Personal blog of Elijs 'X2Eliah' Dima

A little note on SF work endings

Well, obviously this is inspired by Mass Effect 3 and it’s recent amended-ending-dlc thingie. That said, there will be no spoilers, and I will not discuss any of plot holes, whether I liked them, if it is all real life or is it just fantasy and so on and so forth. No, there is one little detail that was just exacerbated and outlined a wee bit by that game, and it does apply to it, sure, but it also applies to any work where audience interaction, or even judgement, is deemed necessary and/or desirable. This is a point that has not been raised all that much, and I feel it is worth thinking about a bit.

We’re starting off with the presumption that the writers want their readers to think about the end-outcome of a work. In videogames, it’s perfectly fine to give players the chance to pick or ‘construct’ an ending based on their choices and actions. And a lot of games have varying ‘success’ amounts on those choices – some would be better, some worse. So here’s the thing: the writers should never brow-beat the audience via explicitly stating outright which of the endings is the best one.

This is something that Mass Effect 3 does unashamedly. It wasn’t as bad before the expanded-ending dlc. Yeah, the “synthesis” ending – aka the green lantern lookalike – was the one that required the largest amount of points to unlock (to explain, these points were assembled in game based on choices and decisions of the player – they measured a sort of “readiness” for the final confrontation), which in a meta-gaming sense already implies it was, by the author’s reckoning, “the best”. It was also the last of the three presented to the player, and we all know that most arguments involving three things often are structured to give the most appealing, most important, most persuasive argument in the end. Well, fair enough. It would have been better if it wasn’t so clear-cut, but we’ll let it slide. Because the amended version – with the new ending dlc – makes it so much worse. The final exposition dump, a dialogue of sorts explaining all (well, nearly all) the potential choices and their outcomes, contains several whole sentences that explicitly state how the third choice – this ‘synthesis’ – is the ideal one. How it is the logical pinnacle of all life itself, and the end towards which everything would strive for anyway. How it is the best choice. How everyone would be happy with it. Did we mention how it’s the best solution? Because it totally is, just so you know. … And so on. That’s just not the right approach to telling a story’s conclusion.

Firstly, it’s not as if the choices given are morally the same. They have a rather wide range of meaning (something along the lines of “destroy all the things, become a totalitarian god-like controller, or forcefully meld all organic and artificial life, or just give up”) – they don’t cover the same philosophies, and different people – depending on their core beliefs, even – will have different judgement on which of those is the “right” thing to do. Having the story authors explicitly say which one they’d want the players to pick is very dubious, in such a case. Certainly, there are such aspects as authorial bias, which is evident especially in literature. A resolution to a conflict to which the entire work has been building up will always contain some amount of authorial demagogy, expressed by character choices and the events that those choices result in – what works, what didn’t, what the characters feel. Double cookie points if the author raises enough complications, or character-doubts that readers can wonder if they had done the same, and if what the story’s characters chose was the right solution. Sci-Fi authors never explicitly say “and that is what Billy Bob did because it was the absolute best thing to do, and you all should always also choose it had you had the choice.” That’s rubbish writing. The way to imply the correctness is by showing the aftermath, the epilogue, and letting readers draw their conclusions. It can be shown as having good results, even it seems a morally reprehensible choice – then the novel itself becomes an argument for that choice, or against moral biases, and so on. By explicitly stating what is the best solution – especially when the actual choosing is left up to the audience – means that they no longer have to think about their own actions, and in case they disagree with the author’s viewpoint, the resulting emotion is anger, for being forced into accepting a suboptimal/non-viable result as “best”.

