Tuesday, March 27, 2012

. . . The End

Like books and movies the modern video game tells a story that has a distinct structure which includes a beginning, a middle, and an end.  The End.  Back in the bad old days when the credits for a movie were the first thing that the audience saw as the movie started to play (and used to be why getting to your seat five minutes late was not as much a big deal as it is today) you knew that the movie you were watching would end with the words "The End" and that was that.

When video games came into their own -- which really if you think about it was only in the last dozen years or so -- they began in some ways by paying an homage to movies, in that a lot of titles (and in particular the really popular and mainstream games) actually play almost like a movie.  Games like the PlayStation 3 exclusive Heavy Rain, and more than simply a handful of titles for the Xbox 360 including Alan Wake, The Godfather series, Wheelman, the Kane & Lynch series, and even the Fallout series often felt more like watching a movie than playing a game, though playing a game you were.

When you reached the end of the game -- which was generally the end of that part of the story since the vast majority of games today that are not already the sequel to another game end in ways that make it possible for the story to proceed in the next game -- the sequel -- but regardless of whether there will be a sequel or not, The End was The End.  It was how the game ended either because that was how it ended, or that was how it ended based upon the decisions that you made as you played it.  Actually that bears explaining...

In games like Heavy Rain, Final Fantasy XIII-2, and the most recent entry in the long-running Fallout series, Fallout: New Vegas, the ending that you got when you completed the story was simply one of several possible endings, and which you saw depended heavily upon how you played the game and what moral choices that you made in the process.  

In some cases you could actually return to an earlier save in the game and cause a different ending to be displayed when you played through the brief bits that were left -- but in The End you accepted what you saw and experienced because, after all, it was The End, right?  You are not expecting that to change, even when you do not much care for the way that it ended...  I mean it is not like you could band together with a group of gamers and demand that the game studio change the way that the game ended, putting pressure on the publisher to make the studio, change it.  Or could you?

Mass Effect 3 -- Game Over?
I am not going to reveal the details of the ending for Mass Effect 3 -- that would easily constitute the sort of spoiler action that instantly violates Wil Wheaton's Prime Directive: Don't be a Dick!  

What I will do is offer an observation that the lack of choice in the Mass Effect series finale is widely claimed by gamers all over the world to be a betrayal of fan faith in the beloved series.  But that is really the point -- the Mass Effect series is not just "pretty cool," or "a terrific game" or even just well-liked or "very popular" in its reach and effect on gamers -- it is literally a beloved series.

Gamers actually care about the characters in the game -- in fact in Mass Effect 2 when the player is forced to choose a member of their team to sacrifice so that the rest could survive,  it was a major heartbreaking moment for a major percentage of the fan base -- so much so that it ended up being widely considered to be the most emotionally devastating moment in the game, and is most frequently cited as the major (often only) point of regret in the game...

be·lov·ed [bih-luhv-id, -luhvd] 

1. greatly loved; dear to the heart.
2. a person, or in this case a game, that is greatly loved.

1350–1400; Middle English biloved, past participle of biloven to like, love; see be-, love-ed.

That is probably why one gamer made a federal case out of his crushing disappointment with the way that Mass Effect 3 ended -- literally -- filing a false advertising complaint with the Federal Trade Commission and following that up by filing an additional complaint against game publisher Electronic Arts with the Better Business Bureau.  Those gestures represent the literal tip of the iceberg, though they were widely covered by the news media mostly because, well, you don't take a game studio to task and demand that they change the ending to the game that they have already released in its finished form, do you?  Or do you?

Joining in the sentiments expressed by the gamer who filed the FTC complaint -- I don't know his real name but I do know that he goes by the tag "El Spiko" on the official BioWare forums (BioWare is the developing studio for the Mass Effect games) -- tens of thousands of gamers all over the world have joined in protests of varying forms with him, with gestures that span the to-be-expected angry posts to the official game forums to blog posts, emails, and complaints to radio call-in shows.  The strong dissatisfaction over the ending has been widely covered by the traditional games media TV shows like G4's Attack of the Show and X-Play, but it has also been covered by traditional news media, including TV, newspapers, and magazines, and not just in the USA.

The brilliant creators of the Penny Arcade comic strip helped to organize an official online protest called "Retake Mass Effect 3" that focused intense attention on BioWare and the unhappy ending of the game -- and it may well be that this played a key role in sparking off the fuse that lead to the unthinkable happening: BioWare blinked.
It seems that "Game Over" does not necessarily mean "Game Over" 
Mr. Gamer Goes to Washington... err... Edmonton, Alberta, Canada?
The debate is still raging online as to whether this is a good thing or a bad thing: in response to the massive protests and clearly unhappy fans, Mass Effect developer BioWare announced last week that it will be making available, for download by gamers -- probably as part of the next DLC offering for Mass Effect 3 -- a revised ending.

