Davison and the Venomous Mass Effect Defences

(This is a repost of a comment I made on Pete Davison’s excellent blog, where he touches on the Mass Effect ending controversy, and especially on the notion forwarded by people like Rob Fahey that the fans requesting that the ending is changed are demonstrating delusional levels of “entitlement”. Davison makes the point that social media made developers more accessible than ever. My take’s different, and I’m reproducing it below.)

(I hate this issue. No. Really. Despise it. I want to talk about gaming and game design. I want to get back to Daggerfall and Skyrim and SW:TOR and the World of Warcraft: Mists of Panderia demo I just got into. It’s stupid that this is happening. But it’s getting so bad, so….bilious….that it’s wiping everything else aside. Anyway, response follows now.)

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Wow, I didn’t realize he called them “sociopaths”. Pots and kettles come to mind here, considering how he seems to argue from the POV that critical fans are a subhuman rabble.

I kind of agree with where you’re coming from here, but can’t completely. The idea that stories are not “finished” when first released, and outcries over bad creator decisions, are pretty damned old. People have (legitimately) brought up the reaction to the death of Sherlock Holmes, and even Great Expectations got a pretty big change made to it after-the-fact. One good example that I fixed on just a little while ago was the theatrical release of Bladerunner, which was frankly crap thanks to the half-assed narration; it was made clear by both fans and critics that the film was better off without it, and the combination of its removal and a fleshed out ending(!) in the Director’s Cut edit turned it from a curiosity into a classic. Game writers who are treating games as Finished Works Never To Be Touched Again are demonstrating that they’re not only out-of-touch with modern game design (which emphasizes iteration), but out of touch with pretty much every narrative medium in human history.

(Yes, all of them. You don’t seriously think that people in oral cultures didn’t change stories to suit them? The only reason we can’t do that sort of thing NOW is IP laws. If it weren’t illegal, somebody would have already hacked together a version of Mass Effect with a better ending.)

I also don’t believe that this has much to do with social media. There have been outcries over crappy games on the Internet since there WAS an Internet. This wasn’t the first time something like this has happened; the cryptic, unsatisfying endings of FFVII and FFVIII provoked a lot of anger and disgust, just as the ending to BSG and Lost did later. The particular venue changed from Usenet to Web forums to Social Media, but it was pretty much the same thing. If anything, Usenet was WORSE.

No, what it comes down to is the simple fact that it’s routine for games to change after release now. Mass Effect 2 is a different game when you add on the DLC. The narrative’s different, and the experience is different. Dragon Age is different. Assassin’s Creed 2 is different. (The DLC adds context that wasn’t there before.) Batman: Arkham City is different. Both Fallout 3 and that stand-alone Prince of Persia actually had their endings change. How on earth is it the fault of either social media or this toxic notion of fan “entitlement”, when the notion of changing, iterated narrative games is commonplace now? THAT is what the industry did.

Yes, this whole controversy says a lot about gaming, and none of it good. But the message isn’t about either game designers or gaming fans. It’s about writers, reviewers, journalists and critics. I’ve been disappointed before with some of the arguments or attitudes; the used gaming controversy has revealed far too many economic illiterates calling people “pirates” for trying to save a bit of money. The DLC thing has been an issue too, where the only bank accounts given any real consideration belong to EA or Activision or Ubisoft, instead of gamers.

But this…I’ve never seen it as bad as this. I’ve never seen such acidic bile spit about gaming’s biggest boosters. I’ve never seen the word “fan” used as such a vicious expletive. I’ve never felt so…nauseated…by the people who are supposed to be advocates for consumers and fans. I’d never, ever thought I’d see the word “sociopath” thrown around.

Were it about the whole anti-gay thing, or about the treatment of women, I could see it. But that isn’t what’s happening here. This bile is being spat out for asking developers to do what they are already doing to begin with. This is far bigger than one game. It raises the question of who the hell is going to advocate for game consumers. Maybe the Mass Effect thing is proving they’ll have to do it on their own.

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