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I finally managed to finish Mass Effect 3 single on Thursday (after being considerably sidetracked by the multiplayer component), and I have to say, it left me in a state mildly akin to grieving.
It was over. These were games I had spent hundreds of hours on, and the sense of emptiness, the void left behind by the close of the series was quite palpable. After five insanity playthroughs of ME1, two of ME2, and 44 hours (and countless more unlogged) on just my singleplayer save for ME3 alone, I’d come to the point where I’d noticeably feel an urge to play ME3 just to spend time with my crew mates and enjoy their company. Like hanging out with old friends. It was strange and wonderful, and it was over.
But, of course, it wasn’t just that I’d be missing Jennifer Hale, Raphael Sbarge (fan of both since KotOR), Keith David, Ali Hillis and everyone else. I could always just go back and play the games again (and actually, I was already planning on finishing up my sixth playthrough of ME1 to start a new saga anyway). But it was that ending—the effort to make emotional sense of it—that drove the point home.
Here, then, is my attempt at understanding my experience.
Why Closure Denial Happens
Let’s talk (again?!) about Jungian archetypes. To greatly simplify, the archetypes can be thought of as cognition patterns: the psychological counterparts to physiology’s instinct. And just as instinct automatically guides an infant towards greater acuity in physically comprehending his surroundings, so too are the archetypes the method through which the unformed mind begins to interact with the world—by projecting patterns upon our environment, understanding can occur.
(A more accurate description would note that these patterns project themselves according to the situation, much as the instincts are autonomous, and that the resulting behavior and reaction in the individual is what creates understanding.)
Unfortunately, it is altogether possible to get our projections wrong. That’s not to say that the “incorrect” patterns arise so much as it is to say that lingering attachments to specific projections can make them obsolete and inappropriate. According to Jung, then, the psyche has an automatically compensating, homeostasis maintaining structure which attempts to break these attachments. The longer an “unhealthy” attachment lasts, the more the psyche attempts to alert the conscious, and the more this struggle expresses itself as neuroses or psychoses, or emotional pain in the short term.
Or, let’s put this another way. The archetypes are quintessentially aspects of the Self. Depending on the situation, a different aspect comes to the front which allows the individual to best navigate the circumstances. Occasionally, however, we come to identify wholly with this specific and limited version of the self, suppressing the other aspects which still exist. The danger here is that even when the situation changes so that a different aspect might be more effective, the individual clings on to former patterns, thus displaying what is termed regression.
The cycle of psychological maturation (or individuation, as Jung called it), then, is the repeated process of projection and rejection, attachment and amputation, where the individual eventually comes to understand through loss that the Self is more than just a single pattern or behavioral goal—that the Self is a dynamic thing with unconscious and emergent properties we can’t or don’t always control.
Why is this Relevant to Gameplay?
Much of gameplay is therefore about the projection of the Self upon the game world to comprehend and manipulate it; in order to play, one must project (we might even say that play is simply a word for active projection). And, just like any other interaction with an environment, the object we project ourselves upon in the game, be it one’s avatar or one’s high score, changes depending on the game and the context within the game.
This means the expression of the Self within the game world is necessarily imperfect, restricted, and even determined by game’s devices (again, just as it is in the “real” world), which often results in that the selves we are projecting upon the game don’t always match up with the selves we are actual able to create in the game.
(This is different from ludonarrative dissonance; whereas ludonarrative dissonance originates from conflicts between the game’s narrative and ludic demands, the dissonance we are discussing arises from the difference between the player’s self-concept and the player’s chosen device for in-game representation. We might call this “archetypal dissonance”.)
The success of this experience, much like the success of individuation itself, therefore depends on how much the individual realizes that his own conception and projection of himself is itself already limited and incomplete—that any attempts to crystallize the Self upon an avatar is largely a hubristic and Sisyphean endeavor anyway (we all understand the impossible tiresomeness of constantly maintaining one’s image on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or whatever it is).
The experience of gameplay is thus a distillation of psychological maturation: it is the process of constantly bridging the gap between, and coming to terms with, the differences between one’s conceptualization of oneself and the Self as it actually is.
