Monday, June 11, 2012

Lyrics (Over)Analysis - Michelle by The Beatles

So this song has a reputation of being a simple "love" song. However, perhaps there is more that meets the eye regarding this song and that this piece is actually a satire on teen pop music and "silly love songs". 

Don't believe me? Let's go through the lyrics

"Michelle, my belle.
These are words that go together well,
My Michelle."

So the beginning of the song starts off with Michelle, my belle (which means my beloved) but there isn't any emotional meaning or deep thoughts to those words. They are essentially just words that sound romantic and goes together well. Michelle is not really a real girl Paul knows, it's just a nice female name that matches the pop song archetype. Which is Paul satiring the nature of pop music.

"Michelle, my belle.
Sont des mots qui vont très bien ensemble,
Très bien ensemble."

Now Paul is just repeating the same line but in French because translating English language into French automatically makes the song sounds more romantic. However, like the message of the song, it's only done because it goes together well with the song not because of any real meaning or affection.

"I love you, I love you, I love you.
That's all I want to say.
Until I find a way
I will say the only words I know that
You'll understand. "

It's turns out that John Lennon suggested the incorporation of the "I Love You" section of the song. Which makes sense because John suggestion in songs generally incorporate the cynical, downbeat section to the song (see. Getting Better, We Can Work It Out etc).

You see this is the clever part of the song where Paul is singing generic "I Love You" to the audience not because he actually does love anyone, but because the audience can't understand anything other than "I Love you". "Until I find a way" to sing lyrics with deeper meaning and songs that are more intelligent, he will keep on singing "I Love You" types songs because they are the only type of songs that the teen pop audience will understand. They are too stupid to understand lyrics that mean anything more than "I Love You". Oh man, that really biting cynical satire there from Lennon/McCartney.

"I need to, I need to, I need to.
I need to make you see,
Oh, what you mean to me.
Until I do I'm hoping you will
Know what I mean."

So the whole I need to make you see what you mean to me. In normal pop songs that generally means that he wants the other person to know that he loves her but in the context of this satire, it's a twist because he wants the fans to know that they mean nothing to him. That he's hoping that one day the fans become intelligent enough to see through the facade so that he would be able to write songs that are more intelligent.

Then there's the generic "I love you..." to follow the trope of the pop song genre

"I want you, I want you, I want you.
I think you know by now
I'll get to you somehow.
Until I do I'm telling you so
You'll understand."

So Paul is singing "I want you" and repeating it multiple times until the audience understands and gets (I think you know by now) the "subtle" point that Paul "wants and love the girl" because if he makes the song more subtle without outright declaration of love and affection, they won't understand what he means (man Paul is ridiculously nasty and cynical in this song. I'm no lover of teen pop but the fans of that genre aren't that bad).

Then there is a few repetition of the previous lyrics and ends up with the declaration that "I will say the only words I know that
You'll understand, my Michelle." which summarise the song that they are writing simplistic love song lyrics that people can understand easily.

Now some people may disagree and that this song is actually about loving a French girl despite the fact that they can't really communicate with each other due to language difference (thanks to George Starostin for pointing out the literal interpretation, I honesty could not make that connection that there was a language barrier between the two lovers which led to the creation of this convoluted theory). However even if that was true, isn't it genious that the song can be interpret as a straight up "silly love song' whist simultaneously be a deconstruction of the same silly love song genre?

Now you may wonder why you should buy into this teen pop satire interpretation when there's a perfectly logical and more simpler love song literal interpretation of the song.

Well for two reasons, a) This interpretation perfectly symbolises the status of Rubber Soul being the start of the mature phase of The Beatles writing music beyond "I love you". What better way to say that we are more than just another teen pop band by writing a song that parodies it b) This interpretation creates thematic consistency with the rest of the album. The basic theme of rubber soul is basically disillusionment with their relationship with woman and relationship with the teenage fans that worship them. This interpretation completely gels well and complements songs like "Think For Yourself" and "If I Needed Someone" and if this interpretation is true it would create greater unity between songs. Hell you could almost make this album a concept album about this topic.

Now maybe it's unlikely that Paul McCartney intended the song to mean this (but I haven't completely ruled it out) but it certainly in my "head canon". I just find it amusing the idea of Mr. "Silly Love Song" writing a parody of songs the type of songs he has written a lot of and I have an image of McCartney laughing in his head when people sing this song sincerely. 

PS: I  thought of this "biting satire" interpretation because I was completely stump by this line "I will say the only words I know that You'll understand. " and I didn't know how that connected with a "love song" and I thought that sounded rather patronising and like Paul was calling her an idiot. I was thinking that maybe he was calling her an idiot and then I extrapolated from that this song that the lyrics are a parody of the fans who can't understand anything from music beyond "I Love You".

Now I didn't believe that Paul intended it that way (although I would laugh if he did though) but at the time, it was the only interpretation that actually made sense to me. Now the more plausible interpretation is that line just meant "I Love You" was the only thing she understood in English and that this song is a comedic love song about falling in love with a French woman without being able to communicate with each other but I didn't make that connection until George Starostin pointed it out. Although I don't know what it says about me that I couldn't make that simple and more straight forward connection but was able to string together this more convoluted theory instead.

Lyrics (Over)Analysis - Please Please Me by The Beatles


You know The Beatles get the reputation as the clean-cut friendly rock band whilst the Rolling Stones are the dirty, bad-boy and sleazy equivalent. In reality though they are both dirty and sleazy but one band are more open about it in their image. The evidence I place is with their number one hit “Please Please Me” which is a song about Lennon trying to guilt trip his girlfriend (or maybe wife) to give him oral sex despite her reluctance to do that.

