I’ve been doing a lot of talking and having loads of discussion with quite a few people in the wake of the very polarizing ending to a certain video game trilogy that just came out recently, and while I could go on and on about why this particular game, which was absolutely stellar up until the very end where it was like someone slipped a chunk of shit inside the tastiest sandwich ever while I wasn’t looking, instead I’m going to talk about something else: how not to fuck up a good story.
You need to prevent tonal shifts that are too extreme whenever you’re writing a piece of fiction, as it can be incredibly jarring and run counter to the story as established so far. As Vaughn R Demont pointed out to me in a conversation yesterday, the first ten pages or so of a story are where the tone for the entire thing is set. This means that if you spend, say, an entire trilogy reinforcing this tone and repeating themes over a period of five years or so as each subsequent story builds on the last one, choosing to shift this tone on the last ten pages of the story is heartbreaking to the reader and completely destroys the continuity of the piece.
Now, before you take me to task for not knowing what the fuck I’m talking about – remember, I’m a professional. I actually have a degree that says I’ve received training in analyzing things like character, plot, story structure, themes, and subtext. I even have the student loans to prove it.
Anyway, such a fundamental tonal shift right before the end of an otherwise pitch-perfect work makes people feel angry, upset, and betrayed. It happened with the Star Wars prequels. The apologists will say that it’s no business of a consumer to be outraged at the creative choices made by the person (or team of people) actually producing the work, as only the creator has the authority to craft things. “Don’t complain,” these apologists will say, “as you wouldn’t have anything without Lucasfilm. It’s George’s intellectual property, if you have no right to demand anything of him, you’re all a bunch of entitled fucks that don’t appreciate the massive amount of work that it took to create this for you.”
The thing is, in a situation like this when you’ve got a massively successful franchise that has captured the hearts and minds of countless millions, you can’t simply argue that you’re going to take your ball and go home when your fanbase calls you on your bullshit. If you can’t handle criticism of your creative works, then guess what – you shouldn’t be putting them out there for others to enjoy (or not enjoy).
The creation of anything – whether it be a film, a novel, a piece of music, or a video game – isn’t a solitary endeavor. You’re producing something that, by its very nature, is meant to be presented to an audience for their enjoyment, and you’re looking to elicit a particular emotional response with your audience. You’re establishing a rapport with them, building a relationship, and then leading them to the end you want for them – whatever that may be. Plus, no matter how much you may claim otherwise, you’re not creating in a vacuum – you’re influenced and inspired by countless sources that sometimes completely unconsciously weave their way through your work.
You can get away with a lot in shorter creative works, though if you want it to be effective and resonate with your audience you have to produce something of quality. On longer pieces, whether it be an entire rock opera album, or a series of video games, novels, or films, you need to follow a set of rules that you ideally establish in the opening part of the work in order to sustain the story through the entire length of the piece, with the advantage (and sometimes the disadvantage) being that you have a wide playing field open to you for the development of the themes you want to present to your audience.
This is exactly why people are incredibly upset about the last fifteen minutes of Mass Effect 3. Conspiracy theories notwithstanding (and for the sake of spoilers I won’t get into it in any particular depth), the ending broke the cardinal rules of the Mass Effect universe that was set back in 2007 when the original game in the trilogy came out.
The first thing you encounter in ME, after creating your character and choosing an origin, is an image of your character, gazing out of a porthole into space while he or she is discussed. You hear the choices you just made in character creation expounded upon by these people in the voice over, basically giving you a psychological write-up of who you are and what you’ve done so far – and you realize that the choices you make in this game are going to matter. Not only that, but you can make deep and serious impacts to the story – you’re the main character. The world revolves around you, which does border on solipsistic (and I talked about this in a previous post), but the story is your story. It’s your choices that drive the story forward, and you’re rewarded for making these decisions by seeing the way things change.
These are the rules set out by the Mass Effect series of games – choice and personal experience – and these rules are reinforced throughout the first two games in the series and throughout 99.8 percent of the third game. This created a legion of completely dedicated and frothingly loyal fans, and rightly so, as up until a very poor choice for an endgame that involved effectively stripping away choice from the player. The illusion of choice remained, but it was just that – an illusion – as you’re essentially given a choice between Door Number One, Door Number Two, and Door Number Three, all of which trigger a virtually identical ending cut scene. People are understandably pissed.
As far as I’m concerned, the game would have gone out on a much higher note if it had ended fifteen minutes earlier. For those of you with knowledge of the end of the game, and to spare those that don’t want the ending spoiled, all I’ll say is that if the credits rolled right after you stumble to your goal in slow motion after surviving something that you probably shouldn’t have, it would have been more satisfying than getting to choose the same scene with different colored color tints.
This is why people are upset – not because the ending is a bad one on its own, but because it completely clashes with all the themes established over the past five years and utterly changes the tone of the story away from the impact of personal choice. It’s lazy, a cop-out on the part of the writers, and does what could be fatal damage to an otherwise seminal piece of science fiction. Apologists asserting that you should just ignore the giant lump of shit in the center of what’s otherwise the most delicious sandwich you’ve ever eaten are missing the point. I’m not going to just eat around it, goddammit.