Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Endings, Critics, "Journalism," and Changes to Products

So, hey, everybody. I guess I'll give a few more cents to this debate and then quietly bow out to start actually reviewing some more products deserving of intricate reviews and such. So, Mass Effect 3 is the game that finally brought people together to start complaining about certain aspects of gaming "culture" that are less than stellar. I'm not going to start with endings, like my title suggests I might, but rather, as the picture indicates above, I will start with "journalism."

Now, I put "journalism" in quotation marks here to prove a point. Partially this is expectation. And no, I'm not just going to bash critics or reviewers, but you'll have to read this carefully because I'd rather not be misconstrued. We, as gamers, as people enjoying products, as movie-goers, as whatever we want to be, expect a certain product to be a certain way. I would never expect Star Wars to be a musical or slap-stick comedy (The Star Wars Holiday Special be damned!). I'd never expect Silent Hill to start going down the road of romantic foible. Nor do I consider something like Twilight to be a product for actual thinking or breathing human beings that use their minds. Now, I insult a bit, but I insult for a reason. Each product is out there for a specific reason and we all have certain expectations for that product. I may have no interest in Twilight, but that movie or that book is not made for me, a twenty-three year old straight male who is cynical and a fan of actual horror and monster movies. It's simply not made for me. Yes, it has its audience and I'm happy, I guess, that it does, but it's not made for me. And that's okay, since I don't want to see it.

So, when a movie is made for me, let's say a horror movie, and I see movie critics bashing it left and right, then I go to see it and love it, it perplexes me. The problem here is that the critics in this case like certain types of movies, but horror movies rarely fit into their definition of good movie. Some of my favorite films of all time are horror and yet so few of them actually have decent reviews to back them up. A site like Rotten Tomatoes gives most of the movies I absolutely love, less than a 50% rating. Is that fair? Is it good that something like Ghost Ship (which I liked) or Pandorum (which I loved!) get such crappy scores when movies that I cannot stand like Dark City or Shutter Island get much better scores?

Partially, this is because of critics' personal preferences as well as my own. The problem is why are critics seen as the only voice of these opinions? Why is Rotten Tomatoes or for games, Metacritic, looked at with such awe? Why do the voices of these opinionated critics and "journalists" matter more than any other person? are they experts? Can one even be an expert on a media that is purely subjective already? If I want to write an article on a video game does that mean I have to major in video game journalism? If I want to write an in depth critique on movies, does that mean that I have to major and then get a PhD in Film Criticism or something? Why? Aren't there forms of media purely subjective anyway? Certainly there are plenty of movies I cannot stand, but those two movies that I say I don't like above have plenty of other people who love them. Does that make them better for me? Does saying that Black Swan (an awful movie in my opinion, seriously awful) received a bunch of awards make me like the movie better? ...I think you know the answer to that.

My point here isn't that game "journalists" are wrong or right, but rather that they all have an opinion. Certainly those opinions might have something to do with the picture shown above, ad revenues, getting the games for free, full access to studios, et cetera... but I doubt that's a huge thing for most of the "journalists." In all honesty, despite the derogatory picture I posted, I sincerely doubt that most of these game "journalists" even care about things like ad revenues or are told to post certain reviews. Most of these reviews rely on subjectivity and criticism, and that's the problem. A journalist cannot be subjective. A journalist is supposed to present facts as truths, objective truths, possibly extrapolating from time-to-time, but certainly not letting their feelings of a product or story get in the way of what that story or product actually is. Calling a game "journalist" a journalist gets the wrong point across. they are critics, much like movie critics, subjective opinions and everything else that comes with it. Yes, they might be correctly called game journalists if they only report facts within studios and make no extra speeches or articles about how fans of games are dumb, but when those things happen, when reviews happen, when fans are called out, those people cease being journalists at all. They become a harsh parody of one.

And that's all in our expectations. We hear the title of "game journalist" and our minds go and say, "Dude, this guy is telling me the objective truth about the game." when in fact he or she is literally only saying their own opinions. But looking at the title, we wouldn't get this... even now a lot of people have trouble seeing the inherent subjectivity involved in the world of game "journalism." I mean, for example I hate RTS games. They are just not my thing at all. They don't work well for me and in general I would rather play almost any other type of game. If somebody asked me to review an RTS, I would give it a bad review, not because it is a bad game, but because I don't particularly like that type of gaming experience. The same kind of thing can be seen with Mass Effect 3 but... it's different too. Gaming critics say that the game is brilliant, fantastic... all of these other things, but this game is the end of a trilogy... it's the last game in an RPG story that has a heavy basis in choice. So, yes, the gaming critics may go out of their way to say how the gameplay is good, how the graphics are good... blah blah blah, but they will never have the same investment that a person who plays the Mass Effect  games over and over would. Most people, certainly not all, but most certainly think that the endings were fairly poorly executed.

Now, are the endings of Mass Effect 3 poorly handled. Certainly. There is no doubt. The game in general suffers from a large lack of focus and perhaps even a rush to a deadline. Pieces of the experience of the game like multiplayer and certain characters within the narrative could have easily been cut out with no detrimental effects except possibly to sales... and that's the big problem.

So, let me tell you what I think. I think BioWare is generally being very quiet on the Mass Effect front, but I was recently reading some things from the Dragon Age write David Gaider, who I think has a lot of very good insights to the problems. I'm not going to quote directly, but suffice it to say, his quotations are easy enough to find if you look in the right places. My point is that he speaks heavily, and in my opinion more frankly, about the process required to make games and the processes required to make money with games. I like all of the Dragon Age games. Certainly there are missteps, but it's mostly a very solid series. I appreciate Mr. Gaider coming out and saying things like they are. Some of what he says certainly reflects on Mass Effect as well. The constant need to make a product that will sell, the idea of making a game that also listens to its core audience and their ideas, the process of making something enjoyable and objectively "good," and mostly trying to get things done by a deadline.