The Beatles written
"Last night I said these words to my girl
I know you never even try girl"

So Lennon is criticising the girl for not trying to "please" him (aka oral sex).

"Come on, come on, come on, come on
Come on, come on, come on. come on"

The protagonist is trying to encourage her to loosen her inhibition and the repetitiveness of come on signifies that he is desperate for it and is pestering her for a long time (although this would have been more effective in bringing the message across if the producer alternate the panning of each 'come on' from full pan left and full pan right to make it sound like the girl is being bombarded with request and each come on was increasing in volume to signify the growing desperation from the protagonist. Unfortunately production technique and making use of the stereo field wasn't that develop back then)

"Please please me, oh yeah like I please you"

After all the come on and all the effort trying to convince her, he lets off in frustration that he is willing to get down on her but she won't

"You don't need me to show the way love
Why do I always have to say love?"

Lennon is basically saying that this should be second nature to her and that he shouldn't have to try to convince her to do this and talk with her through the steps.

"I don't want to sound complaining
But you know there's always rain in my heart
I do all the pleasin' with you
It's so hard to reason with you
Oh yeah why do you make me blue"

Yep and this bridge just continues on the theme that Lennon is calling her a selfish lover. That she has an entitlement that the guy has to do all the pleasing and make the girl happy gets nothing back in return.

What a disgusting dirty song by The Beatles.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Suspension of disbelief and the challenges face by the Extended Cut DLC

First, I want to state the obvious. Video games aren’t real. I’ll also add “movies aren’t real”, “books aren’t real” or even “fiction by definition isn’t real”

No, I’m not going to write an post about why people shouldn’t get upset over a video game or story and that people who do have no lives.

The reason why I point this out is that recognising this is probably one of the most important factors in storytelling. Things that are dramatic in real life are simply not that interesting when presented in fiction.

A bomb that kills 20-30 people in real life would be emotionally moving if we see the impact on TV because we know that these people do exist. A bomb that blows up an entire planet and wipe out a civilization in fiction can be greeted with a yawn because people know it isn’t real. People dying in fiction are just pixels on the screen (video game), extras pretending to die (movies) or letters written on a page (books). Why should I care about a fake civilization that isn’t real die? That is the challenge that all fiction writers have to overcome.

A story that is primary event driven that attempts to hook the audience by relying on them to react to the event as they would if it happen in real life will seldom be emotionally gripping. Have a villain attempting to wipe out organic life and then having the hero stop them normally reads like a generic action movie. It could be entertaining if the action scenes are well crafted or in a video game if the gameplay is excellent but it can never really be emotionally gripping because people know it isn't real and doesn't exist.

Nevertheless despite the fact that fiction isn’t real, so many people are emotionally invested into works of fiction. So how do writers make a person care about what happens on the screen and be emotionally invested on something that isn’t real?

They achieve this by writing believable and likeable characters. If you have a character with a flesh out and develop personality that you could imagine could exist in real life and you could relate to. If that character is likeable then you develop an emotional connection to that character because that character seems real. The writers will ended up creating an illusion of reality and people ended up suspending their disbelief.  So why should people care about the villain threatening to destroy organic life in the universe? People should care because the characters that you develop an emotional connection to care about it.

Of course the more advance writers can create a situation where you can care about the surroundings and the general universe as a whole. After all a person develops an attachment to a location and the place they live in in real life and that can be imitated in fiction as well. They achieve this by creating scope by giving the illusion that there is a living and breathing universe beyond the lives of the characters. From Mass Effect point of view, that’s why when you go to the citadel you hear people chatting about their personal experience to the reaper invasion and you get involve in side-quest that don’t advance the main plot. That’s why in all of the planets you hear soldiers talking about their experience and their suffering and their own story. This is there to create an illusion that all those people you see in the universe has their own lives and their own story to tell. So we care if Palaven gets wiped out because we have been on Palaven and we see that there are people their (I guess you can call it mini-characters) with their own story to tell.  Of course this bond would probably be weaker than the bond people have to the main character but it helps increase the emotional attachment people have to the general world.

This leads to an important point; I don’t really cares about sentient life or the fact that people will survive 1000 years from now. I care about the character that I emotionally invested in and the world that I helped to save and the troops that I gather. The reaper threats is there to make the character care and be motivated to advance the plot but the characters are there so the audience care about the plot. It is of my belief that the plot isn't that important by itself and is only important when filtered through the characters motivation.

This leads to the problem with the ending. You make all these choices and none of the choices we see how it impacted on the characters or the troops that we gathered or the world that we are trying to save. Ok we saved the galaxy and the cycle are broken saving future races 50,000 years in the future and that humanity may exist long time in the future but like I mention before, that isn’t real because we never developed an emotional connection with the distant future, what is real is the universe here and now which is the universe where we were a part of for the entire Mass Effect series. So what happen to all the characters that we grow fond of and how do they adjust in a post-reaper world? We don’t really know apart from them landing in a jungle planet.

What happen to all the civilizations that we tried to save? Considering that the galaxy left with the mass relay destroyed stranding the fleet and putting a lot of current civilization and current crew in jeopardy. It’s no wonder why people who disliked the ending felt empty when the game ended because what else can you feel when you don’t see the choice impact on the universe you care about it and the few choices you do see left the universe in a pretty bleak state. The ending ignored all the things that made us suspend our disbelief and become immersed in this universe.

I do believe that this area could be something that the Extended Cut DLC could resolve. The challenge here is to connect the choices you make at the end with the consequence your choices have on the characters that made you interest in the franchise in the first place and the current universe that you been trying to save. The three endings of synthesis, control and destroy will have drastically different effects on the universe but we don’t see the difference in the original ending and a well made Extended Cut DLC could resolve that problem.

