Means to an End or just a Mean End?

Given that I’m writing about Mass Effect lately, and given that I’ve been sick as a dog lately and thus have been distracting myself with my playthroughs of Mass Effect (1 and now 2) before I play ME3, it’s probably worth talking about the ‘controversy’ over the end of ME3.

A lot of what’s going on is being dismissed as ridiculous gamer ‘entitlement’ or ‘first world problems’ and there’s an element of truth to that. I haven’t played ME3 yet – obviously – so I have a bit of a remove from it, but it’s been impossible to avoid the furore.

From the perspective of an RPG gamer and designer the problems that BioWare are having don’t seem like anything new, but for the CRPG world I think the crisis represents the sheer fact of their success, rather than their failure.

Spoilers are impossible to avoid online, but I’ll do my best to skirt around it as much as possible to spare others.

Most CRPGs (computer RPGs) that we play are pretty two dimensional. You’re lucky if you can be good or evil and you might get two different possible outcomes to the adventure at the end. They’re not really roleplaying games, they’re a story in which we have a limited amount of participation, a series of puzzles and tactical encounters that we solve. We just get to enjoy a story along the way.

In tabletop RPGs we’re used to a lot more freedom, we get to create the story, almost whole cloth, the only moderation upon our story is that we have a social contract with the other players and the Games Master. I won’t say TTRPG (tabletop RPG) players are necessarily more invested in their games (current fuss over ME showing that’s not true) but I think we’re more likely to get invested in our shared worlds, characters and stories. They’re responsive and that’s the expectation in a tabletop game, that you can do anything and the game will react. That emotional investment also leads to things like edition wars and arguments over games, it’s the price we pay for that passion.

Where BioWare succeeded so brilliantly with ME was in creating that TTRPG expectation of responsiveness and adaptation in a CRPG audience. The ME series is probably the closest yet that a CRPG has gotten to a tabletop experience, and I’m including MMORPGs and open games like Skyrim in that.

ME players came to expect a responsive universe. They came to expect that what you did in the gamemattered and would continue to impact throughout the game. They made you care about your allies, the planets, the world, the fleets. These people weren’t just allies they were friends, enemies, lovers. What you did, did matter. Sometimes even the smallest thing. As Shepard you inspired others to change their lives, to attempt the impossible.

It was a reasonable expectation, then, that the climax that the game was building to would reflect all that interaction, all those allies, all those friendships, every decision you had made. It was even more reasonable as an expectation given the hype and boasts being made for the game as it was approaching release.

That’s not how it works. You get a choice of three endings and nothing you’ve done makes a particular difference to it.

That’s the root of the disappointment and the upset. They were so successful creating that expectation that they shot themselves in the foot. Expectations were so high they couldn’t be met (well they could, but it would be a huge effort). BioWare have found out what TTRPG designers have had to grapple with for a long time…

Once it’s out there, it’s no longer your story.

For me, it’s a love story as much as anything else (I’m a wuss) so I’ve illustrated with the love interests from the game.

One response to “Means to an End or just a Mean End?

  1. Well put. I’ve loved the way that the ME series has really absorbed me into the world. If you look at it dispassionately, it’s actually quite restrictive, yet creates the feeling of a big universe that you can roam at will. The story is excellently told, with some very good dialogue and voice actors (unusual in a video game). The worlds and races are well realised (although they pull the Star Trek cop-out of each race having a particular speciality, except humanity).

    I’ve been looking forward to ME3 for a hell of a long time, and no amount of online bitching is going to make me regret buying it. I also know that I will be playing the full series again in order to max my character (and sleep with as many different crew members as I possibly can!).

    My only beef with the game so far (no spoiler, I promise) is that some of the situations are zero-sum games, with no perfect outcome. Realistic, maybe, but frustrating as hell!

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