Essay:Mass Effect and the entitlement problem
The relatively recent furore over the apparently disappointing ending to Mass Effect 3 has kicked off quite a debate across the internet. This hasn't just focused on games, or the specifics of the Mass Effect series, but almost on the very nature of "art" itself. Are video games legitimate art? How much do you let others decide the course of your work? Can fans really demand a rewritten ending they don't like?
 Any excuse to kill bad guys
Games have come quite a way in terms of their storytelling ability and their ability to make characters and worlds that people care about. Once just the preserve of novels and (good) films, games now regularly flirt with intense themes and generate characters that you might care enough about so that this becomes your motivation not to let them die - and that attachment subsequently causes something to happen to you should they die for plot reasons, rather than because you didn't get that health pack in time.
But this is a double-edged sword, really. Consider Time Crisis, one of the most famous arcade shooters from back in the 90s. The plot here was simple: oh noes, the President's Daughter has been kidnapped and it's up to a One Many Army to save her. That's it, really, the rest can barely be said to be window dressing. The story served the game, it was any excuse to kill bad guys as otherwise you'd just have some psychopathic maniac blasting through people for no discernible purpose or motivation, which would be a bad influence. Dress them up as bad guys - the previous trick, for those that remember Wolfenstein and Doom was to make said bad guys either undead, or Nazis - and it becomes perfectly fine to do blast them away with no regard for life or the cost of replacement ammunition.
Games are evolving somewhat beyond this, and increasingly they seem to be using a fairly limited number of gaming gimmicks just to tell a story. Boiling away the superfluous issues about graphics, there's very little different between the mechanics of Blake Stone and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. That's not to say the latter is somehow ridiculous, inferior or not immensely playable, but there's only so much you can get out of shooting people in the head for a couple of hours - and if you want a modern, realistic look, you're even more limited in your scope. So these games increasingly rely not on game mechanic gimmicks but on story-based gimmicks to get them through.
Previously, using plot to move a game was previously just what RPGs did. While other games force you to hone your skills - even if they're just button bashing in the right sequence - in order to progress, RPG mechanics rarely change from the beginning of the game to the end. If you can finish the very first fight against two Shinra guards at the beginning of Final Fantasy VII, you have all the skill you ever need be able to finish the end boss or even the extra hard optional bosses. So instead of doing it for the sake of the challenge, you would happily grind your way through countless battles just to see what happens next.
Enter Mass Effect, which without its focus on customising your own character and making "choices", would be a fairly pedestrian shooter/RPG. Certainly, I hear almost nothing about what the game mechanics are - listening to people talk about it, it could be any theme or style of game you like from a brutal punch-up in the style of Tekken, or jumping barrels to get to Donkey Kong.
 Choices are all limited anyway
The interactive nature of games is what sets them apart from anything else. Unless you're trying to fight your way through Victor Hugo, games are going to tax your brain far more than any book. Unless you're seriously trying to figure out what the hell is happening in Primer, video games are going to be harder work and more intellectual work than film. In a way, this simulates a type of reality, but it's a reality that's different to ours. The interactive nature, the fact that you get to explore it at your pace and do a lot of the killing and maiming of those bad guys in your own way and by your own hand, all combine to make the experience something very different to film and books, where you're forced through whatever the author and director want you to experience.
But this inaction is, always has been, and always will be, an illusion. In reality, choices are open-ended, the future isn't written (or at least isn't predictable), there are no walkthroughs or continues or cheat-codes. Every choice we make can have a real effect, or might be mundane and pointless. We don't know. Games, however, don't have this luxury even though you might think they do or want them to. In Final Fantasy VII, the game secretly keeps track of maybe half a dozen options you pick during the first half of the game, and uses these to determine whether Cloud will go on a date with Aeris, Tifa (or if you've really abused them, Yuffie or Barret, for an extra awkward time). This doesn't affect the plot, or the character development in any way. Aeris still dies at the end of disc 1, Cloud still says the same words before the final fight and the end boss, and you still see the same end FMV. Mass Effect, despite the hype, simply pulls the exact same trick but on a larger scale.
