Today people got angry about Mass Effect 3—for a new reason.
Today, people said that the people making the game were doing something "dangerous."
"Respect lost," one fan said.
"This is dumb" another complained.
"This is absurd"
"You think we could work in porn?"
Oh, that last one wasn't about Mass Effect 3. It wasn't part of this new anger that was sparked when the co-founder of the studio that made the game said his team is working on some sort of clarification (modification? change?) to the controversial ending of the game.
These were all things people Tweeted at me after we reported that BioWare was reacting to complaints about their ending and introducing something in April—new content—presumably, that would improve the game's conclusion.
People were sending some of their anger my way, because I shared my own opinion on Twitter: "And there was hope that maybe video games can truly be interactive…"
That's right. I'm all for BioWare doing something with the game's ending, and not just because they want to. I'm glad they seem to be making some sort of change because players of the game have asked them to.
Before today's anger came the anger about the ending. (See the endings here. Warning: they're full of spoilers.)
Many people complained about the Mass Effect 3's conclusion because they felt it was abrupt and distressing, that it didn't properly pay off this multi-year saga and didn't let players feel closure with the many characters they'd adventured with across three games. They say it throttled the series' trademark freedom of choice.
Now people are complaining that, if BioWare messes with that ending, the company is surrendering their artistic integrity.
Readers have told me that this is a slippery slope. They've said that acquiescing to fans—some of them rude or overly entitled—who petition and Tweet and make a huge commotion about how a work of fiction ends undermines BioWare's position as independent-minded creators.
"It's not about which ending we get," an aspiring game designer named Jason Ragatz wrote to me on Twitter, "it's about the total disrespect and destruction of the artistic integrity of gaming's best."
BioWare is failing to stand their ground, I've seen people say. They're doing something we wouldn't respect—or even expect—in other forms of entertainment. Among the comparisons I've seen: What if the people who made The Sopranos buckled and changed that series' notorious ending? Shouldn't the creators of Lost have undone that series' notorious final season? Should the Mona Lisa get a boob job just because some viewers of the painting loudly demand it?
What if, indeed?
What if games weren't movies, TV series or paintings? What if, I keep saying—even to some of my Kotaku colleagues who shout at me that I'm out of my mind—games were interactive? What if they were truly interactive?
I don't consider the content of video games to be sacrosanct.
I love video games. I respect their creators. And I do not consider those feelings to be inconsistent with my belief that games are malleable works that benefit from improvement and transformation. Look, I'm the person who thinks it's kosher to listen to podcasts while playing repetitious parts of video games, so be prepared to not take me seriously, if you haven't reached that point yet. I'm also a person who has seen games patched and tweaked for years. I've seen games modified when re-issued. I've seen series upon series designed to take into account fan feedback. Games are often not static.
More than one smart game developer has described the medium as a conversation between game players and game creators. The devs make a game. We play it. We react. The devs make a new game that answers those players and so that cycle continues. That conversation doesn't—and for a long time hasn't—occurred simply between the release of one game and the next. It's happened during the lifespan of a game. It happens with MMOs. It happens with shooters. It happens all the time.
I struggle to see what's invalid about a game developer hearing a complaint from its fans and reacting. But it's about the story, people have said to me. You can tweak the balance of a shotgun or maybe open the ending of a game up so players can do the sidequests, but story is different.
I disagree, and I do not buy the argument that story, often considered one of the least game-like elements of a video game, deserves to be treated differently than the elements of a game that are integral to making it a game.
Caveat: We don't know how BioWare is going to change their game. If they flip their story around, if they decide to end their narrative differently, I do think they'll look silly and I'll wonder how they could have abandoned in weeks a plotline they developed for years. But if they tweak it. If they add to it. If they show us some extra scenes. Then what problem will there be?
And if they present an entirely new ending… will we say they've lost their standing as artists? Or will we recognize them as artists of a malleable medium, artists who could create a cool new ending every other month if they had the time, the budget and the desire to engage with their fans that way?
Customers sometimes are right (and, yes, I know, sometimes they're also obnoxious). We don't speak with one voice at Kotaku, and some of our own writers have bristled at the manner and the merits of the change-the-ending campaigns. (We've also published writers' takes both for and against the current ending.)
Artists don't lose their shine in my eyes if they decide that they care to entertain their audience by sometimes changing their work. Artistic integrity may be a virtue, but humility is not a vice. Nor is it a vice to be willing to change positions, to bend or to adjust or to evolve or to improve. That is something I cheer in my game developers as much as I do in my political leaders.
I understand the frustration I saw on Twitter today. There are game creators from whom I wouldn't expect the kind of note that BioWare sent today. I would never expect Nintendo's Shigeru Miyamoto, for example, to hop online, apologize for not meeting his audience's standards and then promise a tweaked Bowser boss battle for Super Mario Sunshine. I expect some game creators to hold steadfast, to say, "This is my creation and I want it to stand as is, perceived flaws and all." Today we learned that that's not BioWare's philosophy.
One of the pre-eminent game development studios dedicated to player choice is now clearly established as a studio of updatable work. To me, it fits.
None of us can fully judge BioWare's decision to clarify or modify the ending of Mass Effect 3 until we've seen what they'll do. (And not without knowing their business plan—a BioWare spokesperson declined to comment today when I asked if this clarified ending content would be paid or free. More details in April, he said.)
What we can decide today is the limit of how flexible we want the people who make our games to be. Do we want patches and updates? Do we want multiplayer tweaks? Do we want improved graphics? Do we want new quests? Do we want them to let us romance a character they didn't initially let us romance? Do we want them to let us play an alternate ending? When do we want game developers to listen to us? And when do we want them to refuse to react?
I think people want to know that the thing they've played is the thing. They want to know they played the Mass Effect 3 that counts, the one that was intended, the one that may have been hard to swallow but was seasoned that way intentionally.
I believe that the Mass Effect 3 that BioWare wants us to play is a changing creation, something that is more organic than The Sopranos, Lost or the Mona Lisa—something that's more
ephemeral fluid, that doesn't exist just at one moment in one way but has had its own life and experienced its own changes.
For me, games are a malleable art. That's why today's Mass Effect 3 news didn't distress me at all.