Monday, March 26, 2012

Artistic Integrity

So the news is that Bioware is looking at revisiting the ending of Mass Effect 3. A lot of people decry this as a lacking "artistic integrity".

Judging by the posts I've read, most of these people haven't actually played through the ending of the ME3. Seriously, read this PC Gamer article featuring other game writers, and tell me how many of them have actually beaten the game in question. Heck, most of them are too busy shilling their own game in their answer. So much for their vaunted artistic integrity.

In any case, there are two points I'd like to make about artistic integrity.

Artists Make Mistakes

Artists are human beings just like the rest of us. That means that they too can make mistakes, even when it comes to their own art. Their choices are not always the best choices. Sometimes, the artist can go back and fix those mistakes. Or, in the case of George Lucas, make new mistakes.

My favorite movie is Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. But the version I adore is not the same version as the one released in movie theaters. It is significantly changed. In fact, Ridley Scott has continued to tinker with the film. He has been fixing his mistakes.

Most mediums don't really allow the artist to easily fix their work. Plays and theater do, and playwrights have often adapted their works after initial runs. Sometimes movies can when new editions are released to take advantage of new mediums. I've read novels where the writer returns to her work (often the first book published) ten or twenty years later and updates it, editing it better, adding a couple scenes, and generally cleaning up and polishing.

Computer games are a medium where it is easy to make changes, to fix mistakes. None of us would blink an eye at a patch that fixed a mechanical imbalance. Why is fixing a story mistake so far beyond the pale?


There is an old story about Winston Churchill and a socialite:

Churchill: "Madam, would you sleep with me for five million pounds?"
Socialite: "My goodness, Mr. Churchill... Well, I suppose... we would have to discuss terms, of course... "
Churchill: "Would you sleep with me for five pounds?"
Socialite: "Mr. Churchill, what kind of woman do you think I am?!"
Churchill: "Madam, we've already established that. Now we are haggling about the price” 
Mass Effect 3 had such crass marketing ploys as Day-One DLC and a pop up during the ending urging the player to purchase more DLC. Those sorts of stunts already establish exactly what sort of company Bioware is.  And it is not exactly one brimming with artistic integrity.

A company cannot indulge in things like Day-One DLC and expect the audience to take claims of "artistic integrity" seriously. We already know that you're for sale, and we're just haggling about the price.


I regard the ending of Mass Effect 3 as a mistake. Unlike a lot of other artists, the medium Bioware works in offers them the chance to fix that mistake, to improve the work of art. As well, by choosing to indulge in marketing shenanigans, Bioware has already compromised its claims of integrity, and those claims are not likely to be taken seriously by the audience.

From either side, I find the excuse of "artistic integrity" to avoid changes to be very weak. But if Bioware honestly believes that their ending is the best possible ending, that on reflection it was not a mistake, then they should stand by that ending. That choice has consequences, as the audience is free to disagree, and re-evaluate the quality and skill of the artist and the work.

Note: The comment thread may contain spoilers for Mass Effect 3.


  1. "Note: The comment thread may contain spoilers for Mass Effect 3."
    So I should comment first! :D

    I think you need to distinguish between artistic integrity and revisiting something you created. Many artist will revisit their work; writers and poets are especially prone to that, some will tinker with a piece for decades. That doesn't go against the spirit of integrity, though, I think. What does go against it is changing your work despite knowing better, due to outside pressure.

    So you could look at the ME3 ending in both ways: from one point of view, Bioware sold out to cave in to pressure, tarnishing their work. Form the other, they realized they could do better and started rewriting.

  2. For every Ridley Scott, there's George "Han Didn't Shoot First" Lucas.

    Since I don't play the ME series, I can't comment. But still, you never know what you'll get from a revised version of something.

  3. So, would you rather then that the game company, after having submitted their product for a certification and testing process that can take months, simply sit around and do nothing until the game is released? This is "artistic integrity"?

  4. Wonderful post. I mostly agree with it, although I would mention that one thing is to change your work due to your own awareness of its flaws (or somebody else's criticism, if acquiesced, like Eliot's correction of The Wasteland following Pound's suggestions); and another thing is to submit to another's will and adapt your work to their expectations.

    What we need from Bioware is an artistic statement declaring that they acknowledge the flaws in their narrative, as pointed out by their fans, which is not the case to date. In fact, most of their announcements bespeak of unwilling submission to the fans' pressure, accepting that *some* people want some more answers. They are holding on to what they did, and did wrong, as most players have agreed, instead of taking responsibility and act with said artistic integrity, acknowledging their mistakes, their humaneness.

