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Gaming for N00bs: 'Mass Effect 3' controversy proves gamers' connections to their virtual worlds

Posted by Alex Pearlman  April 1, 2012 05:34 PM

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mass effect 3.pngBy Vanessa Formato

Gamer or non-gamer, you've still likely heard a little bit about Mass Effect 3 lately. Bioware released the final installment in their wildly popular sci-fi roleplaying trilogy early in March, and it took about as long as it took players to complete the game for major drama to start.

Fans aren't pleased with the game's ending, and they intend to do something drastic about it. I'm not a huge fan of the Mass Effect series myself, but watching the response to the third game and feeling, second-hand, the tidal wave of hurt feelings stemming from the deep connection fans have with this game has been moving.

To give you a brief rundown of the situation (and there may be mild spoilers ahead), Mass Effect is a game about making decisions; it's a bit of a shooter, too, but it's mainly a roleplaying game. Players log the majority of their in-game hours in conversation with other characters as they take on the role of Commander Shepard, a human who's trying to save a galaxy from an unstoppable army of sentient machines and, along the way, quell the hatred between the galaxy's many races. Players decide how well all of this goes, who to befriend, who lives, who dies, and with whom to fall in love.

Bioware promised that every decision would matter, but when it came right down to the end, that seemed to be a lie. Without giving too much away, all players got more or less the same less-than-optimistic ending, no matter what they'd accomplished along the way. And for many, the generic ending felt like a slap in the face, like Bioware had betrayed them.

One of the most notable movements to emerge from the fray has been the Retake Mass Effect campaign, an online effort to bring attention to player dissatisfaction through a Child's Play donation drive (now closed). For those who don't game with much frequency, it can be difficult to understand how the ending of a video game can be such a big deal, but the name of this movement is telling: You cannot “retake” something that wasn't yours to begin with.

And yet, maybe moreso than fans of any other popular franchise, Mass Effect fans seem to see the series as theirs. In a way, the level of control that Bioware allowed players is what created this sentiment, and that's a wonderful thing. The level of interactivity in a game like this one is different from that of any other kind of media because players are, to a large degree, authoring the content. The line between their stories and the developer's becomes blurred -- and that's the problem. Bioware put themselves in a position where they had to deliver something they simply couldn't on a practical level: the ability for players to write their own endings.

I can't be sure of what Mass Effect players really want because every fan wants something different; after all, every fan's experience with the game was unique. Every fan created a world of his own, and I can understand how it might be heartbreaking to see those efforts come to nothing. Still, players see their decisions from all of the games reverberate throughout the experience, and even if the grand finale is a universal one, that doesn't quite negate the journey.

Maybe what fans were looking for -- and what they're so upset they didn't get -- was a truly happy ending for the galaxy they fell in love with. Happy endings are easy to swallow, but sad ones require us to be courageous. Every one of Mass Effect 3's endings involves the destruction of something integral to the cohesion of the universe that players became so invested in for half a decade, and that's hardly what anyone seems to have wanted.

But perhaps, just as everyone's journey started from a common point, it must end at one, too. The ending brings the fantasy world closer to the real world, where sometimes, no matter what you do, things don't go quite like you'd hoped. Those disappointments are what test our mettle and prove our strength. Commander Shepard was brave enough to make some devastating sacrifices, and maybe fans should be brave enough to accept the results, even if it's painful.

From my perspective, Bioware's decision to bow to the pressure and change Mass Effect 3's ending is upsetting. The original ending stands out for its finality and uniformity in a world where the player was supposed to control every detail. It might not be what many fans want, but in a way, it's more meaningful for it.

At the very least, watching Mass Effect fans grapple with their emotions contains a message of its own about just how much a game can mean to a player. Bioware should be proud that instead of creating exactly the product its fans wanted, they created a world that was real enough to fight for, even after the game ended.

Do you play Mass Effect? What did you think of the ending?

'Gaming for N00bs' is TNGG Boston's bi-weekly gaming column, written by Vanessa Formato.

About Vanessa -- Vanessa Formato is a 23-year-old Clark University graduate, freelance journalist, vegan cupcake enthusiast and video game aficionado. She blogs about body image and tweets about puppies. So awesome, even John Stamos is impressed.

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