Mass Effect and Choice (or something like it. Part 2/2)

This was originally published on P as in Pterodactyl, April 24th, 2012.

At this point, I think I’ve finally progressed from anger over the awfulness of Mass Effect’s ending to “next time Bioware mentions its ‘artistic integrity’ EVERYBODY TAKES A DRINK,” which I suppose is the closest I’ll ever come to acceptance. That said, there’s still something I’d like to address. Specifically, I’d like to talk about the controversy over Mass Effect 3’s aforementioned artistic integrity and authorship.

Go ahead and grab a bottle. I’ll wait.

On “real art”

Taylor Clark offers an assessment for The New Yorker that is predictably heavy with hyperbole and misrepresentation of fan concerns—including comparing the Take Back Mass Effect movement to Kathy Bates’ sadistic fan in Stephen King’s Misery. However, it does introduce an especially interesting concept: the idea that by “stick[ing] to its guns” in the face of fan outcry, Mass Effect 3 could transcend into “real art.” The reason I dredge up Clark’s editorial—as dismissive and inflammatory as it is—is because the concept of an immovable “real art” seems to be reflected in the gaming press as well. Even Bioware’s own have come to the defense of Mass Effect 3’s ending with its “artistic integrity” on the front line. For example, shortly after the fan outcry started to gain momentum, studio co-founder Dr. Ray Muzyka released a statement acknowledging fan feedback and foregrounding the challenge of preserving the team’s “artistic integrity;” similarly, the new “Extended Cut” DLC was announced with the assurance that Bioware still believed in its team’s “artistic vision.” So what does it mean to stick to one’s guns in Clark’s coveted art world?

One example of commercial art “stick[ing] to its guns” that Clark presents is The Sopranos’ controversial series finale. While many viewers were bewildered—if not angered—by it, Clark notes that there were no serious demands for a reshoot. He attributes this to the comparative sophistication of not just The Sopranos viewers, but to television audiences as a whole in comparison to those who play videogames. Where Mass Effect players demanded “bigger guns, bouncier boobs, and more facile storylines” (wait, what?), viewers of The Sopranos solemnly accepted the fate of their favorite show. For Clark, an audiences’ sophistication is marked by its ability to “understand that while they might hate any given plot decision, they ultimately have to respect the creative wishes of those who made the thing great in the first place.” More importantly, it is this respect of one’s artistic vision that “gives the medium integrity.” Of course there are examples to the contrary, many of which are listed by Becky Chambers in her assessment of the ME3 controversy over at The Mary Sue. In fact, she uses the fan efforts to rescue television series like Firefly and Community as evidence to the inherent malleability of art. Though I suppose that Clark would dismiss these as examples that fall short of being “real art,” it certainly says something for the medium’s alleged integrity.

Forbes’ David Thier counters Clark’s argument directly by pointing out what should be obvious: television shows and videogames are not the same thing. As such, they lend themselves to different kinds of audience engagement. Therefore, their respective reactions to fan outcry should not be attributed to an alleged lack of sophistication, but to fundamental differences in the implicit agreement between author/artist and audience.

….to compare games to movies and television, you need to acknowledge that there are fundamental differences between a passive experience like a movie and an interactive experience like Mass Effect. You didn’t have this kind of outcry over The Sopranos because the viewers never wrote their own story of Tony Soprano.

The New Yorker is right – games will never get the respect they deserve unless they can own up to being the kind of art that they are. But the mistake is in thinking that when they come out of the wash and emerge as art, they will look just like the other art forms we’ve grown accustomed to. This is something new, and the Mass Effect debate is about figuring out what it is.

