Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, April 10, 2013
A word in defense of Electronic Arts

Electronic Arts just managed to win the title Worst Company in America for the second time in a row. Lots of commentary on that is justified. But I don't think all of it is. In particular I keep seeing one argument popping up again and again, in a replay of last year, that "EA has also presided over poor endings and seemingly rushed sequels to several highly acclaimed game series. Mass Effect 3's final act was so poorly received that fans demanded, and received, a revised ending, and EA was sued for false advertising.". And I don't think that is a valid complaint.

Take for example the 1942 movie Casablanca: If you had asked what ending the audience would have liked to see, it would probably have been Humphrey Bogart ending up with Ingrid Bergman instead of Claude Rains. Not having the most popular ending possible is part of why that film is considered art.

While I didn't like the ending of Mass Effect 3 either, and have already read a lot of people complaining about the end of Bioshock Infinite, I don't think such complaints are valid. I would very much argue that in a video game the gameplay should be more important than the story. But if you only look at the story and accept that telling a story is a form of art, you must accept that the artistic vision of the creator of the story might differ from your own. It is the very core of art that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder", and can't really be judged.

It would have been rather easy for a company like EA to create an ending of the Mass Effect 3 trilogy based on what is most popular with some focus group. Not doing that and sticking to some artistic vision deserves plaudits and not a Worst Company award. After all EA is doing enough other things wrong to deserve this award for things like the botched SimCity launch, excessive milking of their customers, or compromising gameplay with paid-for-by-advertisers DLC. Not making their stories have the most popular ending is one of the few things they actually got right.

That is assuming there was a creative vision.

While bioshock infinite ending is controversial in its own right, it was coherent part of the game. It was hinted from the very first scene.

The ME3 ending was poorly stitched crap unrelated to the rest of the universe and the lore.

Also all Mass Effects were boring and lacking in the gameplay part.

The ironic part is that EA has a lot of other sins to be judged on and ME3 ending is a very minor at best.

This whole debacle lacks perspective. How is a company in the entertainment industry the worst company in the world? I'm no fan of EA, but I'm almost certain they only got this award because this is the internet. People probably tossed them votes because of the player on the Madden games' box art and any number of other frivolous things.
@Zerei - because EA screws the majority of the people that vote. While Foxconn and Apple (just to keep tech here, Shell in Nigeria is almost a crime against humanity) may be worse in total human suffering - it does not impact middle class users with internet connection in the US.
(Minor spoilers.)
I agree that the stories and endings should be up to the creator and not the audience. If I don't like the movie (or game in this case) then I just dismiss it as personal taste.

To some degree though I can understand some of the fuss around that ending. I really don't agree with all of it but I can understand some of it.

As far as I've gathered the criticism is divided into two parts. The part where they thought that the ending had lots of holes in it, missing pieces. And the other part where there were 4 almost copy-pasted endings with some minor changes.

In the revised, or fleshed out ending I think that many of those missing pieces were addressed. Things like how your companions that you picked for the final mission ended up on the ship before it crashed.

It didn't though really address the copy-pasted endings. From what I read BW more or less promised that the ending would be more than just having a few different cutscenes. Some even went so far as to send them some cupcakes with different colours to highlight this. Now I can sort of understand why this was kind of a disappointment. Still though I really didn't mind that much. I liked the ending anyway. I even suspected it was a trick right up to the end so I didn't pick the "best" ending. :)

But to go as far as suing EA/BW for false marketing and demanding changed endings, to me that just screams spoiled brats that are used to getting their way no matter what.
"Worst Company in America" is a poor title anyway but it's much catchier than "Most Unpopular Company in America with users on the Internet."
Yep, so tired of people whining about the ME 3 ending (which I liked by the way....and by liked I mean I found it the sort of unpleasant and horrible twist ending that I expected the series to conclude with, given that the ME universe was doomed from the start to suffer some sort of terminal collapse at the claws of the reapers, and a choice of Pyrrhic victories was absolutely in character for the story no matter what everyone else thinks). Was it what most ME3 fans wanted? Apparently not. Was it what kept the series true to its story? Absolutely. If anything the real problem with Mass Effect was that it walked the line between typical shooter (a genre swimming in testosterone-laden victory) and introspective SF tale (which is never afraid to destroy its own characters and universe) its not really a surprise when everyone ended up pissed that they didn't have an option for "push this button to blow up the reapers and crown Shepard king of the shooter universe" button. The inevitability and futility of war that was the series' message was lost on pretty much everyone. Which come to think of it could mean that the series failed creatively to relay that message to its audience....or that it missed what its core audience really was (apparently people who wanted Halo or GoW, but with more talking bits).

