Mass Effect 3 Is Not Art

(Video Game Week on the blog. We open with a short, little rant about a video game.)

I used to be a Bioware fan. I bought Neverwinter Nights and the two expansions, as well as all the premium modules. I bought Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic twice (once on console, once on Mac). I bought Jade Empire twice (once on disk, once on download). I bought Dragon Age: Origins Collector’s Edition on disk and download, and all the DLC. I bought Dragon Age: Origins — Awakening (disk and download). I bought Dragon Age II Collector’s Edition (and DLC). I bought Mass Effect twice (disk and download) and its subpar DLC, Mass Effect 2 Collector’s Edition (and DLC), and finally Mass Effect 3 Collector’s Edition.

And I will never give another penny to Bioware again.

Bioware’s quality has been slipping for a while now. Dragon Age II was mediocre and (reportedly) rushed. Mass Effect 3 had a lot of problems in gameplay (the quest screen, for example). And the Mass Effect 3 ending itself sucked. (As did “clarity and closure“.)

But I would probably have overlooked those, were it not for the arrogance of Bioware and EA (their publisher) during the ensuing controversy over the ending. Their behavior, to quote the old cliche, added insult to injury. And it’s the insult that drove me away.

EA, in an advertisement, bragged that the ending “provoked a bigger fan reaction than any other videogame’s conclusion in the medium’s history”. Well, it did… just not in a good way.

75% of people disliked or hated the ending, including the game’s most passionate fans, and that’s not something to brag about. If 75% of your intended audience hate something, that’s a sign that you should have done it better, or at least differently.

(Also, that video? Gets censored from posts on the Bioware forums. Take that as you will.)

More, when customers are pissed off… you don’t insult and mock them. It’s just not smart. It says “we hate you and we don’t want your money”. And the sensible response to that attitude is “That’s fine. I won’t give it to you, then.”

Bioware seemed to be as dismissive and (often) insulting. The staff seemed enamored of their Metacritic score (which, they claim, proves the ending by itself is great), and talked down to fans of the game. Their defense of the loathed ending was based on the supposed “artistic integrity” of the game. (This sentiment was echoed by many others.)

In my opinion, changing the ending of a game, or providing an alternate ending after the fact, doesn’t violate “artistic integrity”. Fallout 3 did it, with “Broken Steel”.

However, even if changing the game would violate the integrity of the art, Mass Effect 3 isn’t art.

Art is first and foremost predicated on craft — to actually be an artist, you have to master your craft. Before you can write a novel that rises to the level of Art, you have to be a damn good novelist. Same for a painter, same for a sculptor. Any video game with pretensions to Art has to, first and foremost, be a damn good game.

Yet Mass Effect 3 failed at the basic craft of video games. The ending had numerous plot holes, overlooked important pieces of the universe lore, and completely ignored or abnegated previous themes of the series (choice and the threat of the Reapers), in preference to a “twist ending”. Bioware themselves admitted as much with the Extended Cut DLC, which fixed plot holes and other problematic aspects (but didn’t change the twist).

Bioware failed at their craft, so didn’t produce Art. But wait, there’s more…

Art is not a cookie-cutter, paint by numbers endeavor. Yet that’s exactly what Bioware does.

When I was first telling my friends they should play Mass Effect, I said “if you like Knights of the Old Republic, you’ll like Mass Effect“. Because they were, for most intents and purposes, the exact same game.

I’m not the only one who thinks so. Here’s a chart detailing the Bioware story formula. From Baldur’s Gate to Dragon Age, their games all hit the same (or substantially similar) beats.

And here’s an article on “Recycled characters you see in every BioWare game“. Bioware uses the same character archetypes time and again.

Remaking the same game with updated tech, with the same plot and characters, just in new surroundings — D&D fantasy! Different D&D fantasy! Asiatic fantasy! Science Fiction! Different fantasy! — is formulaic. And a story formula isn’t Art.

Video games are pop culture, a form of mass entertainment. And AAA production costs ensure that they must cater to an audience. So when a company short-changes and then insults that very same audience, it’s playing with fire.

It’s hard to establish a reputation for quality. And easy to tarnish it. And the end of that path is to become another casualty of EA’s “buy and bury” business plan.

Bullfrog. Westwood. Origin. Maxis. Pandemic. And more. All legendary studios who created some of the greatest games ever, all purchased by EA, all ultimately shuttered.

Companies die one disappointed customer at a time. If Bioware keeps shortchanging customers, they will join Bullfrog, et. al. on the “killed by EA” list.

And I, for one, won’t mourn them.

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