While Thier’s send-off is fantastic—videogames need to establish themselves as their own art form, not bend to the rules of another medium—I’m not convinced that Mass Effect 3’s issue is one of authorial control. In my previous post, I said that removing the element of player choice from Mass Effect’s narrative trajectory would only underline the final 10 minutes’ shortcomings as a proper conclusion. In other words, if complete authorial control were afforded to Bioware—much like it was afforded to David Chase and his crew on The Sopranos—ending Shepard’s story with the acceptance of logic that runs contrary to all of her personal experience would put up a red flag. It should say to any reader or editor that the ending makes no sense; it should say that the ending does not belong to this story. In other words, the problem with Mass Effect 3’s ending isn’t an inadequate number of big guns or bigger tits to sate the “core gamer” (to borrow Clark’s term and derisive scare quotes), rather it’s simply a bad ending that doesn’t cohere with all that came before (thematically and otherwise). As obvious as it should be, this red flag signifying “NOTHING MAKES SENSE” was notably absent from most professional reviews of the game. Some critics and journalists who did mention the ending even applauded it as brave. Specifically, they noted that instead of a normal videogame ending, it was “artistic.” This certainly feeds into that problematic loop Thier mentioned—that “videogame” and “art” are seen as mutually exclusive terms. In this view, videogames must bend to the rules of other mediums to be accepted as “art.” But why is being “art” so important in the first place? Why did “artistic integrity” become Bioware’s first line of defense?

What all this really means

The common thread here seems to be a view that “art”—or at least Clark’s “real art”—is the untouchable apex of media production and consumption. Once something is labeled “art,” it is immune to critique and the artists’ choices must be respected. In the case of Mass Effect 3, by subverting videogame conventions—like not having a final boss—and providing players with abstract choices, Mass Effect 3 is deemed “artistic.” On the other hand, this creates the strange, false dilemma that in order to criticize it, one must first declare Mass Effect 3 not to be art and therefore subject to being torn apart for its failings. These views are equally problematic; bad art exists, and even artwork that is canonically “good” is subject to critique. This is especially true of commercial art for which criticism is not only easily accessible by the audience, but internal review is an integral part of the creative process in bringing a text to print or screen. I’m not sure where this notion of “artistic integrity” as a get-out-of-jail-free card came from in the videogame industry, but it’s a big hurdle it needs to get over.

More than anything, I think the strange separation of “game” and “art” in ME3 reviews points to the current system’s inadequacy to address the ending’s problems. This inadequacy takes the form of a double whammy with the absence of both a vocabulary to articulate the reviewer’s feelings and expectation that the ending will be discussed at all. We can see this in reviews like Sal Basile’s for UGO in which he vaguely explains that he “liked the themes present” before finally settling on a comparison to The Matrix: Revolutions while still managing to say nothing at all–“it explored spiritual themes of a greater power and self-sacrifice, but not in a way you’ll likely be thinking.” (what does that mean?) On the other hand, a disproportionate amount of Basile’s review, like many other reviews, is occupied with what players will do in the game—how they will fight enemies, collect War Assets—without any consideration for how these activities are made meaningful by Mass Effect’s overarching narrative. Almost all reviews make a point to emphasize the finality of Shepard’s final outing, but they don’t address how player action necessarily contributes—or doesn’t contribute—to that sense of finality. This is a problem. Specifically, his review—like many—is set up to fail by this by-the-books adherence to the precedent set by other game reviewers of other games. This is to say that Mass Effect 3—despite how important the narrative trappings are to its enjoyment—is still treated primarily as a ludic, largely technical artifact first, and any narrative or textual trappings exist on the periphery. The ludic and technical aspects are what fundamentally set videogames apart from other mediums, but its the interplay between the technical and the textual that makes a game like Mass Effect 3 possible, let alone pleasurable. I think a little more consideration for the textual–in reference to the technical–would give reviewers the tools to address some of ME3‘s biggest accomplishments and failings.

It is for this reasons that I find the rhetoric about player authorship and the developer’s “artistic integrity” a bit of a strawman. Perhaps instead of questioning whether or not Bioware or the players deserves the right to exercise authorial control—the “dangerous precedent” Bioware and EA could set by bowing to the (perceived) whims of their fans—we should instead examine why the onus is on the fans alone to hold Bioware and EA accountable for the quality of their story. More so than the questions of authorship, the controversy over Mass Effect 3 is indicative of the inadequacy of the current industry to both issue and respond to textual criticisms. Fan outcry exists and is responded to not because Mass Effect isn’t art or somehow less sophisticated, but—at least in part—because fan outcry is the only accessible platform through which these criticisms can be voiced. I realize that this is a large, blanket accusation; however, I think it’s a discussion worth starting. This is all part of the growing pains of an art form, right?

…Ok, maybe it’s a conversation worth starting when you’re sober. Tequila Se’lai.


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