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Moosa’s Musings: Art or Product? – This Has Nothing And Everything To Do With The Mass Effect 3 Ending. 
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Tauriq Moosa
March 26, 2012 at 12:15 pm

Moosa

[Spolier free - please keep the comments the same.]

This is a long post. So bear with me. TL;DR’s will go ignored as they always do, since displaying proudly that you didn’t read something has never been and will never be something I respect you for.

A game – that shall not be named – had a crappy ending, according to a couple people. Notice when we say “crappy” we have to, by definition, say “crappy to who?” Certainly it wasn’t crappy to Casey Hud… I mean, whoever made this game. The ending would not have been written if said creator thought it was crap. Also, there are some gamers who do think the ending was appropriate and had some “right” parts.

Why this is interesting to me is because of a dilemma that has come to light: To what extent do we, as consumers, have a right to influence the creative aspects of our creative mediums?

That is, should we allow our expressions of dissatisfaction, disgust and disillusionment for a product alter it to the point where we are satisfied, no longer disgusted or disappointed? Indeed, as I’ve written that previous sentence, the answer seems an obvious “YES” to me.

But why this is slightly nuanced is that the focus is not on the physical aspects of the product – scratched case, buggy game, broken screen, etc. – but with the story of a creative product. Here we might put it as follows, to change it to a probable “NO”: Do we have a right to be taken seriously if we don’t like how a story ends in a movie, novel, or game? I think many people would find it bizarre if someone complained about, say, Fight Club’s or Harry Potter’s endings, and expect Chuck Palahniuk or JK Rowling to accede to that outrage.

Gamesart

So you see, it’s not simple, since it depends on how you construct it – the previous paragraph and the one before read almost contradictory and result in different replies.

As I write this, I’m not sure where I fall, but I’ll attempt to outline both parts of this discussion fairly. This actually has nothing to do with a famous, brilliant, beautiful space-RPG but is a broader discussion on the extent to which consumers can, should and have a right to influence their products.

There are two camps: Games as Product and Games as Art. I’ll give a general sense of each, but outline why I think the former is more persuasive.

Binaries

The Games as Product camp essentially says: “A game is a product like any other. If the product is not satisfying, we return or demand change since we paid for satisfaction. Thus, regardless of what I find unsatisfying with a game, I can demand of the creators to satisfy me in whatever way is required, from fixing game bugs to changing the story.”

Kotickmoneybags

According to numbers, this seems to be the one with most support (this could just mean they’re more vocal but I doubt that). Here, if a game is unsatisfying, we demand change or some kind of recompense for our spending. Consider getting a game that’s completely broken and filled with bugs. Here we would either vocally (and rightfully) complain, demand patches or simply return the game. We would expect the companies to respond, since we pay for a fixed game, not a broken one. No one disputes that if a game is completely unplayable, the company deserves all the scorn it gets (aside, it should go without saying, physical threats to the company employees).

However, the new element of a story makes it interesting.

Here, people aren’t unsatisfied because a game had bugs, but because the story was unappetising. Is this the same as game crashes and so on? Well, Games as Product camp says “YES”: Both result in dissatisfaction with the product. There’s no difference between the two (bugs and story), since we paid to have a satisfying product. Satisfaction can mean anything from a non-broken game, to a fulfilling story conclusion. If the company does not live up to its promises to, say, a conclusion or satisfying “ending” – or whatever – then this is no different to the tacit promise of having a stable, non-broken game (we don’t play BETA versions, Bethesda!).

The problem with this view might be, as I said above, we would never have this for say novels or movies. This is where the defence of “Games as Art” comes in. This camp says something like: “A game, like a novel or film, is a piece of art made by creative groups. If we would not ask a novelist to change the end of a novel, because we don’t like it, why do we get to do so for games?”

