The Wrath of Nerds: How Bioware’s Writing Decisions Enraged the Internet

Hello everyone! It’s been a little while, but I’m back, alive and well. A few weeks ago I promised to have a post dealing with writing mistakes in the Mass Effect series, specifically pointing out issues with how the story comes to an end. Well, here it is, but with a big ‘ol asterisk that makes pretty much all of my argument conditional. But, I’ll get to that at the end.

Mass Effect 3: War of the Nerds

The internet has basically been on fire the last several weeks, burning in the wake of the nerdrage of thousands of Bioware fans scorned. The ending of their favorite series, Mass Effect, is generally considered to be absolutely awful.

I just got done analyzing Popbioethics.com’s article about how great Mass Effect is (links here), and then this whole thing exploded. What went wrong? Is there anything we can learn from this conflagration? I think so, although some of the issues are unique to the medium of video games. Check out this video for a summary of the issues (as with many videos on the internet, language warning)

This is a basic condensation of the hundreds of huge forum debates that have popped up. The other side often defends Bioware, saying that the upset fans are selfish and feel entitled to usurp the artist’s rendering and would only be satisfied if they made the ending themselves, or that they’re just whining because there’s no “Rainbows and Candycanes” ending where everyone lives happily ever after. Most video game journalists seem to have sided with the latter, defending Bioware’s vision as inviolate.

Now, I’ve just been recently studying Reader Response critical theory, and can definitely relate to the developer’s annoyance that the customer now seems to be demanding their own ending. I see  great value in authorial intent, and do not personally ascribe to the notion that every critical interpretation of a work is valid. However, with such a massive uproar, even if it was completely incomprehensible and inarticulate, there has to be some truth to it. This is not the case, however, as a majority of the debates going on have been surprisingly articulate, bringing in philosophical and literary arguments far beyond “yur ending suks chang it nao.” So, something obviously went wrong, but what?

Inconsistency Killed the Fanbase

beowulf and the dragon painting

The hero against the dragon, an archetypal symbol of evil and power

Making three books, three movies, or three video games with a consistant quality is hard. It is very common for series to very rapidly decline after an initial spurt of brilliance, often shrinking into obscurity as time and sequals carry on and on. We’ve all seen it, and we’ve come to accept it. I believe that this sometimes happens because the writers don’t really have a plan of finally ending things, and so have no actual back end to their narrative. Not so with Mass Effect, however. This series has always been a three-parter, and has such an elaborately crafted world and plot, with numerous sub-plots and arcs that it could not have even begun without extraordinary planning. But one important element that must always remain consistent in any work is tone. You can’t have a satisfying story that fluctuates dramatically from being serious to silly, sullen to whimsical, or tragic to comedic. The problem is that every step of the way, you are setting up expectations for the reader. If they picked up a book because they wanted to hear about the sad love story of Romeo and Juliet, they would be justifiably upset if they got Much Ado About Nothing instead, halfway through, only to snap back to tragedy in the end with everyone suddenly offing themselves with daggers and/or poison.

This strikes on what I believe is the main catalyst of dissatisfaction that fans have for the Mass Effect series: they expected one thing, and got something else entirely. One part of this was the marketing around the game stated explicitly that it would not end in an A/B/C choice, but it did anyway, but another issue (and I believe this is the core one from a writer’s perspective) is that in the end, players expected an epic, but got a tragedy without the necessary closure for a satisfying tragic ending.

Epic stories revolve around the actions of a larger than life hero of vast importance, struggling against great odds to finally achieve victory, often at great cost. We see this in many classic examples:

  • The Illiad, with the Argives’ victory over Troy at the expense of the deaths of many great and worthy men on both sides, and there is a great sense of loss in the ending with Hektor’s funeral
  • The Odyssey, with Odysseus’ final return to his homeland, only to find it in shambles and his wife in great despair and danger. He regains his throne, but there is still much lost, time having eaten away at the land and at Odysseus himself, and none of it can ever be regained.
  • Beowulf, who comes to the land and saves it from the terrors of the monster Grendel and the dragon, becomes king and rules in victory. However, 50 years later, another dragon emerges, and while Beowulf finally slays it with the aid of Wiglaf, he dies from the wounds.

You may have noticed a pattern here: none of these are “Rainbows and Candycanes” endings. But they feel complete. There is great power in the story of a hero who risks everything for a worthy cause, and even if he falls, the greatness of his valor makes the sacrifice worth it.

plot hole normandy

Yep. That's a plothole alright.

I believe this is what players of Mass Effect were expecting. In some ways, this is what happens. No matter which ending is chosen, the great problem of the future of the galaxy is more or less solved. However, the solution creates more problems than the original threat. Even if there are nolonger giant space robots trying to wipe out all sentient organic life, now all of the vast fleets of the unified galactic races are stranded lightyears away from their homes, which would most likely result in a frantic, fatalistic free-for-all to wipe out everyone else so that you can preserve your own race. The fates of every character we care about is unknown, and unknowable. So, even though the hero gained a technical victory, dying in the process, it doesn’t appear that there was any meaning in it after all.

