“Mass Effect 3 Ending” or “What is a unit of art?”

Mass Effect is a game that I see as research for me. While it’s an RPG of sorts, I’m there for the story as it’s relevant to my interests. I work in interactive narrative, and while Mass Effect is a different genre, it’s focus and attention on character interaction and narrative makes this a very key piece of text to study. When Mass Effect 3 was coming out, I put this sign up above my desk in order to keep as fresh as possible.

Posted above my desk at work.

When the ending of the game started to get some traction, I was in a deeper focus to finish the game. Not just research at my own pace, but the contribute to the discussion about the ending. At first I was going to stick to just the narrative analysis. Then I got introduced to a different take which I agree with, and lead me to ponder what a ‘unit’ of art is.

Needless to say, behind the cut is the way to Spoiler-town.

I had written up some thoughts on the ending. The analogy I was going for is the ending of Contact (1997) in which the alien race is her father personified. Then leaves the player with a choice of what color the beam-o-destruction is. This tosses away the 121 hours as unimportant to the fate of the universe. There were other things that were just odd. The reversal of red and blue colors at the end where blue is usually on the right side.

As I was looking around for videos of the other endings, I stumbled upon this theory (via Paul Tassi of Forbes) which it’s main thesis I agree with. It’s long, so you can either watch it or skip to my tl;dr.

tl;dr: Shepard is in process of indoctrination in Mass Effect 3. Subtle at first, then ramp’ed up during the final scenes of the game. Once Shepard is hit with the Reaper beam running to the Citadel entry, the narrative takes place inside Shepard’s head. The conversation between Anderson and Illusive Man are Shepard’s will and indoctrination respectively. The ending ‘decide-an-ending’ machine a choice to either give in to Reaper control or not.

The film analogy I’d go for here is Fight Club (1999), but stopping the movie just before the Tyler Durden reveal. Then releasing the rest of the movie via the Internet at a later date. This poses a very peculiar situation that rases questions. What defines a unit of art? Is the self-contained unit at initial offering? Does DLC count under the orignal unit, or must it be treated differently?

Since I’m making up a new term, let me share what I propose as known ‘units’ of art. A film is a unit. The other stuff on a DVD, be it deleted scenes or interviews, live outside of the unit of the film. For Television, each episode is a unit and a season is a collection of units. For art, it’s the piece presented on (or around) the canvas or space the art occupies. For performance art, the time between the start and finish of the piece. Obviously there’s cases that challenge this which is the whole point of art.

For video games, there’s some cases where a unit is clearly defined. Dear Esther (2012) is a unit. Centipede (1983) is a unit. Even with episodic games, each episode is the unit with the season being a number of units. Where things aren’t so defined is when DLC is introduced. For Alan Wake (2010), the main game was a complete unit, and DLC continued the story as different units. Then there are not so clear cut examples of DLC as a unit. Do the DLC items in Team Fortress 2 (2007) change the unit? LA Noir (2011) posed the more questions by altering the main narrative structure with DLC. You can complete the game without DLC and get the same results, but the DLC  altered experience if played from the beginning. With or without the DLC, you only missed content in the middle, not altered the ending.

Assuming the “Indoctrinated” theory is true in some form, then Bioware didn’t end the game called Mass Effect 3. The end of the game is DLC. I feel this is worse than a just a bad ending. It’s saying that a unit costing $40/$70 needs an add-on costing $0-25. I hate to reduce this to a cost, but there’s a valid argument that the agreed upon level of consumption of the media is a contact to have a complete experience. The complete experience of the unit at an additional cost. I feel this breaks the agreement between artist and audience to have a complete experience with the initial agreed upon offering.

I reserve judgement to weither the DLC would be free or paid. We don’t know what the plans EA / Bioware had before the fan movement occurred. I also don’t believe that the current response would be so calculated to anticipate the “Hold the Line” movement. It’s brilliant to be having this discussion of what defines the expectation of a complete core experience. On the other, the result would be milking money out of an audience. Is this then the artist statement: Resolutions can be charged as DLC?

The next few weeks will be interesting, that’s for sure.

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One thought on ““Mass Effect 3 Ending” or “What is a unit of art?””

  1. Indoctrination theory or not (BioWare seems to imply that indoctrination is not the case), that is the ending: no matter what, Shepard’s POV ends there and Mass Effect 1-3 have clearly and solely been Shepard’s POV. If BioWare gives us content in DLC that illuminates the events after the ending of Mass Effect 3 it won’t be with Shepard (there’s no save game after the end, to my knowledge, unlike ME2’s Suicide Mission post-saves) and it will effectively have to be an entirely new story (at least not without retconning the ending, which doesn’t sound like what will happen) and I don’t see that necessarily as a “real ending”. It would just as much need to be a new beginning given a new non-Shepard protagonist. I can’t think of a film analogy (possibly because tight POVs are rare in film) and the only analogy I can think of in games is The Longest Journey versus Dreamfall. It is a bit more common in book series, with the most obvious example in my mind being the end of Brand’s quintology and beginning of Merlin’s sequence in the Amber series.

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