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The joys of losing

Game design

Spoilers for Mass Effect 3, Papers, Please and Spec Ops: The Line

To put it mildly, the ending to Mass Effect 3 was not well-received. Reactions from players were so negative that Bioware went as far as to write up an epilogue to please them. Someone even started a petition to get Bioware to change the ending entirely. I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the ending myself, because the trilogy culminated with a decions that didn’t take all your choices into account. But there was a different sort of anger too.

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“Just as in our own lives, we are not always in control of events.”At the end, Commander Shepard dies. The hero of the story who has survived countless close calls and huge battles against all odds lies dead. It goes against the common idea that games are power fantasies, where the player is in full control of what happens in the story. You get the “good” ending if you maxed out everything and played the game well. If not, you can always reload. Here, there was no way out. That’s because Shepard had to die. Otherwise there would have been no sense of sacrifice. Things would merely have gone back to the same old same old, and would have ended with a fairytale “and they lived happily ever after” ending. As has been suggested by fan theories, Shepard could be viewed as a messianic character of sorts, as he gives up his own life so that others may be saved.

Just as in our own lives – our stories if you will – we are not always in control of events. That’s a terrifying thought, and it’s one explanation for why we play videogames: To escape from a life that probably isn’t all that exciting, and not quite as dangerous naturally. Ultimately, though, escapism is unsatisfying because it doesn’t enrich life in any particular way, even though I enjoy it in the moment. It merely steals my time. Of course, that could be said about any leisure activity, but it’s definitely possible to learn more about life and everything while playing videogames, precisely as with literature, movies and any other cultural activity. Sometimes you need to lose and admit defeat to learn more. And learning is always a joyous event because you get another piece of the puzzle.

A recent example of this is Papers, Please. All but one of the 20 endings are negative, even if you’ve been performing your job admirably. In short, you inspect passports and decide whether applicants may get inside the glorious nation of Arstotzka or not. The consequences of a rejection are often prompt and severe. The player’s role is not an enviable one, but it’s a role that is important to experience because you never know when you’ll find yourself as the man with the stamp, ruling over other people’s lives. It’s a lesson to always reflect over the power and influence you may have. And it manages to impart this, by making you lose over and over again. I was actually a bit disappointed to learn that there is an ending that is actually good, though when you think about it a bit more that ending might actually be as terrifying as the others.

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“We’ve grown accustomed to games having an achievable good ending, even if it requires extreme dedication or attention to detail.”A reason for this viewpoint is that we still generally see games as systems to be solved, which also explains the many poor romances in Western RPGs or black-&-white morals of the same. Games that do this aren’t necessarily bad. They’re just part of the great swathe of different themes and emotions that videogames can and should convey. Demanding that all videogames should strive to emulate French existentialist movies (or some other high-minded art form) is as ignorant as saying that games should all be “fun”. I can understand the dissatisfaction with ME 3’s ending, because spending 100+ hours on the trilogy, only to be smacked in the face it is frustrating, however, you can turn the problem around and ask whether it would be that much better if Shepard had a triumphant ending. I mean, you’d still have spent the same amount of time playing the games, only to get an ending that would be hamstrung and banal. It would be so predictable. Instead it felt appropriate. But it’s a saddening trend that many people keep demanding “good” endings.

It’s an uphill battle, though. We’ve grown accustomed to games having an achievable good ending, even if it requires extreme dedication or attention to detail. Like Jesper Juul, a game researcher, suggests in an interview about his book The Art of Failure, “[Games] promise us that we can repair a personal inadequacy – an inadequacy that they create in us in the first place.” So if a game cannot be beaten, that satisfaction disappears. I think that attitude needs to change, if we want games to diversify and tell relevant stories along with all the silliness.

A long while back, I wrote about Atom Zombie Smasher, a seemingly silly title that did well to hide a far more sinister theme. Much like Papers, Please, it’s about the faceless, nameless bureaucrat whose decisions have widespread consequences for human lives. In it, the player assumes control of the evacuation of zombie-infested city. Almost inevitably some civilians will have to be sacrificed in favor of more important people. I write “almost” because it is possible to save everyone with a bit of finesse and skill, which some pointed out. But the second it becomes about mastering those skills, it loses some significance. What AZS did well was to ask the player whether they wanted to be in that position, having ultimate power over other people’s lives. That’s a relatively common position to be in. Presumably not involving zombies, but natural disasters of a different kind. Either way, it’s not something most would like to experience first-hand, however, through a videogame you can experience a sliver of that responsibility. It might be escapism of sorts, but you walk away from it with a different feeling entirely. It’s that feeling that you’ve learned something.

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“Popularly said, the only way to ‘win’ was to not play it.”But things are changing, slowly at least. One of last year’s most debated games, Spec Ops: The Line, is a prime example of this. Strongly by inspired the themes and structure of Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, and the film adaptation Apocalypse Now, The Line has its protagonist, Walker, experience a slow descent into madness. Most importantly, though, it takes control away from the player. Popularly said, the only way to “win” was to not play it. Regardless of what you do, there’s only one way for the story to head. Walker either survives as a broken madman, or dies and finds a form of solace in it. To incorporate an objectively good ending of the game would nullify what The Line tried to do. One reading of it is that there can be no redemption for Walker, once he’s crossed the eponymous line. That’s a very unsubtle way of conveying the point, but still valid. And yet, some people tried to merely state the theme as being “war is bad”, which is a grossly simplified reading of it. I think – in part – this attitude stems from the same dissatisfaction people showed at ME 3’s ending, as it was an unfamiliar way to end a game. Nonetheless reception for The Line has been mostly good, which is cause for optimism, as I hope to see more games telling actual stories instead of delivering power fantasies.

