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There has been an awful lot of commotion about Mass Effect 3's ending in the gaming community these past several weeks. Meant to cleanly wrap up the revered space opera trilogy and the story of the beloved Commander Shepherd, ME3 has thus far succeeded only in arousing the ire of fans. All the anger isn't without justification; ME3 sports one of the tritest, most unsatisfying endings ever seen—a true travesty for a series normally known for its exceptional writing and storytelling. Worse, the ending appears to break with much of the series' established lore and more or less completely discards players' choices up to that point despite promises from BioWare that it would be unique based on how one chose to play the series. Under enormous pressure, BioWare recently folded and agreed to "revisit" the ending in order to placate its ardent fans, although this has angered the more artistically minded gamers out there who believe that a game's ending should be final. As for me, I side with BioWare's decision. Let me explain.
I've includedone of the "best" endings above and aquick internet search will turn up an absolute plethora of reasons that gamers disliked Mass Effect 3's conclusion, so I won't waste time getting into the nitty gritty of exactly why it was so bad. However, those who have seen the ending or done any amount of research on it will find it relatively easy to understand why it got so many devoted Mass Effect fans riled up. A few mysterious plot holes here or there could have led to years of fun internet speculation, but BioWare took things too far into the realm of ambiguity and fans were quick to point that out. Still, there are those in the gaming community that BioWare should leave the ending as it is, unsatisfying though it may be. The most frequently used argument for this point of view is that of "artisitic integrity." While no solid defintion of the term really exists, it appears that "artistic integrity" is the refusal to change part of one's art just to appease one's fans. To do so, it seems to imply, would be to "sell out." On its face, this sounds pretty good. It's lofty, it's nebulous, and it seems like something one who truly loves art would value. But does it really make sense in the context of a game? No, I don't believe it does.
Art is defined by Merriam-Webster as "the concsious use of skill and imagination," so it would seem that games are art despite arguments to the contrary. However, they are not analogous to writing or photography or painting. Those things are often done simply for the love of them or with little purpose other than to convey a message or tell a static story. Games, by contrast, are an almost purely consumer-driven art form. Triple-A gaming titles are designed, developed, and published exclusively for one reason: profit. Sure, developers may pour their hearts and souls into a game and agonize over every detail and mechanic until it's all just right. Some may even work simply because they love creating fantastic products. When everything is taken as a whole, however, it's plain to see that game development studios fall squarely into the realm of commercial artists. Nobody out there is spending millions upon millions of dollars on massive gaming development projects solely because they want to convey a message or tell a story. More often than not, a piece of art is defined as much by the creative motives of its designers as it is by its finished state and, as such, it seems silly to apply the same standards to mass-market video games as one would to more "true" examples of artistic expression. If games are made to satisfy and thus profit from consumers, wouldn't it be fair to say that companies can and even should modify their products if it means continued commercial viability?
Another problem with the idea of "artistic integrity" in the case of ME3 is the general vagueness of the term itself. What does "artistic integrity" mean, anyway? Does it mean that no artist can ever alter their work after the fact? If so, that would seem to rule out post-release DLC, story-altering additions after the fact, and even patches. Of course, that simply doesn't make sense in the modern games industry. Perhaps the term means that a product can only be altered if it is flawed and needs to be corrected, but that opens up a whole other can of worms. Who decides what's flawed and what's not? Couldn't one say that ME3's ending is flawed, thus necessitating a change? There's a very thin line here between personal opinion and artistic fact, and I think that clearly shows that "artistic integrity" simply isn't very applicable in this particular case. The term is just too nebulous to be of any real use, especially when it is considered in the light of consumer-driven art like Mass Effect 3. Even beyond that, the usage of the term "artistic integrity" seems to contradict its own foundations. If an artist is meant to retain all control of their work as the notion of "artistic integrity" seems to imply, surely it is reasonable to say that they are free to alter and change their work at any time for any reason with or without the consent of their fans. "Artistic integrity" seems to imply that all power must rest with the creator, but it seems that forcing an artist to commit to never changing his work takes away his control and violates his "artistic integrity" every bit as much as forcing him to change it. In this case, BioWare has chosen to change their work in order to keep their fans—excuse me, customers—happy. I fail to see how there is anything wrong with that. It's the same thing any commercial artist would do if they wanted to continue being paid for their work.
The second major argument against an ending change in ME3 is often used in conjunction with the idea of "artistic integrity" and has to do with the precedent that such a move could set in the game industry. This argument holds that BioWare's so-called sellout will encourage other developers and publishers to attempt to release unfinished or inferior endings in order to charge people for them later. The problem is that the industry had been trending towards that point for years before Mass Effect 3 was release. Consider the constant sequels, episodic content, and DLC floods that dominate today's game market. Nearly every major game is part of a series, and nearly every entry in those series is concluded with a teaser or a straight-up cliffhanger, forcing you to purchase the next game in order to continue the story. Most titles also include their own DLC, much of which takes place after the main campaign has finished, thus providing "alternate" endings and new, important conclusions that players will miss without purchasing the content. I contend that the idea of paid-for ending DLC is merely an extension of the same principles that have been driving game franchises for the last ten years. Would I like to see it fully realized? No, not really. But the truth is that the industry is already moving that way, and without knowing whether or not BioWare plans to charge for the new ending content it seems a little unfair to lay an already mostly inevitable outcome at their doorstep simply for being the first. Even if we did, could any sensible gamer truly argue that they'd rather have an unsatisfying conclusion than shell out a few extra dollars? Remember, if the artists are to maintain complete control over their product then that necessarily includes the right to gouge consumers for it. Welcome to Planet Irony.
So clearly I don't agree with the reasoning in the two main arguments against ME3's new ending. However, I think there's actually evidence out there to support what BioWare is doing. Having new or alternate endings included in consumer-driven pieces of art is far from a new concept. Just look at gaming's closest cousin, film. Filmmakers have been filming, changing, and including alternate endings for many years now. It isn't uncommon for a movie to end one way in the United States and another way in Europe simply because focus groups indicated that each audience would receive the film better if the ending fit with their cultural contexts. Hell, most DVDs and Blu-Ray discs ship with multiple endings included. Some movies even include a default ending that is different from the one seen in theaters. All of this is done in the name of providing a better experience for customers, and I fail to see how BioWare's situation is any different. Sure, we're talking about a post-release outcry instead of a pre-release review panel, but the end result is the same: the audience will respond better to a different ending, so the ending must be changed. That's just simple business sense, and the frequency and number of "alternate" endings in film, a media format more or less universally acknowledged as an art form, once again illustrates the importance of maintaining relations with your consumer base as a commercial artist.
And that's the end of my rant. The bottom line: I'm proud of BioWare for doing the right thing and changing Mass Effect 3's awful ending. It would have been an outright tragedy for such a talented studio to commercially martyr itself in the name of something as nebulous and subjective as "artistic integrity." They've done what's best for them as a business and what's best for their fan base. As usual, those two things happen to be one and same in the world of video games, and I'm happy that BioWare has made the right call and killed two birds with one stone. I'll be waiting to post a full review of Mass Effect 3 until I've seen the "final" ending since I'd hate to have to slap such a great game with a score lower than it deserves simply because of a fumble at the one yard line. I only hope it winds up being the finale we were all hoping for.