A few days ago there was some reporting on gamer discontent over the ending matter of Bioware’s bestselling Mass Effect 3. Gamers channeled their frustrations on forums and through social media, and one fan actually filed an FTC complaint, claiming the company engaged in false advertising. All of this is having some effect, as Bioware has publicly acknowledged the complaints and they even seem to be considering some kind of response.
While the growing power of gamer opinion in the social media age may be the obvious lead here, it is not the most interesting aspect of this story. Anyone who has read the work of, say, Henry Jenkins on fan culture (or came to our Altplay/Fandom keywords session!) recognizes that this reaction to ME3 is just a highly visible instance of what takes place everyday in fandom. For example, I recall the debacle that was Ultima IX, the finale of the CRPG following the Avatar that spanned almost two decades of gaming (1981-1999).
What strikes me about these two cases (ME3 & Ultima) that differs from, say, anger at lack of fidelity to originals in remakes or remediations (e.g. films, comics, or novels made into games), or anger at poor technical execution or poor storytelling in a highly promoted and anticipated game, is that they refer to a special kind of cultural inertia that draws its force from a potent combination of gamer investments of
1. money – the purchasing of several games linked by lore and a “story arc.”
2. time – the exploration of rich gameworlds and attentive consideration of lengthy dialogues and cutscenes, and perhaps the usage of and contribution to various online archives (such as game wikis and forums).
3. emotion – the substantial cathexis resulting from the former (time) and the meaningful degree of agency integrated by games that we tend to tag as RPGs.
What is interesting to me is that the spirit of discontent (set apart from the legal basis of the FTC complaint which has to do with the relation between #1 and marketing) with ME3 seems to stem not so much from poor story resolution as the inadequate acknowledgement of gamer investment (in terms of #2&3).
Another Mass Effect?
The idea of Lore, which cannot be reduced to story/history or, in my view, some “official” archive of information about the fictional world of the game, also subsumes the investments of the player as their experiences are transformed with meaning in gameplay and incorporated by both their individual memory and the industrial memory of the Internet. There seems to be a kind of inertia of lore, a kind of “dark energy” of gamer culture, which is difficult to handle, as Bioware is finding out.
But perhaps gamers haven’t understood the game. Check out an intriguing review of the game by Ryan Kuo, “The Mass Effect Is Not What You Thought” over at KillScreen.