This is because open-endedness is just like getting an author to write every possible branching point in their book to take into account every possible decision. It would branch exponentially, two paths, then four, then eight, then sixteen, only from a handful of choices. Hence why games tend to have one simple narrative and customise a few elements between them. Everything still needs to be plotted out, coded, having animations made and voice actors say the lines or text written for it. It's still a gimmick. This is just the nature of how games work, and you're not going to get more than that.
 But is it art?
It's all very well discussing the nature of gaming, and interactivity, but Mass Effect has spawned a wider debate on what art is, and to what extent its fans can have input. For the most part, other artists that have weighed in take a middle ground; they listen to fans, but they don't let them dictate. That's not a new method, spawned by the age of the internet, but has been done countless times before. Entire books have been written and serialised chapter-by-chapter so that an audience reaction can be consulted before moving on, and that's been happening for years. The internet has simply speeded up the process where you can now get a fan reaction in the time that it takes them to race through your chapter and boot up a web browser - in fact, they can do it during - rather than waiting for things to be published and for someone to take the time to write a letter. On the one hand, this is good because it lowers the barriers to feedback, on the other hand lowering the barriers to feedback just allows the morons who would otherwise be discouraged to send in their noise. At least if someone has to wait and have the patience to compose and send a letter, their contribution is likely to be far more meaningful.
This debate hasn't really begun with Mass Effect. It's been brewing for some time. It's always been there as long as people have consumed and discussed things, from books to television to film, and now games. There's nothing special about gaming, nothing special about Mass Effect 3,. and nothing special about the internet; these have just simply combined at the right time to set of a spark that's brought this topic to light, to be finally taken seriously.
"Traditional" artistic mediums have always been visions. These may have been collaborative visions, or they may have been a single author. And this is where the gaming quest to be taken as a legitimate medium becomes the double-edged sword. On the one hand, we want "legitimate" art, something with depth and character, on the other hand, we want our any-excuse-to-shoot-bad-guys story. Games struggle to find a middle ground here, because it's like the fans themselves can't even decide what it is they want.
 Consume or criticise
The criticisms raised about the Mass Effect ending have gone well above normal levels of expressing disappointment and criticism. Petitions have been filed to correct it, and change it. By those against it, it's been derided as a sense of entitlement by the fans. In this view, fans have paid for some media, and they expect some kind of input towards their satisfaction. They treat the price they pay for the game like a share in the franchise, and so demand the voting rights to steer the company in the right direction - it truly is like free market art.
Again, nothing new here. Music fans have been doing this to bands even long before the word "sell out" was coined. You cannot find a music video on YouTube without the "real" fans complaining about what the band should and shouldn't do, how they should take, or how much they "hate the new singer" or whatever relevant example you care to think about. Again, it's dismissed as mere entitlement, but that's what it is - the fans feel that they are entitled to a say in the direction of the franchise. The question isn't whether it's a case of whiny fans feeling entitled to their say, it's a question of how much of a say, and how legitimate their requests are. No game will give you the infinite choice that reality provides, so emboldened by the extensive, but still artificially limited, choices provided, the gamer fans have decided to extend their reach beyond the button-bashing to change the wider meta-narrative that provides them those available choices.
Here, we see the "is it art" and entitlement clash hard. In a quest to become "legitimate" media, games have had to progress to being closer to film and television and books, and this requires vision. Simply dismissing a creator and caving into fan pressure destroys such vision, and questions the artistic integrity of what is being made - and this risks being extended outside the realms of computer games into other media. We already have to suffer George Lucas tinkering constantly with his creations, and he's qualified and allowed to do so. What happens when you give apparent fans such creative control? Can the whole legitimate single vision be maintained? Can an artist remain free to do what they want, to tell the story they want, and to get under the skin of those consuming their work? If fans just buy, are they the same as those who might make a commission and can reject what they don't like? Is voting with your wallet even an option any more, or can they be allowed to do more? These questions go beyond gaming, but gaming has found itself to be in the right place to be the experimental test case.
