Mar 162012

Spoilers abound. This post covers the controversy and events around it; the post you’re reading now are my own feelings on the matter. Spoilers after the cut:

Something I posted to Something Awful:

I’m going to risk putting my foot in my mouth by waxing philosophical here for a sec.

Listen, I make games for a living. When the whole “are games art?” question hit the mainstream, I was one of the folks going “of course they’re art, you assholes, just like novels and films!” And I haven’t fundamentally changed that position.

But AAA titles like Mass Effect are commercial art — art created not just in the spirit of l’art pour l’art, but also to engage with a customer and derive profit from the creation and presentation of the art. It’s not unlike the distinction one might make between an indie, art house film out to make a statement, and a major Hollywood SFX extravaganza blockbuster. They’re both films, but with different primary goals. There are areas–big ones–of overlap between the two extremes, to be sure. One might even argue that the best and most successful examples manage to strike the right balance between making statements and making money, achieving both with a certain degree of finesse.

When you make commercial art, you’re engaging with a customer. The customer has expectations, and it is partly the duty of a commercial artist to please his customer. There are a few degrees of separation when it comes to the developer-publisher model of game development (namely, BioWare’s customer is really EA, and we are in turn EA’s customers), but the idea is still more or less the same. If you fail to please your customer, even if you are holding true to your “artistic vision,” then your piece of commercial art has failed.

That’s why the “entitlement” line is such a load of horseshit. A gamer, as a customer that has engaged in a business transaction for a piece of interactive commercial art, has every right to expect that commercial art to satisfy expectations. To that end, even if changing the ending strikes Casey Hudson, Mac Walters, Mike Gamble, or any of the others as compromising their artistic vision, their customers have told them that they are dissatisfied with their product. Their artistic vision has failed as commercial art–to achieve the balance between vision and financial success. In order to achieve their artistic vision and create successful commercial art, they have to change it, or suffer the financial consequences.

I’m not really sure who or what I’m directing this at. Just felt like it needed saying. Maybe I’m talking out of my ass. Seems right, though. It’s how I feel, as a game developer.

On the topic of players “demanding” new endings:

I think, once you peel back the phrasing and rhetoric used by the “demand” camp, what you find is a customer dissatisfied with a product and seeking to have that remedied. A customer with no investment can simply walk away; never provide this particular artist with their patronage again, and send a message that said artist needs to alter their business plan if they intend to reclaim that patron’s funding.

But we aren’t talking about those customers. We’re talking about the customers that have been happily coming to a particular artist for years and receiving excellent, satisfying works. Now, they have received a work that is exceptional in most ways, but has a major blemish. They’re asking that the blemish be cleaned up, a request which they feel they’ve earned due to their long-standing patronage and the perceived trust relationship they’ve developed. I don’t think that’s outlandish. The phrasing and rhetoric can get extreme because of the emotional investment, but the underlying premise is reasonable.

The burden is now on BioWare to make a decision. They can treat these long-standing patrons as one-off customers and take the hardline that if the customer is dissatisfied with the work, they can take their business elsewhere. This is a perfectly valid response for a commercial artist to make. If, however, they wish to retain the patronage of a loyal customer, it behooves them to listen to that customer.

One of the jobs of a commercial artist at a more meta level is to understand what the customer wants. That’s not the same thing as what the customer’s asking for; anyone can provide that, and it usually results in work devoid of real weight. Great commercial art comes from listening to what the customer’s saying, figuring out what drives that, and then providing art that satisfies the desire in such a way that the customer is happy, but the artist’s vision is maintained.

BioWare should be listening–and claims to be. They should be trying to identify what their customers really want; not what they say they want. And then, if they want to retain those customers as patrons, they should provide it as a matter of good faith.

The Penny Arcade guys have come out more-or-less in defense of the game’s endings, each of them posting different thoughts on the matter. Of the two, Tycho (the writer) was more understanding of the reason players are upset. Gabe, on the other hand, posted a really irritating response that I felt compelled to rebut point-for-point. Read his post before reading the below.

Brevity: This isn’t the problem. He’s right in that all of ME3 is the “ending.” People complaining that it’s too short are expressing a valid criticism, but don’t really understand the problem, which is that the brief ending isn’t satisfying — it feels too short because it doesn’t resolve anything.

Confusing: The Reapers’ motivations aren’t the confusing part. The Reapers’ motivations are dumb, but not confusing. What’s confusing is watching what happens next, once you make your choice, because none of it makes sense.

Mass Relays exploding wipe out solar systems. Is every solar system containing a Mass Relay now wiped out? What the hell was Joker running from, and how? The Mass Relay was exploding/exploded, and Mass Relay jumps are instantaneous, so what the hell was that scene? How are the survivors going to get by on an alien planet with no infrastructure? What becomes of them? (This one circles back to the mis-labeled “confusing” argument.)

And, of course, why the hell would Shepard just accept the Reapers’ dumb justification, when he/she just spent the entirety of three games proving the Reapers wrong? Synthetic and organic life can coexist — the Geth/Quarian arc can prove that, EDI proves that, etc. It’d be fine if the Reapers throw out this dumb-ass justification and then Shepard says, “Uh, no.” But he/she doesn’t.

Lore: This section made me want to punch him in the face the most. “I don’t understand these complaints, so clearly people just take this stuff too seriously.” Just because you don’t care about your entertainment having consistent lore doesn’t invalidate it as a legitimate grievance. Consistent, solid world-building is one of the foundations of good fiction. You don’t usually think about it because the people creating it are making sure you don’t need to.

Philosophy: The point he’s missing here (again, “I don’t understand this” means he shouldn’t be trying to address it) is that Shepard has spent three games proving the idea of the Reapers’ cycles wrong. That’s why the end is a betrayal of the game’s philosophy: Shepard’s entire arc makes him/her an agent of change and unification, but the ending completely negates that entire aspect of his character. “Synthesis” is an absurd choice, because it forces every lifeform in the galaxy to undergo an unwilling change at the behest of the game’s villains.

Choice: Face. Palm. I’m starting to think he’s just trolling with this post. Every choice, every action, every undertaking you’ve gone through for the last three games is rendered moot by the “final” decision you make. Did you cure the genophage? Doesn’t matter: destroy / control / synthesis. Did you bring the Quarians and Geth together? Doesn’t matter: destroy / control / synthesis. Did you unite the greatest fleet the galaxy has ever seen? Doesn’t matter: destroy / control / synthesis.

None of what you do across the games matters in the slightest, wiped away instead by the “final” choice. If we saw more of the consequences of this final choice, factoring in the rest of the choices you made (circling back once again to the Brevity point), then it wouldn’t be nearly as bad. But without any kind of “you made your final choice, here’s how your other decisions are impacted by this” denouement, that final choice renders all those other choices completely worthless.

Basically, Gabe’s post says one of three things to me:
1) I am trolling the people upset about the ending of a game they care about.
2) I am unwilling to come out against a company with whom I’ve worked closely and whose patronage at my popular conference I want to continue seeing, so I will post something that says nothing of substance.
3) I am a giant idiot and don’t know what I’m talking about.

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