….I think I remember fandoms going through this with Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith. And I am quite certain that everyone knew where the end of that movie was going…
There are a few reasons to have a decent lull between the release of Mass Effect 3 and the commentary that is starting to flood the fandom, and the time of writing an editorial that addresses all of the opinions of fans and game critics. One is to allow Bioware to collate this information and decide how they will go forward with the Mass Effect franchise and maintain its popularity. The other, and my personal favourite, is that I love nothing better than sitting back with a bowl of popcorn to watch the drama unfold.
I do not aim to go into details about the ending, or the drama. At the time of writing, I am still crying my eyes out over the death of one of my favourite characters, and I know that the ending for me is going to be weeks away as I balance my other commitments of work, eating and sleeping. But what I have found curious is how the ending of one of the most highly-anticipated games of 2012 has not met the expectations of its fans, and in particular the emotional reactions of these fans.
But, technically, we are not at war. That is the most curious point. So why do we treat it as such?
A psychological theory that has been slowly gaining a foothold in video game studies is the concept of “flow”. Proposed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, flow has been perceived as a mental state demonstrated by people in various creative activities being fully immersed in a feeling of energised focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity. It began as an observation by Csíkszentmihályi in the 1960s, but since then researchers have applied flow theory to achieve positive engagement outcomes in other areas, including education, religion, athletic performance, and even gaming.
With a principal goal of games to create intrinsic motivation to keep playing and achieve various goals, it is inevitable that we may engage with certain games on this level. When we are encouraged to engage in a high-challenge activity using a (perceived) high level of skill, we are open to this flow state. This is where Bioware trumps.
Bioware has been clever with Mass Effect 3, allowing options and opportunities for the player to engage with the game in differing ways. Players can change not just the difficulty level of the action (therefore matching the skill level of the player), but also whether they engage with the story (what kind of challenge the player sets for the mission ahead). Plotted on a graph, it is clear to see that by managing our interaction with story and our own gaming skill, it is easy to meeting the challenge and skill levels to achieve flow.
What does this have to do with the ending?
People are looking at the ending on different levels. In narrative terms, many felt as if the narrative did not allow enough time or content to achieve closure, and for anyone conducting a textual analysis this is a valid point. In cultural terms, fans see it as a disservice to the characters as well as the fandom that Bioware was not being able to provide a utilitarian ending that meets the needs of the many. However, if we are considering the engagement of the player in the above psychological state, the brevity could be the abrupt cessation of flow for the player – both challenge and skill being withdrawn in a way that there is no more clear and immediate feedback on the activity to the player. It says less about the game’s ending, and more about the game.
From a narrative view, it shows that Bioware has created an amazing narrative journey. If we want to shift to a position as a “reader”, they have created meaningful experiences and encouraged us to empathise with the characters whole-heartedly. Story alone, Mass Effect 3 has created an important bond between ‘reader’ and ‘author’ to accept the author’s invited meaning, despite the plethora of different cultural backgrounds of the readers. The limitation of this approach, of course, is that we must accept that we are the readers of the text and cannot influence the eventual outcome.
From a cultural perspective, we are seeing discussions about the love vs hate relationship all over the internet, with fans developing a sense of community in their “alleged apathy” or “emotional outrage” about this ending, and the irony being that some of these fans have not even played to the ending in the first place. Not only are we engaging with the text from our own cultural and social experiences, but we are creating even more communities with varying opinions and allegiances to the franchise. Once again, the limitation is that we are appreciating the work as fans. While we are certainly instrumental in creating meaning through fan works, they are simply derivatives and not “re-creations” of the original.
And from a flow perspective, it has met all of the conditions to create the flow state. Shepard had a clear goal, and as players we were able to negotiate the perceived challenge with our perceived skill. When our skills as players, and Shepard’s skills as saviour, were no longer required but we were not able to perceive if the challenge was still there, player responses were understandably fluctuating between anxiety, worry, and anger when the end of the game had a perceived apathy to the challenges that they had faced.
Whether we want to admit it or not, Bioware has created Mass Effect to succeed in its missions, but they are not just the missions that we lead Shepard through as the universe is collapsing. Despite technical issues and registration dramas (I cried to sleep for days as I waited for BSN to recognise my Collector’s Edition so that I could get a copy of the soundtrack!!), or the usual outcries that PS3 has a lower framerate and therefore feel “cheated” … Bioware has created more than just a game. They have created a cultural text – one that game enthusiasts have all engaged with, whether or not they have completed or even played the game to begin with.
Now, with the news that Bioware is intending to address fans’ dissatisfaction with the ending, it will be even more interesting to see the fandom grasp for another chance to feel that sense of flow in their gaming once again, and if a revised ending will address the loss of this desirable motivational state of being.