After the surprise success of Mass Effect 1, the even greater success with Mass Effect 2 put pressure on the developers for the final game. The creative team overseeing the series lost a major contributor in Drew Karpyshyn, as we mentioned in our report on the unresolved dark energy plot from the previous game. However, any story problems fans have with Mass Effect 3 would likely be unchanged if Karpyshyn stayed on. Since leaving BioWare (only to return to work on Star Wars: The Old Republic), he remained adamant that the creative vision lead writer Mac Walters delivered was what they decided on before his departure. Still, the resulting controversy over the ending of Mass Effect 3 led to developers redrafting their endings via the Extended Cut DLC.
Released in early March of 2012, BioWare announced the Extended Cut DLC less than a month later because of the rabid fan response to Mass Effect 3. Adamant it wouldn’t change the endings, this new free DLC offered what should have been present from launch: story resolution in context. Without getting into spoilers, the main annoyance amongst fans was how linear the ending was in a game that prided itself on the consequences of player choice. In the original final scene, the player could say one of two things, then choose one of three options (at most). For players who invested in the moral philosophy of their Shepard, they were stuck. The game forced a character to make a huge choice with no in-game justification
Why We Are Talking About the Mass Effect 3 Controversy and Extended Cut DLC Right Now
Image via BioWare
Faithful readers of Comic Years know that during this time of social distancing, I am replaying the Mass Effect series for Retro Reviews. At the time of the game’s release, I knew people were pissed off, just not why. However, unlike the first two games, I never played Mass Effect 3. About a year later, I was able to get through about the first third of it but then life got in the way again. However, in looking back at what happened, the response from fans to game developers looks very similar to the sort of behavior we call “toxic fandom” today. (The angry fans appalled at that behavior even did the thing where they all raised money for charity!)
At the time, Twitter was not a site anyone took seriously. The idea of being fired over an insensitive tweet made as much sense as being fined in the real world for jaywalking in Grand Theft Auto III. Yet, angry fans launched death threats, vile insults, and other horrid behavior towards the developers and the poor EA intern who managed BioWare’s social media. Nothing excuses that, and it remains a huge problem in fandom. Yet, they had a legitimate gripe (unlike fans who want a “new” final season of Game of Thrones or for Disney to disavow The Last Jedi or The Rise of Skywalker).
So, like Sony did with their big-screen Sonic, BioWare actually listened to the fan consensus and took steps to address it. On April 5, 2012, they announced the Extended Cut DLC for Mass Effect 3 to address the controversy.
The Two Problems at the Heart of the Mass Effect 3 Controversy
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The first problem is that gaming, like all commercial art, is a business first. Thanks to a now-shortsighted deal on BioWare’s part, Mass Effect 1 came out exclusively for the Xbox 360. It was ported to PCs a year later and didn’t hit Playstation 3 until 2012, the year of Mass Effect 3’s release. So, as EA and BioWare tried to appeal to new players, it felt as if successive games devalued the choices of the previous ones. It also meant that new players couldn’t get the full narrative experience. Even though this isn’t the case, some players felt shortchanged. The Mass Effect games did try to be all things for all players. RPG game and action game elements blended into a single narrative experience. Meaning some folks would feel unsatisfied either way.
The second problem is how to close a story with so many different variables. Did you cure the krogan or not? Did you eliminate the geth or the quarians? How many of your allies survived? As a writer, the very concept gives me headaches. Still, what developers delivered in the ending was a complete sublimation of the game’s conversation mechanics. They eliminated the “neutral” option for most dialogue sequences, which made players feel limited in their responses. (Even if, practically speaking, the “neutral” option was the paragon or renegade choice just without the reputation points.) Finally, there was no charming or fighting your way out of this particularly imperfect choice.
As Karpyshyn said to VGS in 2013:
“I find it funny that fans…hear a couple things they like and, then in their minds, they add in all the details they specifically want and talk about how awesome it is. And that’s the thing with vague ideas…it’s because we’re hopeful. I think people are basically hopeful. And we want it to be great, and so we imagine exactly what we want it to be. But nothing ever is what we want it to be. Hopefully, it gives us a different experience that is equally good or better…. Whatever we came up with probably wouldn’t have been what people imagined it would be.”