Either way, thanks to the crap ME3 and BI are both getting, I am fully expecting the next round of games to be suitably trite pablum for the whiny "fans."
I disagree with you. Are you saying that we cannot critique an artist's work? We cannot say that a Uwe Boll film is bad, because it reflects Uwe Boll's artist vision and that vision is sacrosanct?

That is nonsense. The quality of a work can be judged by the audience. Notice how everyone still considers Casablanca to be a great film? No one is complaining about the ending. It might not be the ending the audience would have come up with. But the audience is perfectly capable of judging it, and realizing that is a great ending.

If you want a more traditional critique of the ME3 ending, here's mine:

A Critique of the Mass Effect 3 Ending
Are you saying that we cannot critique an artist's work? We cannot say that a Uwe Boll film is bad, because it reflects Uwe Boll's artist vision and that vision is sacrosanct?

I'm with Tori here. The complaints mostly were that the ME3 ending was NOT like an Uwe Boll film, and too intellectual for the average video gamer. And the result of all the flak is that people start predicting the end of the triple A art game, and we'll only get very simple and trite "you crush your enemies before you" endings to video games.
I think the disdain for the ME3 ending perhaps more stemmed from a feeling that the player's choices did not matter, when running up to it players were told that they would. Sure, we can quibble about whether "War Assets" actually mattered, but I think most players took it to mean that their choices would have a meaningful impact, and that we'd get to see how they ripple throughout the universe (even if in stills like DAO, which they ended up doing in the Extended Cut). I think that if you are going to start a trend with the first two games (Shep kills big bad, everyone's happy), then switch it with the third, people might be disappointed. "Mass Effect" established itself as that kind of story, and even throughout 3 itself was preparing players for that final confrontation, only to change at the last minute. If you are going to stick a specific name on something, whether "Bioshock" or "Halo" or "Mass Effect" you are telling your players "Expect more of what you love!"...just like Battlefield, CoD, or any of these recurring brands.
I think you have to assume there are a number of people for whom if they were asked to fill in a survey about their favourite flavour of ice cream, would write in "I hate EA!!!"

I get that people have reasons to dislike EA. I don't understand where the overwhelming hatred comes from.
@Zerei, this poll came via The runner-up was Bank of America. Far more of the voters have 1 or more EA games at home and are angry at what they paid for.
Hi, my name is Nick, and I'm an EA hater. I didn't start out as an EA hater, I started out being disappointed in EA's decision to include nasty DRM in copies of Spore and Mass Effect 1. That was back in 2007.

Over the years I've watched EA try a variety of half backed DRM schemes in their products. Despite the DRM, I've purchased products from Bioware, because I really like classic Bioware games. By the time Mass Effect 3, I felt kind of dirty for "caving in" to buy it.

Now it's 2013, and it's pretty clear at this point that EA is going to infest their games with spyware no matter what WE think they should do. So for not listening to us, and not being reasonable for FIVE years straight, I now have a burning hatred of this STUPID, EVIL company.

I wait gleefully for the day I can attend their bankruptcy hearing and cheer like I'm at a football game. It goes without saying that I wouldn't buy any more of their products, because that's counter to the mission of destroying this evil corporation.

I play ball with Steam, I was willing to be reasonable. I'm NOT willing to be reasonable anymore.
The EA wikipedia entry has a pretty good summary of why the publisher is disliked by the community.

Most voters were probably thinking of recent disappointments like SimCity and ME3.

But for those of us who have been around for a while, the names Bullfrog, Origin Systems, Mythic, Westwood Studios and Bioware still bring back fond memories.

Whatever it is about EA's corporate culture, their approach to M&A and strategy of DLC, DRM and annual franchise releases is toxic to its reputation and the quality of its games.
The complaints mostly were that the ME3 ending was NOT like an Uwe Boll film, and too intellectual for the average video gamer.

