Mass Effect 3 and Artistic Integrity
Let’s face it: the conclusion of the Mass Effect trilogy has been highly controversial. I’ve been mostly silent in this debate, largely because I see validity in both sides. On one had, the ending was philosophically brilliant and rounded out some of the higher concepts that were introduced throughout the series in a spectacular way, leaving the end open to various interpretations. On the other hand, in terms of epic science-fiction space opera, the conclusion was a vast disappointment. There is really no resolution for the characters, and there are many jarring plot-holes that, frankly, leave a sour taste in one’s mouth.
Do you really believe that your squad mates somehow made it from Earth to the Normandy in the middle of a massive land and space war only to flee the Sol System in the end? It really makes no sense, given what we know of the characters and their dedication and loyalty to Commander Shepard (they went on a suicide mission with him through the Omega 4 Rely, so it seems highly unlikely they’d flee in the end).
This is not the point of this article. I want to discuss something I’ve seen thrown around by BioWare and some fans that are opposed to rewriting or changing the endings in any significant way: artistic integrity.
I’ve argued for years about the artistic integrity of video games, and Mass Effect is certainly a form of art. It’s controversial, unique, and explores age-old questions and ideas in a beautiful and thought-provoking way (well, between shoot-outs and massive space battles–but even the best literature has conflict on a massive scale). In some ways it is downright dangerous because it challenges the players to acknowledge the legitimacy of artificial life as a true form of life, which skews and perhaps destroys what we currently define as life. In many science-fiction stories, such as Asimov’s I, Robot, robots are a way to explore humanity, especially if those robots share our values to some extent. The Geth share our values in that they value life, their continued existence, and their right to self-determinate. We see ourselves reflected in the Geth consensus. This can provoke some uncomfortable realizations, which is a hallmark of great art.
What I think people forget about art is that art is, simply, not infallible. It isn’t unassailable, and part of the reason art exists is to inspire criticism. Good authors and painters and musicians want people to criticize their work because the artist is just as much a member of the audience as the critics. The best works of art push people to understanding without actually blatantly stating some fact of the universe, so that when a piece of art is critiqued, the artist learns just as much as the audience.
The question with Mass Effect 3 is this: would changing the ending result in voiding all of the artistic integrity of the game? The answer, quite simply, is no. In fact, it would strengthen the artistic merit of the game. If video games are to be considered art the people who play them and the people who design them have to admit that video games aren’t like other forms of art. They aren’t like movies. They aren’t like literature. They aren’t like paintings. You’re obviously not going to critique Macbeth the same way you’d critique the Mona Lisa, so why wouldn’t you create and apply different critical theories for video games?
I think that video games offer a deeper sense of the connection between artist and audience. The player becomes a part of the action, and in games like Mass Effect, they actually make choices that impact the progression of the story. The player actually gets to mold the story according to his preferences. This offers an almost unprecedented level of control for the audience, which means that, invariably, the artist has to forfeit some of his power. Mass Effect has different endings and outcomes based on a plethora of decisions that the player makes, which doesn’t follow the normal pattern of narration. It creates interaction. The artist, then, is allowing the player to shape the art in a way that movies, books, and paintings simply cannot.
Art is dynamic. It changes as time passes, and even interpretations of older works change. It goes without saying that we don’t interpret Beowulf the same way that the original Anglo-Saxon storytellers interpreted it. But art is also dynamic in that part of what makes it art in the first place is that an audience criticizes it. An audience, in a very real way, shapes art. Mass Effect 3 has had its share of critics, and rightly so. Allowing a democratic process, such as feedback and audience input, actually reinforces the notion that Mass Effect 3 is art because it actually does expose something about the culture surrounding video games.
Gamers are passionate, and they’re smart. The main reason that video games are starting to develop artistic integrity in the mainstream doesn’t just come down to talented writers and designers. The gamers themselves demand immersive, thoughtful, and smart games. They want compelling stories with intriguing characters. Mass Effect has always delivered these things. It’s been innovative, engaging, and thoughtful. More than that, though, is that the different choices and variables allowed the player to create a story that was wholly his own. It’s not very likely that any two Mass Effect playthroughs are exactly the same, because each player crafts the story to fit their preferences. In a way, each player can claim Mass Effect as their own.
If that’s the case, doesn’t the audience actually have real artistic input? Part of the way the game functions is that players determine the final outcome of their game. They get to design the facial features of the character, name him, and make Shepard’s decisions. They’re allowed to take part in the artistic process.
In essence, this means that the players themselves had a legitimate stake in the artistic process. If they weren’t satisfied by the conclusions it isn’t necessarily because they felt entitled to getting what they wanted, but because the game revealed something about it’s artistic nature. The artists that designed Mass Effect 3 don’t hold all of the artistic power.
And that is what is most relevant in this discussion, and why video games have an uphill battle in terms of being accepted as art. Video games create art that is a shared process, and the Mass Effect series was especially innovative of this particular aspect. The logical conclusion is that the players should have as much control over the outcome of the games as the writers and developers do themselves. If the gamers are upset about specific aspects of the endings, and they provide feedback to the studio as to what their grievances are, it is the height of hypocracy for that studio to hide behind an argument like “artistic integrity” when the art of the game itself hinges on the gamers participating in the process.
So it really boils down to this: the artistic integrity of Mass Effect 3 actually rests on the participation of the gamers. My argument is that if BioWare tries to brush off the valid feedback and criticism of the gamers by claiming artistic integrity, it actually destroys the artistic merits of the game to a very large degree (especially in an age of video games with DLC, or downloadable content, which actually changes the game by adding characters and missions and other such things that fundamentally change the story and narrative).
Changing the ending to provide the conclusion that a relatively large population of the fans would consider fitting would not reduce the merits of the art, but actually add to it. One of the chief complaints I’ve read from people that don’t want the ending changed is that if BioWare did acquiesce to the change then it means the ending they liked would not be the real ending. The flaw in this argument is that Mass Effect really has no certain ending. One of the most interesting aspects of the Suicide Mission in Mass Effect 2 is that it could be the death of Shepard and, essentially, the end of the story. That is actually a valid ending to the whole story, which completely voids the need for Mass Effect 3 at all. If a player decides that they liked the original ending, they don’t have to download the new one. It really is as simple as that. And this is the kind of art that Mass Effect embodies.
In the end, if video game developers, and even journalists, want video games to be taken serious as an art form, they must make room for criticism. If they rush to defend a video game from legitimate criticism with arguments like “artistic integrity” as a reason to not entertain notions that Mass Effect 3’s ending should be changed, or that it was flawed in the first place, they’re undermining some of the great strides video games have made in the last decade toward becoming art. If we want to actually make the case that video games are art, we have to start to turn a real critical eye toward them. They have to stand the process of being picked apart and analyzed. The greatest works of art are great because they withstand criticism and constantly create topics for discussion and interpretation. Mass Effect 3 has done this, whether by intention or not. It has sparked passion on all sides, and it has been critically analyzed and picked apart. There is ample evidence to support many different theories about the true nature of the endings of the games, and many theories are clever and well-reasoned. Mass Effect 3 is living up to its legacy. The very criticism and dissection of the game, leading in some cases to plausible and convincing theories about the true events and meaning, cements its status as art.