It would seem that the gamers who, so seriously upset by the endings that they got in the released game, have won their way, but have they really won?  Twisting the arm of the developing studio to the point at which they may significantly alter the ending -- or at least one of the three possible endings -- basically means that through protest the fans of a game have changed the story in the game and, in the process, have fiddled with what amounts to the freedom to tell a story by the writers who created it, the dev team that coded it, and the artists who rendered it.

Imagine for a moment that the fans of the Harry Potter series, furious over the death of their beloved Headmaster and Professor Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore (who you likely are aware died under mysterious circumstances at the hands of Professor Snape that later turned out to be something other than it at first seemed), undertook such a protest and were successful to the point that, rather than his life being ended by the dreaded Avada Kedavra, was instead pushed down the stairs of the Astronomy Tower, causing him to hit his head and become comatose rather than dying?

Clearly if you know the story it would have massively changed the entire tone of the book, and in so doing it would have -- just as it is doing with Mass Effect 3 -- compromised the artistic integrity of the writer and the story itself.  I assure you that I am not alone in that belief, though to be fair there are a lot of people out there who think that this sort of exchange of opinions -- even when it results in a developer changing its stance as is the case here, is a good thing for the industry.  I don't know about that...
Dumbledore Lives!

It's a Coin-toss...
During the Summer when I was seven-years-old we had an oval-shaped rug on the floor of our house on my mother's sheep station that was made of thick braided strands of wool sewn together and dyed in shades of grey, brown, and black, with a four-inch wide section of the black strands running around the middle of the rug in an oval shape that was reminiscent of a race track.  I am told that I spent hour after hour when the weather was not so good outside laying on that rug playing with the collection of Matchbox cars that I had inherited from the last two generations of men in my family...

It was on that imaginary track -- which I called the "Sheep Station 500" -- that I ran race after imaginary race.  The race cars all dated to the 1960's vintage Matchbox cars that previously belonged to my much older brothers, while the "support" vehicles were all 1950's vintage that had belonged to an uncle...  Every one of my cars had its own driver and mechanic, whose names I knew well, and every race there was a favorite to win -- and they usually did.  

The Top Five racers of the track and their cars were:
  •  Etienne and his Yellow Citroen
  •  Billy and his Blue Jaguar 3.4 Litre
  • Tommy and his White & Pink Ford Thunderbird
  • Scully and his Red Mercedes-Benz 220 SE
  • Harold and his White Ford Corsair
It probably will not surprise you that Harold and Billy usually vied for first and second place, while while third place was usually a toss-up.  Tommy tried, but his racing team did not have the budget to afford new parts and tyres so he was often knocked out of the race by flat tyres and bad luck with his spark plugs -- and bad boy Scully hardly ever placed higher than 4th because, well, he was the bloke that was usually responsible for Tommy getting knocked out of the race, and he tried to use his dirty tricks on Billy and Harold but they were too smart to fall for them!

Etienne never won -- ever -- but it serves him right for trying to race his wimpy French car against genuine Aussie racers!  
Harold's White Ford Corsair

For the first week or so there was a number of local and regional races -- I had over a hundred cars and trucks you see, so there had to be elimination races to determine who was going to race in the Grand Prix -- and there was plenty of work for the emergency and support crews at the track, who were equipped with a pair of Dennis Fire Trucks to race over and put out the odd engine fires, and a large red Esso petrol tanker that was called in to fuel up the cars before each race. 

Along the edges of the track in the pit areas were the Bedford Wreck Trucks that would haul off the disabled and wrecked cars when there was a pile-up at the wicked and deadly second turn, and of course the Track Manager's Land Rover and the Ford Anglia that was used by the official race judge Francis Dork --  you see I remember all of their names, what cars and trucks they drove, and even who they bet on to win the Grand Prix...  But you know I never did actually get to run the Grand Prix -- my mother tossed the rug out before it was held because it was old and ratty and she replaced it with a new rug that sadly lacked that well-defined track in the middle.  But that is not really why the race was never run...

By the time we got past the elimination heats and the Top Five racers were singled out, there was no point in running the race, was there?  It was already clear who was going to win, who would place, and which car would be pulling into the Winner's Circle to drink champagne and enjoy the adoration of the crowds in the stands that surrounded the track -- and what is the real point or enjoyment in knowing the outcome before it happens -- or more to the point, changing the outcome because you didn't like it?