Yesterday folks got into a bit of a kerfuffle about Mass Effect 3's ending. Some were happy with it, some were angry — but many have gone as far to say it should actually be retrospectively changed. You can agree or disagree — but that's where I draw the line. This rant is completely spoiler free!
In Tsugumi Ohba’s Bakuman, the talented Mashiro and Tagaki write manga. It is their dream to create incredible stories together; stories that will inspire and dazzle their audience. Their nemesis is the scheming Nanamine, a writer who idolises the combined abilities of Mashiro and Takagi, but secretly wishes to dethrone them.
He has no writing or drawing talent to speak of — he can’t create Manga — so in order to compete he recruits hundreds of wanna-be writers and artists from the internet. By manipulating this hive mind he attempts to compete with Mashiro and Takagi.
Nanamine crowdsources everything — the writing, the art, the plot, the structure — every aspect of his manga is fine tuned to the expectations and demands of this massive group. His work is the end result of hours of group testing, by hundreds of informed readers — the perfect manga — finely tuned, slickly produced, well-constructed.
And completely, utterly sterile.
I was reminded of Bakuman as the internet bile began to surface in response to Mass Effect 3’s ending. Considering the investment gamers had in the Mass Effect trilogy, and the personal investment many had — in their own designed protagonist and choices — some sort of negative response was always going to be expected.
I had no issue with the negativity, because I understand. On multiple occasions I’ve been massively disappointed in fiction. I’ve been frustrated. I’ve been downright furious with the way certain movies, games or books have ended.
But not once have I ever, ever suggested that the author take their work back and completely transform and change something to my own personal specifications.
Because that would be complete lunacy.
Let me reiterate — if you hated the ending of Mass Effect 3, please continue to whinge. Continue to be angry. Please continue to bitch about how it goes against everything the series stands for — dramatically cast your hands to the sky like a collective Darth Vader, and scream ‘NNOOOO’ in abject despair! Absolutely, that is your right.
But it is not your right to demand that the ending be changed. You have absolutely no say in that, and that is the way it should be.
There’s a tremendous difference between arguing and discussing how Bioware should have handled Mass Effect 3’s ending, and demanding they change it. Some are too entitled to tell the difference, but it’s paramount.
A game like Mass Effect, which is clearly designed and carefully built — with every detail of the universe accounted for — could not bear the damage a fan-demanded change to its fiction would create. Its integrity would collapse. This is Bioware’s story — no matter how personal your own existence within Mass Effect’s universe is, that existence was made possible within the confines of Bioware’s authorial intent. Full stop. You don’t get to change that. Once a word is said, it cannot be unsaid.
Fiction should delight us, it should broaden our horizons. It should challenge us, make us angry — often for the wrong reasons. Fiction should also have the propensity to disappoint us. But it must never, never pander to us.
I don’t want to engage with fiction that simply regales the story I want it to tell. Why would I? I want to be surprised by what I read/play/watch. Compared to other media, video game fiction is easily the least static, but that doesn’t mean that the creative act should be democratic — there still has to be structure. You must still react to what a creator has made for you, and you don’t get to change that — imagine the precedent that would set.
Once a piece of fiction is complete, and released into the wild, it must remain that way or its integrity will be desecrated.
In Bakuman, Mashiro and Tagaki write a weekly manga. They respond to their audience, because theirs is a commercial endeavour. If certain characters aren't liked, they may phase them out. If a certain story arc isn't gaining traction, they may cut it short. But nothing is ever changed in retrospect. Once is story is told it cannot be untold.
Mashiro and Tagaki work in isolation, fuelled by their own creative impulse, delivering content fans are inspired and energised by. The same audience reacts to Nanamine's output with a dull indifference. It's hard to become passionate about something that's created by committee — something that lacks the spark of an individual voice. It can never be original, it can never dazzle.
And that's what we risk when we demand retrospective change by committee — we risk derailing creative risk, we risk subverting the act of individual creativity.
I haven't finished Mass Effect 3 yet, but I don't care if Bioware's ending completely shatters everything I hold dear about the series. I don't care if my Shepard starts doing the moonwalk over Reaper corpses before engaging in a dance fight to the death with the Illusive Man. I don't care how ludicrous or flat out wrong Bioware's ending to Mass Effect is, I will accept it as canon because I shouldn't have any choice. Sure, I will howl at the moon with a primordial rage, maybe even snap both discs in two, but I will never question Bioware's authorial integrity, because Mass Effect is Bioware's story to tell, and I'm just going to have to deal with it.