In which Squaresoft wrote a Bioware game. (Spoilers.)

“500 years later…”

For years, this was basically all we had to go on for the ending to Final Fantasy VII. It frustrated and captivated my 11-year-old self in ways I can barely describe. What happened? Did they relocate? Did the Planet wipe out humanity in self-preservation, like Bugenhagen suggested?

That is still my personal interpretation of that ending, Square Enix’s subsequent milking of the FF7 cash cow be damned. It is short, sweet, and seems to tell us everything and nothing all at once. I haven’t seen an RPG pull off quite that same trick ever since. At least, not until Bioware’s latest title came bolting out the stable a few weeks ago.

Which is why, I suppose, I’m greeting this current air of entitled frustration and negativity from these generalized “ME3 players” (contented ones obviously don’t count!) with exasperation more than anything else. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt (and the action figures and keychains and wallscrolls). The only real difference between player reaction to this game here, and the ones of yesteryear is that now a lot more people have Internet access. Which is neither a good nor bad thing, just noisier.

Right now I am thanking the cold unfeeling heavens that FFVII was released back when our understanding of “social media” consisted of AOL chatrooms. We didn’t have to deal with page after page of this. (Note: ME3 spoilers.) It was a simpler, more innocent time, that era before Tumblr and VeryDemotivational.com. Fans were still the vitriolic hellspawn they are now, of course, but trashtalking a developer to a dozen people on Usenet has a different register to it than threatening to drag the FTC into this or convincing Amazon to offer full refunds because you didn’t like a game’s ending.

Here is what Hideaki Anno thinks of your "children's show."

Most of the narratives I’ve known people to decry as “stupid” or “incomplete” are ones which don’t compromise. I can recall vividly watching A River Runs Through It in a high school film class and watching a classmate burst straight out of her seat in front of the projector and start yelling at the film, so infuriating was the idea that Brad Pitt’s character could die, and off screen, of all things! (Oops, I just spoiled it.) We are programmed through mass media to expect certain archetypes to be treated in certain fashions, and of course the game hero is among the more sacred of these.

“But our choices didn’t matter!” you shriek.

Yes, and I hated when ME2 pulled that stunt on me. But for reasons of scale alone, Mass Effect 3 cannot even be compared. You are fucked, in this game. You are so fucked, even in a best case scenario. Why should your decisions have so much more weight than the rest of the universe? I hate to break it to you, but in real life, your decisions really don’t matter all that much.

“But it was a game about our choices mattering!”

Was it? Was it really? One (or more) of your squadmates will always die on Virmire. You will always have that final battle even if you convince Saren not to fight you. You will always end up working for Cerberus. The Collectors will always abduct your crew. And in the third game, there are events which will happen regardless of your actions every single time, because the writers apparently finally realized that you are one person trying to stop a hurricane.

Where is Final Fantasy VII‘s resolution that much materially different than Mass Effect 3‘s? You spend all that time leveling characters and assets, sorting through the cast’s melodrama and deep psychological problems, and fighting a rival human outfit which is doing its level best to hasten the apocalypse, and all you get at the end is a picturesque verdant landscape and a small glimmer of hope that intelligent life will continue. No mention of the fate of your companions. Little to no indication that your actions did anything beyond averting total annihilation of your homeworld. After all those cinematics, all that “emotional engagement,” you get a brief picture of life entered into a different epoch and then finis.

So, again, I wonder if all this furor about “agency” isn’t just the players misinterpreting the rhetoric of the developers, as usual. Mass Effect has never been about actual choice and real, graspable effects of those choices. It’s been about stemming an unrelenting tide, clutching onto compromises like a consolation prize. It’s also no different than business as usual for the roleplaying genre. Final Fantasy VII just had the luxury of releasing in a time before Twitter.

Final thought on the two games: there is some making-of VHS my brother got with his copy of FFVII where Hironobu Sakaguchi says in an interview that the concept for the game emerged in response to his mother’s death. Japanese aesthetic has always been strongly fixated on mortality, the inevitability and even “rightness” of dying as part of the natural cycle. I feel like Western games have gotten into the habit of denying the existence of death, but it wasn’t always so. Old tabletop RPGs assumed player characters would die a lot and were, thus, expendable, not worthy of emotional investment.