This is similar to the tone in the ending of many of Shakespeare’s tragedies, the easiest example which comes to my mind being Romeo and Juliet. The two lovers die essentially because of a miscommunication and misunderstanding, and everyone mourns and learns from their story. But that’s the key, isn’t it? Their deaths had meaning because it forced the mourners to reflect on their own lives and motivations, and their own part in the tragedy.

This is catharsis at work, the purging of emotional tension that comes at the end of a tragic story. The fear and tension are resolved because Romeo and Juliet are finally, irrevocably dead, which is still sad, but the sadness has meaning because their deaths have meaning. We can leave the story feeling that the turmoil has settled, and even though the resolution of the plot was sad, the release of the tensions and the stress feels complete, and there’s nothing left bottled up from the climactic events of the story.

This is where Mass Effect slips up. It suddenly shifts from an epic story to a tragic one because of the unquestionably terrible fates of all of the characters, but lacks the catharsis moment, the point in which that tension is resolved, and the audience feels that it can move on without any baggage left unattended.

How do we avoid the nerdrage!?

If this is truly the core reason for the nerdrage on the internet surrounding Mass Effect’s ending, then it stands to reason that unless you want your fans grabbing the pitchforks, you should be darn sure you don’t change your tone without filling in the necessary elements. A story full of meaning can be rendered meaningless by an empty ending, and people don’t like feeling as if they’ve been tricked into investing into a meaningless story. Writer beware!

*****

As I said before, all of this is somewhat conditional now, because of the below video. If this theory about Mass Effect is right, then basically everything I just said above is false, all of the plot holes I didn’t address were intentional, and a whole lot of people will be eating crow pretty soon. Check it out, but be warned- severe spoilers! If you haven’t played the game, don’t worry- if this turns out to be true, you better believe I’ll be writing a post about it!

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About erikthereddest

I'm a Masters student in English, and I love technology and Science Fiction. I am refining and enhancing my (admittedly novice) writing talents under the sage advice of my friends here at Lantern Hollow Press, and with the great many books I am reading from the best authors I can find.

Posted on April 4, 2012, in Erik Marsh, Inspiration, Lantern Hollow Press Authors, Mass Effect, Plot, Science Fantasy, Science Fiction, Writing Hints and Helps and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Whoa! How about a spoiler alert before you ruin the endings of The Illiad, The Odyssey, Beowulf and Romeo and Juliet (Beowulf and Romeo and Juliet would be a hilariously epic play)! Some of us haven’t had time to read those yet…

  2. I’m not sure what to think about the Indoctrination theory. Some of their points make good sense, but that would mean that, in reality, the game isn’t actually “over” at all and the story isn’t finished. Talk about no closure!? That would still tick me off–I bought the game…the whole game…and to me that means I get the ending too. So, I would be somewhat heartened if it were true (heartened and ticked off that I was sold a game without an actual end), but I’m doubting it. Surely they intended this to be a standalone “end” to the story.

    • Actually, if the Indoctrination Theory is correct, it all fits into what we already knew from before Mass Effect 3 released: that Bioware would be putting out the first big DLC in April. That could easily be an epilogue where we see the full implications of your final choice- death if you failed, indoctrination if you fell victim to the ruse, or waking up if you made the right choice. The actual final moments could then be either some additional gameplay, or else another cutscene, this time with the real citadel, etc..

      I have no idea how they would handle it, but the point is, if this theory is true, that means they planned for this all along- they always intended to release the game with an ending that (by design) no one would understand, so that when everyone came to that final choice, they made it honestly, without any thought to what might happen after (because as far as the player knows, there isn’t anything after). If you picked the wrong choice or the right choice, according to this theory you made it for real, maybe even more so than you ever did anywhere else in the game. That is powerful stuff, and I would argue, if true, would be a strong argument for video games as an art form.

      Or, you know, they might’ve just royally screwed up. I for one am holding out hope and ignoring Ocham’s Razor for the moment, just in case.

      • Meh. Still not convinced yet. If Bioware had really planned something like that, I think they would have actually included it in the game itself. Of course, that would be the sensible thing to do–a false ending that evokes and honest choice and is immediately rewarded with a real ending that completes the story. As it stands, even in the best case scenario, they would still have sold me a game without an actual end: The story isn’t over in the “indoctrination” theory; After 90 hours of gameplay, Shepard just choked and now someone else has to finish the job.

        Besides, based on the press release below, Bioware is “standing behind” what they called the decisive “end” to the franchise, implying that there is no more. WYSIWYG in ME3, and they’re just releasing a few more cinematics as a sop to those of us who want more closure. I’m still hoping that there’s more to it. What we got sucked mud. Plain and simple.

        http://blog.bioware.com/2012/04/05/mass-effect-3-extended-cut/

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