If you don’t pay much attention to the video game world, or are just aggressively avoiding spoilers while you finish the game, you may not have heard much about the controversy surrounding the Mass Effect 3 ending. To try to put it in a way that gets you up to speed without creating a spoiler: the point of view of a lot of angry players is that it was not just unsatisfying, but actively dissonant to the themes and tone of the entire trilogy up to that point. That is, it wasn’t good and, more importantly, it didn’t make sense. This video explains the controversy in extensive (and spoilery) detail.
Players on the internet are livid. Massive petitions have been made to try to get Bioware to change the ending, some to the point of rage-donating to charity. The blowback was sufficient to get the company president to issue a press release indicating that they’re considering acquiescing to the fan demands and changing the ending via DLC.
Whether or not the entire situation is overblown, the results are inarguable: we’ve reached a point in video game development where we have to seriously ask the question of whether interactive media are in some way democratic. Do consumers of a game have the right to, as a bloc, demand a portion of the artistic control of that game? Will major game franchises have to begin extensively focus testing their products not just for engagement, but for satisfaction? Does the principle of director as auteur in film translate to the lead designer as auteur in a video game?
And what does this have to do with tabletop RPGs?
I don’t think it’s coincidence that the first video game to create this controversy is an RPG. There has been more than one AAA game franchise where players were largely unsatisfied by the ending and didn’t petition for a change, but they were typically less customizable experiences. The problem for ME3 is that it succeeded too well at making the player feel invested and in control of the actions of a fully customized Commander Shepard, such that any ending that wasn’t note perfect would generate this problem on a lesser or greater scale.
It’s pretty similar to the potential fallout from a poor ending to a long-running tabletop campaign.
There are, to oversimplify, three major beliefs about the role of the GM in a tabletop game:
- The Old School Renaissance (OSR) tends to think of the GM’s role as setting up a sandbox and then impartially arbitrating it in play according to player intentions and actions. The goal of the GM is not to tell a story, but to simply create an environment in which story can emerge naturally from player activities. The players have complete control of the progression of the game from the beginning of the first session, but must exercise this control via the medium of their character skills, clever play, and lucky dice rolls.
- The Story Games movement tends to think of GMing as fundamentally democratic. A number of games like Capes, Fiasco, and Shock have no GM whatsoever: the power of the GM is distributed among the players based on various rules to govern narrative control. Even when there is a GM, his or her control of the flow of the game is often constrained by various mechanics, and the players have systems to seize narrative control outside of the in-world skills and actions of their characters.
- The Storyteller mindset (which is not a movement) seems to make up most of the mass market, and is exemplified in nearly every module released (for any system) that is not a true sandbox. The GM is expected to not just set the stage, but provide a basic script for the direction the plot is meant to go. Player cleverness can greatly drift the story, depending on the creativity and improvisational ability of the GM, but there is expected to be serious GM (and mostly GM-only) effort to mold the game to feel like a story.
Presumably, an OSR campaign ending that felt completely out of tune with the rest of the game would result in players demanding to see the GM’s notes to prove that they’d missed something that was added fairly. A story games ending almost couldn’t be something that the majority of players hadn’t bought into, as democracy is assumed by the rules. But what happens if a long-running game in the standard storyteller mode ends on a complete misfire? Keep in mind that this is a style of play where “it says right here in the module that I have to…” isn’t necessarily encouraged, but is accepted. And I strongly suspect that the majority, possibly even the vast majority, of gamers still play this way, free of the game theory of the internet until it makes its way into a mass-market publication. It’s accepted fact that the GM models not just a world, but a world with an intended narrative.
Further, the motivation behind this is why the OSR and story games movements are ends of a spectrum rather than just two ways of limiting GM power. My sense is that a lot of gamers crave both a story and a sense of a world simulated in someone else’s head. They’d be unsatisfied with the pure sandbox method of play exalted by the OSR, desiring a much more thorough amount of story instead of the responsibility of driving the game’s agenda. But they’d be equally unsatisfied with a true division of GM authority among the group, as there’s a definite allure to having a single arbiter of reality to make victories feel earned. While I expect the middle to continue to absorb innovations from both OSR and story games camps, I also expect story-driven games with a single GM to be the norm for the foreseeable future.
So had Mass Effect been an epic series of tabletop modules instead of video games, how would the ending play out at tables around the world? Would players suck it up and quietly resolve to try to get someone else to GM next time? Would they be open about disliking it, but accept that it stayed happened? Or would they proceed to order their GM to tell the ending right, and they’re not leaving until he does? And would the last option come dangerously close to shattering the illusion of a world independent of the players’ own imaginations?
Someday, though probably not soon, we’ll achieve some reasonable approximation of the holodeck: a video gaming engine that can interpret a wide variety of player input and react to it with an AI sophisticated enough to respond more like a human GM than a rigidly programmed tree of options. The ME3 controversy may mean that, by the time we get there, it would be unthinkable to not have its core behavior skew much more toward the sandbox of the OSR or the player authority of story games. We could be on the verge of strictly limiting the power of the video game designer in a way similar to those espoused by tabletop theories, eliminating the ability to tell a story that takes away agency from the player. We could be on the verge of losing the core elements that give video games a chance of being acknowledged as art by the mainstream (in the same way movies are art) anytime in the foreseeable future.
But, given that a lot of tricks taken from movies tend to remove the fun of actually playing the game, maybe it’s just a good time to deeply rethink our principles of video game design, in the same way the OSR and story games movements are deeply rethinking the tabletop RPG.