Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Endings, Expectations & Choices: The Mass Effect 3 ending and Analogue: A Hate Story

When I was a kid, I went through a period of consuming choose your own adventure books in mass quantities. It was the merging of books and games, my two loves, so I kept telling myself that, as the amalgamation of the two, they were even better. But they weren’t better. I never identified with my character in those books the way I identified with Bilbo in ‘The Hobbit’ or Hazel in ‘Watership Down’. And they were definitely not as exciting as stomping mushrooms in Super Mario Bros or hitting things with Simon’s whip in Castlevania. Obviously the gameplay was lacking because there isn’t much you can do with “turn to page 67” (even adding a die roll and combat system, like some of the more advanced versions did, didn’t do much to increase the sense of risk and accomplishment inherent in games like Super Mario Bros and Castlevania), but why was the story not as immersive? The theory I think a lot of us who make games operate from is that offering player choices creates a sense of investment in their character and in the story that supersedes that of a novel or film; however, in my experience, that is seldom the case.

I recently played Analogue: A Hate Story, and I have seldom felt more involved in a game and its characters;  the only other examples that come readily to mind are Planescape: Torment and the Mass Effect series, and in each of those cases, the sense of immersion was at odds with my desire to power-game their systems. Analogue is different, in part, because it’s designed as a visual novel. There isn’t a lot in terms of gameplay; the complexity rests almost entirely in the story and the characters. There aren’t any points to be earned and no leveling up your character; you interact with the AI characters and the logs and that is the primary means of progression. When I first started playing, there weren’t even any achievements to work towards, to remind you that this is a game with systems and structure to test yourself against.

Most games are designed with objectives and points, and one of the ways that games give users a sense of progression is through these systems. Your character becomes more powerful, the challenges become grander and scores get higher. As Jane McGonigal says, we play games for the epic win. And one of the ways that games provide that sense of an epic win is through points or other less abstract rewards, like new powers and gear.

And this brings us to the problem of the ending of Mass Effect 3. With games like Mass Effect, I’m inclined to savor them as much as possible. Between work and other real life obligations, I was ~70 hours of gameplay and nearly a month of real world time after release before I reached the ending. So I’d heard most of the complaints long before I got there myself, despite all my attempts to avoid being spoiled. I was concerned and prepared myself for disappointment, but also had hope that my feelings would differ from those of the majority of the fanbase. And they did differ. For the most part, I found the ending (I chose the synthesis ending) to be a satisfying and emotional experience; even the little dissatisfaction I felt was more of a desire to continue the story (or begin a new one in the post-synthesis Mass Effect universe). So I completed the game feeling sad it was over, happy for Joker and EDI with their new beginning, curious about what the universe was like with the new hybrid life-forms inhabiting it and without the mass effect relays simplifying space travel, and mystified by the fan reaction.

After a great deal of reflection and discussion and viewing the updated endings released by EA/BioWare, I’ve come to the conclusion that the problem is with the definition of Epic Win. Most games (particularly AAA titles) lack much in the way of complexity and nuance in their Epic Win endings. The player completes the game, gets the girl, becomes the king, reaches max level, gains all the powers possible, becomes godlike. It’s hard to get much more epic than that! But this doesn’t allow for much in the way of nuance or complexity, story-wise. If the only acceptable victory is an absolute win, then you are tied into a very black and white view of the potential outcomes. Don’t get me wrong; there’s definitely a value in that sort of story. It feels good, for one thing, and certain types of points can be strengthened by this sort of outcome. Evil is defeated, the world is made whole and the hero is very, very heroic.

The Mass Effect 3 ending isn’t this kind of ending. It’s not an unqualified victory; aside from many, many sacrifices made along the way (some of which had me in tears, yet another way in which the Mass Effect series affected me in a way that few games have), it culminates with Commander Shepard sacrificing himself or herself and the loss of the mass effect relays (regardless of which ending you choose). There is precedent for this sort of ending in games, but not a lot, and usually this is the kind of ending you get when you make undesirable choices as you’re playing. So it’s not terribly surprising that a lot of fans were disappointed by it, although it took me a long time to understand their disappointment.

