“Maybe you’re just like my mother,” a great man once sang, “she’s never satisfied.” It is a truth universally acknowledged that gamers, like the fictional mother of The Artist Formerly Known As The Artist Formerly Known As Prince, find satisfaction an elusive prize. Ours is a subculture plagued, if not defined, by complaining. There is always something missing from our experiences, some intangible omitted element that, if the designers had only had the sense to include it, would have alchemized the game from lead into gold. Complaining is so ingrained in us that opening an article by complaining about complaining is a viable tactic.
Alright, I’m kidding. But only a little.
Few things have put me in mind of Prince’s figurative progenitor as much as the recent controversy over Mass Effect 3’s ending. The issue — which mutated from Minor Kerfuffle into Full Boondoggle in record time — revolves around a petition created by dissatisfied fans asking developer BioWare to patch in alternative closing sequences. “Whereas,” the petition begins in deepest sincerity, the ending fails on at least four different levels, the petitioners “respectfully request” that additional closing sequences be added to the game. Instead of signatures, the petition asks supporters to make a donation to Child’s Play, the charity founded by Penny Arcade.
I haven’t played Mass Effect 3, much less finished it. For all I know the final cutscene could feature Commander Shepard forgoing saving the galaxy to open her own pancake restaurant. But regardless of the ending’s narrative consistency or emotional impact, there’s a key misunderstanding happening here: This ain’t our story. By demanding the creators change it to suit our preferences, we’re breaking an unstated contract. Not between designer and player, but between magician and audience.
Video games are magic acts in any number of ways, but mostly because they create illusions. Narrative-heavy games like BioWare’s are vehicles for fantasy, for immersing ourselves in other worlds. But they also fool us into thinking their stories are our stories, that we players are in control of our experience. We’re not. We’re merely choosing from options presented to us. The results of those choices — a poignant cutscene, a new mission opportunity — can be rewarding in and of themselves. But just as rewarding is the process of choosing, of engaging in the fantasy not that we are intergalactic heroes, but that we are actually authors of our own story. It's the same feeling we get when a magician convinces us, if only for a second, that by saying Abracadabra we really did make our card disappear. The illusion of agency can be just as exciting as the illusion of magic.
The greatest trick game designers ever pulled is convincing the player they didn’t exist, some might say. But marketing plays a role as well. In the case of BioWare, design and marketing are aligned in a way that’s more effective than in perhaps any other major studio. Fans truly feel ownership of their experiences, despite the games being story-focused, transparently authored products. This speaks to the superb quality of the authorship, but also to a design ethic and marketing strategy that work together effectively to further the illusion of player authority, of being in control. "Our choices matter," the design and the marketing tell us. And because of the complexity and elegance of their interaction design and the depth of their fiction, BioWare can pull it off. They are, in other words, excellent magicians. Brian Taylor’s brilliant analysis links this trend to fan culture and speculates why BioWare fans feel so comfortable petitioning for a new ending and filing false advertising complaints with the Better Business Bureau:
BioWare games exploit these participatory aspects of fan culture in their game design. The company knows that fans like to ask ‘what if?’, to maneuver characters into romantic relationships, and so they build in the options. They appear responsive to the desires of their fans and so it’s not really surprising that rather than use older forms of remixing like fan fiction [...] the fans go to the company itself. Maybe it’s a desire for validation, or some kind of misguided creative impulse.
And this is where the unspoken contract is violated. When you go to a magic show, you understand that you will see a series of illusions, that your senses and your mind will be fooled, and you’re content to plunk down your money for the pleasure of being tricked. If you're lucky, the magician may call you up to the stage as a volunteer, having you enact some minor portion of a trick — usually to distract you and the audience from the real action. This is what narrative-focused video games do: They give you a few moments on stage with the magician, a brief span in the spotlight. But you, the audience participant, aren't the one in control of the performance. So you play along. You don't demand the lovely assistant be sawed in thirds instead of halves, because you are not the one performing the trick.
That’s not to say we shouldn’t subject games to thoughtful critique. As a reviewer, I obviously find a lot of value in that process. If we don’t demand more from games, they won’t get better. If we think something sucks, it can be worthwhile to talk about why it sucks, about how we think it could be improved. But players are not creators, and consumers are not designers. We do not have ultimate say over what the game includes or does not include, despite the convincing responsiveness of corporate social media and the panacea of the almighty patch.
Some argue otherwise, that because games are more malleable than other media, consumers should be encouraged to have a more “participatory” relationship with creators. But applying that logic to a series like Mass Effect, which is decidedly not a playground for collaborative storytelling like Sleep is Death, seems misguided. It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of how a story-driven game works, miscasting creative choices as bugs to be fixed. Of course, viewed through a more cynical lens, you can imagine the DLC Alternate Ending taking off as the next monetization trend.
Money, it turns out, is central to this controversy. According to their website, the ME3 petitioners have raised more than $78,000 as of press time for Child’s Play since March 13, an absolutely astounding total that could help a lot of sick children. Yet as a Gamer whose Job is With a charity, I’m conflicted about this. Funding is desperately needed in the nonprofit sector, and as long as it comes from legal sources, it’s hard to turn down money. But linking the petition to charity has the effect of diluting the petition's message. If the petitioners felt they were in the right in the first place, why bother with the charitable campaign? On some level, the creators of the petition had to realize they’d come under fire for their “request” to BioWare, so they couched it in philanthropy. They also must have realized how petty their request would seem, so they latched on to charitable giving to lend it an air of respectability. Their “win-win” argument — join together to fix this video game AND help some sick kids! — encourages people to support their position without resorting to too much critical thought. Nevermind the actual charity itself or the mission it pursues. You can feel satisfied knowing your outrage is going to a good cause. Giving to charity to insulate yourself from criticism is a time-honored tactic of the terminally disingenuous. One hopes that's not the case here.
Yet clearly, BioWare believes in the petitioners' sincerity. In a supremely ironic twist, I had to change the ending of this article after yesterday's announcement from BioWare's Dr. Ray Muzyka that ME3 developers are now working on "game content initiatives" which, if they aren't new endings, will at least "provide more clarity for those seeking further closure to their journey." I don't even want to begin to parse Dr. Ray's statement or speculate about what BioWare's reaction to this controversy signifies. There have already been arguments on both sides, some calling it a blatant cash grab and some calling it a new standard for studio responsiveness. My gut feeling is that no matter what this new content ends up being, a good number of the petitioners still won't be satisfied. Eventually, they'll realize they'll never be — until they're the magicians on stage pulling rabbits out of hats.