Mass Effect 3 and the Inertia of Lore

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).

Gamer Investments
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.

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3 Responses to Mass Effect 3 and the Inertia of Lore

  1. markchen says:

    The best fan rewrite for the ending I’ve seen is by Arkis on DeviantArt:

  2. Terry says:

    Thanks for that, Mark! I also loved the GoogleDoc of the arguing the illogicality of the plot resolutions you linked to on your blog. Amazing stuff – I wish more academics took the specifics of their game objects as seriously as fans…

    The ME series, in my view, suffers from the focusing too much on giving lots of choices and not enough on making them meaningful. Even though they do many things to give the appearance of countering this problem (i.e. the save game transfers) more often they include token choices that may build a sense of pleasure in agency in the player in the short term but ultimately undermines it in the long run as the disconnect of choices made to meaningful consequences experienced becomes more and more palpable.

  3. Jeff says:

    I personally think that Mass Effect 3, combined with some of BioWare’s other recent games, are probably going to lose it a lot of credibility among gamers at large. Just as with Dragon Age II, they were took a great start and source material and removed a lot of what made it great in the first place, leaving what players remember the most, the ending, to be either rushed or poorly executed. Game developers need to foster trust with their customers if they are going to continue to succeed in any capacity, because players are going to pay attention to the developer when making decisions. While we may not consider Bungee or Infinity Ward to be the paragons of game innovation and excellence, they stayed faithful to their respective fanbases and were rewarded with a great deal of monetary success.

    BioWare’s franchises have also suffered in some part due to their connection with EA, and their attempts to salvage used game sales by including day-one/on-disc DLC. This, combined with some design decisions, and some frankly embarrassing comments from some developers (I remember a Dragon Age II developer said that the top-down combat perspective was removed to credit those who textured the game’s ceilings), have lost them a lot of credibility to a lot of the more informed gamers out there. Given the vital importance of moving many, many units in order for developers to stay afloat while fulfilling their financial obligations to publishers, any marketing lapse like this could lead to dire consequences down the road unless a major turnaround occurs.

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