Mass Effect: 3 was such a big deal that TV commercials for it aired during sports games. And, apparently, its endings (there are three of them) blow. The fans are upset. So upset that they sent cupcakes. So upset that they filed a complaint with the FTC and Better Business Bureau.
I can save you all the spoiler alerts because I haven't actually experienced any of the endings myself. I haven't played Mass Effect: 3 at all. Or either of its predecessors. (I have seen like twenty minutes of my friend on multiplayer, and it looks totally sweet.)
In short, I don't know if the internet-loud complaints have any merit. I suspect they do. It's hard to imagine this kind of response being completely baseless.
And the Mass Effect franchise has been significant for years. People have been waiting for this conclusion. It's not hard to imagine a much greater public outcry if, for example, J.K. Rowling had ended HP7 with Ron being terribly disfigured in the final battle and, in the wake of his injuries, Hermione leaving him for Draco Malfoy.
There are a few issues mixed up in this kerfuffle, like fan engagement and artistic integrity. On the one hand, once artwork goes into the world, it stops belonging solely to the artist. Fans can and will just pretend that a fourth movie in the series never happened (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls), or that a second and third movie in the series never happened (The Matrix: Reloaded and The Matrix: Revolutions). The greater the fan love, the greater the fan possessiveness. There is an enormous amount of fan denial regarding the Star Wars saga -- "Han shot first", for example. (What? A prequel trilogy? With a bizarrely racist character that's not even human? I have no idea what you're talking about.)
But, as many have raged for a new ending to their dear Mass Effect (maybe successfully) many others have urged BioWare not to capitulate, and some have gone so far as to challenge the vocal opposition to consider what this sort of public browbeating will do to the games industry in general. After all, it's hard to imagine anything new or interesting or fun coming out of a corporate mandate not to piss off too many fans. And there are a number of examples of frustrating game features being exactly what makes a game great, as in the case of Resident Evil 4, a high-selling and critically lauded third-person shooter (like Mass Effect) whose defining characteristic was how slow the player's character moved and how difficult he was to maneuver -- which vastly ramps up the adrenaline-rush horror aspect as the crowds of zombies move in.
Although I come down pretty strongly on the don't-mess-with-the-artist's-vision side of most issues (and, at the end of the day, on this one), I can't conceive of any intellectually robust way to tell gamers to take what their auteurs give them and like it. But flaws -- especially story and dialogue flaws -- have weird and unpredictable effects on the gaming experience. There was no outrage over the dialogue in Borderlands or Deus Ex, even though it is, in both cases, genuinely wretched (and I don't mean 'wretched compared to Aaron Sorkin'; I mean 'wretched' compared to off-hours CW reruns' or 'wretched compared to Merril Hoge'). In fact, both games won substantial awards and spawned sequels and generally failed to cause any sustained protest whatever. Indeed, Super Mario Brothers, roughly the most beloved game of all time, has a dumb plot and two different lines of dialogue that are both bad, one of which is repeated verbatim seven times.
I don't think it's condescending to say that audiences don't know what they want, because I don't think it's a particularly negative comment at all. Most of us don't know what we want on a day-to-day basis, out of our art or our relationships or our work or our clothes or anything. There is no silence like the silence after you ask someone where they want to go for dinner.
When I think about what I want from a book, I'm mostly thinking about feelings I've had while reading other books that I liked -- sure, sometimes I'm in the mood for something more or less cerebral, but I'm after the feeling more than any particularities of the content. If an Elizabethan manners comedy gives me the feeling I want from a spy thriller, then I won't miss the spies. If a Jim Carrey comedy can make me feel the way I felt when I first saw Tom Hanks seated on the ground and firing his handgun at an advancing tank in Saving Private Ryan, then the Jim Carrey comedy does not need to have any soldiers in it at all. Although features of a story often correlate with the feelings that story evokes, this is not always the case.
And it is the feeling -- that is, the real point of communication between artist and viewer —that matters most. No one turned off The Bourne Identity because the movie made them sympathize with an action hero. No one who felt the simplistic joy of causing Mario to burst into flight in Super Mario Bros. 3 put the game down because a red feather that gives someone a raccoon tail doesn't make any sense.
And, prior to Super Mario Bros. 3, no one in the world knew that they wanted a red feather to give someone a raccoon tail that would make them fly. Shigeru Miyamoto showed us that our notions of what we wanted were incomplete.
None of which excuses the makers of ME3 from giving it a bad ending, if that is what they have done. Nor does it excuse the curious horde of internet commenters, who had what can reasonably be described as a collective tantrum over it -- they will go on shouting until the adult appeases them.
This is not much of a special claim, but internet commentary is strange, and not especially useful. For every genuinely articulate and measured response in an open online forum there is a four- or five-digit number of responses well below the level of socially acceptable speech (whether for construction, coherence, or ethical reasons). A cynic might suggest we compare that rate against a real-life-conversation rate of one measured, articulate comment per one hundred instances of drivel, but real-life-conversation comes out way ahead there, mathematically speaking.
The editorial process for an extremely complex and carefully structured novel generally involves a single-digit number of people (perhaps as many as twenty if the writer has a large group of first-reader friends). That it is the result of a small-group effort -- that is, a group small enough to offer a coherent personal communication for an individual reader to engage with -- is part of what makes the novel a deep and powerful form.
As someone who has written quite a few things, and received lots of commentary on most of those things, and benefited tremendously from that commentary, I hope the people who made Mass Effect 3 had a well-developed editorial process, and made they game they really wanted to make. If they did this, I hope they will regard the surge of e-anger for what it is: extremely fleeting, and indicative of many things that have nothing at all to do with how good or bad the ending is.
But also, many players did not find what they were looking for. However disappointing the message-board response, this is a real failure -- a broken connection.