Consequently, the task of the game designer wishing to impart closure is to avoid too abruptly severing that emotional attachment to such particular conceptualizations or understandings of the game as a reflection of the Self, or brusquely confronting their unreality. Obviously, this does not always serve the goal of art. The designer must therefore decide: is the purpose of his game to promote satisfaction (or more cynically, self-satisfaction) or individuation? And crucial to producing either outcome is correctly identifying the primary device upon which the player projects himself.
Projection in Mass Effect 3
Significant Spoilers Ahead
Perhaps the unexpected thing about Mass Effect 3 is that the Self in ME3 is not Shepard, but the universe itself. That is, the primary purpose of play in ME3 is to shape the universe—not Shepard—in the player’s own image (the establishment of Shepard having already been completed in the first two games). Indeed, even events that define the character of Shepard in ME3 occur within the goal of impacting the universe in a particular way.
It should come as no surprise, then, when players protest a resolution in which the universe is changed beyond recognition. The destruction of the relays, the Citadel—the very things that make the Mass Effect universe what it is—feels like a denial of everything in which the player has been investing (for instance: the disappearance of galactic travel means that all the race relations decisions made by the player are rendered largely irrelevant). We wanted to save the universe, not abandon or demolish it for another one.
As such, as an exercise in pursuing individuation through deliberate ego denial, ME3 has a superb ending, quite similar in archetypal expression to that of The Longest Journey, and achieving the same kind of revelatory re-examination as the traditional unreliable narrator.
Where the ego expects a clean, simple victory over the reapers, ME3 provides only compromise. It disabuses and ejects players from the projection that there will be a restoration to a former idyllic whole, causing the player to question his understanding, motives, and investments. And the force of this amputation is made even more severe by the lengthy personal history that many will by now have had with their Shepards.
Breaking Player Expectations while Meeting Them
The question, of course, is whether the player perceives this experience as an authorial choice or a production mistake. The only way inflicting emotional pain in a game works is if the player understands that it is a deliberate, not arbitrary, experience—the player must expect (or at least suspect) to have their expectations broken.
Did BioWare rush out an unfinished game whose ending was determined by time, financial limitations, and lack of ideas? Was it a failure to fully realize the War Asset system which instead hyped up player expectations on the amount of agency one has over the game’s universe? Or were both of these intentional design decisions to create the sense of loss experienced by the difference in expectations and reality to compound the one already caused by the close of a generational series? (My reading? Mostly the last.)
But the difficulty is that, in the age of DLCs and massive content and revisionist updates, where players can now far more than ever before communicate directly with developers and arrange mass action, it’s becoming harder for the player to accept that a game is done the way it is. We’ve been spoiled by the likes of CD Projekt Red and Valve (not to mention the power of crowdfunding to get the games that we want), and the opposing drive towards compartmentalization, commodification, and monetization of content has left us all cynical and suspicious.
Perhaps the lesson to learn here, then, is that if a game is going to go the route of individuation—essentially, of player denial—you better be damn clear just how intentional that is. Developers need to draw firm lines and be as absolutely definitive as possible on the state of completeness of their game (including specific plans for future DLC, their scope and number), exactly which statistics the developer tracks (if it indeed does, as BioWare), and just how much impact fan input has on the development process, so that any doubt that the game just wasn’t finished on time, is still being tweaked, or that content has been held back is eliminated.
Such clarity communicates to players the purposeful finality of their experience, making it explicit that achieving closure is up to the player himself. Otherwise it is all too easy for players to blame the developer for a poor experience (who enjoys emotional severance?), or resort to expectations that resolution will be handed to them via updates.
It Never Ends
In this post, I attempted to explain what exactly “closure” means by describing the psychological processes which lead to the kinds of emotional turmoil we experience when projections are abruptly withdrawn. These same processes, though, can help us understand why it is that many gamers seem to prefer games that never end, how the promise of future content impacts player experience and perception (by extending the hope of continued projection), and how we might better utilize the projection withdrawal experience to give greater depth and meaning to our games.