We can argue over the legitimacy of the ending complaints until the heat death of the universe, but what I find noteworthy is not so much the fan reaction itself, but that so many people are surprised by it. On the surface, sure, demanding a new ending may seem extreme. To people who care about art, it might even seem like sacrilege. “How dare people demand a change to a story!” they say. “It’s unprecedented!”
Thing is, it’s completely precedented. Stories change all the time. Tolkien edited The Hobbit several times after publication in order to make it fit in with The Lord of the Rings. There are seven different cuts of Blade Runner that have been shown to the public. And let’s not even get started on the changes made to the original Star Wars trilogy.
One could reasonably argue that changing an ending is different than changing details within scenes, but gamers have already experienced endings that have changed. The Broken Steel DLC for Fallout 3 altered the ending so that players could continue playing after the final encounter (this, too, was prompted by a fan outcry). The last few seconds of Portal were changed via patch in order to tie the game into the sequel. These examples are much less drastic than what Mass Effect fans are hoping for, but they do illustrate what gamers are accustomed to. Software patches, expansion packs, and downloadable campaigns are so commonplace that it’s unusual for a big game not to have them. This is perhaps the biggest difference between games and other forms of art. Reprinting an entire run of a book or rereleasing a DVD presents significant logistical problems. But changing games is comparatively easy. All you need is a quick patch, and bam, a new chapter is added. The game changes. The story changes.
“But!” the hypothetical critics cry. “Those changes are driven by the developers, not the fans!” Okay, if we’re going to ignore Broken Steel entirely, then yes, changes to stories have only ever been prompted by the content creators themselves. Except for that time in 1903 when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle brought Sherlock Holmes back to life in the short story The Adventure of the Empty House. See, fans were so pissed off that Holmes had died in the previous story, The Final Problem, that they canceled their subscriptions to the magazine that had carried the story. Doyle first released The Hound of the Baskervilles as a sort of “lost adventure” that took place before Holmes’ demise, but fans weren’t happy with a hero that was already dead. Following enormous pressure from the public and his publishers, Doyle revived his protagonist and continued the series.
Or there was that time that Firefly fans played a significant role in getting the movie Serenity greenlit. Or that time that Community was pulled back from the brink of cancellation because fans kicked up a ruckus. Or that time — look, my point is that people have every right to disagree with the reasons for disliking the ending to ME3, and no one can reasonably suggest that BioWare is obligated to do exactly what the public demands, but chiding the fans for doing what fans have always done is not only unfair, but it seems a little ignorant of the way that art actually works. Art is malleable. It is impermanent. It evolves. I’m a creator myself, so I do consider creative authority to be something sacred, but I also recognize that there reaches a point in which a story becomes so big that no one is quite sure who it belongs to anymore.
I don’t think there are many people more familiar with that concept than Mass Effect fans. This series’ fanbase is a perfect example of the nebulous, symbiotic relationship that can develop between creators and consumers. The Mass Effect developers have always been very public about the fact that the opinions of their fans have shaped the series. In an interview with VentureBeat four days before ME3’s release, Casey Hudson had the following to say about the influence of the public:
GB: So are you guys the creators or the stewards of the franchise?
CH: Um… You know, at this point, I think we’re co-creators with the fans. We use a lot of feedback.
GB: Is there something that comes to mind there, examples of that, where fans made a difference in how it turned out?
CH: When we started the Mass Effect series, we had no way to tell how compelling our characters would be in terms of the emotions… Especially with the aliens, we didn’t know if they would be able to portray compelling human emotion. So we didn’t build the love interests into some of the alien characters like Garrus… He has the exoskeleton face and stuff like that. But because a character like Garrus just has great voice acting and animation, and a personality that’s really well-written, a lot of people wanted romances with him and with some of the other alien characters. So we decided to try that with Mass Effect 2 and that was very successful. They’re some of the most popular romances, people love those characters. That was a surprise to us, but we kind of had to finish Mass Effect one and then listen to some feedback before we tried incorporating that.
