Wednesday, April 4, 2012

“That’s the end of the story-There’s no more to it than that!”: Mass Effect 3 and Narrative Ownership

I don't usually like covering current events on this blog. Those who want my Gonzo take on the gaming news of the day are encouraged to follow me on Twitter, where I do this obsessively. For Forest of Illusions I usually prefer looking at more abstract concepts or profiling specific games (or characters) that struck a chord with me. In the time it would take me to come up with a thoughtful erudition about some hot-button issue, translate it from ethereal thoughts into a textual form, edit and publish it it'd already be out of date and my thoughts would most likely already have been echoed by someone faster than me and with a bigger podium (hence my somewhat harried attempts to do just that in Summer 2011). However, if you followed the industry this past month as of this writing in any capacity, it's been damn near impossible for you to avoid hearing about Mass Effect 3 and, more specifically, the furor over its ending. I'll give you a minute to peruse that article in case, for some bizarre reason, you were unaware of what this hullabaloo was all about.

Back? OK good.

The discourse in the mainstream gaming media has been cacophonous and holds severe repercussions for how we as video game aficionados interpret a game's meaning. Since I've already written a great deal about this very subject and thinking critically about games is the primary reason I started this site, I guess I'd better toss in my two cents worth.

First of all I have to make the disclaimer that I am not a Mass Effect fan. I appreciate what the series was trying to do ( a point), but I took one look at the wonky vehicle sections and convoluted combat in the first game and immediately went back to Super Mario Galaxy. I gave Mass Effect 2 a shot due to the reverence it received upon release in 2010 and while I appreciated the refinements to things like combat and travel, I wasn't a fan of the dialogue and morality system, reading through reams and reams of lore to figure out what the heck was going on reminded me of the worst parts of The Lord of the Rings and put me to sleep and the whole suicide mission thing made me a nervous wreck. In my opinion, the series feels like a choose-your-own-adventure book except with more nonsensical quicktime events, a puzzling fixation on softcore titillation and is on the whole indicative of a trend in games I find, to be blunt, patently stupid. However, my thoughts on cinematic and otherwise conventional approaches to narrative in video games are discussion fodder for another day: Basically I decided that Mass Effect was too complicated and too much work for my tastes and just something I wasn't ever going to completely get.

One thing I will praise the trilogy for though is its really progressive approach to feminism and gender roles (regardless of whether or not BioWare intended it to turn out that way), but even there it'll have to be something I applaud on a theoretical level rather than love because of what I experienced. So, needless to say I have zero emotional investment in whatever the ending of Mass Effect 3 turned out to be. However, I do have a very big investment in the way the game is being talked about and that EuroGamer article I linked to is actually is a terrific metaphor for why: The game's ending has touched such a nerve that it's raised issues about meaning and intent and it's actually really justified to ask if Mass Effect 3 as a finished product truly belongs to BioWare and is reflective of the themes they were trying to convey. In other words, the controversy over Mass Effect 3 is the biggest test of the post-structuralist approach to reading and interpretation I outlined back in my Super Mario Bros. series I've yet seen on the mainstream video game stage. In order to fully explain why though, we should take the time to look carefully at what the Mass Effect fans and their detractors are actually saying.

Let's take the self-professed “Retake Mass Effect” people first. These are people who have a significant emotional investment in the game's story and universe and who, for one reason or another, feel the trilogy-closing curtain call at the end of Mass Effect 3 either did not live up to their expectations for an epic finale, did not do enough to tie up loose ends or simply did not make logical coherent narrative sense. Maybe these concerns are valid, maybe not: As a non-fan I can't critique the work or their reading of it and thus am not in a position to make any judgment calls in this regard. That said, the actual demands the Retake Mass Effect camp are making to BioWare are...bold, to put it kindly. They are in turn requesting additional material via ether downloadable content or expanded universe lore to “better explain” the events of the ending, calling for the ending to be retconned outright and launching initiatives to rewrite the whole game themselves to better suit their interpretation of how they feel it “should” have ended. In addition to submitting their list of grievances, they have taken it upon themselves to, in a seriously surreal turn of events, mail hundreds of cupcakes to BioWare's offices because reasons.