Secondly, this actually prevents and restricts involved consideration and thought on player side. The onus of having to decide is effectively taken off the player, as a metaphorical beacon is lit on just one of the choices, as if stating “it’s okay, yeah, it would be a hard choice, shh, but don’t worry your tiny brain, we’ll just say what you should pick”. It’s inherently belittling, a vague implication that the players would not be able to choose correctly (not to mention the whole kerfluffle of there even being a correct choice, which is again something most really effective SF works avoid). Especially in the case where endings are morally, individually ambiguous, and would normally require careful introspective consideration, this outright saying which is “best” completely messes things up, and players will more likely go on a different line of thought – a much more angry line at that, inherently – and try to think about why the supposed “best” ending was not what they would believe the best. This leads to things like picking apart the ending for minor plot holes and inconsistencies, to deconstructing with the intent to dismiss. It’s no more introspective pondering on moral issues and theoretical outcomes of solutions, but an attempt to discredit an un-optimal enforced statement to pacify one’s own personal opinions. In (in my opinion) good sci-fi works, the choices, outcomes and ending solutions are a springing point for larger considerations, thoughts of right and wrong, moral and immoral. They are the catalyst (oh em gee pun) for further, deeper, more serious thinking, not the focus object. And yet that’s exactly what the writers of Mass Effect 3 did – they explicitly stated which is the ‘best’ option, thus making players think not of which would really be better, but of why the writers were ‘wrong’ (as in, having different opinion than the player and enforcing that opinion upon the player – a disparity of opinions which is instantly and subconsciously rejected) and what reasons for such wrongness can be seen.

And thirdly – though this is just my personal view – it’s somewhat, frankly, insulting towards the audience. Allow for the idea, for the hope that your audience is smart enough to make their own choices. If you as a writer openly say what your work’s players/readers/viewers should think and choose, you are discrediting their own ability and capability of thinking. Children’s books do this sort of thing, the not-even-bothering-to-give-an-illusion-of-ambiguity. But Mass Effect 3 carries an age rating of 15+ (or was it 18+ even?). One would think that most people of that age would be smart enough to be trusted with making their own judgement on moral issues within a fictional work…

As I said, I won’t bother to express my own thoughts on which ending in this case is morally the correct one, which is actually better, and which one I liked most / felt was most logical. Why bother? The ME3 writers already said it all. “Synthesis is the best choice because we say so”. I’d be among the first to say that the Extended Cut DLC actually did improve a bunch of problems the original representations of endings had, and it does provide better closure. But it also brought this one, not-often-discussed issue to the forefront, and it is one such that seems to not be often considered in the area of videogame writing, even as it is a critically important aspect – a sort of 101 principle, if you will – in regular fictional literature.

~X2-Eliah really liked the black ending, as it was thematically consistent with the first game and avoided space magic.

3 responses

  1. Pingback: Short thoughts on Mass Effect 3 Extended Cut DLC (spoilerfree) « Wulf Space

  2. aldowyn

    Okay, so you have a point, but I don’t think Mass Effect 3 is the best example. Who is going to listen to the star child when he says what the “best” answer is, even if they aren’t predisposed against him? He obviously has goals very different from yours, so what he says is the best isn’t necessarily what you think is the best.

    It certainly hasn’t stopped people from discussing possible “best” endings. I’ve heard good arguments for all three of them. I honestly think it’s a relatively interesting decision that was just presented in a… horrendous manner.

    01/07/2012 at 11:11

    • That’s a good point, in fact. I did think about the Starchild’s exposition of Synthesis as “best” actually being a ploy of some sort, but what finally made me think that this wasn’t the case was the meta-nature of the ending. As far as I know, the Synthesis ending is treated as “best” in a meta-sense as well; the ending cutscenes seem to display the most positive final outcomes (the utopian vision that feels far too good to be credible), and, as far as I know, the game’s score-counter (those military points) is purely there do decide if the player is even presented with Synthesis as an option or not – in other words, if the player failed to reach the best outcome or not.

      There is still discussion on which is truly the best ending, sure, and I really dig that. But, I believe that it is, at least in part, due to the discrepancy between personal beliefs and values and what Bioware’s writers wanted to enforce as the ‘best’ from their point of view. And had they really wanted to spark insightful discussion on the nature and meaning behind the endings, they could have abstained from that authorial explicit enforcement of a concept of “best” entirely. Just present the endings, and let the audience decide on their own value-base upon the goodness of each choice.

      01/07/2012 at 11:24

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