I’d like to believe there is a middle ground we can achieve here, closer to the Japanese way of looking at things. We can invest in our characters, and also accept getting our hearts broken when the narrative denies us that oh-so-implausible happily ever after.

Because really, shouldn’t a game about space remind us how tiny and pointless we are?

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Comments

  • circadianwolf  On 03.20.12 at 12:52 pm

    As you hint at, I think the problem lies strongly with most singleplayer video games in general and Mass Effect in particularly being so damned solipsistic: their worlds literally exist for the player. Video games are the bubble universe Zaphod Beeblebrox gets stuffed in to so when he looks into the Total Perspective Vortex he finds he’s Literally the Most Important Thing In the Universe.

    “Cinematic” video games/performative games are very interesting in that way: just a little bit of agency (and as you correctly point out, Mass Effect has very little real agency, and it’s all 1st-order stuff) and people quickly end up feeling “ownership” and entitlement in a way they don’t with, say, films, even though ME3 in particular is very obviously designed from a filmic perspective (to its detriment, in many instances).

    I like the idea that a game about space should make us feel insignificant, but I don’t think ME3 does that at all. I, at least, never felt the overwhelming threat of the Reapers; it felt like very little had changed from ME1&2 (due to the fact that, gameplay wise, almost nothing had changed) and I churned through Reaper forces easily.

    But that, of course, is the nature of the game. Mechanically, it is a heroic fantasy of power where you’re the Most Important Thing in the Universe, regardless what the cutscenes say. (And they were much more cutscenes this time around, weren’t they? At least I felt like there was much fewer dialog options, and Shepherd said lots of things my Shepherd in my head would never have said.)

  • Jessica Quest  On 03.20.12 at 1:18 pm

    You’re making a case for Cosmicism here, and while the concept is interesting, the point is that nothing else in the Mass Effect series ever seemed to point to this being the over-all outlook of its story. In fact, the story seemed to be making the opposite point all along, which is that the most unlikely people can overcome seemingly impossible odds as long as they never give up.

    Life is bleak. So are certain stories, and you usually have an inkling that they are in advance. But nobody expected a sci-fi space opera in the vein of Star Wars to embrace a nihilistic viewpoint in the eleventh hour. It came from out of nowhere, and at the very least, feels like a sloppy afterthought. At worst, it feels like a betrayal of all that came before.

    People are upset because the entire genre of the story changed in the last 10 minutes of the game, with no hints beforehand that it might. They’re upset because the implications of the ending destroy the in-game universe, which could have lived on in sequels and DLC for decades if they hadn’t committed story suicide at the last minute.

    To quote Roger Ebert (ironically, as he hates video games): “If you have to ask what it symbolizes, it didn’t.” Even if this ending was always intended to play out how it did (which I don’t believe), they utterly failed at executing it properly. Which is a tragic shame considering the time and care that went into the other 100 hours of this series.

  • Kulthar Drax  On 03.20.12 at 9:34 pm

    Note: There are spoilers in this, just for those who haven’t yet completed Mass Effect 3

    I hate how people are throwing the word “entitlement” around these days, like so much confetti. I have played through Mass Effect 3, and yes the endings did suck for me. And yes, I have voiced my desire to see the endings changed. I have never felt the need to complain about any computer game in this manner ever before, and I have been playing games for decades. While I considered Mass Effect 1, 2 and 99% of 3 to be excellent games (not without their individual flaws, every game has them), the ending of ME3 is such that it does “ruin” the playability and enjoyability of the entire series in its conclusion.

    Mass Effect 3 has no resolution, no conclusion, no closure and is one of the most plothole ridden, poorly written ending for a game I have ever seen, not to mention the three end choices are ripped straight out of the original Deus Ex game in 2000. Which is slightly amusing, considering they utilise a literal Deus Ex Machina right at the end (or Diabolus Ex Machina, if you prefer that one). There is no foreshadowing, no setup, no warning, just BAM you’re suddenly confronted with this starchild who gives you three choices of an identical end cutscene save for a differently coloured explosion. It is cheap, it is lazy, and it is extremely poor storytelling.