Here are the few questions that if answered could create the necessary resolution to the series:

• So we have Shepard dying in most of the ending. How did the death affect the rest of the crew and how did it affect your love interest?

• How did the combining synthetic and organic life improve anything and how does that affect the universe?

• What happen to the reapers in the control ending?

• How did the Quarians (and Tali) react to the Geth being destroyed after making their peace with them?

• How the current universe does moves on with the mass relay being destroyed and how would the fleet return home?

• What did the crew of the Normandy do now that the conflict is over?

• What about all the choices you made throughout the series, how did that play out on the galaxy?

It will be a tough job but I do believe that it is achievable for the Extended Cut DLC to resolve some of these issues. A few cutscenes that explain some of this mystery, a funeral scene of Shepard with the crew reacting to your death but have hope for a new future that Shepard sacrifice allows, a cutscene showing the fate of the fleet and the fates of the major planets followed by a Dragon Age Origin like epilogue or an Alpha Protocol like voice narrated credit that goes through the consequences of your decision would do a great job fixing this aspect of the ending and give the series closure.

Of course lack of closure wasn’t the only problem that broke the suspension of disbelief.  The lack of a coherent narrative also did the same thing as well. If a story is told logically, the audience will continue to suspend their disbelief and maintain the illusion that this story is real and hence maintain an emotional connection to it. Gaps in the narrative and illogical plot points will generally break those illusions and having too many plot holes will eventually break down the idea that this story contains is a living and breathing universe to something that is merely pixels on a screen.

The extended cut has it job cut out for them but it isn’t impossible because remember that plot holes aren’t things that are impossible to explain but rather it is gaps in narrative. In Mass Effect 2, if Commander Shepard died in the intro and then we suddenly see him alive working with Cerberus, that is a plot hole. However if we see Shepard getting reconstructed by Cerberus then that is a plot point. Plot holes are merely plot points that don’t exist. Therefore it is theoretically possible for the extended cut DLC to be able to fill in the gaps of the narrative of most of the plot holes of the ending. I am pessimistic about how they are going to achieve this and it may well require a brilliant or a genius writer to be able to plug all the holes in the story but it can theoretically be done and therefore I have to defer judgement before the ending are released.

Things that are important for the extended cut to fill are:

• Clear up the mass relay explosion and make it clear that it is different from the Arrival DLC explosion. This would probably be easy to fix in my mind. Simply show the massive red/green/blue explosion (that unfortunately as shown in the ending cut scene to be big enough to spread to the entire solar system) to be harmless to all the major civilization and perhaps some dialogue about why this explosion is somehow different.

• Explain why all the squad mates left the battlefield on Earth and board the Normandy and explain why the Normandy left the battle.

• Explain how the surviving fleet are able to get home without the Mass Relay or show the galactic civilization rebuilding the relay after they were destroyed.

However there are some things are simply impossible to explain satisfactory like how the crucible manages to merge synthetic and organic life of every life form in the entire galaxy. People in science fiction are able to suspend their disbelief out of a lot of implausible or impossible things such as faster than life travel, artificial gravity, inertial dampeners, universal translators, sound in space, biotics and psychic powers etc. However people accept these fantastical things when the writers establish the rules of the universe early on and then stay consistent with those rules. People can either take it and suspend their belief early on or leave it and don’t follow the series. However when writers add something unbelievable out of the blue without appropriate foreshadowing or explanation then it just seems ridiculous. A lot of people dissatisfied with the ending simply dismiss the crucible appearing and merging synthetic and organic DNA to be ridiculous (as synthetic DNA doesn’t exist) and space magic and that’s fair enough. It wasn’t established early in the series that this type of thing could exist and no amount of explanation or clarification can really solve this issue.

At best the extended cut can explain most of the plot holes but not all of the plot holes especially the one related to the crucible and catalyst which leads to my next point about the elephant in the room that is the confrontation between Starchild and Commander Shepard or for better words lack of confrontation.

My two points I mention before about characterisation and cohesive narrative are important for maintaining suspension of disbelief but this is the type of thing that is common with all forms of storytelling. In video games however, we the audience control the main protagonist of the series which in the Mass Effect series is Commander Shepard.  Essentially Commander Shepard is our personal avatar and one of the things the writers did effectively was to make Commander Shepard a reflection of our personalities or our own belief or at the very least the personality of the character we are role playing. The goal of Mass Effect isn’t just to maintain the image that this is a living and breathing universe which is something that all storytellers should be able to do but to maintain the illusion that I am Commander Shepard. Of course it is impossible to account for everyone and there were moments in the series were players on occasion felt they were limited with the options but as a whole there were significant diversity in the choices in the conversation and the behaviour of Shepard to at least satisfy a diverse amount of personality.

However one of the biggest complaints about the ending was the link between the audience and Commander Shepard was broken. That Commander Shepard no longer represented the player’s belief and values and because of that the players felt betrayed by the ending. Once the idea that I am Commander Shepard is broken, the suspension of disbelief is broken as well and the illusion that this world is real and matters is gone.

To summarise people’s problem with the ending,  a lot of people saw the catalyst/Starchild to be the primary villain of the series as they are the one controlling the reapers and were responsible for the mass genocide of the series and were directly or indirectly responsible for the deaths of all the characters that were haunting Commander Shepard. There were a lot of people who wanted a more antagonistic confrontation between Shepard and the catalyst and some even wanted a renegade interrupt to shoot the Starchild and then have an option to reject all the choices made by the Starchild. There were also people who did not agree with the Starchild assumption that it was inevitable that synthetic life will destroy organic life and wanted to argue with the catalyst on that point. There were people who did not trust or believe anything the Starchild said to them because they were the villain of the series and felt that all the options given by them to be a reaper trap and felt that Shepard should have been inquisitive and get more information and evidence from them. There were people who were alarmed when the Starchild mention the mass relay explosion and felt that Shepard should have question the Starchild as it could be a trap to get Shepard to do the job for the reapers by wiping out solar system and advance civilization for them. There are people who feel that all the choices that you were given were morally abhorrent (destroy - genocide, synthesis - racial homogenisation, control - reaper trap).

