The Shepard is dead. Long live literally anything else, please.
Posted on Sunday, November 18th, 2012 by T.G. Corke
IT’S GETTING INCREASINGLY HARDER TO KNOW WHOSE WORD TO TRUST
As badly as BioWare handled its affairs in the aftermath of the Mass Effect 3 ending controversy, nothing (and I mean nothing in the history of videogames) can compare to the utter circle-jerk shambles that has been the mainstream gaming press over the last eight months. If there’s one positive thing that has arisen from this whole event – aside from a few humorous memes and the aforementioned awesome Youtube analysis videos, which have allowed genuinely talented film editors and intellectual minds to come to the surface through their mutual hatred of the Catalyst – it’s that many of us are finally seeing just how insular and insincere the industry elite truly is.
This won’t have come as a surprise to many of you – after all, the lovely pixelated belle at the top of this page is Diana Allers, played by a certain Jessica Chobot, a prominent presenter best known for hosting shows on IGN.com. It’s pretty obvious that she was chosen due to her familiarity and status within the games industry, as they could easily have got any unknown attractive woman to play the part at what would probably have been a fraction of the price and may well have been a superior actress. Jessica Chobot was cast because she’s Jessica Chobot, and casting someone who’s renowned in the very profession that you need to keep sweet in order to promote your product is a cast-iron guarantee that opportunists from the other side will also do their best to stay on the up-and-up, in case any other ‘openings’ manifest in the future. It’s not some mad conspiracy or anything, it’s just a rather unsavoury side of industry practice. And again, it’s not hugely surprising to most of us.
But I was surprised – amazed, even – by just how badly this situation was misjudged by so many in the mainstream outlets. Just as BioWare scored an own goal from a winnable position by not changing their ending when they had the perfect chance, magazine after magazine and article after article had an unprecedented opportunity to defend the nobility of the industry that they claim to love, and the community that pays so much to be a part of it.
And just about every single solitary one of them succeeded only in distancing themselves further from an already suspicious and disenfranchised consumer base.
I’m not going to provide any links to the most offensive pieces, because I don’t want to send them any traffic and I’m not sure I can even stomach reading such horrendous journalism a second time. Besides which, I want to be careful that I’m not tarring all of them with the same brush. The articles that just defend the ending and say gamers should be prepared to either accept or reject it entirely are more or less valid, or at least they would be were it not for BioWare breaking its oaths to its customers. Gamefront was the only mainstream outlet I’m aware of that actually took the side of the frustrated players, mostly because they were these same players.
But then you have people like this guy from Kotaku who tried to spin some ridiculous head-canon guff about the ending being a parable for the story of Christ; that he’d been “forced” to download an optional DLC that attempted to explain some of the gaping holes he didn’t seem to think were important; and that the original ending “respected (his) intelligence” in changing the central focus of the entire series in the last five minutes and not elaborating on any of it, thereby also insinuating that only the most uneducated of uncultured plebs could possibly see anything wrong with it. This is something I have absolutely no time for – a plot-hole is not, as some seem to believe, something that literally cannot be explained with enough mental gymnastics. It’s something that isn’t explained, or adequately alluded to, in the story. It doesn’t matter if Joker “could” have had an order from Hackett to leave the battle – we didn’t see it, and what we did see (Joker pledging his life to Shepard to win the war at all costs) totally contradicted what we were later meant to accept had actually taken place. BioWare did not “leave the events to the imagination.” Hudson and Walters just wrote a bad, rushed ending that resorted to heavy melodrama at the expense of plot, and relied on the defence mechanisms of the most die-hard apologists to fill in the gaps for themselves, because they were too lazy to do it for us until the situation reached breaking point.
But what hurt the most was the way that the UK’s Official Playstation Magazine (which I had subscribed to for over a decade, in spite of a few disagreements here and there) deemed it acceptable to attack those who had the audacity to have an opinion on a product they’d bought. Once again, to spare the reputations of those who made the following assertions – and to avoid the risk of entering a permanent facepalm loop – I won’t be naming any names or providing links to the articles in question. However, all of this is either published in print in the magazine, or online at their official website, so if you doubt my veracity on this then please be sure to seek these pearls out for yourselves.
The first indication I had that OPM was not interested in being particularly balanced about this subject was when I found not one, but two remarks in a single issue that anyone who disliked the ending was a “baby” and that BioWare should ignore them at all costs. Of course, they didn’t attempt to explain why this was the case, but considering this was an issue in which they ran a feature on how to unlock each of the seven functionally identical endings to the game while pretending there was variation in them, it’s pretty obvious that they knew they couldn’t exactly publish such an article if another element of the magazine was telling its own readers in advance that the feature was going to be of questionable insight and validity. Hilariously, OPM actually had the balls to point out just a few pages earlier that 82% of everyone polled – including those on BioWare’s own forums – didn’t like the ending. They were effectively admitting to their own audience that the ending hadn’t resonated, while also making the point of being as abrasive as possible to this very same demographic. If 82% of those who were polled on the ending didn’t like it, what percentage do you reckon felt somewhat less than pleased at being called a baby by a magazine they’d paid £5.99 for the pleasure of reading, and not even being told why they were supposedly wrong?