    For an entire game series built on the concept of player choices (yes, some situations require retconning or choices made for you, that’s the nature of games, such as having to side with Cerberus and the Illusive Man in 2), it throws it out of the window in the last ten minutes and you end up with no choice at all. Nothing, not a single thing, that you have done in any of the three games prior to those ten minutes mattered at all. You still get the same ending. It doesn’t matter if you spend the entire game not bothering to build up your military forces and go to attack earth with the weakest possible, you still succeed just as easily as if you get the maximum possible war assets.

    These disgruntled players aren’t “entitled” for desiring the endings changed, and are NOT necessarily asking for it all to be sunshine and bunnies in the ending. They merely want endings which reflect the key choices you made throughout the trilogy, as was promised repeatedly by the developers. Even a month before the game was actually released, Casey Hudson of Bioware publicly said the following in many interviews:

    “”Yeah, and I’d say much more so, because we have the ability to build the endings out in a way that we don’t have to worry about eventually tying them back together somewhere. This story arc is coming to an end with this game. That means the endings can be a lot more different. At this point we’re taking into account so many decisions that you’ve made as a player and reflecting a lot of that stuff. It’s not even in any way like the traditional game endings, where you can say how many endings there are or whether you got ending A, B, or C.”

    What did players get? An A, B or C ending scenario, which all leads to pretty much the same ending anyway. There are also so many ridiculous plotholes, from circular logic “I created the Reapers (synthetics) to kill organics in order to prevent organics from creating synthetics which will kill all the organics” to things like Joker suddenly turning coward and fleeing in FTL somewhere and randomly crashing on a habitable jungle planet somewhere despite being fighting in Earth only moments before. Your squadmates that are with you in the final battle also magically appear in the crashed wreck of the Normandy with Joker in ending cutscenes despite being on the surface of Earth in the middle of fighting. And then there are things like all the Mass Relays blowing up, which in The Arrival DLC for Mass Effect 2 and in the Codex in both ME2 and ME3 it shows that a destroyed Mass Relay wipes out the star system it is in.

    And then, you also have things like “well if the Catalyst was in control of the Citadel all along, why didn’t it just activate the Citadel Relay in the first game when Sovereign failed?”.

    So yeah, I think you can see why many fans are upset with the whole ending business. It is simply extremely bad storytelling, made all the worse by how good the entire preceeding third game and two games before it were, compounded by outright lies and publicly broken promises by Bioware in the months leading up to the release of Mass Effect 3.

  • Wittgen  On 03.25.12 at 2:54 am

    The comments above get to the heart of a lot of why this article is so off base, but there is one point you make that I think deserves singling out. You say that the games have never been about your choices mattering. Then you point out a lot of places where your choices mattered a hell of a lot. A squadmate dies on Vermire, sure, but you choose which squadmate. Then you live with that choice. You always fight Saren, but your dialog choices play a big part on how the fight goes. You work for Cerberus, but you define your relationship with them, be it reluctant or eager. The collectors get your crew, but your choices and your choices alone determine how many of them you get back. Time after time, the game throws things at you which can’t be changed, true. But you choose how to deal with those things, and those choices matter.

    I really am dumbfounded at the line, “I hate to break it to you, but in real life, your decisions really don’t matter all that much.” First of all because of how untrue it is. In real life, your choices always matter. They define you. And in this game, your choices always let you define who your Shepard is. At least, they do until the very end, where no matter what Shepard is forced to make a choice which always results in destroying dozens of solar systems, untold billions of lives, and setting back thousands and thousands of years. And it doesn’t even make sense why you have to make that choice.

    Second of all, that line strikes me because this isn’t real life. It’s a video game where you play a space super hero whose decisions and actions have, for over 90 hours, carried significant weight. Even if you accepted that in real life, your decisions didn’t matter all that much, it’s a huge leap to say that your decision in Mass Effect should also not matter all that much.

    Lastly, it strikes me because it sums up the condescension that permeates the article. I understand it’s easy and comforting to characterize people who disagree with you as whiny, entitled, rabid fanboys. But ad hominem attacks don’t say anything of value. A condescending “I hate to break it to you” followed by a cynical remark doesn’t say anything significant about art or life.

