Creative input

One last thought on the Mass Effect 3 ending controversy: people who criticize BioWare for caving to fan backlash about the ending are missing an important point. Yes, artistic integrity is important, etc. etc. But BioWare–and really, the whole game industry–have created the situation in which this kind of fan input is possible. This kind of outcry would not have happened in the pre-DLC days (at least not on the same scale). People have lobbied for a Final Fantasy VII remake, sure; but this rabid, multi-social-media wildfire would not have happened because, prior to XBLA and PSN, nobody would have even thought a new ending would be possible.

The DLC business model is kind of broken. Sure, the idea of support for a game months or even years after its release, with updates and new content, is a nice one. But most of the downloadable content is not free, which creates a scenario wherein developers could potentially release an unfinished product and then charge you for the missing pieces. I don’t think BioWare has done that, and I don’t think most developers would, but it’s a possibility.

Regardless, fans have become accustomed to updates which are, quite literally, game-changers. Especially from BioWare, who releases whole missions, whole freaking characters, complete with new story arcs, after the game has shipped. On ME2, Kasumi, a fully playable character with her own history, was released months after the game shipped. Likewise, “Arrival,” a downloadable mission that sets the stage for the Reaper invasion in ME3, was released more than a year after ME2 came out. This mission had insane implications for the overall narrative, and it was added way, way after the fact.

In this context, it’s no wonder that fans have come to expect updates that change the narrative course of a game. BioWare has set themselves up for this, so I can’t really say I sympathize. You can talk about artistic integrity all you want, but I don’t see how you can justify adding new, optional characters to the storyline, but not additional endings.

As a case in point, I somehow managed to play through ME3 in its entirety without downloading the day-one DLC “From Ashes,” which was freely available and included a new mission and a whole new character, Javik, who is pretty damned important in terms of the ME mythos. I thought I’d downloaded it, but it didn’t save properly, so it wasn’t until after the game was over that I realized I was missing a character.

Obviously my whole experience of the story was very different from someone who had downloaded and installed that content prior to playing. There’s a whole additional storyline that I simply didn’t get. Does this undermine BioWare’s authority as the creator of this universe? Does it somehow compromise their integrity? Does it impugn my integrity, as a fan, to have experienced an “incomplete” version of the narrative, or to seek to correct that mistake on my next playthrough?

If you answer yes, then I suppose your concern over the ending controversy is justified. But you’d have to also take the position that any new content is a damning offense for an author or artist or game developer, and I suspect you wouldn’t be willing to go that far (why have an XBox LIVE or PSN account at all?).

If you answer no–that is, if you support the inclusion of a new character and a new storyline–then you have no grounds for criticizing the inclusion of a new ending. Downloadable media means that digital storytelling is more flexible and dynamic than it’s ever been before; it also means that fans have more power to influence the direction of the story than at any point in the history of gaming. You can support this trend, or you can oppose it, but you can’t have it both ways.

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