The gaming community's revolt against the conclusion of Mass Effect 3 has compelling implications for the future of storytelling.
On March 6, Bioware released Mass Effect 3, the final game in a science-fiction trilogy. A commercial success, the game shipped 3.5 million copies within its first week and received numerous positive reviews based on early impressions.
Then players—many of whom have been playing the series since its launch in 2007—began finishing the game. The series finale, the capstone to what for many players is over 100 hours of play building a single character across the three games, is a dud: while critics praise the game itself, the ending is viewed as incomplete, ill-explained, and thematically inconsistent with the rest of the series. As a reviewer on Forbes put it, the finale was a "kick in the teeth."
Plenty of popular series have ended with controversy; the phenomenon is not limited to video games. The finales to Lost, Battlestar Galactica, and The Sopranos drew considerable amounts of criticism. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had similar issues with Sherlock Holmes. After killing the eponymous character off in The Final Problem, fans of the series were sufficiently upset that Doyle brought Holmes back in The Adventure of the Empty House—nearly a decade after Problem's publication.
The protest movement, Retake Mass Effect, has a chance of succeeding. The group itself has experienced viral growth (per Facebook Insights, over 230 percent growth in "likes" over a single week) and has managed to paint itself in a positive light by donating a significant amount of money to charity whether or not the ending is rewritten. To date, more than $70,000 has already been donated to a charity, Child's Play, which provides toys and games to hospitalized children. Bioware employees have communicated via Twitter and their company forums that they are "listening" to fans and have not ruled out the possibility of a rewrite. Between the viral growth of the movement and the positive message of donating regardless of outcome, early indications are that Retake has done an excellent job of positioning itself for a win.
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The implications of a win—a rewrite of the game's ending—are largely unprecedented. Given the unique nature of the medium, the rewrite could be pushed out digitally as downloadable content, or "DLC." DLC acts as a patch, updating or appending the existing game files to provide new content, improve old content, and fix software bugs. Mass Effect 2 relied heavily on DLC, requiring purchase for at least nine DLCs on top of the base software. Mass Effect 3 continues this trend, launching with release-day DLC priced at ten dollars. Bioware's publisher, Electronic Arts, projects 42 percent growth in digital goods (as opposed to packaged goods such as physical game discs) in fiscal year 2012, and DLC makes up no small part of that growth. Because the existing ending limits the scope of DLC Bioware could conceivably leverage for additional revenue, a rewrite seems logical from a financial standpoint.
A rewrite, though, is not "new" content so much as it is a revision to existing content. Doyle may have brought Holmes back to life in House, but The Final Problem was left untouched by the new story. One can still purchase The Final Problem; Holmes still falls to his death independent of later stories in which he is very much alive. Rewriting the ending to Mass Effect, on the other hand, would make the two endings mutually exclusive, with the new ending superseding the old provided the user downloaded the requisite DLC.
Certainly, fan interaction and alternate endings are not unheard of in entertainment. The latter stages of American Idol, for example, rely heavily on fan interaction—the contestant with the most votes is declared the winner. One could reasonably argue that while this model makes for compelling television, the end product is suboptimal: For every Kelly Clarkson there are several Taylor Hicks, winners that do well within the subset of the show's voters but with limited commercial appeal. Alternate endings are standard fare as bonus features on DVD and Blu-ray, but they are typically filmed during production as opposed to post-release, and remain alternates that do not replace the canonical ending. Perhaps the closest analogue is that of another game, 2008's Fallout 3, in which the main character originally died. Even that change, however, was to sell additional DLC as post-game content rather than only to alter the ending.
By asking for—and having a reasonable probability of receiving—solely a replacement ending, fans have a chance of significantly altering the creative process, exerting control on a process heretofore one-sided. At no point can the creative product be considered "final" since sufficient fan response can prompt a digital update rewriting the previous version. Glitches in storytelling become lumped in with glitches in programming: both items to be fixed via patch. This also opens the possibility of releasing a truly incomplete product with the promise of a post-release download necessary for completion.
One need look no further than Wikipedia to see the benefits and drawbacks of this creative model: No wiki is in a final state; in theory everything can be improved. While this generally leads to high-quality information, it also occasionally yields content fights in which opposing factions—frequently arguing over trivial details—find themselves in a destructive editing tug-of-war as to what should be on the page. Despite the perils, this model is highly successful as evidenced by the move to digital-only by Encyclopaedia Britannica last week. Wikipedia rendered the physical encyclopedia obsolete.
Bioware thus finds itself in an interesting predicament: Will it allow a new avenue for content generation—one that works for informational content such as that of Wikipedia but is largely untested in the realm of storytelling? Or will it keep its existing content, however ruinous to the Mass Effect brand? The endgame will set a precedent for creative content within gaming—one which may well merge the contributions of both game creators and gamers themselves.