June 27th, 2012


Mass Effect and Artistic Integrity.

I've been following the "controversy" surrounding Mass Effect 3's ending, and now we finally have the extended cut that Bioware promised to rectify fan concerns. I haven't played the extended cut yet; I'm raising my war asset rating so I can get the same ending I chose when I finished the non-extended game. I'm not here to comment on the extended ending, though, but rather the controversy surrounding the original ending.

For those who may not know, Mass Effect 3's ending caused some controversy, sparking a massive fan outcry and a demand for the ending to be changed. To give an example of how serious this got, a fan-based charity called "Take Back Mass Effect" raised about $80,000 before it was shut down. Yes, people were that upset. This, of course, sparked a debate on whether or not the ending should be changed, with people firmly on either the "change it" or "leave it" sides of the issue.

Bioware then announced that they would be releasing an extended cut add-on which will give further closure to the ending of the Mass Effect trilogy, offering expanded scenes and an epilogue to give further explanation and clarity to the base ending. They did not change the ending, merely expanded it. Though, to listen to some of the people complaining about Bioware "caving in" to fan pressure, it seems that some people don't understand the difference.

Which brings me to the topic of this entry. There is one particular argument expressed by those in favor of leaving the ending unchanged that is out of touch with reality, and it's that argument I will address now. There is this notion that, because Bioware decided to address the complaints of their fans, they've compromised their "artistic integrity" by caving in to the demands of their customers. If you honestly believe that, I have a magic bean to sell you.

To clarify, I am not saying there is no such thing as artistic integrity, but the version of that concept which the "leave it" crowd espouses would have us believe that the vision of any given artist is sacrosanct; that any alteration of artists' original work for any reason is a violation of their basic rights as artists, and therefore the demand for a change to Mass Effect 3's ending is inherently unjust. It's this view on which I'm calling bullshit.

The fact of the matter is that this so-called compromise of artistic integrity is nothing new. It happens in just about every media, for a variety of reasons. Studios that use focus testing change their artists' work based on the feedback of the groups. Is that wrong? Write a book and there's a good chance that your editor tell will you "I'd like you to change this, this, and this" before your work will be published. While these demands are usually negotiable, authors (especially newer ones) know better than to make too big of a fuss over it if they want their book to see the light of day.

Story ideas are changed, or cut wholesale, at the demand of executives, ratings boards, or other people of authority. Sometimes it's for good reason, and other times it's based on nothing more than the personal peeves of the one making the demand. People working under these conditions have even less leeway than Bioware had, since these demands are coming from their boss or someone who otherwise has the power to screw them over if they're displeased. Rant about artistic integrity all you want, but writers who enjoy getting paid know better than to issue a "my way or no way" ultimatum. Unless, of course, said artist has so much clout behind him that he can actually get away with it, but that's another matter entirely.

Writers eventually learn to murder their darlings, to be more practical and less "artistic" in their work. Otherwise they risk becoming self-indulgent, which ultimately hurts the story and makes it less enjoyable to their audience. At every level, much of the entertainment we see today has been processed in some way, and unless artists comes forward with the details of how their work was altered, we may never even know.

You may think of this as a great injustice, but it's important to realize that sometimes the artist really doesn't know what's best. Artists are human, like everyone else, and are just as prone to mistakes and slips in judgment. Changes are not automatically bad, and artistic decisions are not automatically good.

When writing entertainment, there is a certain level of give-and-take involved. Once a work is distributed for mass media consumption, it no longer belongs entirely to the artist(s) who created it. The consumers are people too, and they will have opinions. While it's impossible to please everyone, the goal of any entertainer worth his salt is to make his work enjoyable for as many people as possible. The customers are the ones paying for your work, after all, and if you can't deliver a product that a decent number of people are willing to pay for, then why does your publisher need you?

That's why I think Bioware did the right thing in created an extended cut to address fan concerns. If it was just a few people griping on message boards because they personally didn't like the ending, then Bioware would have been free to ignore it. Since the backlash was so huge, though, action had to be taken. It had been demonstrated that a significant portion of their customers weren't happy, so it was in Bioware's best interest to see to their needs.

This situation is not unreasonable in the least. Bioware had total freedom over their actions in regards to the fan displeasure they faced. If they were simply kowtowing to their customers they would have outright changed the ending, as was originally demanded, rather than seeking to give further clarity to the ending they originally created. What if the demand had come from somewhere else? What if, say, the ESRB had threatened to give Mass Effect 3 an AO rating (essentially cutting the game off from console publication) and demanded that it be changed? Would that be more acceptable than some unhappy fans expressing their opinion? Bioware can ignore fans, or simply meet them halfway. They would not have that same level of freedom when dealing with the ESRB. This hypothetical scenario (or something similar) happens more often than you'd think in other media.

The "leave it" crowd calls the changing of Mass Effect 3's ending a betrayal of artistic integrity. I say, "welcome to the real world."
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