My response is built upon a few things. Firstly, would we have had this discussion before the internet? By this, I don’t mean the vitriol and hatred (E.T. anyone?) – I mean, would we bother having a discussion if we knew that a company wouldn’t listen to us or weren’t able to enact a change? With DLC’s being as common as trolls, games can be changed without you leaving your home. Given this, this discussion could only be had because of this ability. However, we can now do this with eBooks, too, especially on the Kindle – which updates grammar mistakes and so on, on the fly. Are we going to see readers of, say, A Song of Ice and Fire (where Game of Thrones come from, noobs) complain about endings or character deaths to George RR Martin, if they don’t like it? I don’t ask it rhetorically, but as one of general inquiry. If we did, what’s wrong with that, if the product is unsatisfying?

Secondly, I don’t think there’s anything sacred in general, let alone art forms. Art evolves, as society does. Thus, it could very well be the case that soon we’d have people complaining of character deaths and hatred of plotlines to authors.

HaloArt

This seems to me a good thing: (1) If readers truly feel this way, then I, as an author, would want to know. People expressing their hatred and views and so on are important to maintain one’s ability as a creator of fiction (in games, TV, whatever); (2) If there truly are so many people complaining about a move you’ve made in direction of story-telling, you need to be aware you might be wrong. Now just because a lot of people think something is true does not make it so: Everyone in the world can think the Earth is flat, but it won’t change the planet’s shape. However, in terms of creative expression, one does not create fiction only for oneself. One has an audience. If you are not catering to your audience, then you don’t, by definition, deserve to be listened to by an audience. If you wrote in only a language you spoke, what use is that to anyone? No: We write fiction for an audience (of which we are a part).

We’ve been complaining since Homer of stupid plotlines and bad characters in creative works. We’ve just reached a point where we can vocalise it, quickly and efficiently, in the right sort of way, to get noticed by the very people who make us unsatisfied. But more importantly, we can do so with the knowledge that if they did want to change what makes us unsatisfied, they could do so without inconveniencing us (like DLC’s). Even in cases of eBooks, I would have no problem. Just as I probably would have little problem with TV shows (did anyone like how Lost ended?) and movies (did anyone think Phantom Menace was good?).

The danger

The obvious danger that Garth, I think, was trying to touch on was the idea of bending to mob mentality. This means that creative expression will be stifled, since, if it is ruled by mob mentality, companies won’t take chances. They won’t be risky, because the fishing line of outrage could haul them in. This is an important point to note and we all, no matter how you feel about certain games’ stories, need to be aware of this. We never want our creative mediums to bend to the will of mob outrage. Otherwise, we’d be left with safe, soft mewling things; or big, loud, explosion things; or zombie-wailing, banshee things. No one wants a plateau of safety, but risky, determined creative brilliance. This can only exist if we accept that people will be upset (and people will always be upset). But again: this means we never want our creative mediums ruled by what John Stuart Mill called the tyranny of majority opinion.

This is entirely true. I think we can all agree on this. By mob outrage though I don’t necessarily mean all people who are unsatisfied (in this case, with Mass Effect 3’s ending… dammit I said the name!): mob outrage simply means mindless, hysterical and often displays of idiocy. We all should be condemning people who physically threaten, say, game developers because they made an ending we thought crappy.

But reasoned, well-justified points that receives a lot of support – even if that support comprises a lot of idiotic exclamations, as in Mass Effect 3 (OK, there, I said it again!) – is still reasoned and well-justified. It is to these that we all should be bending. Again, not because most people support it, but because it is well-reasoned and justified.

We can’t reply by saying art is for the creator only, because as I outlined, creating fiction isn’t done in isolation or only for oneself (despite what some books say). We are engaging with an audience, we’re satisfying them with a need. Just because a certain view has gained support should be irrelevant to whether companies take such views seriously. That it has and is receiving plenty of support from your supporters is another incentive, businesswise, to take them seriously.

So: It seems, as I wrote this, that I ended up siding with people who believe they have a right to complain to Bioware and be taken seriously. However, I’m not agreeing with them that the ending was bad, since I haven’t played Mass Effect 3 yet; even if they’re wrong, I think the more important argument is that they do have a justification to be taken seriously, as we all do, since games are a product. If we didn’t think so, we wouldn’t write friggin’ game reviews. We are in a stage and time where our demands can be met and catered for, our satisfactions that we seek acquired. And, since we paid for this, there’s no reason not take it seriously.