The Shepard is dead. Long live literally anything else, please.
Posted on Sunday, November 18th, 2012 by T.G. Corke
BIOWARE HAS DONE NOTHING TO MAINTAIN OR REGAIN CONSUMER CONFIDENCE
In fairness, an apparent lack of practicality alone is only an obstacle in the wrong hands. I don’t want to make it sound like BioWare or anyone else should be criticised for taking chances, because that’s not what I’m going for. And the BioWare of circa-2007 would probably have inspired belief from the vast majority of its customers, not only that they could deal with the technical challenges but that they would, in fact, do everything in their power to maintain the creative credibility of their work. In fact, you can make a very strong argument that the backlash towards Mass Effect 3’s ending was only as impassioned as it was because of the relationship that BioWare had previously established with its audience, and that – perhaps more than any other developer – BioWare may actually have stood a chance of listening to any feedback it received. Of course, BioWare did in fact eventually listen to the complaints – the problem was how they applied that information in their PR and in the Extended Cut.
However, the anger was about far more than feeling ignored – let’s face it, if developers and writers always listened to the fans, they would never get anywhere. The contrast in what customers want from a product are obviously going to vary, and it’s a creator’s job to try to target the largest available market while staying true as true as possible to their original vision. That’s why I wasn’t as bothered as some by the move away from the RPG gameplay of the first game to the ‘Gears of Effect’ style that the sequels adopted. Ultimately, I was there to experience the Mass Effect universe and its characters – as long as the gameplay was fun, I didn’t mind that it wasn’t particularly varied or intricate.
But that line of thought doesn’t apply in the case of Mass Effect 3, for one key reason – BioWare’s repeated statements about the nature of the game, particularly the ending. You may have heard or read a few of their words, but you might not realise just how much BioWare had failed to even attempt to supply when the game finally reached the shelves. For those of you who don’t know the extent of the company’s dishonesty, I recommend you take a look at this excellent list of BioWare’s pre-release press quotes. In particular, every single instance in which Casey Hudson and Mike Gamble specifically stated that the game would offer multiple highly-divergent, personal and cathartic endings based on the player’s decisions throughout the series is an outright, provable lie. Never mind the fact that the writing of this segment was absolute guff (later revealed to be due to the frankly insane and egotistical decision by Hudson and Mac Walters to write the final portion of the story by themselves with no conference from the rest of the team that had spent years building the series) filled with the sort of plot-holes, circular reasoning and sudden ideological contradictions that could have been flagged up instantly by just about any B-grade GCSE English student – bad endings happen. This was never about taste. BioWare spent months making technical reassurances that, come release day, were not even 10 or 15% met.
This was not the first time BioWare had fallen out of favour with the fanbase over Mass Effect 3 – the original tipping point was the release of day one DLC. Mass Effect DLC is considered a given, and it’s usually met with enthusiasm as a nice addition to the main games, often including interesting additional content or context to characters and concepts (alliteration for the win) we’ve already encountered during the campaign. True, Mass Effect 2 took the rather cynical step of including a DLC achievement on the game’s disk, meaning you had to purchase the DLC (Kasumi: Stolen Memories) in order to unlock the achievement. Still, for the most part Mass Effect DLC has been used as a force for good, and has usually been received as such by fans and critics alike.
This time, though, the release of the From Ashes DLC pack was not seen as an optional accompaniment, but as a cynical and greedy attempt to milk the consumer for as much as possible through the omission and subsequent side-release of game-integral content. Javik was not, in my opinion and what appears to be the consensus, an ‘optional’ or ‘additional’ character. He was actually one of the most important missing links in the Mass Effect lore – the only living character who had experience of a previous Reaper invasion, aside from the Reapers themselves. At the very least, he was by far the most interesting of the new squadmates – although that wasn’t saying much, as there were already far fewer squadmates to begin with than in Mass Effect 2. The fact that customers were expected to shell out 800MS points on day one for content that had no business being excluded from the disk to begin with was hugely controversial, but was very quickly dwarfed by the debacle that followed once people actually finished the game.
And how did BioWare respond?