Over the next few weeks, a series of articles was posted on the website, each attempting to undermine those who found flaws in the ending by calling them, among other things, “entitled,” “lunatics,” “’fans’” (in quotations), and many others. The writers, even when confronted with comments on their own site calling them out for their aggressive tone and visible bias, still maintained that the sole reason people didn’t respond well to the ending was because it wasn’t happy enough (or did not have enough “unicorns and daffodils” as one journalist childishly put it), when a single Google search could have corrected them on this in less than five minutes – or, you know, they could have actually read the feedback their own readers were giving them. Some of the staff even went so far as to try to link those who discredited the ending with those who faulted the gay and interracial romance options, even though they had no relation to one another – although for the record, the whole “people who disagree with an explicitly heterosexual character suddenly having homosexual romance options are homophobes” argument is also completely fatuous. All of these were incredibly ill-advised attempts to shame and silence their own audience into betraying their natural instincts.
The final straw was the following issue of the magazine. Every month, OPM runs a debate in which two staff members take opposing sides of an argument. This month, it was about whether Mass Effect 3’s ending should be changed. Finally, it seemed, the voice of the voiceless would be heard, and perhaps even listened to.
The ‘discussion’ turned out to be the most ridiculous whitewash you could ever imagine. One of the two men involved was a self-confessed ME3 fanboy who’d already gone on record as a member of the “all decriers are homophobes/entitled whiners” lobby. Naturally, he took the ‘No’ stance, i.e. No, the ending shouldn’t be changed. And who took the ‘Yes’ stance? Why, it was a man who had contributed a grand total of nothing to the publication in about seven or eight months, whose gimmick was to always emit as much adolescent false bravado as humanly possible despite being in his thirties – think Jim Sterling or Seanbaby, but without the sufficient wit or restraint to make it work – and who outright admitted in his opening sentence that he had never played Mass Effect 3 in his life.
The result was pathetic. The fanboy’s response, in which he claimed those who wanted BioWare to actually be held to account for falsely advertising a consumer product were just too stupid to understand the limitations of binary and had just built up expectations in their heads that could never be matched, was as predictable as it was pompous. But the other side was a classic, as the man who had never played the game once again called the Retake movement ‘babies,’ then said BioWare should make a new ending because they could then charge more money for it. Yes, just weeks after the uproar over From Ashes, this man was so despicable as to suggest that customers should be charged extra to receive the ending to a game they had already bought.
And with that, my ten year readership was over.
At least, my readership of the magazine was over. I still check the website every now and again to see how low they’re going to sink, which led me to observe the most sensationally hypocritical move of all – that of the aforementioned fanboy, the one who had done everything in his power to undermine and disrespect everyone who opposed his view while deliberately missing the point of why these fans were upset to begin with, all of a sudden posting an article in which he addressed almost every one of the key criticisms while never once acknowledging his previously dismissive stance. Of course, he waited until the Extended Cut had been released, and he also selectively chose the most compliant reader quotes he could find, so there was still a total absence of anything remotely resembling fair or proportionate representation. But the very fact that he clearly knew what the complaints were, yet never thought fit to actually tackle or even openly recognise them until the dye had already been cast, was the most damning evidence for me that OPM’s staff did not simply comprise lazy or unprofessional journalists – they had in fact been misleading their customers as consciously as BioWare had months previously. What few doubts remained over my decision to boycott their publication were now completely and permanently dispelled.
So what did I learn from all of that? I learned that, whether intentional or not, the games press has an institutional predisposition towards particular producers and developers and – more importantly – against the gamers themselves. Where OPM had a chance to stand up for consumer rights and attack the intellectual snobbery of certain companies, it instead decided to not only endorse but to participate in that very same elitism while deceptively choosing the weakest of straw man arguments upon which they could base their ad hominem attacks on its own customer base. In short, it chose the prestige of BioWare and EA over the actual objective reasoning of the community. And it wasn’t alone – as already mentioned, this was an industry-wide handwave of a massive consumer backlash, in order to protect a number of vested corporate interests.
Don’t learn the wrong lesson from this, however, and think that being wary of ‘mainstream’ rhetoric means you should trust everything outside of the mainstream at face value. Everybody has some sort of an agenda, including myself. I’d be a pretty boring excuse for a human being if I didn’t. I automatically prefer some types of games over others, some companies over others, and some gamers over others. The difference is I don’t try to hide it under a veil of ambiguous fallacies, and I don’t try to pretend I’m 100% non-partisan. Mainstream publications, especially ‘Official’ ones, make a point of praising their own neutrality while quite blatantly choosing defined sides. If you take anything from this, it’s that you need to be your own master. Either listen to as many opposing viewpoints as possible, or don’t listen to any and just decide for yourself, free of their influence. Choosing one over the other can often lead to the same narrow-minded exclusivity complexes that were sadly evident – and still are – from the overwhelming majority of the mainstream gaming press in the wake of Mass Effect 3.
So when you read anything about Mass Effect 4, ask yourselves the following five questions:
• Who is providing this information? Is it an impartial source? Are there any other independent sources we can use to double-check the information? Are they impartial? More importantly, what is the agenda they’re promoting?
• What does this mean in a practical sense for the series going forward? Who is involved, and in what capacity?
• What does this mean in a narrative sense for what has already gone before? How much of what we’ve already experienced is under threat of retcon or dilution as a result of these decisions?
• What assurances has BioWare made, and more importantly who made them?
• How much involvement is Electronic Arts going to have on the final product?
If you’re satisfied with the answers and decide to invest in Mass Effect 4, I genuinely hope you enjoy the game and are happy with your choice, and I’m sure that will apply to many of you. But for me and a large number of others, unless there is a radical change in the beliefs and priorities of BioWare’s writing staff, EA, and the industry as a whole, each of these questions can only be answered in ways that I believe will lead the series down a road that I do not want to witness.
And that’s why I will not be spending a single second on any future Mass Effect games.