As easy as it is to point and laugh at the Retake Mass Effect campaigners for acting “spoiled”, “demanding” or “entitled” (as indeed the vast majority of the counterarguments leveled at them in the mainstream press seem to) it's equally easy to see how they could have come to the conclusion that this was a reasonable course of action and perfectly within their rights. Mass Effect as a series has always claimed to stress individual choice, proudly touting that every little action the player makes will make a difference and have consequences and that each playthrough can be radically different depending on the choices made. In other words, BioWare seems to have been selling the series as a kind of traditional RPG in the original tabletop sense of the term: The player has complete autonomy to exude a level of authorial control over the events of the game and craft it to suit his or her own needs, values, opinions and whims. At least, this is how the discourse from BioWare and the games' trademark playstyle has been interpreted by this group of fans. In sum then, the Retake Mass Effect fans feel, rightly or wrongly, that BioWare's focus on choice and branching narratives in their games means that the whole narrative belongs to them, the playersXreaders, and that they are entitled to deciding how it ends. To invoke the tri-sphere model for reading I proposed back in my Super Mario Bros. essay, they want all the power in determining textual meaning to fall to the Personal Experience sphere.

On the other side we have the opponents of Retake Mass Effect: The many and varied game journalists and pundits who have added their voices to the din of the past month to criticize these fans and rebuke their claims of ownership. I hesitate to reduce a wide and disparate group of people and opinions down to a few bullet points, but as many of them seem to carry the same flavour I at least feel somewhat justified in summarising what I see as the major arguments they're employing. The anti-Retake bunch, put most generally, seem to feel the claims made by the Retake crowd are completely and totally invalid because, bluntly, the fans aren't BioWare. Because the fans didn't write the game's story (though the fans would actually probably disagree at this fundamental level) they don't get a say in deciding how the trilogy ends and should accept whatever BioWare threw out at them because BioWare are the authors and are trying to make an aesthetic and thematic point with their work. Sometimes this is dressed up in the language of art, and that art shouldn't always be about pleasing people (which is a true statement, but not in the way these people are using it in my opinion) but the sentiment remains the same: BioWare are the authors, the fans are not, and only the authors get to decide what a work says and what it's about. This group also militantly opposes any attempt to elaborate on or alter the ending of Mass Effect 3 in any way because they feel it would compromise artistic integrity in favour of pandering to the series' whiny, childish and demanding fanbase.

Just as it's easy to see where the Retake Mass Effect fans are coming from, I argue it's easy to see how their detractors have come to their conclusions. Emboldened by a love of video games as a creative medium and armed with the language of art, they've spent a big part of their careers trying to in some sense “validate” games as a medium, perhaps against those on the outside who would criticize its legitimacy as an art form. Probably more accurately and relevantly though, they've also spent a great deal of their careers trying to corral ravenous, immature fans and defend themselves from the vile hate speech that is leveled at them with disturbing regularity and frequency. It's not difficult to imagine game journalists would have a knee-jerk reaction to a situation like this and immediately write off the actions of a group like Retake Mass Effect as the usual theatrics and not feel they're worthy of any attention. And, to be honest, the Retake crowd doesn't make a good case for itself when it pulls dumb stunts like filing a formal FTC complaint against BioWare and EA and unleashing their own army of cyberbullies. And cupcakes.

Now that we've defended the integrity of the anti-Retake people though, let's step back and look at what their core arguments are actually implying. By claiming that the fans have no say in deciding how Mass Effect 3's story plays out, they're essentially saying two things: Firstly, they are, in the eyes of the fans, completely flying in the face of what they perceive the series' entire set of core values to be. To them, Mass Effect has always been about their choice, from the first character creation screen to the last fork in the road in the climax of the third game (yeah, I did enough cursory research to have a basic idea about what happens). To hear from their opponents that their choice doesn't matter is completely incongruous and will only serve to make them angrier and more passionately dedicated to their cause. Secondly, and more importantly and relevantly to us, what the anti-Retake side is really saying with this impassioned appeal to sanctity of fiction and authorial vision is that, in post-structuralist terms, they want to give all the power in deciding what a text means to the author. This is, frankly, no better and no more satisfying a concluding argument than what the Retake side is offering from a Lacanian perspective.

Most curiously, neither side seems to be paying much attention to the actual text itself. What actually happens at the end of Mass Effect 3, or in the various possible endings? Not just a rote summary of events (like, say, the one I totally didn't read on Giant Bomb and Wikipedia), but what literally transpires in the ending cutscene that has provoked such powerful emotions on both sides? More importantly than even that though, how does this connect with the themes BioWare claim to be exploring with the Mass Effect Trilogy? Has anyone from BioWare come out to explain what the core themes and motifs of the series are and how they relate to the finale? Has anyone bothered to ask? Or have you all been too busy screaming at one another about who has the better claim of ownership over the narrative? Almost the first rule of doing a serious upper-level critical reading of a text is taking these kinds of questions into consideration.