What? Where on earth are you reading nonsense like that? The ME3 debacle was a debacle precisely because it reduced the sum total of all the choices you made in the game to three, indistinguishable outcomes. Which is the exact opposite of what the game's writer told everyone to expect. Bioware turned the loquacious and headstrong Shepard into a passive robot blithely going along with what the literal deus ex machina said with nary an objection. The original ending wasn't "artistic," it was rushed. Nevermind the ridiculous plot holes that were contained in the ending cinematics itself (e.g. how/when did your team get back in the ship?).

Were people sad at the non-Hollywood ending? Sure. But, if you'll notice, Bioware changed none of that in the revised endings. What actually changed? More dialog options in the final room, an explanation of what happened to your crew in the meantime, filling in the plot holes, and finally some closure in the form of epilogue scenes reflecting the hundreds of hours of choices you made. Nothing "artistic" was compromised.
Nothing "artistic" was compromised.

An open ending in which not everything is explained and/or resolved is very much an artistic style instrument. Forcing the artist to explain everything thus very much compromises his artistic integrity.

Can you imagine theater goers forcing the theater to give them an ending of Beckett's Waiting for Godot in which everything is explained and resolved at the end?
I agree with Azuriel on the "artistic merits" of the ME3 ending. The original ending was the laziest fan fiction I've ever seen. It was not up to the standards we expect from a Bioware product. They called it "art" later to try to justify it's weirdness.

They wanted to wrap the project up, so they just whipped up something in 0.2 seconds and threw it out there. Hater's like me are going to blame EA's influence of course.
Just because someone has an artistic vision doesn't mean you can't critique it. Not all art is good art. If they have stated it's art, then they have to live with judgements of their art based on whatever artistic criteria the critic brings...and that is potentially a lot tougher standard than "Does it entertain?".
Just because someone has an artistic vision doesn't mean you can't critique it. Not all art is good art.

Agreed. But I seriously doubt that a poll on the internet can result in good art critique.
Not going with an expected or popular ending is fine. Pulling out a random deus ex machina, not so much. It is more along the lines of Humphrey Bogart ending up with Amelia Earhart.

As others are saying, Tobold, the problem people had with the ME3 ending was NOT that it wasn't exactly what they wanted. People would have been content, if not necessarily happy, with dozens of different endings if they were coherent and keeping with the theme of the trilogy.

Except the ending wasn't. Randomly introduced the star child, tried to shoehorn in things that made no sense, and made Shepard extraordinarily passive.

If the only ending involved Shepard and everyone else dying along with 90% of the galaxy (but the Reapers were defeated) and it made some sort of sense, I would have been sad but I would have been content. I didn't expect, let alone demand, a perfect Hollywood ending - but I wanted a logical ending.

It felt like Bioware showed me a picture of an apple and said - "Look! It's an elephant! And if you can't see it then you don't appreciate our artistic vision."
whether the ending was bad or not is up to your interpretation. however - a statement was made that there will be widely divergent 16 endings and that we will NOT be picking between 3 buttons to push. which is kind of lie in advertizing. and lets not even get into "you will absolutely, positively will NOT need anything outside of single player game, to reach all of the ending options" and that multiplayer will NOT affect single player game. but forget about that.

there are other quality issues, that are not subjective, unlike actual storytelling - that show ME3 as shoddy product. I have issues with storytelling and characterizations, but I understand that this is subjective. choppy animations, glitchy graphics, various bugs including import ones - those things are NOT subjective and they ARE a sign of a rushed game that didn't get enough quality control time.

still. I don't think EA deserved the golden poo. not over other candidates. they did back in a time of "EA wives" scandal but not this year. they are a shoddy money grabbing company, but they don't even come anywhere NEAR the damage many of those other companies inflicted, both on their employees and their customers. and I say that as someone who was physically and emotionally adversely affected by ME3. (though it wasn't the cause as much as the catalyst)
actualy having read a few more comments? from the artistic perspective, ME3 ending was not and isn't intelectual. its pseudo intelectual at best and extended cut only emphasizes it. it broke the rules of the universe it established. it added a twist for the sake of twist. it bougth into overused and trite "grimdark" fad that we're goign through right now. and veered into biblical allegories that were VERy out of place in Mass effect universe. and last but not least - it walked all over the very important message of the series - "victory through diversity and acceptance of this diversity" (even third game gives you this message, after all - you are spending the entire game uniting various species without stomping all over their cultures - Javik even says that they lost because they were all too same, and therefore too predictable)

the message of the ending is that we cannot win and progress until we are homogenized., we cannot find common ground without being forced into one through genetics. it goes against everything the rest of the series stands for.
Randomly introduced the star child

This is the point of criticism I agree the least with. Sorry, but for me the anthropomorphism of the catalyst as what you call "star child" was very clear. It isn't randomly introduced at all, he is seen in at least 4 previous scenes, and with some thinking it should be possible to figure out why Shephard sees the Catalyst in that form.