Fan entitlement, or the idea that they are “owed” a specific experience, is at the heart of most toxic fandom. While that is at play here, there is also a legitimate complaint from people who invested probably 100 hours into a story where they were told their choices mattered.
Did Mass Effect 3 fans deserve to destroy the bad guys, save the good guys, and all have a party at the end? No. In fact some of the endings are deliberately “bad” endings, consequences for killing and cheating your allies. However, players did deserve to feel that the final choice in the game was one their character would arrive at naturally, as they had with every previous choice.
The Mass Effect 3 controversy served as a preview of what storied franchises face in the digitally-connected future we live in, and they expected something like the Extended Cut DLC for everything. While an addendum to the story doesn’t work for films or series, but games it’s a viable fix. This free download was the best possible way the creators could defend their story and address legitimate fan concerns.
Why the Mass Effect 3 Extended Cut DLC Was the Best Possible Response to the Controversy
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It seems silly to not spoil a game that is eight years old and whose ending was the source of major controversy. Yet, the actual content of the ending doesn’t really matter in this conversation. Taking Karpyshyn, Walters, and the rest of the storytellers at their word, the ending of the game is the ending they envisioned for their big ol’ space opera. So, what makes the Extended Cut DLC for Mass Effect 3 the perfect response to that controversy is how it attempts a mulligan on that final conversation.
Previously, your character had a limited conversation, made one of three choices, and either way the player wondered what happened to the characters who survived. The Extended Cut DLC added both conversation options with the final antagonist and expositional voiceovers for each choice’s aftermath. It also gives a fourth option, where Shepard can reject the choice. It’s basically a defeat, making all that sacrifice for nothing. Yet, that the option is there makes the ending feel more like it belongs in Mass Effect. Even these “bad” endings get an uplifting epilogue promising hope for the future.
What the Extended Cut DLC for Mass Effect 3 did right was that it addressed specific aspects of the controversy. A game so focused on story that it has a “narrative” gameplay option (meaning you have to work very hard to die) should maintain that focus at the climax. They didn’t “give in” to fans, instead defending their creative vision. However, they did use the extra story bits to justify those endings and provide closure for fans not quite ready to let the whole thing go.
How This Response Shaped Today’s Toxic Fandom Outrage and Response
Image via BioWare
The world, at least online, seems like a much meaner place than it was in 2012. Social media makes dissenting voices louder and anonymity encourages near-criminal harassment of artists on those platforms. The silly petitions to redo Star Wars movies or the final season of Game of Thrones amount to nothing more than temper tantrums. The only reason the Mass Effect complainers had any legitimacy at all is that their input into the story was a selling point for the experience. Still, even pissed-off fans understood the limitations of that.
At no point can you assassinate the space Council and become a galactic dictator. (Though, we are sure Shepard would bring peace, justice, and security to his/her new empire.) Fans accept this because they know they are merely guiding a story rather than actively creating it. The Extended Cut DLC added elements that justified those story choices and let players understand the consequences of the character’s actions. It did not rewrite the ending or give in to the most childish of fans’ demands.
Still, this set an early precedent that fan tantrums can get results from companies eager to maintain said fans’ business. All that was in the DLC should have been part of the main game at launch. Instead of seeing the DLC as the correction of a mistake, they saw it as BioWare acquiescing to outrage.
Ultimately, Mass Effect 3 was a game that ended a series in a satisfying way, though I say that having only experienced the Extended Cut endings. While I personally wished for a happier end to things, I respect the story I got.
What do you think? Did you play Mass Effect 3 before the Extended Cut DLC was out and did you agree with the controversy? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Featured image via BioWare
Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. The first books he read on his own were comics, and he's loved the medium ever since. He is the greatest star-pilot in the galaxy, a cunning warrior, and a good friend. His book "What I Learned: Stories, Essays, and More" is available in print from Amazon and from all electronic booksellers.