 My own take
Consider the above an end to the formal essay proper, and this to be my own personal footnote where I try to answer those questions from my own perspective. I've written things, non-fiction and fiction alike, opinion pieces and papers. I've drawn art, some of which is inexplicably popular and written the occasional piece of music - though I suck at lyrics so don't touch them with a bargepole. So, in a way, I can ask myself to what extent I'd listen to a "fan", and I have to say that there is no easy one-size-fits-all answer. That much in unsurprising, because there are so many forms that feedback can take. It can be positive, it can be negative, it can be well-written or vague, it can be constructive or non-constructive. In short, at its best I would hang on every word a critic says, at its worst I won't even give them a second thought.
How does this affect vision? I don't think it necessarily does if the criticism is well-founded - though this doesn't mean popular, as with petitions to change the Mass Effect ending. Good criticism like this should be able to change the artists vision into one they like better, and they'll agree with it. I've dealt with opera directors and pulled that stunt myself many times. The director, having overall artistic control, can still have their vision altered by a good suggestion - especially if it comes from the technical director calmly explaining for three hours how their idea is far too expensive (ha!) - but it still remains their vision. They may have been influenced by someone, but this is no different to how they've been influenced by countless others previously. Every book, every film, every theatre show, has contributed to the artist's experience. This experience forms the bedrock of their decision making and creativity - anyone who tells you they're a creative genius who isn't influenced by the trends of others is either lying or lying.
When you're dealing face-to-face in with a collaborative project, this compromise of maintaining an artistic vision that is simply consensually altered with additional input is very easy. When you're faced with one or two comments per week - at most - on a DeviantART account that mostly don't say anything substantive, it's also easy. But what about there being a sheer force of fans constantly breaking down your door with demands? That, unfortunately, is beyond my personal experience but I can say what I think is best. You should listen, at least to the ones that take the most time to craft their ideas, but you should never compromise with them unless you hear something that is, indeed, better than what you came up with. You need to think "wow, I wish I thought of that" and nothing else in order to accept an idea. It doesn't matter if this ends up informing 5% of your work or 95% of your work, you need to hold fan input to the same standard as yourself and never give into pressure just because it's a popular idea. People are entitled to voice their opinion, but not entitled to force that opinion upon someone, no matter what.
In some respects, writing an ending is the hardest part. I've never seen anyone say that an ending was adequate. Lost and Battlestar Galactica almost set the internet on fire, the petitions launched by Mass Effect took it to a whole new level, and I really don't want to be George R. R. Martin right now - hell, if I was in his position I'd just write 6 pages of his last Song of Ice and Fire book and have the good grace to die with it unfinished, rather than face the wrath of fans that you know aren't going to be happy. When you're involved with a story, you can't help but project forward and come up with your own ideas. In your mind it's perfect, much for the same reason everyone thinks they're being the logical and rational one no matter what they believe - it makes sense to you, and you put it together, you wouldn't think that if you were wrong, would you? The odds of the author then finishing their work matching up exactly with your expectations is almost infinitesimal - and even if they did, they still won't have succeeded with 99.99% of the rest of the fans, who will be feeling hard done by. Believe me when I say that should I ever end up being in possession of a successful sci-fi or fantasy franchise, I'll end it with the fucking nuclear button because pleasing everyone in a way that won't get you lynched is impossible.
So people can protest and petition with Mass Effect all they like. Perhaps the whole free market art idea will take off and they can pay for a new ending. But I seriously doubt that will satisfy them, and no one will learn from that. This won't be the last over-the-top reaction we'll see.