And I think the deadline is what destroyed Mass Effect 3. Despite a lot of people coming out and saying that the game is perfect, the game isn't. It objectively is worse than Mass Effect 2 even when the endings are not counted. It took steps back, making sidequests into nothing more than either fetch quests or easy multiplayer maps without story. I mean, certainly there is some story, and some of the quests are fantastic... but so much of the game feels unpolished... almost unfinished. In some ways the game feels very much like my favorite game, KotOR II, but Mass Effect 3 just has different things that are finished and unfinished as compared to that game.

KotOR II is a fundamentally amazing game that has an ending that just kind of peters away. The developers wanted to finish it, but did not have enough time, as LucasArts wanted to push it out the door for a Christmas release... and that's the problem. They had the fundamental stuff, but had to cut unfinished content out of the released product, making the ending a jumble of incoherent screens and maps with obviously unfinished enemy models, and a highly unfinished plot... but it still worked in my opinion. Even with so much cut content it worked because there was an ending and the core game was so good that a mediocre ending just would not bring it down.

Mass Effect 3 also suffers from being the last part of its trilogy rather than an almost standalone game like KotOR II is. I feel that the game was obviously rushed, multiplayer was concentrated on, and balls were dropped all around. You can see the shines of polish in different places. Rannoch stands out, but they are hidden behind so many bad parts of the game. I mean the beginning just stands out to me so much... hell, Earth in general is incredibly disappointing. BioWare has never worked well with deadlines. They're like Valve, except Valve will wait to release a game, pushing back the date because they want to release a finished and unbroken product, whereas BioWare has to release a product when the publisher wants it out. KotOR or Dragon Age II can also show this pretty easily, with KotORs endgame sequence playing completely differently than the rest of the game with infinite spawning enemies and almost no dialogue. Dragon Age II, although I like the game, just feels like it has pieces missing, especially from the third act. In earlier games this cut content could be seen on the game itself. Hell, KotOR II has been restored by modders from cut content found hidden on the discs. It's ridiculous how much content was cut out from that game, hours upon hours... and every bit of cut content actually makes the game better, solidifying it as the best game of all time for me.

My whole point is that deadlines happen. Mass Effect 3 was pushed back once already... and I doubt that they were completely ready to release such a complex product. I have to believe that they wanted other endings or have planned for an ending DLC of some sort. Anything else would make so little sense it's mindboggling.

And I know I've put my personal opinion out there, but I don't need a happy ending. I just want no plotholes. I just want things to make sense. I can take nonsense if there are reasons for nonsense like in the Silent Hill series where it is pretty readily established that everything is weird and crazy. But Mass Effect  made fundamental sense as a space opera or space fantasy... and seeing an ending that makes so little sense with the rest of the continuity makes the game subpar.

See, I can take a sad or bittersweet ending. Hell, Nier (here are Nier spoilers by the way) ends with the main character giving up his existence and any memory of his existence for the woman he loves. And that's the freaking character you play as for the entire game. About half the main cast dies off in the ending and I never once complained about that because it worked. It was all set up... and when that message came up and deleted all my saves and my character's name and everything... it felt awful, certainly... I mean all that time, all that progress... but it also felt fitting. It worked in a fundamental way that was heartrending and beautiful. Mass Effect 3 does not work. It's ending does not fit. It feels awful and does not seem believable. When I reached the ending I reloaded a save and tried another ending just to find out that almost all the endings are the same... no real added content... no afterward... nothing. Nothing to resolve the plot. Nothing to evoke a response other than "What?" And that's not a good response... it's bad writing... it's terrible.

And yes, the endings should be changed. I don't think it takes away anything from the artistry or the whatever to add an ending. Filmmakers do it all the time. Books are changed by editors or publishers... and video games should have the ability to be altered as well. I don't think it's a bad precedent to make. I think it's an excellent one. Look at the Star Wars movies and the changes within. Even if you don't agree, the changes still exist. Look at Stephen King with new editions of older novels like The Stand or The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger. He changed and added stuff to the plots of both of those novels... one of which is the beginning of an entire series of novels and a short story and graphic novels. And he changed them. Is that a bad thing? No, because he has every right to change them and fans have every right to demand changes to a product they think is bad. Look at the Silent Hill HD collection that just came out. Look at all of the problems in that pack. They have to be fixed to have a good product. Why can't endings be fixed to have a good product too? It makes no discernible sense to me and seems patently false for reviewers and critics and game-makers to come out and say that fans shouldn't matter when they are the ones doling out the money for the game.

I guess I'm an old cynic though... and I feel as if these measures and protests and everything else need to be taken when a product is subpar... when promises were made and not kept... when deadlines had to be met and content stripped from the game. It's a fundamental flaw in the process for critics and reviewers who know absolutely nothing more than game-players... hell, they have almost no differences from those who play games except that they get paid and get less invested in the game... call out those players of video games as being entitled or flawed in their logic.

I know I'm not going to get a ton of people viewing this opinion piece, but I feel that very few people are being sensical here... and that bothers me a ton. I haven't seen too many people come out and say what I've said here... and it needs to be said, it has to be spoken, whether you agree or not.

All right then, last rant I'll do for a while. Expect some actual review content next week. I'm thinking Paprika might make a good review, but I also have a few movies that I've been meaning to watch... and a video game I'm in the process of playing. So, we'll see what comes next.

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