Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Mass Effect Mess: Artistic Integrity, Artsitic License, and Commerical Art

A former student of mine, Matt, came up to me with an interesting question about the nature of commercial art and artistic freedom and integrity.  He ran into an intriguing situation in which the creators and consumers of a video game series came into conflict. 
Basically, the whole controversy is based on this epic Space Opera game called Mass Effect. It spans 3 games, and is an open RPG, where you make choices which directly impact your personal experience and roll over through each game. Choices you make in the first game impact what happens in the second and third, so no fans play through is the same, though obviously the overall narrative arc follows a generally similar path. Most of the differences in the story are thus details. Most notably, primary characters can die, and various alien species may be allied with you or not based on your in game decisions, which also impact the strength of humanity in that pantheon.

The overall plot is pretty straight forward for an epic space opera following a standard format, and honestly, the quality and depth of the characters and supporting world is what holds it up. To give you a quick synopsis for reference--Giant robotic alien spaceships called reapers threaten space faring civilizations with destruction every 50,000 years; hiding in deep space until the galaxy is ripe for "harvest." The galactic civilization forms around a nexus of "mass relays" which instantaneously transmit matter to another relay. These artifacts were designed by the reapers and left so that civilization evolves along the pathways they choose. The role of the protagonist is to garner the various races of the galactic community to fight the threat.

The end of the series was terrible beyond words. Basically, the entire series you've been dealing with themes that synthetic and organic life can coexist. If a player has met certain levels, they can make peace between an organic and synthetic race that have been battling for 300 years. But, in the last five minutes of 140 hours of game-play and story, a new character appears, informs the player that synthetics and organics are doomed to kill each other, and that the reapers were created by this character to solve this by killing organics before they create new synthetics which will kill organics.

Basically, in the last minute, the entire series was summed up in the phrase "synthetics will kill organics no matter what, so I made a race of synthetics to kill organics before they make synthetics that will kill organics"

On top of that, we have tons of errors in lore and basic narrative processes. Characters appear in places they cannot possibly be based on where they had been minutes before and act contrary to how we have understand them, player choice is stripped from the player despite the 140 hours solidifying it as the main drive. The protagonist cannot argue with the new character, who then presents 3 choices, each equally terrible--control the reapers and die; destroy all synthetic life, including the synthetic allies that you befriended and whose rights you fought for; or forcibly merge all synthetic and organic life (how this even works is never mentioned). The only in game representation of the different choices is (I kid you not) a change in shade in the ending cinematic. The ultimate player choice is what is your favorite color: red blue or green? 

Obviously the fans were outraged. They had become engrossed in the story and the characters, but it was all stripped from them in the last five minutes. Immediately, the community demanded a new ending that was "fixed." In less than a week, the movement raised $80,000 for a charity that buys video games for kids in hospitals. Bioware's (the producing company) response was to call the fans "entitled whiners" and to stand by the "artistic integrity" of the writing team.

Fans were even more incensed by this. Complaints were filed to the Federal Trade Commission and the Better Business Bureau for false advertising. The BBB found in favor of the consumers: the advertised claim that the choice of the individual resulted in huge implications and wildly different endings was false advertising. Bioware, under increasing pressure, agreed to release free content by sometime this summer to "clarify" the endings, without changing the actual choices.

What it ultimately boils down to is: A video game was advertised as an epic conclusion that highlighted the choices made by the player, but the choices the player made did not impact the end result in any significant way.  The story of the game abandoned character traits, thematic elements, philosophical ideas, and even basic logic in literally the last 5 minutes. The last five minutes also contain innumerable lore errors and basic narrative failings that completely destroy the suspended disbelief the player has established, ruining the entire 140 hours of game-play they had invested.

The question to draw from this then, is--what is the relationship between consumer and artist when the artist has produced commercial art? If the art does not fulfill basic expectations, can the consumer (who in this case paid $60 for the game) demand an ending that fulfills the promises or at least matches the narrative quality of the series? Or are they simply "entitled whiners"  who are subverting the artistic vision of the writers?

Anyway, I thought this would be something you'd have fun dissecting. It certainly is a question that's been driving me crazy.
So, when an artist has created a community of consumers for his art, does he then forfeit some of his artistic freedom to the expectations that he has created?  Is there a fundamental difference in terms of integrity for commercial and non-commercial artists?