This level of informal collaboration extends beyond the games and into the well-established territory of books. The tie-in novel Mass Effect: Deception was released back in January, and fans were quick to point out the considerable amount of canonical errors. Some went as far as to create a public file on Google Docs detailing all of the mistakes. Both BioWare and book publisher Del Rey stepped up to the plate. They told fans that they’d been listening, and promised to correct the mistakes in a second edition of the book.
Think about that. After listening to unhappy fans, BioWare changed a book. The benchmark was set. Fans knew what they could expect from BioWare, so long as they spoke up. This is not a matter of fans growing too big for their britches. This is behavior that BioWare has actively encouraged.
While there is precedent for asking for an ending to be changed through the continuation of a story, what Mass Effect fans are asking for is a rewrite of the existing ending — and that is something new. But given the way that storytelling has evolved, especially in a digital culture, it’s a development that makes a lot of sense. Again, we are used to creators changing stories. We are used to the technology that can make changes within games. We are used to fans being able to influence creators. And in the case of Mass Effect fans, they are used to developers making changes based on their requests. Put it all together, and it’s hardly surprising that these fans have taken this previously unthinkable step. Whether or not they are justified in doing so is a moot point. The dam has broken. This is the beginning of a trend that I think we’re going to see a lot more of in the future.
Why Does This Matter? How Will BioWare Respond?
My interest in this debate goes far beyond my personal affinity for Mass Effect. This isn’t just about a video game, this is about our cultural perception of who owns a story. This is about defining what consumers and creators can reasonably expect from one another. As a writer, these are things that impact me greatly.
However BioWare decides to act will make an huge impact on the gaming industry, but it’s too early to say which path they’re going to take. BioWare (presumably in full damage control mode) was notably silent on the issue until last Friday, when two interesting things happened. The first was a public statement by Casey Hudson. He stood by his product, as he should have done, but he also indicated that BioWare was indeed listening.
I am extremely proud of what this team has accomplished, from the first art concepts for the Mass Effect universe to the final moments of Mass Effect 3. But we didn’t do it on our own. Over the course of the series, Mass Effect has been a shared experience between the development team and our fans—not just a shared experience in playing the games, but in designing and developing them. An outpouring of love for Garrus and Tali led to their inclusion as love interests in Mass Effect 2. A request for deeper RPG systems led to key design changes in Mass Effect 3. Your feedback has always mattered. Mass Effect is a collaboration between developers and players, and we continue to listen. [emphasis added]
So where do we go from here? Throughout the next year, we will support Mass Effect 3 by working on new content. And we’ll keep listening, because your insights and constructive feedback will help determine what that content should be. This is not the last you’ll hear of Commander Shepard.
We look forward to your continued support and involvement as we work together to shape the remaining experiences in the story of the Mass Effect trilogy.
Later that day, a thread opened up on the BSN forums, headed by a message from BioWare community manager Jessica Merizan.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been collecting feedback. I have excel sheets, word documents, quotes, graphs, you name it.
In order for a collaboration between the devs and the fans to work, I need you guys to CONTINUE being constructive, and organizing your thoughts. I know where to look, but I need you to help me by contributing to the dialogue.
Saying “this blows” helps no one. Saying, “I enjoyed X but I found Z _____ because of A,B,C” is what I’m looking for. Channel your frustration into something positive (such as the RetakeME3 movement – constructive, organized thoughts).
Chris and I are both collecting your feedback. We’re listening. Make yourself heard.
As of the last time I checked, there were 150 pages of responses (I am sure that number has climbed by now).
Finally, on Sunday, the following appeared on the official Mass Effect Facebook account. Take note of how many Likes it had when I captured it.
It seems to me that BioWare has the unenviable task of struggling to answer a question that no creator has ever had to take seriously. These are uncharted waters, and I don’t think anyone knows what the right answer is. All the rest of us can do is wait and see where the chips fall.
Until then, I’m Commander Shepard, and this is my favorite discussion about creative ownership on the Citadel.