Part of it (I think) was that as someone steeped in science fiction literature (beginning with Dune when I was 12, a book that I re-read annually for several years after that first time), the more ambivalent ending was something my previous reading in the genre had prepared me for. I've also tended to seek out more complex stories in both games and books; games like Planescape: Torment (although in that case, the impact was less about the ending and more about the way the player discovered their character through gameplay and dialogue). Games with ambivalent endings are extremely few and far between. Despite seeking out complexity myself, I can think of few examples. So I think a large part of the problem with the Mass Effect 3 ending (and the cause of the fan reaction) is one of expectations. Gamers expect to win, to feel victorious, when they complete a game; mind you, I don't think this is a bad expectation, per se. And it's not that they don't expect to struggle for that win - it's the challenge of achieving that difficult and perfect victory that makes the win feel epic, although naturally views on what level of challenge is genuinely difficult varies from person to person.

The Paragon/Renegade system and how it affects player choices and gameplay outcomes also plays into the issue. While they addressed some of this in the third game, making it possible to play the game without necessarily needing to work the system to get the best possible outcomes, by that point in the series I think it was too late. We had already been trained to min-max our Paragon/Renegade scores and to always consider not only how we saw our Shepard and his/her choices but how each choice would impact our reputation rating and what gameplay options that would open up (and conversely, what options we would lose by not maxing it out). So the games basically push you to be simultaneously engaging with the story while at the same time making choices which are sometimes tangentially related to the player's vision of their character. For myself, the choice that most epitomized that problem was the Rachni Queen storyline. For my Renegade Shepard, it was the one point where she deviated from her typical hard-nosed objectivity and makes a more noble choice, and it's mostly because I just don't want to play a Shepard who willingly condemns an entire species to death. I've never played through the games with any other choice regarding the Rachni, although I've played through the first two as both Paragon and Renegade (still haven't done a second playthrough of ME3). That one choice wasn't enough to prevent my Shepard from achieving the necessary Renegade score, but on my first playthrough of the first game, my Shepard was so thoroughly gray that I lost out on a lot of options (and the best ending was impossible). Having the system in and of itself distances the player from the story in some ways and also contributes to a feeling that if you make the 'right' choices, then you should emerge victorious, and the first two games and their outcomes support that expectation.

My concern about this expectation isn't that it exists; it's a natural outcome of the stage we're at with the medium and the relative lack of complexity in the stories that we've been telling with it. And I strongly believe that there is room for both kinds of stories, ones with complexity and ambivalence alongside those that make the player walk away feeling unambiguously victorious. My concern is that we might look at fan reaction and think that we should stick to the safe choices in an effort to avoid alienating the user base (and losing money), and I think that's going to limit us too much. I want to see more complexity in the types of stories we're telling with games; I think there's a power in that which we haven't really tapped yet. But if we're really going to do a good job with it, we need to make sure that we create systems that support the kinds of stories we want to tell instead of being at odds with them and pulling players away from them emotionally. Mass Effect 3 was still an emotionally involving game for me, but I can't help but think how much more so it could have been if they'd handled the Paragon/Renegade system differently throughout the series.

I have yet to go back and playthrough Analogue to experience the other endings. Partly this is because there isn't much gameplay to it so it's mostly a matter of making different choices at key points. It's also because I'll have to be thinking about how my choices affect the outcome and that distances me from the story and for me it's a game that mostly works when I'm not thinking about it as a game. This is where games like Mass Effect really have a chance to shine - I've played the first two multiple times and I will replay the third one once or twice more as well. There's enough of both gameplay and story for them to be compelling for me on multiple playthroughs, and I think that's important. The more we can approach richness of both gameplay and story without making systems that force us to think too much about story from a power-gaming point of view, the more we approach that point where games really can be more compelling than any other medium.

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