Even if there was a reasonable explanation why Shepard was compliant to the catalyst such as Shepard had major bloodloss and had concussion and probably wasn’t in the right mindset to create a coherent argument, the fact of the matter is that whatever the reason, the link between Commander Shepard and the player was separated and lost.

Now there are people who were satisfied with the ending and happy with the choice given to them and have the ending that reflected their personality and that is fine and I’m not going to tell those people they were wrong to feel that way. Nevertheless the goal of the series was that people with diverse personality could be reflected by Commander Shepard and from that standpoint the ending failed.

The only way this can be fixed is to write extra dialogue and add extra choices in the ending. There have been articles that Jennifer Hale (voice actress of Commander Shepard) hasn’t been contacted to do record dialogue for the Extended Cut and the reports show that they aren’t changing the ending or adding additional choices. I’m afraid that if they are sticking with the line that the ending is a clarification and not a rewrite that this problem won’t be resolve with the Extended Cut DLC

My final thoughts on the extended DLC are that on the best case scenario, this could largely salvage the ending by fixing a lot of the plot holes and linking the ending with the personal connection the players have with the main characters and make the choices people have made throughout the series become meaningful. For people who their primary problem with the ending was a lack of closure and lack of resolution then I really hope that you will reserve judgement until the DLC is actually released. A well made DLC could potentially resolve a lot of this issue and create an ending that is satisfying for you. However with the restriction of clarifying the ending and not creating new choices and new endings, the ending can’t be fully redeemed especially if your main problem with the ending was the conversation with the Starchild and how the link between Commander Shepard and the player was broken during it.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

If Star Wars had a Mass Effect 3 ending

So after Darth Vadar sacrifice his life to save Luke Skywalker by destroying the emperor. Luke collapsed onto the floor and became unconscious due to injuries sustained from being fried by the emperor and then wakes up on the surface of the Death Star.

Luke wakes up and then Jar Jar Binks suddenly appear who turns out to be the real master controlling Darth Vadar and the Emperor and was responsible for all the mass genocide by the Empire throughout the series. The motivation of Jar Jar Binks was that it was inevitable that the force powers will destroy the galaxy and therefore the emperor wipes out organics with force powers to prevent them from developing force powers to wipe out the galaxy. Luke Skywalker did not show any outrage that Jar Jar Binks was responsible for all the problems and all the death throughout the entire series and did not question the logic of his statements and did not demand Jar Jar Binks supplied any evidence to support his assertions. Luke basically took what Jar Jar Binks said on face value.
Jar Jar Binks give Luke Skywalker three choices, Luke will control all the force power in the galaxy, he could merge the force with organic beings so that everyone will become one with the force (so everyone becomes the Yoda or Obi Wan Kenobi ghost) or he could destroy all force power which results in the death of all force sensitive being (so Princess Leia must die with this choice). All of this is accomplished by using the "space magic" power of the Death Star. We have no idea how on earth the Death Star could somehow control the force power throughout the entire galaxy and this was never foreshadowed throughout the game that such device was possible.

No matter which choice he choose, Luke Skywalker has to die, all the Hyperdrive stop working which strands the Rebel Alliance fleet over Endor. Each choice results in the Death Star exploding in a red/green/blue colour depending on choice.

After the explosions we see the Millennium Falcon crash land on some planet we never seen before and then Lando, Han Solo, Chewbacca exits the Millenium Falcon implying that Lando picked up Han and Chewbacca from Endor and then ran away from the battle against the Death Star.

Then the credit roll

After that, George Lucas declared it was  a movie that has an ending that was intended to be ambiguous and interpretive and was designed to create speculation for everyone.

Thanks to Doyce Testerman for his Lord Of The Rings adaptation of the Mass Effect 3 ending that inspired this

Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Question of Fan Entitlement and the Sanctity of Artistic Vision

There has been a lot of discussion and controversy about whether the ending of Mass Effect 3 should change or not and although I made my opinion of the ending quite clearly on my previous blog post, this post is not a discussion on the quality of the ending but a discussion on whether changing the ending violates the artistic vision of the creator and is a victory of fan entitlement.

Now I make a declaration that I consider myself an amateur artist who writes music for fun. Due to this perspective as an amateur artist, I’m actually very sympathetic to the idea that you create art as an expression of your own personal vision (or if the work is collaborative the collective vision of the artist involves). Although you hope that other people share your vision and would like your work, in the end you create art to express your personal vision and not the vision of other people expectation has on you. I honestly believe that an artist should have free reign to create whatever art they want and if it different to what other people want and you are willing to accept the responsibilities and consequences that is different to what people want (such as less people would buy your work of art or previous fans would be disillusion by the difference in artistic vision) then so be it. I guess from my personal taste, I always admired the whole story about Bob Dylan going electric whilst the crowds were booing him because he remained true to his artistic vision despite criticism from fans and audience.

The role of the audience is simply to accept or reject the vision of the creator and make a choice on whether to purchase or not purchase the artwork. I don’t believe the artist should be force to have the audience to become part of the creative process.

I recognised that sometimes commercial factor to impact on the artistic vision of the work because everyone must make a living. Nevertheless it is still up to the artist discretion to determine how much commercial and accessible their artwork is and how much artistic vision they want to sacrifice to achieve that (sometimes this means having your artistic vision being filtered by the people funding the development and distribution of your work such as the whole Bioware and EA partnership).