  5. I just finished playing through ME3 over the weekend and while the 3 possible endings might not have been as satisfying to me, They were consistent with the content up to that point.

    Except for the part where the normandy was running away from the battle, there's not really a logical point where that could have happened. Its possible that while your character was running up to the beam the others on your team retreated and got picked up by the normandy, heck you overhear someone calling for a retreat.

    But my disconnect comes in when they're flipping from that to outrunning the explosion. up till then they're supposed to be defending the crucible from the reapers, so why running?

  6. Personally, I dislike Ridley Scott's changes to Blade Runner. I was very disappointed when I saw it on VHS, and again when the DVD didn't include the theatrical release. (At least when SciFi broadcast it some years ago in widescreen, it was the theatrical release they showed... I assume because the director's cut is only in 4:3 ratio.)

    The reason is that Ford's narration in the theatrical version greatly enhances the noir atmosphere of the film. I'm interested in your reasons for preferring the Director's Cut version.

  7. Artistic Integrity's a misnomer.

    I would contend to those who think Bioware shouldn't go back and fix the ending, and let's be honest, it was a turd of an ending, that Charles Dickens often when back and had to revise some of his works. So, video games are not a special medium for this to happen in.

    I certainly hope they get the hint and write an ending that people can stomach as opposed to us having to endure Casey Hudson's ego when he tried to be Stanley Kubrick and he ended up looking like M. Knight Shamalan!

  8. Also, does it/should it matter if you know how the work got to be that way? E.g. knowing that Ridley Scott was forced to add the narrations at the studios' request, or the speculation that Bioware ran out of time to do the ending properly (perhaps due to publisher pressure).

  9. @Anon, I don't think "how" the mistake was made really matters. Sometimes it comes from external pressure, sometimes it comes from not knowing any better. Sometimes it's an unconscious influence. Sometimes it's a matter of execution not living up to what was in the mind. And sometimes it's just going off on the wrong tangent, being too close to the work.

    What matters is recognizing the mistake, trying to fix it, and avoiding similar mistakes in the future.

    For example, if the ME3 ending was the result of time pressure, then Bioware needs to start work on the ending earlier. Maybe the ending should be the very first element completed. Or maybe they need to negotiate a Blizzard-style "when it's done, it's done" with EA.

  10. I know the studio insisted on the voiceover, it doesn't really change my opinion that it make's Deckert more of a Bogart-style noir PI/cop. I guess studio execs can't be wrong ALL the time, rarely they could be right, albeit for the wrong reasons. I don't think Ridley Scott's director's cut is BAD, mind you... just that the original release was unexpectedly improved by studio changes. I would like to hear reasons why someone prefers the director's cut... generally, everyone I've asked had never seen the theatrical release, only the director's.

    Right now I assume that Scott had such an ego that he refused to believe studio execs could come up with an improvement, so he yanked the voiceover when he could. Or maybe he just missed the good effect from being too focused on the (presumably) idiotic reasons the studio gave him for why they wanted it.

    Regardless, I was disappointed when I first saw the director's cut on VHS, I really missed the voiceover. The lack diminished the film for me.

  11. @Indy, it's been a long time since I saw the theatrical release (and I still haven't seen the Final Cut version). The theatrical release isn't a bad movie, iirc. But the Director's Cut is a quieter, sparser, more visual movie. It has relatively little dialog, and that seems to make what dialog it does have more important. Plus, I think the Director's Cut ending fits the movie a little bit better.

    You make the point that it makes the movie more of noir-style, and that's true. But I think the film works better when it is less of noir-style.

    It has been a while since I've seen either version though. Maybe I'll take some time to watch both versions, and the new version that came out a couple years ago.

  12. On the endings, I think Bioware made the mistake of leaving the ending until last and didn't have time to make all the versions. So they went with an 'artsy' style ending designed to pander to Big Name Critics (tm). :sigh: They forgot to use the standard literary technique of making the ending *first* (or endings, in this case) and developing the earlier game to match up correctly with the various endings.


    As far as artistic integrity goes, I alway think of David. Michelangelo's David to be exact. I don't think anyone would argue that the man or his work lacked integrity. Michelangelo, for _hire_, took over and completed the Guild of Wool's 40 year old unfinished project. He gave them what was asked for, what was promised, David, and not something else. If one of the world's great artists can give the customer what they ask for, then Bioware has no leg to stand on when it comes to tossing around the term "artistic integrity".


  13. Yeah, cool Winston Churchill story. It's probably not true, but that doesn't make it any less fucked up or demeaning to women. Also, calling Bioware "whores" is probably a really good way to make a point.