What do game writers and designers think about BioWare changing the Mass Effect 3 ending?

Evan Lahti at
 

Sam & Max: The Devil's Playhouse

Chuck Jordan

Jordan is an independent game developer. He worked at LucasArts in the late ‘90s, wrote dialogue for Telltale’s Sam & Max adventure games, and did game design and writing for Disney Imagineering, an interactive development arm of the company.

"Considering how much time people have spent trying to advance the idea that video games are works of art, it's disappointing to see so many people defending the idea that games are product. It's almost enough to make me think that writing thousands of words about the nature of artistic expression in interactive entertainment on my own low-traffic blog were a waste of time.

There's usually an outcry whenever a movie's obviously been focus-grouped into mediocrity, or when a pop star is clearly targeted at a particular demographic. And when a video game gets a console release with a UI tailored to controllers, we have to listen to incessant complaints that the game's been "dumbed down" just to appeal to a larger audience. Apparently the value of ‘audience feedback’ can fluctuate.

Products are made to the specifications of customers. Art is supposed to be an expression of creativity. If you're invalidating your team's ‘vision’ to appeal to the demands of players, then you've crossed the line from art to commerce. That's no different for interactive entertainment than it is for anything else.

It's frequently framed as ‘empowering the player,’ but pandering isn't empowerment. People seem to have forgotten that "give the people what they want" was always intended to be a pejorative expression. If the goal of a game is to provide the player with the tools to create her own story, then the developers need to actually give the player those tools. Not just a series of scripted events based on what the developers think their audience wants.

Essentially, BioWare created the problem for themselves by, to be blunt, promising more than they or any other developer could deliver. They've sold the Mass Effect series on the premise that the player can completely customize his character and his character's story—entire planets with complex storylines that some players will never even see! (And also sex with aliens). But even the largest team of writers and content creators won't be able to deliver an indefinite number of conclusions that all have the same level of impact, satisfying enough to conclude a multi-year, multi-game epic series. People have been spending years trying to come up with a way to create systems that generate compelling narratives, and no one's cracked the problem yet.

That's probably because it's not really a problem; developer-created narratives still have plenty of value in interactive entertainment. And they can be collaborative: the developer and the player work together to complete a story. The player's interaction with the system is what gives the story meaning. When I'm playing games, I prefer to be surprised, to be shown something I wouldn't have come up with on my own. And it's hardly a collaboration if one of the participants can always get his way just by complaining loudly enough."

 

Bastion

Greg Kasavin

Kasavin was Editor-in-Chief of GameSpot for a decade. He’s currently Creative Director at Supergiant Games. Supergiant released Bastion last year. Kasavin mentions that he has played and completed Mass Effect 3 (and both previous games) and that he’s “a longtime fan of BioWare, ever since Baldur's Gate. BioWare's classic games are a big inspiration to me.”

"I think developers are well within their right to make positive changes to games post-release, and in the vast majority of cases this is seen by players as a good thing if not an expected thing these days. For example, a high-quality multiplayer game needs to be nurtured and maintained over time by its developers as its player base grows more experienced and inevitably discovers exploits or other issues. I'm always willing to give developers I trust the benefit of the doubt when it comes to making changes post-release.

Making narrative changes post-release can be tricky because story is seen as canonical... history can't be rewritten, and so on. But I think it's important to note this type of thing does happen sometimes. Fallout shipped with a time-sensitive main quest that gave you a really bleak ending if you took too long to finish that quest. In the first patch, the developers eliminated the time limit, removing what could be seen as a major aspect of the ending. Years later, Fallout 3 got patched so that you could continue playing post-release. Many movies, including classics like Blade Runner, got director's cuts with major narrative changes said to reflect the true authorial intent.

Whether it's appropriate is a judgment call. I don't think these cases are just a matter of the creators of these works buckling to pressure. I think they wanted to do the right thing, for the sake of their work and their audience. Likewise, in the current case of Mass Effect 3, I fully expect BioWare will do whatever they think is best. I think BioWare has accomplished an incredible achievement with Mass Effect, and I'll be interested to see how it evolves from here."