So in my opinion, if Bioware are really proud of the ending and read all the criticism of the ending and still maintain that the ending is still good and are willing to accept the consequences of fan discontent (such as potential lost in future sales and PR damage) and decided to keep the ending as it is then that is their prerogative and that is their right.  They do not have an obligation to change the ending simply because the fans are unhappy. Even though I personally dislike the ending, I would personally admire any artist who remains true to their artistic vision despite massive criticism (even if I question the ability of the artist to evaluate their own work in the process)

This is why I do not support one of the fans complaining to Federal Trade Commission because this is bordering on supporting artistic censorship. Even if there was false advertisement with the ending (which I’m not entirely convince of because the choice do change the ending, it just change the ending in a personally frustratingly small way), I personally believe that playing and messing with expectation of the audience is a legitimate artistic statement and that shouldn’t be censored. I mean I didn't expect Million Dollar Baby to suddenly switch and become a euthanasia movie or Dusk to dawn to turn into a vampire slasher movie out of nowhere and I'm quite sure there are plenty of examples of storytelling where the story suddenly change theme.

If the point of Mass Effect 3 was to bait players that choice matters and then pulling the rug at the end, then I believe that is a legitimate artistic statement even if I personally think it was done poorly. I believe it is the risk that audience take when purchasing any work of art that the work may not match your taste and your expected quality and the artistic work shouldn’t be censored or change because of that.

I also don’t believe that the interactive nature of video games means that the audience are now the creative partner of the game.  This is because each choice made in the game was designed by the artist and not designed by the audience. It’s essentially the artist creating a branched narrative and creating multiple plot point and this has been done before in choose your own adventures books.

However, does this mean that all the people who are unhappy with the ending and support a change in ending are guilty of fan entitlement and are trying to infringe on artistic freedom?

In my personal opinion the answer is no. Although the artists are entitled to release whatever work they want and no one should force them to change the ending. The audience doesn’t have to accept or like whatever work the artist is releasing. I personally believe that the audience of any form of art are entitled to criticise the work of art (as long as the criticism is respectful and constructive) and to reject the vision of the artist especially if they paid money for it.  Some people argued that suggesting the ending to be change to be taking the criticism too far but I disagree because the best kind of criticism isn’t just pointing out the problems of the work but to suggest solutions to the problem. Suggesting that the game would be improved if the ending is change is a legitimate constructive criticism of a work of art and not fan entitlement. Suggesting that if the ending won’t change, you would stop purchasing future products from Bioware shouldn’t be dismiss as whinging because the audience are allowed to vote with their wallets.

Most artist (although not all especially the more egocentric artist) recognise that they aren’t perfect and often during the creative process they will show their work to creative partners, other work colleagues, friends and family etc and ask their opinion on their work of art. They often receive constructive criticism and then the artist will then filter out the criticism that they don’t agree but often take in board criticism and suggestions that they recognise are valid and then make alterations to their work as a result of that.

In my mind, I don’t see this as different to Bioware out of their free will decided to change the ending as a result of reacting to constructive criticism from fans and taking on board suggestion and critique that they believe are valid after reflecting on the criticism. Sure the criticisms are from strangers that they have never met but in my opinion, a valid criticism from a stranger is just as valid as a criticism from a friend or family or work colleague or creative partner.

I believe that people make assumptions that if Bioware change the ending, they would be giving in to fan entitlement but this precludes the possibility that Bioware could sincerely change an ending because they believe the change would improve the game and story after reflecting in all the criticism they received. If you believe that the artist have free reign to do whatever they want with their work then surely it is within the artist right to change their work if they wanted to.

Some people may have a problem of changing the work after it has already been publicly released. After all, my scenario I mention before was about the artist changing their work after reflecting on criticism before the work was released and during the draft stage of production. However, in my mind this shouldn’t be an issue because this happens plenty of times without much criticism (sometimes the content of the change has been criticise and is controversial but not at the concept that the first public release should be the final release)

It’s not uncommon for works of art to be re-released with changes in content. Sometimes the changes is there to reflect the “true” artistic vision and reverse executive meddling changes such as releasing the director’s cut of the film that sometimes have a different ending (such as Blade runner) or for a musician to re-release the album with the correct tracklisting. It could be an art work is re-release to take advantage of modern production technique such as the controversial “special edition” of Star Wars (I know there are debates whether George Lucas has the right to make alteration to the original movie, in my opinion he has the right even if I disagree with all the changes he made) and numerous remastered and remixed and sometimes re-recorded release of earlier work (such as Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells).

Lastly it’s not unprecedented for artist to re-released work with alteration as a reaction to criticism from fans and critics. Highlander 2: The Quickening was re-released in 1995 where the director has changed and removed all reference to the immortals being aliens which was the most controversial aspect of the film. In music, King Crimson re-released In The Court Of Crimson King and cut out 2:30 minutes of the widely criticised song Moonchild and relegated the original version as a “bonus track”. In literature, Sherlock Holmes death was retcon and removed from canon after public complaint. Of course in video games, the ending of Fallout 3 was altered in a DLC. Therefore I don’t see any reason why the story of Mass Effect 3 is sacrosanct and can’t be changed when many other arts have change after public complaint.

In the end I agree with the premise that the artist shouldn’t be enslaved to the wants of the fans of the series and should have artistic freedom to do what they want with the series. However the fans have the right to not accept and like the vision of the artist and should be allowed to suggest a change in ending without being labelled “entitled” in the process.

Whatever choice Bioware makes whether it is to change the ending or keep the ending, it should be respected or at least accepted because it is there work and the final say should rest with them. I personally support the change in ending but if the ending isn’t change, I may well stopped buying Bioware product because their idea on what constitute as good storytelling contradicts with my idea of what is a good resolution to the series but I won’t begrudge them of their choice to stick with their own vision.