  • Marijn Lems  On 03.25.12 at 3:26 am

    SPOILERS

    Fantastic article Kris. I’m old enough to remember the uproar surrounding FFVII’s ending; the Internet wasn’t a quiet place back then either, I can tell you (or at least, the forums of The Unofficial Squaresoft HomePage weren’t)! Though most of the discontent surrounded Aeris’ death, plenty of fans were very vocal in disliking the ending. I’ve always loved the ending myself though, as I do Mass Effect 3’s (though I certainly won’t argue that it’s faultless in its delivery, I admire the underlying message too much to care about its imperfections).

    Did you read Ryan Kuo’s essay on the subject over on Kill Screen? He makes great points on how this final part of the trilogy finally humanises the story, by making sure that things happen outside of the player’s control. It dovetails nicely with your own points about the messiness of life, and the limitations of control throught the exercise of free will. http://www.killscreendaily.com/articles/reviews/mass-effect-not-what-you-thought/

    @Jessica Quest: I disagree with most critics who say that the ending came entirely out of left field. Throughout the game, much is made of the unknowns surrounding the Crucible, especially how it works or what it does exactly. It’s presented as a device beyond mortal comprehension, a weapon of the gods. Yes, the Starchild is a Deus Ex Machina, but the game prepares you for the appearance of one. Furthermore, Shepards final fate is foreshadowed heavily in her dream sequences, as well as the almost elegiac tone of the entire game (and especially the London sequence, with all of its goodbyes). The war effort doesn’t feel like it’s destined to succeed, it feels desperate: and all of this despair makes Shepards partial, bittersweet victory at the end completely logical.

    @Kulthar Drax: Wrong or right, the fact that you and other fans are demanding that Bioware change the ending inherently means that you feel “entitled” to a different conclusion to the story. You underline this point yourself, by claiming that “promises” made by Mr. Hudson are somehow a binding agreement with the fans. (BTW, he has in fact made good on that promise. He’s talking about the entire game being a reflection of your choices, not just the last ten minutes (though I admit, the talk about ending A, B or C is misleading)).

    Listen, it’s not about being right or wrong about the ending itself. I can see why you and many other players are dissatisfied with it (though I don’t agree). It’s just that by asking Bioware to change the ending, you either don’t believe that there are plenty of people who DO like it just the way it is, or you just don’t care. That is the very definition of entitlement.

  • Jerome  On 03.28.12 at 6:48 am

    Straight away let me say I subscribe to the poor-execution, lack-of-choice and last-minute-genre-change arguments as valid, so it’s quite clear that I don’t consider the gamers asking for changes as entitled or winey. It’s your right to make your displeasure with an artistic interpretation known, and polls on CNet and IGN show about 80% of voters as being unhappy – not exactly a minority.

    One thing that I feel is often overlooked is that for every time the Crucible is referred to as a mystical super-weapon, there are five more where you are industriously gathering war assets and fleets. The game goes to great lengths to get you to buy into their importance, showing listings with regularity, taking you through a map-based war room, and so on.

    All of that works towards convincing you that the resolution of the strategic combat lies within the realm of game, rather than the realm of story, and I think that is a key point which causes the players to go into the final missions thinking this is a battle they will fight in detail. The implicit promise is that you gather up all the war assets, prepare as well as you can, and you get a game situation at the end which is winnable, just as if it was another level.

    Instead the problem is shifted back into the story domain when you enter Earth orbit, with eventual disastrous consequences for the story universe as others have said. The reapers may be dead, but you have saved nothing at almost any level, after a whole game where you are constantly running around fixing and saving things.

    If this was meant to be a philosophical end, a reflection on our smallness within the universe, surely there was a better, more artful and consistent way to bring that to the fans. The way it is done, by last-minute deus ex machina and breaking so many promises implied and explicit, as well as going counter to genre and series convention, and making the hero responsible for much of the damage by pushing the button, feels almost like spite.

  • Jerome  On 03.28.12 at 7:54 am

    But here is one good thing to come out of this: for me, this conversation above is definitive proof that games ARE art, nothing else in my experience evokes this level of analysis, discussion and emotion.

    The Mass Effect 3 ending is the gaming equivalent of Damien Hirst’s shark in formaldehyde, shocking and emotional, and that makes it art of a kind.

    It’s just unfortunate that most of the fans encountered it while relaxing in our living rooms, rather hoping for a delicious gaming cake.

Trackbacks

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