The author of this fine article

is a Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in April 2013.

  1. Hans

    28th August 2013

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    At some point The Line begins talking directly to you, the player, berating you for enjoying the game and callously murdering people. It had the effect of disconnecting me from the experience: I felt I was playing a game, not murdering real people, and at any rate, it was the first FPS I had played in many years so the notion that I spend all my weekends and evenings killing almost-real people in an almost-real world didn’t hit the mark.

    In the end I found it disturbing, pretentious, and unsatisfying, as any investment in the story I had earlier in the game had long left me.

    Just my opinion of course.

  2. Bill Winter

    29th August 2013

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    In the original ending if you picked Destroy and had a EMS score 5000+ you got a scene basically showing Shepard surviving….. whatever happened in the ending. The EC confirmed this with Bioware later stating that Shep survived and would reunite with crew/love interest (though this would happen offscreen). So no Shepard’s destiny is not death and in fact does not need to die.

    And to answer your question yes Shepard having a more triumphant ending (No pointless EDI/Geth deaths or Shep being left in a pile of rubble) is, for some, a much more satisfying experience. (See the MEHEM mod ending created back in November).

  3. Jonas

    29th August 2013

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    @Bill

    Yeah, I know about the special ending to ME3, but I found it to be such a cop-out. I don’t recall Bioware’s reaction back when the EC was released, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the reformed ending was made so to satisfy angry fans. People just wanted him to survive so much, that it pressured Bioware.

    As for Shepard having a triumphant ending being more satisfying: That is, obviously, a personal preference. I don’t think brave sacrifice is any less triumphant than miraculous survival.

  4. Bill Winter

    30th August 2013

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    @Jonas

    The “reformed ending” EC fleshed out what happened during and after the ending but did absolutely nothing to change Shep’s survival from a “Hey he/she survived! End Scene” that we got. Bioware focused on explaining everything BUT Shep’s survival which made the ending still unsatisfying and a reason why I and others use MEHEM.

  5. xxxx

    30th August 2013

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    copied from another post don’t have the energy to write

    “This was a pretty solid analysis, and you do have some valid points. I have to disagree that the end of ME3 was thematically consistent though.

    For one, the series has not been about sacrifice. It’s been about defiance of fate and the fight against the inevitable. Sacrifice plays a large role in that, but it’s far from the defining characteristic. Every game presented the Reapers as an invincible force, that we would never win against them, that fighting was futile. Shepard did it anyway. This is best expressed in the suicide mission in ME2. They literally spend an entire game banging on about how you’re going to die on this mission, but Shepard puts together their crew and survives in spite of that. The themes of defiance of fate and optimism in the face of annihilation are heavily ingrained in the series, most likely due to the source material it draws inspiration from. The end of ME3 directly contradicts this. Shepard just accepts the Deus ex Machina, without even thinking to question it, and blindly accepts the Catalyst’s words as gospel. They could have fixed this one fairly well with an expanded dialogue there, where you get to actually question the thing, but it never happened.

    Also, another major recurring theme of the series is strength through unity because of diversity. In ME1 and even moreso in 2, you’re bringing together a team with wildly divergent backgrounds and forging a sum greater than its parts out of it. In ME3, the same theme is applied on a significantly larger scale. You’re bringing together whole species, arbitrating disputes and bringing the entire galaxy together to achieve something never before seen. At least one of the end choices (synthesis) spits in the face of this. It goes from “our strengths used cooperatively make us better”, to “conformity and sameness is the best”. It’s a rather jarring transition.

    Finally, I would say the biggest theme of the entire series is the importance of free will, the impact of choice, and what it means to be a person. This is explored countless times throughout the series, most prominently with Legion and EDI. There’s several instances where they learn what it means to be an independent, sapient being, and the privileges (and responsibility) that come with having free will. The Catalyst directly states that free will is irrelevant, and choices are meaningless. It’s not a matter of choices having an impact on the end cutscene. The problem is that the Catalyst explicitly says that no matter what choices are made or what happens in the future, synthetic life will kill organic life. It’s a complete rejection of the base concept the game is centered on. It says that no matter what, things will always play out exactly this way, but the game spent the last 100+ hours telling the player the exact opposite. That is very much a severe thematic shift.

    That’s just the major thematic problems with the ending, there’s also a wide variety of other mechanical problems with the way it was handled, especially the lack of foreshadowing of and blatant (and literal) deus ex machina that is the Catalyst.”

    The problem is not because it’s sad but because it’s thematically broken.
    New theme from nowhere, new protagonist from nowhere, the game telling us that the catalyst is wrong, shepard acting completely alien

    this happened because they changed the ending after the leak
    you notice the remains of the cut content like (the dreams seeing things that are not there, whispers oily shadows this is part of indoctrination explained in the game codex novels)

    http://www.escapistmagazine.com/forums/read/9.361199-Very-Long-Analysis-of-ME3-Ending-aka-why-the-ending-is-great-spoilers?page=5#14295542

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