If they do choose to change the ending, then I hope they do it out of sincere desire to improve the ending (therefore maintain their artistic vision/integrity) after reflecting on all the criticism they received instead of sense of obligation to “give the fans what they want”. After all, you can pay someone to change the ending but you can't pay someone to care and put their heart and soul into making the ending right.

It has to be done by someone in the writing team who was personally and professionally dissatisfied with the ending made and take this task with the attitude of redeeming the ending. I feel that is the only way it would work.

If they are not willing to put their heart and soul into changing the ending then it may well be better off that the ending remains this way because in my mind the remade ending may well makes things even worst and this may well be the case of being careful of what you wish for because it may come true. After all, if a lot of people are unsatisfied with the current ending, what makes you think that the remade ending would be any better or improvement especially when the writers are remaking the ending not out of passionate pride to improve the ending but doing it only on a sense of obligation?  

If the same people who primarily worked on the original ending and was proud of it then were given the task to change the ending they were proud of (there have been comments from some writers who express that point of view), well the results could be absolutely disastrous because you having writers who clearly gritting their team writing an ending that they don’t care for and have no pride for and it’s going to reflect the quality of the ending the fans receive.  

For all those people who support a change in ending. I believe those people should pull out their charm points (used constructive criticism to appeal to their desire to release an artistically respected work) or your intimidate points (appeal to Bioware self interest about future loss of sales) to try and persuade Bioware to change the ending. However at the same time they should recognise that in the end its Bioware choice and not the fans to whether to change the ending.

Monday, March 19, 2012

My reaction to Mass Effect 3 Ending

Mass Effect 3 has a really controversial ending that has divided the fans with many people feeling outrage and angry by the conclusion. Although I don’t really believe in being outrage over any story no matter how bad it is, I do believe that the ending was pretty poor and I found the moment Shepard return to the citadel to be the moment the series jumped the shark. There seems to be two main interpretations of the ending, the literal interpretation and the “indoctrination” theory. I find both to be problematic for different reasons.

For the literal interpretation where I take what happen on the screen at face value and not try to read anything more to that.

My main problem with the ending

1.    Shepard behaves out of character

Mac Walters – The Lead Writer of the game
“Originally, with the Catalyst, the star child at the end of the game, I had written that much more in the guise of a investigative style conversation, where there is something he tells you, but then you get to ask a bunch of questions and you get your questions answered. But then me and Casey talked and decided, let’s keep the conversation ‘high level’. Give you the details that you need to know, but don’t get into the stuff that you don’t need to know. Like ‘How long have they been reaping?’ You don’t need to know the answers to the Mass Effect universe. So we intentionally left those out.”

The problem with this comment is this go completely goes against Shepard’s character as Shepard potentially (assuming you are the type of person who choose investigative dialogue all the time) is a pretty inquisitive character. It's one thing to want the catalyst to remain a mystery, it's another thing in changing Shepard's character to achieve that.

Let’s remember that Shepard is potentially a pretty opinionated and nosy character that could potentially get into a passionate argument and debates and involves themselves with personal affairs with every major character of the game (including our own allies) but when he/she finally face the villain who was responsible for Shepard fighting against the reapers, he/she could only offer limp criticism of the catalyst and was mostly compliant to the catalyst demands.

When Shepard meets up with the catalyst from the citadel it is revealed that the catalyst was the force that controlled the reapers and the cycle of destruction. Essentially the catalyst was the force that Shepard has been fighting against throughout the entire Mass Effect series and is the primary villain of the entire series.

So how did Shepard react when meeting the real reaper who was responsible for all his/her troubles and responsible for mass genocide?

Well Shepard didn’t show any real outrage with the reaper, took whatever the catalyst says at face value, did not challenge the underlying premise of the mass genocide

Instead of proactively creating a solution out of the situation, Shepard passively “chose” the solution created by the main villain of the entire game and never argued against the catalyst on their basic premise that it is inevitable that synthetics and organic lifeform will fight toward extinction and barely argued with the catalyst on the method to prevent the extinction.

The catalyst reveals itself to Shepard as the innocent boy who died at the beginning of the game as the way to reduce the hostility and pacify Shepard and put an innocent face over the mass genocide. The ending showed that this ruse work completely as Shepard is reduced to this compliant person who refused to even get in an argument with the catalyst.

This incredibly weakens the character of Shepard who regardless of their Paragon/Renegade status is portrayed as a proactive, intelligent, opinionated and strong willed individual. It’s almost as if an outside force is controlling Shepard :).

It got pretty ridiculous when the catalyst revealed that using the crucible would destroy the mass relays which Shepard knows from his/her experience in The Arrival (as well as a codex entry that revealed that most nations refuse to consider that an option in fighting the reapers) that this would wiped out solar systems around the surrounding mass relay. Shepard wasn’t alarm by this and just accepted the catalyst at their word that the crucible would destroy the mass relay without causing any problems.

2.    Restriction of choice

The game normally allows both sides of the argument a fair chance to argue their point of view and therefore allow Shepard to reflect the players personal stance on the issue but in this one occasion did not give the player the choice to argue with the catalyst and therefore suppress a legitimate point of view. It makes perfect sense for Shepard to challenge the idea that organics and synthetic lifeform would eventually fight each other to extinction especially if he/she just brokered the quarian and geth alliance. After all the biggest synthetic/organic conflict was between the quarian and geth but that was a smaller and more contained conflict compared to the rachni war or the krogan rebellion.

This would have given the players to reflect their personalities and their own belief on the issue as well as forced the catalyst to reveal more about their motivations and background story where the catalyst would explain more about their backstory on the creation of the reaper trying to defend its action and by revealing evidence on why they think the conflict is inevitable due to their experience in the lengthy history of the galaxy (therefore more than just Shepard’s lifespan) instead of just having Shepard take their word for it.