Criticism like that to me looks very much like "if I don't understand it, it can't be art", and that is an attitude which kills 95% of all art. I'm more of the opinion that if it doesn't make you think, it isn't art.
its not even the catalyst taking form of starchild that's an issue. its the nature of the catalyst. which again - is random, uncalled for, had to be explained in post launch dlc that as far as I read wasn't even planned, contradicts earlier statements in the game and I can go on and on and on.

and the way the choices are implemented. explained away is just...

reminds me of the story about this collective of russian artists that used to make abstract mixed media paintings with hay, and they had this particular painting with holes in the canvas praised to high heavens... except later they admitted that the holes were not intentional and were result of damage from bad packing and careless transportation.
it was art the way michael bay movies are art.
"This is the point of criticism I agree the least with. Sorry, but for me the anthropomorphism of the catalyst as what you call "star child" was very clear. It isn't randomly introduced at all, he is seen in at least 4 previous scenes, and with some thinking it should be possible to figure out why Shephard sees the Catalyst in that form."

Except that's not what I said.

I didn't say the star child appearing as a human child didn't make sense.

I said the star child himself was randomly introduced.

Where, in all three Mass Effect games, was there EVER an indication that the Reapers were controlled by something else?

If the star child appeared as the person who died on Virmire it would make the same amount of (non)sense. It's the Catalyst itself existing as an entity which controls the Reapers which is randomly introduced (regardless of its appearance).
An open ending in which not everything is explained and/or resolved is very much an artistic style instrument.

Did we play the same game? What was "open" about the ending? The team members I brought with me on the final run were missing after the laser attack, then suddenly on a ship with Joker trying to outrun the shock wave. When did he pick them up? At what point did they leave Earth? Why did he leave Earth when he spent a considerable amount of time beforehand stressing how he never left Shepard's side? And why leave at all when Hackett verified that Shepard was aboard the Citadel? The list goes on.

I can... "appreciate" the more open nature of the question of what happens after, say, the Destroy ending. Some people chose to interpret it as a mostly happy ending. However, following the logic of the underlying fiction lead one to conclude that all Mass Relays were destroyed, and billions of Turians/Krogans/etc were left stranded near Earth, condemned to slowly starve to death (they cannot digest Earth food) as their civilizations back home descended into chaos. Clearly though, that was not the intended effect as evidenced by the expanded ending cinematics.

Which only serves to highlight the intrinsic problem with your (implicit) claim of immutable art: it is not, in fact, immutable. Writers have editors. Game designers have QA departments. Film makers have test audiences. Even if it was fan dismay that "forced" Bioware to "rewrite" the ending - as opposed to the Bioware artists realizing that the ending did not have its intended artistic effect - why is the end product still not equally valid art? Why is it suddenly compromised or sullied? Is the original "Han shot first" Star Wars art in a way that "Greedo shot first" isn't? If they are both art by virtue of Lucas (aka the artist) coming to his own conclusion that the original did not conform to his vision, why is the same not said for Bioware?

Forcing the artist to explain everything thus very much compromises his artistic integrity.

Unless someone put a gun to the back of the heads of the Bioware team, nobody forced anyone to do anything.

Look, it is actually possible for artists to make mistakes. Tolkien was not being super-mysterious by never explaining why the Eagles could not simply have dropped Frodo off at Mt. Doom. That sort of thing is a plot hole; not something terrible enough to ruin the entire narrative (to me at least), but it is something that makes the overall story weaker, not stronger. Some throwaway line in there talking about how "the Eagles were occupied" or "the Eagles never answered the call" could have tied off the loose end while providing fan-fic fuel over what could be more important than the One Ring. Alas, he didn't.

But Bioware did. And if the expanded endings are actually closer to what the artists envisioned - and we have every indication that that is the case - then I cannot imagine how anyone could possibly argue that something was compromised.
Here's explanation "why ME3 ending is disaster" (as opposed to being different from what people wanted) from someone who seems to make a lot of sense to me (in three parts):
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