Friday, March 30, 2012
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The video game series Mass Effect has won millions in sales and almost universal critical acclaim, partly because it offers players more choice. Mass Effect lets you decide how to treat the characters you encounter in the game world, and those choices have consequences.
The developers at BioWare, the studio behind Mass Effect, went so far as to program their game so that when you pick up a sequel your character from the previous game is loaded in, ensuring a kind of continuity of consequence that’s unheard of in gaming, which led to a conundrum. How do you write an ending that can offer a satisfying conclusion to all the different versions of the story spun out by the players over the past five years?
What the programmers did was write a narratively ambiguous climax that every player experienced, regardless of the choices they made. It was a distinctly Soprano-esque ending, which generated Soprano-esque howls of rage. Online petitions circulated, YouTube missives were recorded.
VOICE: I will not buy another Mass Effect game!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Finally, last week, BioWare Studios announced that its engineers were working on ways to provide, quote, “more closure.”
Tom Bissell writes about video games for Grantland. Welcome back to the show.
TOM BISSELL: Thank you for having me back, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you estimate you’ve sunk about 150 hours into this game series. What’s it like to play?
TOM BISSELL: It’s a third person shooter in which you play a character called Shepard, and Shepard can be either a man or a woman. My Shepard is a woman. And so, you take Shepard through this pretty massive game world that spans all over the galaxy and you meet dozens and dozens and dozens of characters and run into dozens of ethical quandaries, some of which don’t seem to have any good answer. And, of course, the very fate of this fictional galaxy is hanging in the balance throughout it.
So it kind of does a lot of things really well that only games can really do. They give you a really pleasing massive world and then they give you a lot of agency to determine how that world is gonna turn out.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And how’d you feel about the ending?
TOM BISSELL: It was an audacious failure, I would say. It also doesn’t make much sense. Now, the – the, the cool thing is the possibility that the entire ending is an extended hallucination in the mind of your character and none of it actually really happens.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Oh, you’re kidding me, that the ending was “And it was all a dream?”
TOM BISSELL: Yeah, there – there’s, there’s a school of thought that actually the ending is much more dreamlike and much stranger than anyone’s giving it credit for. Whether or not that makes this bad or worse –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That’s a worse copout –
-than, you know, “And then they were all run over by a truck.”
TOM BISSELL: [LAUGHS] Well, I – I, I, I – I don’t know what to say. I, I feel like you’ve got me on –
- on a hotter seat than I’d anticipated, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Your friend Taylor Clark argued in The New Yorker recently against BioWare’s promise to address the ending problem. He said that a mature audience for an art form would never call for the artist to actually change a work’s ending, that, in fact, gamers that do demand a change are – essentially childish. Do you agree with that?
TOM BISSELL: I think Taylor was in a somewhat Swiftian mode in that piece. I fundamentally do agree with him, that the kinds of reactions that people have been venting to this ending have ranged from sort of sweetly naïve to rageaholism of its worst, most gamerific form.
So many game reviews come down to - is this worth your money. And I can’t think of any other form of entertainment – you know, The New York Times Book Review doesn’t ask whether or not the books are worth their money.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But wait a minute, all petulance about the money aside, what is it about this game that prompted so much ire? Is it because they were denied the opportunity to truly affect their own ending? At the end of the game everybody had the same experience. The only thing your choices could change was the – color of the explosion. It’s a betrayal of what the game experience was promising all along.
TOM BISSELL: If BioWare does redo the ending, it’s never going to satisfy anyone because the ending will never be experienced in the optimal psychological space. Trying to go back to that moment right before you were disappointed and re-empty yourself of all your prior knowledge of everything that’s led you here, I – I just don’t think anyone’s gonna be happy with whatever they do.
These poor writers at BioWare have had to keep track of dozens upon dozens of, of choices that you can make. And the – the branching pathways become more extreme with each game. Trying to ask, you know, a game to deliver a satisfying ending when it’s literally keeping track of hundreds of possible permutations of an ending, I mean, I think it’s probably impossible.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, give me an example of a video game with a really great ending.
TOM BISSELL: I would say Red Dead Redemption has one of the best endings of, I think, any game ever made.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And this is a game sort of like Grand Theft Auto. You, you have this world you can wander through, and there’s a story you can follow, if you want, right?
TOM BISSELL: Yeah. So Red Dead Redemption is a story of a guy named John Marston who’s trying to fight to save his family, and he’s shot dead at the end by a posse. So after John Marston dies, you’re kind of startled, and you think, well, that’s the end of the game.
But suddenly the card comes up three years later and you’re John Marston’s son kneeling next to your father’s grave. And then what you don’t know as the player is that you can sort of wander around, and if you walk into a certain town someone will approach you and give you information, and you can actually go down, find your father’s killer and find him fishing down by a river.
You ask him if, if he remembers your father. He says yes. And then you cold-bloodedly murder him, and then the title, Red Dead Redemption, The End comes up, and this great music plays and that’s the end of the game. And it’s a wonderfully bloodthirsty vengeance-minded end of, you know, what is a really violent bloody game.
And I love – it has no moral patness. It’s really complicated. You don’t necessarily feel like you did the right thing, but it placed this ending out on this world for you to find.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tom, thank you very much.
TOM BISSELL: Thank you, Brooke. It was great.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tom Bissell writes for Grantland. He has a new book coming out about the creative process called “Magic Hours.”