We ended up having three endings where none of them challenge the catalyst perspective that organic and synthetic lifeform can’t co-exist. The “destroy” ending wipes out all current synthetic lifeform and hence demonstrates the incompatibility of synthetic and organic beings.

The synthesis ending removes the difference between organic and synthetic lifeform and therefore demonstrate that the synthetic and organic can’t co-exist due to them respecting and tolerating differences between the two type of life-form but can only co-existing by making them be the same (and also achieving the reaper goal of creating organic/synthetic hybrid). This is kind of “solving” racial conflict by having people suddenly with a wave of a hand suddenly becoming one race instead of people learning to tolerate things that are different (in the end people would just find new “differences” to nitpick on). The idea that conflict is due to genetic differences instead of just difference in ideology, outlook and free will seems pretty racist.

The control ending seems to be the most likely ending to challenge the catalyst points of view (although it still involves Shepard enslaving the reapers and removing their free will even if it can be argued morally that the reapers don’t deserve free will due to their mass genocide) but it is still problematic because it involves trusting the Catalyst that Shepard can control the reapers whilst previously establishing that you can’t control the reapers without the reapers controlling you. The control ending just looks like a trap, if the reapers were happy for Shepard to control it and then to do whatever Shepard wants with it such as ordering the reapers ship to stop destroying organic life and probably sending all the ships to the sun to blow themselves up and the catalyst was happy with the conclusion. Why can't the catalyst do it themselves? Why do they need Shepard to sacrifice his/her life to do it?

Although the ending differs in the method used to prevent extinction of organic life, there was no choice challenging the basic premise of the catalyst which really goes against one of the potential theme (depending on whether players pursue this theme) prevailing throughout the game of tolerance and unity.

I’m not saying that everyone has to disagree with the premise of the catalyst, I’m just saying that people who do disagree with the premise of the catalyst felt restricted and frustrated by the ending because they couldn’t get their opinion express.

I think the best way for the game is to allow the players to be more inquisitive which would address the first problem of Shepard behaving out of character and have options for Shepard to refuse to accept the choices laid out by the catalyst. A really good alternative ending is described here where Shepard refused the option by the catalyst and has the fleet fight off against the reapers in conventional warfare. Victory is determined by how much war assets you have.  Therefore all the effort you make throughout the game gathering up resources do matter and play a part in the ending.

3.    Lack of consequences

The main appeal of the series was that the player makes a choice and then sees their consequences of their choices play out in the universe.

At the end, the game stated that Shepard became a legend for stopping the reapers. Unfortunately that was something that was stated and not showed. The idea of being a legend is that your action left a large impact on the universe beyond your own life. I think majority of fans wanted to find out the legacy that Shepard left on the universe. People wanted to see the consequences of all their choices they made throughout the 3 Mass Effect games.

In the end, we have 3 basically identical looking ending with only the difference between them is the colour of the explosion. All the choices you made throughout the game, all the war assets you build up has such a negligible impact to the ending you get. You don’t get to see the aftermath of the decision you made throughout the game.

At the bare minimum, people would have expected  the war assets you gathered throughout the game to play a larger part in the ending. Currently they were almost immaterial to what ending you see and the "refusal" option I mention before would have resolved that solution.

I think a lot of people expected a written epilogue similar to Dragon Age Origins that go through the consequences of the choice would have been great way of knowing the impact Shepard left on the galaxy. Although a few cutscenes showing the impact of Shepard life would have been better appreciation or a narrator summarises the consequences of Shepard’s choice during the credits of the game (ala Alpha Protocol) would have somewhat please the fan.

I believe it would have been great in the scenario where Earth was destroyed but Shepard successfully destroyed the Reapers. We should have a a shot of a future Citadel and a statue of Commander Shepard next to the statue of the Krogan to celebrate their effort in the rachni war and we see the alien community commerating the sacrifice of humanity who are now extinct to save the rest of the galaxy which shows that Shepard actually became a legend

It’s not just the political ramification of the action but the impact of your personal relationship with your fellow crewmembers that were missing as well. The strong point of the series were essentially the relationship and bond that Shepard forms with the crew that makes the player become invested in the character and the story. Most of the ending had Shepard died to save the galaxy. How did your crewmembers respond to losing their friend, leader and some case lovers? Well they walk out of the Normandy smiling (how did they get on the ship anyway?) and that’s about it.

Imagine an ending where Earth was saved we see a memorial on Earth and the surviving members of the Normandy or your love interest speaking out celebrating your life. That would have brought a personal connection to the ending of the story.

Here is an alternate fan ending that added the personal connection to the ending that would have made the ending more emotional.

The current ending felt so disconnected with the choices you make throughout the game and the relationships you develop with the characters.

4.    Nonsensical ending

I would like to say that plot holes aren’t just events where there are breaks in logic and there are no possible explanations to justify why the plot went in that direction. People with sufficient imagination can imagine a solution to every plotholes in existence.

My definition with plot holes is where there are missing information or a break in the continuity of a storyline and could only be explained by the viewers writing the script for the writers.

First we ended up with the mass relay being destroyed. It has been established in Arrival and in the codex entry that when this occurs, it is a major catastrophe and wipes out the remaining solar system. Did Shepard just wipe out millions of people at the end? Maybe the crucible could magically destroy the mass relay without wiping out the remaining solar system but that is the thing that should have been explained in the story. Shepard should have immediately been alarmed when the catalyst mention the destruction of Mass relay and Shepard should have scrutinised the catalyst over that plan.

