This post is not about Mass Effect 3, although that’s the game that set me off here. (Still, there are ME3 spoilers here, so consider yourself alerted. This piece also has spoilers for Dragon Age: Origins, Heavy Rain, Hamlet, and Fallout: New Vegas.)
The noise in my head has to do with much more than simply Shepard’s story arc and the disappointment of unmet expectations. I plan to visit two areas in this piece: happy vs. tragic endings, and the problems inherent to multiple story endings. But first a few words of setup.
I intended to finish ME3 this morning and spend the rest of the day furiously editing my vacation movie. (After two days of work I’m only 25% done.) Instead I’ve spent all day brooding and reading things online. The ending of ME3 has affected me in profound ways, mostly because it has set me to thinking about stories in general, and in particular their endings.
As the author of four novels (and dozens of stories) and avid consumer of interviews with authors, I can confidently say that no one takes the ending of a story lightly. Some writers don’t plan it all out beforehand, but most of us have a pretty good idea how things are going to turn out when we start the journey.
The crafting of a video game story is obviously a different creature than a novel or film, but we don’t want to take this notion too far. There are many inherent similarities, and (even though I’ve never written a game) I believe the two processes require the same basic skill set: Creation of likable characters, good sense of pacing, ear for believable dialogue.
The other key ingredient to quality storytelling is purpose. Why is your story worth telling in the first place? (Alas, most who tell stories don’t really bother with this question and thus we drown in a sea of mediocre re-hashings of the same few plots and characters, with no worthwhile emotional or philosophical impact.)
Good Feelings and Bad Realities
Some people have dismissed the complaints about ME3′s ending as whining from people who feel entitled to happy endings or elaborate epilogues. Obviously this is unfair, and I thank Ross Lincoln for effectively explaining why. (The Extended Cut has repaired some of the damage but left other bits dangling.)
What ME3 lacked more than anything was an ending of appropriate scale and satisfaction. I’ll explain what I mean in a moment, but first I want to wrestle with the question: Do we deserve happy endings?
To be sure, most of our civilization’s greatest fictional works have been tragedies: Hamlet, Mabeth, Romeo and Juliet, Things Fall Apart, The Bluest Eye, The Metamorphosis, Antigone, Death of a Salesman, Streetcar Named Desire, and so on. These works demand that we peer into the void of human weakness and depredation, to confront the evils inside us and prevent them from reducing us to the characters’ fates.
But humans also persevere, and we need art to remind us of this fact. Therefore we must not forget the essential triumphalism of stories like The Tempest, A Raisin in the Sun, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Star Wars. Ancient epics like Beowulf and The Odyssey have survived because they celebrate victory and remind us of what’s possible in our best moments.
We can’t say that ME3 failed to do this, but Brent Knowles, who was lead designer for Dragon Age: Origins and one of the “old guard” at BioWare for ten years, said: “life in general is full of s****y stuff happening all the time. When I invest a hundred hours into a game I need to walk away feeling like a hero”. We may not be entitled to happy endings, but we humans certainly deserve heroic endings on a regular basis.
Now then: Does every game need to have a heroic ending? This brings us back to purpose. If you’re not going to give us a heroic ending, especially after requiring an investment of more than ten hours (in the case of the Mass Effect games, most of us have put in 100 total — or more), you better have a good goddamn reason.
If your purpose is (as in, say, Special Ops: The Line) to challenge our conception of heroism or heroic gaming adventure, then you have some leeway. But if you’re just screwing with the formula for the sake of being different or unexpected, that’s a really dumb reason to leave us feeling so drained.
Otherwise, why not give us some deep satisfaction for a job well done? After all, successfully completing a video game is a challenge overcome by its very nature, so why shouldn’t we get some kind of visceral reward for it? Why punish us with a mediocre finale after we’ve travelled so far down your road?
The Multiple Manifestations of Meh
These days the fashion is to simply avoid the question of how to end the game altogether. Instead, modern developers love to give us a variety of endings, brought about as a consequence of our actions during the game.
Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. Usually it requires a main storyline which won’t change either way (as in Dragon Age: Origins, wherein the Blight is soundly defeated), or a series of epilogues which describe the fate of various factions (as in Fallout: New Vegas).
The advantage of the latter is that it does away with the silly notion that there is a single story, and this is perhaps the most important point I wish to make: When a game allows multiple endings, it relinquishes its ability to tell a story and instead merely creates a quantum experiment in which gamers choose one of many simultaneously-existing realities.
Who wins the battle of Hoover Dam in Fallout: New Vegas? Everyone and no one. The NCR and Caesar’s Legion and Mr. House and the Courier all win, because at any point we can experience any of these possibilities. When you choose to pursue one of these paths when you play the game, does that make it the ending to the story? What if you play it again and choose a different path? Then what is the ending?
Even in a game like Heavy Rain, which disallows reloads to experience different endings, they still exist. We can go online and watch videos, or simply discuss the endings with our friends. Just because a player makes certain choices and achieves a certain outcome does not make it a definitive outcome of any kind, even for that individual.
This is because the nature of a text is to exist at once within the audience’s experience and outside of it, in a realm of its own. What actually happens to Ophelia depends a great deal on my subjective interpretation, but beyond or before my experience, Ophelia remains in the water all alone. I can collapse what happened to her into an understanding of my own, but that does not make it an eternal reality in the same way Hamlet’s demise is a clearly delineated (and eternal) reality.
But there is no clearly delineated or eternal reality at the end of Fallout New Vegas (or ME3, or Heavy Rain). There is no way to finish telling those stories except for “in one version of of the story…”. (Ironically enough there are eternal realities at other points — a nuclear holocaust has taken place in the world of Fallout, for example.) There is no story; instead it’s necessary for us to refer to these games as containing a number of stories. (And a number of potential endings to those stories.)
Just as I’ve never read a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book that has remained lodged in my memory as an important work of art supporting life as I live it, this spate of multiple-ending games is leaving me feeling unsatisfied as well.
I’ll end with one more story from Fallout: New Vegas to explain why (and tie this all together). My favorite story in that game is the tragic tale of Boone, the sniper we meet in Novac. There are many ways to screw up the “One For My Baby” quest, but only one way to do it right. And when you do it right, nothing is solved. No one feels better, and the desolation of the wasteland is more oppressive than before. Yet it is a beautiful, satisfying end to a horrible, sad story.