Mass Effect 3 and the Art of Criticism (or why Colin Moriarty might be in the wrong profession)

by drayfish, last updated 20 Jul 2012 02:50

One of the few upsides of the whole Mass Effect 3 ending controversy has been that it has offered a unique opportunity to explore the nature of videogames as an art form, and to examine the manner in which they are received by their audience. However, in many ways it is the response that has been reflected in the multiform hydra of the gaming media that has been particularly extraordinary – if at times rather alarming. The unsettling part of this arises because – even if one puts aside the proliferation of painfully reductive terminology like 'Entitled', 'Retake', 'Whiners', 'Artistic Integrity', those who 'get it', 'Vocal Minorities', 'Pro-' and 'Anti-Enders' – the mass media has delivered some mystifyingly antagonistic responses to the negative fan feedback, and exhibited disappointingly out-dated thinking about 'Art', applying anachronistic definitions to the videogame form as though they were still applicable.

…And yes, it's at this point that reference Colin Moriarty.

Now, I freely admit that until very recently I had no idea who Colin Moriarty was, although I have come to learn that he is an editor of IGN Playstation. Having been involved in an extremely lively discussion about the Mass Effect endings on the Bioware forum I was introduced to him by another poster (the delightful KitaSaturnyne), who provided a link to an interview with the man. My first impression, it must be said, was a little underwhelming. Not negative in any way, just odd. I watched him speak and had the curious sensation of not being able to follow his reasoning in the slightest, so in my confusion I carried on to find another of his videos to help get some context. In the second clip (which chronologically came first) he was far more forthright, railing against the temerity of fans who were unsatisfied with the endings delivered. And this diatribe made me rather more perturbed…1

Now, to be honest, I don't know the context: Moriarty's comments may be a heated reaction to some specific 'Retake Mass Effect' action that particularly riled him up; it might just be his tired shtick; or have some larger motivating undercurrents of which I am not aware (frankly he at times sounded so agitated it was like somebody had kidnapped his pet for ransom), but I have to admit that I found his comments very… strange. Strange to the point where I literally struggled to comprehend what he was even trying to communicate (therefore I freely admit my summations of his thoughts may be slightly misrepresentative).

His premise seemed to be (particularly in the quick-cut rap-video inspired 'opinion' piece he took considerable effort to produce) that as a reviewer and editor, he has the capacity to speak to the quality of a game, but that the audience's response lies solely in the choice at the point of purchase. One either buys or does not buy the product in order to express their engagement with the text. It is Art; you are you. You can buy the Art or not buy it, but that is all. Move along.

He seemed to go on to say – overall supporting the ending – that although he felt there were elements of the work that also left him unsatisfied, he was adamantly against the idea that the creators should go back in to correct, expand or clarify anything. My guess (and I think I'm meeting his verbal spit-take more than half way) is that he felt altering the ending in any way immediately betrayed the inviolable artistic sanctity of the text. He even declared himself 'disappointed' with Bioware for 'caving' to fan pressure and selling out their vision.

Moriarty's position seems particularly untenable however, since it was the creators of the work themselves (whether prompted or not) who declared that they would like to better elucidate their text – presumably to help audience members (I must say, like myself) who felt the ending was wholly jarring and inconsistent. And surely that validates rather than undermines the artist's prerogative? In theory at least, Bioware is ensuring that they articulate their intended message to their audience in the most accurate manner possible, conceding that (at best) the execution was flawed, and that widespread misinterpretation was not part of their vision.

In any case, it will be impossible to know what the results are until after the Extended Cut is released, but Moriarty's comments seemed ironically reactionary and protective of the text in precisely the manner that he accused disappointed fans being. He similarly even shamed the creators themselves for failing his expectations. …Although I'm fairly certain the hypocrisy completely escaped him.

Ultimately what I find really sad is that, despite being on the forefront of its expression, he seems to have fundamentally misunderstood the exciting medium with which he gets to work. Videogames are far more stimulating and revolutionary than he apparently thinks they are, because, much as people like Moriarty might try to employ them, the traditional definitions of the artist/audience relationship no longer apply here.

We operate in some nebulous spaces in the videogame world, with the lines between on-disc content, non-core DLC, advertising and critique, editorial and opinion, pre-ordering, previews, demos, add-ons and patches, all blurring dramatically. What constitutes a game itself mutates as we go along, and for Moriarty to presume some sanctimonious perspective upon what a game is, who precisely is the auteur of the enterprise, where the lines between text and audience can be drawn, and then declare that the player must simply shut up and accept what they are told, seems laughably presumptuous.

Indeed, his perspective seems mired in insular, conventional thinking that is woefully outdated. Film, literature, music, and the visual arts might be forms of expression that are largely unidirectional in their communication: artist produces; audience receives. But that's no longer the paradigm for videogames. Players do not simply consume, they react. They adapt to the stimuli with which they are presented. The act of pressing a button to manipulate the text is symbolic of an exciting transgression of form that blows all previous rules of engagement away.

In its simplest iteration: you see a turtle coming at you and you jump on it (then you use its emptied shell as some sick trophy-weapon to slingshot at its friends to massacre them too; really, how is this mass-murdering plumber allowed to walk free?) But on the larger scale: we interact with characters and engage in scripted scenarios; we walk around inside these artfully design spaces and evolve their narratives with our choices. The traditional divisions between text and audience are therefore inextricably blurred in videogames, and this is all the more evident when we see a text like Mass Effect that so openly seeks to dissolve this demarcation; indeed, developer catch-phrases like 'there is no canon' are specifically designed to only strengthen such investment, to engender interplay and ownership over the property.

For a 'journalist' in the games media to arbitrarily deny such debate, to close it down with a cantankerous screed against audience dissatisfaction, seems alarmingly ill-informed. He's like some crazed museum curator, standing at the entry on a box shouting at the visitors: 'Don't look at the paintings! Don't think about the paintings! Just move along to the gift shop and buy some postcards!'

We stand on the precipice of a whole new acknowledgement and redefinition of this artistic medium, and, for better or worse, Mass Effect and this whole ending saga is at the forefront of that debate. Perhaps something profound can come from this tumultuous time in spite of the often needless animosity, but it won't arrive if the general consensus is that we should apply old thinking to new media, and yell at anyone who disagrees.

But I have faith, because – at the risk of sounding far too gooey – my sole comfort throughout this disappointing period has been the voices of debate, analysis and critique that I have found in the very fans (amongst which I number myself) who have often been needlessly maligned or categorised as whiners, people invested enough to be dissatisfied with an inconclusive artwork, who still care enough to long for something more. Ultimately, were it not for this collection of vibrant, multifaceted voices, and the cathartic sharing and discussion that they have provided, I know I would not have been able to do anything with my disappointment besides ulcerate in fury.

If nothing else, this whole mess has proved that there are places to go for intelligent, reasoned, considerate discussion on the videogame medium as a valid art form (Indeed, I have found my own wonderful alcove of conversation). Apparently it just might not be anywhere around Colin Moriarty.

And for that I am extremely grateful.

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