ability to end centuries old conflicts and resolve even older issues. These are decisions that are completely up to you, the player to find and complete or ignore. Saying that, a statement, like the one above, only applying to the direct ending of ME3 is ignorant in itself.

Admirable as these websites think they are being for fighting for the beliefs of gamers everywhere, all of them jumped aboard that hateful, hateful ship because they didn't understand the end of the game. They came together because they didn't get the ending they wanted and now this sense of entitlement has stretched throughout the vast expanses of the internet. Condescending as that may sound, it's the truth. BioWare has paid a painstaking amount of time and detail to get everything you've done over the course of three games perfect. Do you think they'd slap together an ending scene that had almost no correlation to the overall story? Sure, there are developers out there that could do that, but there isn't a single point in the entire game that fails to address your adventures in previous installments of the series. It's incredible work.

Through it all, there's still a large degree of mystery. Something contemporary games often avoid.

If BioWare were to conform to the will of the masses, it could spell much worse things for gaming. However, even Dr. Ray Muzyka acknowledges the hate, but still hasn't committed to altering the endings as he stands by his studio's work. If some of you just took the time to take a look at the greater picture, I think we'd all be better off. BioWare has broken no promises and delivered a unconventional ending to a one-of-a-kind series. With all of the loose ends still dangling about, BioWare sure did tie up a vast majority of the ones that have been around since day one. I'm looking forward to finding the answers to what ME3 left behind.

With all of the videos, links and arguments I've presented here if you still aren't convinced then you likely will never be. All I ask is that you take the time to look at this game for what it is, an end to Shepard's story, not an end to the Mass Effect universe. Angry as you might be, it's everyone's job to be observant, creative and imaginative when it comes to the more elaborate narratives. Not everything is set to be answered in full and with all signs pointing to Shepard's indoctrination as the twist to the ending, it's truly something anyone with an open mind can appreciate.

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