Well, first of all they said nothing for weeks. They hid behind their compliant, wide-eyed defenders in the mainstream outlets (more on that in a bit) in the hope that it would quickly blow over. When that didn’t work, and it became evident that they could no longer ride the storm, BioWare announced that they would release a free DLC pack to “clarify” the ending. BioWare did not apologise for their creative choice (perhaps this can be understood), nor for upsetting tens upon hundreds of thousands of customers the world over by failing to keep their word. They simply said they’d make some DLC, playing the “artistic integrity” card that became a running joke in the weeks and months to come, then refused to enter any form of discussion with the fans over the nature of the content or even when it would be released. Eventually, BioWare uploaded an internal interview onto Youtube, conducted by its own staff, which acted as more of a self-congratulatory pat on the back for being kind enough to actually write an ending for their story at the umpteenth time of asking.
Meanwhile, a number of fans who either wouldn’t accept that BioWare could make such a massive misjudgement, or who simply wanted to work the ending into something that wasn’t histrionic drivel, created an absolutely mind-blowing hypothesis called the Indoctrination Theory. Initially it took the form of “this makes no sense, maybe it was just a dream,” but ultimately developed into an absurdly sophisticated sequence in which seemingly inconsequential ‘clues’ from as far back as Mass Effect 2’s Arrival pack suddenly painted a landscape that, on face value at least, was entirely conceivable. Of course, dig a little deeper and it’s no more than a house of cards based on numerous assumptions and subjective interpretation, but the point is that people really started to get behind the theory that BioWare might have just been trolling everybody and the DLC would reveal the truth of the final sequence. There are numerous in-depth video analyses of the theory online, ranging from relatively brief twenty-minute personal interpretations to a trilogy of documentaries that total almost five hours, all for an alternative explanation for a videogame.
BioWare had an amazing, unforeseen opportunity to make themselves look like mad geniuses and save their series at the same time, by adopting a hugely popular explanation in their Extended Cut and pretend it had always been their plan. At the very least, BioWare needed to produce something that would surpass it. Instead, they did the absolute bare minimum they needed to, closing a few of the most obvious plot-holes (e.g. how did Shepard’s most recent squadmates get on the Normandy?) while creating new ones (e.g. how did Joker manage to bring the Normandy to Shepard within seconds of the command?), and finishing it off with a still-frame slideshow of Shepard’s friends and colleagues to remind you of a time when you thought that they were actually supposed to have some kind of bearing on the outcome. They also, very disingenuously, added a series of blatant red herrings to keep the Indoctrination Theory alive, despite clearly having no intention of following through with it.
Oh, and as a final kick in the knackers, BioWare broke another promise – albeit in a positive way this time – by adding a new ending choice after explicitly stating they wouldn’t. They used that opportunity to systematically deride and discard everyone who ever had had the temerity to provide their own suggestions for how they wanted their war to end, with what amounted to a middle-finger salute that always resulted in failure and universal genocide, regardless of how high your EMS score was. That’ll teach you for cultivating an attachment to the universe and a comprehension of the story’s themes, you little sods!
As the weeks and months rolled by, and around half of those upset with the original ending seemed satisfied with the Extended Cut, a few members of BioWare finally started to crawl out of the woodwork and feign irritation at how everything had gone down. Why they didn’t make any attempt to expose Walters and Hudson’s arrogance while they still had the chance to force their hand, we’ll never know for sure. What is known is that Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk, two of the three doctors who paid a combined $100,000 to start the company in 1995, have both abandoned their own creation. They’d rather have nothing to do with the company than continue to look-on impotently as it continues to be watered down. And now, without anyone at the top ever truly addressing the backlash on its own terms, but on what was considered to be convenient for EA and BioWare, Mass Effect 4 has been announced.
In short, BioWare has done a grand total of nothing to convince me that I can safely buy a single one of their future games, Mass Effect or otherwise, based on their promotion and expect it to even closely resemble what was advertised. I know for a fact that I am far from alone in this assessment, and even with all the ‘casual’ market at their disposal BioWare will struggle to make up the numbers lost from their handling of the Mass Effect 3 debacle – especially when their next task is to extend that same series even further.