April 1, 2023

Video Games as the Patchwork Art

Art, to me, is wonderful because it has no rules; when you start to add rules to art, I feel it cripples what you can do. -Jim Sterling

I have spoken before of Bioware’s Mass Effect 1 & 2 in generally high esteem. In addition to having well balanced, evolving gameplay, it featured Bioware’s usual manner of outstanding writing with the second game ending in such a way that everyone was left begging for a conclusion to the trilogy. Though when Mass Effect 3 hit shelves, talk of the game as a whole was very little; the talk of the town was the game’s ending. I have yet to buy Mass Effect 3 for myself but I do own the first two, and say that an ending to games like these is ‘disappointing’ means there was something very wrong indeed going on.

Retake Mass Effect
The 'Retake Mass Effect' movement's masthead calling fans to 'fight for the endings they deserve.'

Anti-Bioware movements began popping up ranging from people complaining on game forums to full-on boycotts. Among the constant shouting of angry fans, the subject of a ‘patched’ ending has come up more than once. It has become a common practice in the industry to fix games after their releases with patches made through the console’s connection to the internet. Bethesda’s Skyrim is infamous for its sheer number of bugs upon launch date, and within four months of hitting the shelves, it was patched more than even Bethesda’s Fallout 3. It is unfortunate for the player that patches are necessary and that games are sometimes unplayable upon launch, but that’s more of an error on the developer’s part.

The proposed patch to Mass Effect 3 would change the game’s ending scene to something the fans took greater liking to. While this, in theory, sounds like a decent idea, the issue has split the malcontents into two parties: those who are in favour of the patch on the grounds that it will drastically improve the game as a whole, and then those who are against it on the grounds that tampering with the game in this manner is defiling it as a work of art. While I see eye to eye with both sides, the sheer attitude of the latter is too crass to agree with: games are ‘tampered with’ all the time; being a technological art, the essence of games as a medium entails taking advantage of new technologies just as artists before us took advantage of new techniques. Being able to make something better after it is evaluated should be seen as a huge advantage of our medium in that while films may see a director’s cut or songs may be remixed or remastered, the slightest errors in a game can be digitally corrected with greater ease, and this is a tool to embrace, not to push away or shun.

Writers had ought to be jealous of this, I’d say; I certainly regret jumping the gun and giving The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim much more credit than it deserved, and in retrospect I’d enjoy being able to go back and say ‘you know what? upon reproach…’ If I say now that Skyrim is rather awful, I’m not ‘diminishing’ my view of it; I am using perspective I have gained over the past few months to enhance and refine it, and that is the beauty of art today: it can grow and change just like a living being.

As technology grows and develops in our time, we are starting to see a lot of new frontiers breached: mineral mining in space, glasses that can augment reality itself, and even entertainment that now adjusts to the audience’s feedback. These kinds of things can’t be taken for granted, and we certainly cannot try to throw them away. It doesn’t mean art is no longer ‘sacred’, it means art has improved.

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