When it comes to narrative entertainment, endings have always been difficult things to get right. Though their primary function is to act as cessations or stopping points for the stories that preceded them, audience members usually expect them to justify, wrap up, or make sense of the narrative as a whole as well. An inordinate amount of hermeneutic weight thus gets placed upon the final segments of stories. We look to them to learn “what it all meant” and derive some sense of interpretive closure. When an ending fails in this regard—sometimes by refusing to offer such closure, other times by appearing out of sync with the rest of the narrative—the entire story can sometimes seem ruined.
Of course, how successful an ending is might be judged differently by different people. And, in the case of certain narrative genres or forms, whether the ending is good or bad might not ultimately matter much. Hollywood blockbusters, for instance, seem often to get a pass on their endings from summer theater-goers, who judge them more for the quality of their action sequences and special effects. Similarly, avant-garde works, by undermining or challenging narrative logic itself, render the quality of their endings beside the point. And nowhere have audiences learned to forgive bad or clumsy endings more than they have with video games. Indeed, for many gamers (and for many games), endings function not as agents of interpretive closure, but as signals of victory or exhausted content.
For these reasons, major controversies over narrative endings are rare. In cases where an ending is widely perceived to be bad, the response by consumers is typically limited to negatively reviewing the work and refraining from repeat consumption. It has thus come as a surprise that consumer outrage over the ending of the video game Mass Effect 3 has—over the last two months—grown into a minor protest movement and media spectacle. What started with a deluge of customer complaints on Bioware’s own message board in early March quickly expanded into a myriad of internet petitions (such as this one demanding an altered ending and currently containing 12,965 signatures) and a web-based organization, Retake Mass Effect. Fund-raising taken place under the auspices of Retake Mass Effect (and through the 501(c)(3) organization Child’s Play) raised more than $80,000 for the cause between mid-March and mid-April (a process that was not without controversy of its own). By March 18, consumers had even resorted to filing complaints with the Federal Trade Commission, alleging that pre-release marketing had deliberately misled consumers about the ending. Bioware has remained on the defensive but, citing the somewhat nebulous protection of “artistic freedom,” has largely refused to budge. On April 14, they announced a summer release of a free DLC patch, which will moderately expand but does not change the game’s ending.
What’s going on here? Despite the importance we place in endings, bad endings are as common as good ones (probably even more common when we’re dealing with video games), but rarely do consumers organize to protest them, let alone file complaints about them with federal agencies. A more typical response would have been for players to post negative reviews, divest their libraries of the offending product, and—if the ending were judged especially egregious—inform the authoring company that they will no longer be supporting the franchise. What is it about Mass Effect 3 that elicited such an extreme response?
Setting aside the largely unanswerable question of whether or not the ending is bad—though deus ex machina plot devices of the kind the game uses have indeed been traditionally seen by literary critics as bad storytelling—two specific issues regarding the ending seem to have spawned such outrage.
First, despite the hyperbolic dimensions the complaint has taken now that consumers have attempted to involve the FTC, it does appear to be the case that Bioware misled consumers about the nature of the game they were buying. Whether or not this was intentional (for it is equally possible that they were simply unable to deliver upon the promises made), they have since the release of Mass Effect 2 promised that the decisions a player made in one game would have a direct effect on how both the plot-line of future games and the ending of the trilogy would proceed. But this proved not to be the case. Mass Effect 3 allowed one to choose between three different endings during the game’s last ten minutes. None of these endings reflected any decisions made previously (either in Mass Effect 3 or its prequels). What is more, the three endings shared 96% of the same audio-visual assets; what differed most between them was the color applied to the on-screen explosions. Even acknowledging the difficulty in evaluating whether or not an ending meaningfully reflected prior decisions, this trio of endings seems pretty clearly not to have even attempted to do so. In a post on the Better Business Bureau’s own blog, a representative of the Bureau reaches much the same conclusion; judged objectively, Bioware engaged in false advertising.
The second and more interesting cause for the outrage has to do with how consumers understand the concept of authorship in video games billing themselves as interactive fiction. Bioware has repeatedly defended their ending by citing “artistic freedom,” but it is an open question to whom such freedom belongs in a video game like Mass Effect 3. The marketing behind such games attributes such freedom to the player; and, indeed, player freedom is frequently cited (in reviews by both critics and players) as a key aspect of the gaming experience. Rarely have I ever encountered games being advertised or reviewed by way of creator freedom. Partly that is because the concept makes little sense outside of an avant-garde context; certainly it would not seem to apply in any meaningful fashion to the capital-intensive business of blockbuster video game production. But even if it did, gamers do not play interactive fiction games to see what the “author” (if such a person can even be identified) will do, but to see what they themselves will do. When games billing themselves as interactive narratives do not allow such freedom, players stop playing them. What outraged so many fans of Mass Effect is thus not that games did not offer player freedom—indeed, the first two games and the third (sans ending) sold well precisely because they did—but because the ending of the franchise ripped away this freedom, rendered all of their past decisions (made through upwards of 130 hours of play) meaningless, and suddenly reverted to some older form of non-interactive video game narrative. Indeed, the game’s end content—delivered via a god-child hastily introduced in the last ten minutes as the author of the universe—mirrors the sudden change in the game’s form. Interactivity is throttled and the traditional author-function of non-interactive fiction restored.
As video games increasingly structure themselves as interactive narratives, the issues Mass Effect 3 raised with its ending are likely to become more pervasive. Companies like Bioware will need to re-think what an ending is and how it is supposed to work in a narrative regime organized around player freedom. What should an interactive ending look and feel like? Are endings—at least the kind chosen by game authors—even compatible with the concept of player freedom? Might games be structured to allow players to choose where they end? Or will players have to accept, at least as far as endings go, that freedom is always an illusion?