First of All: Mass Effect is one of the greatest game franchises of all time. Everyone who has worked on it should be really, really proud of their combined efforts. Period.
WTF BioWare/EA?!? Why did you pee in my cheerios? Why?
Let me explain. I'm currently "in process" on my Creative Thesis Project (that's a complete noun phrase, not an adjectival boast, FYI); in short, I'm creating/developing a transmedia IP, with a Codex (aka Story Bible), a Screenplay, and a Game Design Doc as the artifacts constituting the IP's 'origination'. It is an academic exercise, in the sense that I've had to justify it via Prospectus with documentation as to the sources of my methodology and design process, although it is also a potentially (hopefully!) salable product.
For those who don't know: transmedia is an emerging philosophy of storytelling (or narrative design), that has some overlap with, but is also in large part distinct from, traditional cross-media marketing. To put it simply (perhaps overly so): cross-media marketing is ultimately about leading the consumer from low-profit/no-profit promotional material to high-profit product via Calls-to-Action, etc.; while transmedia is about developing a rich narrative universe capable of supporting a plethora of stories, each produced in the medium which can most powerfully convey the artistic/aesthetic intent. How does ME3 fit in? Stay with me, I'm almost there.
In today's market, there are a variety of entertainment choices (duh), but alas, there are only 24 hours in a day (again, duh! Say something worthwhile already!). Intel company futurist (yes that's a real job!) Brian David Johnson, in his excellent book Screen Futures, discusses the many problems facing entertainment producers: near the top of the list is limited time budgets for consumers. On average, most of us have between 10 and 20 hours a week to devote purely to entertainment (this prolly skews to 25-50 for alot of gamers, but I digress). So the competitive nature of the entertainment 'game' is intensifying on something like a geometric scale [BDJ sez that by 2015 there will be 500 BILLION hours of just video for the consumer to choose from!!!].
We are all Indoctrinated!
I'm not here to discuss the specific merits/detriments of the ending to the first Mass Effect trilogy. Nor am I going to discuss the evidence for/against the so-called Indocrination Theory. Well, actually, I am going to discuss those things, but at degree of considerable abstraction.
We all know how to read a story: regardless of the medium of presentation, we expect a Beginning, a Middle, and an End. All variations of plotting and aesthetic stylization aside, this is how narrative works, in everyday communication and in our most celebrated Stories (Citizen Kane, LotR, The Bible as a whole and story by story, etc. etc.). Sure we could argue the minutiae: what about non-linear story experieces, blah blah blah - I don't mean to be dismissive of the avant-garde, but by definition such things are non-conventional, and I'm speaking here of the shared, cross-cultural, general understanding of Story.
So my problems with ME3 all boil down to this: a missing or mis-advertised Catharsis! If the I.T. is correct partially or in entirety (or if BioWare/EA jumps at this 'easy way out' - see Forbes' excellent coverage of the topic), then what ME3 was packaged as, i.e. The Final Chapter, was a lie. The player base expected to experience a catharsis, and that vital process was delayed - intentionally and with no out-of-game/marketing foreshadowing. If this scenario is correct, then BioWare/EA intentionally violated the storyteller/audience contract: giving a satisfying conclusion. The outrage of the fanbase was then entirely justified, and all those smugly asserting that they 'got it' the first time through are missing the point: many players were interpreting the final events of the game exactly as the final events of the series, which is how it was marketed.
Will these jilted fans suddenly proclaim the True Genius of BioWare/EA at learning that it was all a 'cheap' trick *designed* to make lots of dedicated fans feel like stupid jerks? If this scenario is correct, then this was simultaenously one of the chutzpah-iest and most ill-concieved narrative/marketing devices ever employed. I personally believe that if I.T. was the *original* intention, the 'real ending' DLC would have been ready-to-go, if not Day 1, at least Week 1 - given that anyone could have predicted most fans would need only a few weeks to finish, and many would need only a few days.
The other possiblity, that the ending-as-is really was intended to be the final episode in the entire saga, points to a real problem with the overall process of narrative design in the ME franchise. Let me quote Drew Karpyshyn [total Badass, BTW] from his blog post dated March 15, 2012:
Of course, some of you are also pinging me to find out what the “original” ending of the series was when we started planning out the trilogy. Sorry, but that’s not something I’m even going to attempt to answer. The collaborative creative process is incredibly complicated, and the story and ideas are constantly evolving as you go forward. Yes, we had a plan, but it was very vague. We knew we wanted to focus on some key themes and bring in certain key elements: organics vs synthetics; the Reapers; the Mass Relays. Beyond that, we didn’t go into detail because we knew it would change radically as the game continued to evolve. [drewkarpyshyn.com/c/?p=381]
Holy Crap that shocks me! This is where the transmedia philosophy comes in: you need to know where you're going well before you get there. I have no doubt that Drew's being honest, nor do I doubt that much of the storytelling in games is done in this ad-hoc let's have everyone have some input kinda way. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with that - in fact all transmedia projects are to some degree 'shared story worlds', i.e. narrative creations that have no *single* author [at least all large, commercially successful properties - Star Wars, Harry Potter (novels vs. screenplays) etc.]. But that doens't mean they shouldn't have an *original* author, and perhaps a *primary* author. Jesse Schell makes this point in his excellent The Art of Game Design.
The Patrick Weekes/Penny Arcade incident, if true (pls don't hate me for suggesting it is), suggests to me the same processes that made much of the plotting of Mass Effect so successful, i.e. a group of 6-8 individuals in close collaboration, also rendered a coherent ending impossible. What I mean is that without a clear path with specific narrative milestones, there was no way to tie all of the threads together in a satisfying way. The 'Final Hours' app lends some credence to this theory, but oddly lends nearly as much to I.T. as well. The telling quote for me is the anecdote about the napkin thing: "Lots of speculation for everyone." In the middle of a franchise, speculation is a good thing, but when everyone is told they're getting the ending to an experience that has lasted a few hundred hours, they're expecting a satisfying conclusion, a catharsis - and that's exactly what they didn't get.
What are the long-term ramifications of this? I'm scared silly that it will turn many folks away from heavy investment in narratively-driven franchises, for a variety of reasons: fear of misleading advertising (beyond the traditional tricks of the movie trailer, etc.), fear of wasted effort, and the corollary - the basic desire to know what they're paying for and get it. This isn't going to end well for BioWare/EA: it's mediorce-to-worst case scenarios, not best-to-worst. And given the tremendous, solid gold nature of 95% of the franchise, that is really and truly a tragic shame, epic in proportion.
So thanks, BioWare/EA, thanks for making it both more necessary than ever to include a narrative designer with final authority from day 1, yet simultaenously making it that much harder to make large transmedia properties seem viable in the future. Rawk on!