Even if the relay magically didn’t destroy the solar system we ended up having all the fleet stranded in the Sol system and chances are they don’t have the supplies to make it back to survive and Earth is in no position to support the fleet especially when the Turians and Quarians can’t eat food outside their own system.

We also have a situation where the entirety of the main Normandy crew were on Earth fighting the reaper. Some of the crewmembers were part of Shepard’s push to reach the citadel. Suddenly they are magically aboard the Normandy. So what we got was Joker ended up abandoning the battle with the Reaper’s fleet to go and rescue all the crewmembers (did the Mass Effect universe suddenly invented transporters?) and then run away from the battle with the reapers and escaped the solar system and crash land on another planet. Do we expect Joker to be court martial for cowardice and abandoning the battle?

Even if there is a solution to these problems from people with sufficient imagination, it should have been showed on the screen instead of the viewers doing the job of the writers and making up an explanation for them.

We also have an ending where the adult admit to the kid that the details of the ending was missing and basically admitted that the ending doesn’t make sense. That there are plenty more story about Commander Shepard to be told to explain the gaps in the story as long as you buy the DLC.

5.    Indoctrination theory

Fans have created a theory where the ending was all in Shepard’s mind and was a representation of Shepard resisting indoctrination by the reapers.

Essentially the reapers projected themselves in the image of the boy representing Shepard’s guilt of not saving everyone and trying to convince Shepard that working with the reapers is the only hope of saving humanity.

So when Shepard chose control, shepard becomes indoctrinated by the reapers in the same way as the illusive man. The illusive Man wanted to control the reapers but couldn’t because the reapers controlled him, what makes Shepard so different that he/she was able to control the reapers but the illusive man can’t?

If Shepard chose synthesis, well isn’t that the plan of the reapers is to preserve organic race by harvesting them and converting them into reaper form which is a hybrid of organic and synthetic material. Essentially that would mean that Shepard would be harvest and become a reaper or a husk.

Only with destroy was Shepard able to resist the reaper indoctrination. The catalyst immediately dismissed that option and claim that they would be wiping out the geth and EDI and other synthetic life. Is that just a lie to try to persuade Shepard in not destroying them?

If you have a large enough war assets and chose the destroy ending you see the ending where Shepard actually lives whilst buried in the rubble. This represents that Shepard is still lying in the streets of London and broke the reaper’s attempt of indoctrination over Shepard.

The scary thing about this theory is that it actually fits rather well with the story and explained away most of the problems I have with the ending especially the idea of Shepard being compliant with the catalyst and the plot holes is explained that it was all in Shepard imagination.

It’s actually quite clever if Bioware intended this indoctrination theory to be true. So does this exonerate Bioware for the ending?

The answer is no because that just mean that they release a game that is incomplete and doesn’t have an ending. Shepard is lying in the streets of London dying whilst the reapers are destroying Earth and we don’t have a resolution to the story.

It would have been awesome if this was an indoctrination test as a precursor to the final showdown with the reapers and not the ending itself. So when Shepard chose the control, we see the rest of the squad mate entering the crucible (the whole force being wiped out was just a hallucination) and Shepard plays the role of the illusive man trying to convince the squad mate that control was necessary in preserving the human race and then ended up killing their squad mates. If Shepard chose synthesis then Shepard becomes a reaper or a husk and ended up attacking his/her allies. Only when Shepard chose destroy and pass the indoctrinated test, the game moves forward and we actually get a proper ending.

If Bioware did that, I would have admitted that they were genious but unfortunately what happen was that they release a game that is unfinished that would be resolve only by a DLC which I believe is sending greed in video game development to a next level by having the game real ending release after the game is already been shipped. It's like buying a book without the final chapter.

Separating the ending has no artistic purpose. It would have been a major plot twist and everyone would have thought, wow I got fooled, well played Bioware for tricking us, they are genious or wow, I worked out beforehand I was indoctrinated and chose destroy. Aren't I clever

Well, now the surprise and shock is gone and all sense of drama from that scene is gone because everyone knows the answer if the indoctrination theory becomes canon in future DLC.  The dramatic tension that would have been present in the original game will be gone and fixing it now wouldn't  take away the disapointment and the bad taste left in your mouth after finishing the oriignal game.

I would probably still purchase any future DLC regarding a finished ending but I won't be calling Bioware genius for it.

Final Thoughts

Casey Hudson – Developer of Mass Effect series
““I didn’t want the game to be forgettable,” he said, to which we say, mission accomplished. “[E]ven right down to the sort of polarizing reaction that the ends have had with people -– debating what the endings mean and what’s going to happen next, and what situation are the characters left in. That to me is part of what’s exciting about this story. There has always been a little bit of mystery there and a little bit of interpretation, and it’s a story that people can talk about after the fact.”

Hudson wanted to create an interpretive ending where people can debate what happen in the end. However that would only work if all the key interpretation makes sense. If the literal ending makes as equally sense as the indoctrination theory (similar to the Deckard is a replicant or a human debate) and if there was still closure in the story. In the end we have to choose between an illogical literal interpretation ending and a incomplete indoctrination ending.

This ending seems to me as someone saying it’s so cliché to have a traditional ending where the heroes sacrifice their lives to saves the day and we see everyone celebrating the legacy on the world. After all, this has already done in Dragon Age Origin and I understand the temptations of wanting to do something different because no artist wants to repeat themselves. However, I just felt they did something different without  thinking carefully whether the traditional ending would have suited the material of the game and the character of Shepard.

I believed that Bioware tried to do something creative, different, cerebral and original and had it backfiring in their face. Forgetting that traditional conventional ending exist because it is a tried and true method in getting a satisfying ending. That if you are going to break the convention you better be able to find alternatives and clever ways to provide closure and a personal connection to the ending whilst making the ending open ended and “interpretive” and I feel like Bioware failed at that task.