For the sake of argument, let's say BioWare did indeed have specific things they wanted to address with Mass Effect 3. Even then though, it's entirely possible the finished product doesn't adequately reflect this intent: Whenever you write something, there is by necessity a translation taking place from the hazy ideas you had in your head to physical, textual reality and maybe some of them didn't properly make the transition all that effectively (I had actually planned on doing a whole article going into more detail along these lines before this nonsense came up). Likewise, it's equally plausible for an author to neglect a certain aspect of the finished product causing the readers to interpret it in a way completely contrary to the one that was intended.

Look at the famous example of Bruce Springsteen's “Born in the U.S.A.”, a deeply cynical song about a returning Vietnam veteran horribly mistreated and abandoned by his community upon returning home from the war jarringly and purposefully incongruously set to a towering, anthemic melody. It was infamously misinterpreted by the kinds of people who don't pay attention to lyrics in songs and only focus on catchy hooks and pretty noises to be a flag-waving patriotic anthem. The problem was so widespread it was amusingly picked by Ronald Reagan as the theme song for his re-election campaign before being told in no uncertain terms by Springsteen he missed the point entirely. In Mass Effect terms, think again about that Eurogamer article and Commander Shepard herself: BioWare wrote the character to be male by default and didn't pay any attention to how the story would play out if fans chose to play a woman. This resulted in Shepard becoming heralded as a near-perfect example of post-feminist progressive thinking even though later events proved that had BioWare taken into account the fact people might actually care about her when they initially designed the game she most certainly would not have been.

Were Springsteen's lazier fans right to claim “Born in the U.S.A.” as a patriotic anthem even though the lyrics and Springsteen's intent argue it's not? Not really, because the lyrical content of the work and Springsteen's own quick response made it clear they were blatantly and obviously reading the song incorrectly and being intellectually irresponsible. Are BioWare's fans right to claim Commander Shepard is a feminist icon despite BioWare not intending her to be such? Absolutely, because she displays all the trappings of such in the finished product and that's solely a result of BioWare not taking the time and effort to make their far-less-progressive politics clear in the text that got passed on to the readers. The thing about the triple-pronged Lacanian approach is that it relies on balance: In order to read a text thoroughly, as I've argued in the past, the three spheres must be weighed against one another and sometimes two of the three cancel out the third.

Which brings us back to the subject at hand. The thing about the Commander Shepard example is that a lot of the fodder for the argument in favour of reading her as a feminist icon comes from the games themselves, the actual texts. Even though this wasn't BioWare's intent, what they actually wrote that made it into the finished product lends itself very nicely to being interpreted as such. In other words, the text seemingly pretty clearly contradicts the word of the author. This is nontrivial: A finished text is going to live on far past its author and as long as people are alive and able to experience it, a text will always lend itself to new interpretations. That's why there are about a billion different readings of something like, say Lewis Carroll's diptych tour-de-force Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through The Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There: It's longevity and endless versatility as a work lends itself to countless questions and points of discussion and Carroll wanted to make sure his books would stimulate people's imaginations for generations to come. If BioWare and its fans want Mass Effect to last and stand as one of the great works of the video game medium (as many are already claiming it is) this is absolutely something all sides are going to have to take into consideration.

If we're going to civilise this discourse, the obvious first step is to sit everyone down and take a good, long hard look at what Mass Effect 3 actually is: Does the finished product adequately reflect the themes its authors attempted to imbue it with? If not, what does it say to readers instead? Unfortunately for the journalists, the simple fact Mass Effect 3 exists as a text, not to mention the fact BioWare have already shown their work can take on a life of its own apart from their intentionality means fans really do have a say in interpreting its meaning. However, the Retake crowd shouldn't celebrate victory either because they need to come to terms with the notion that theirs' is not the only reading possible. Perhaps their complaints do indeed have merit and deserve to be heard (again, I'm not in a position to say), but if they're going to make any kind of legitimate case for themselves they need draw on actual textual evidence to back up their arguments, not histrionic language of entitlement.

There. That's done and out of my system. Can we go back to talking about more enjoyable things now please?

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