Experienced Points

Experienced Points
The Story Doesn't Matter

Shamus Young | 30 Mar 2012 17:00
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Someone recently asked me why the fan reaction to the Mass Effect 3 ending was so intense, while journalists seemed to barely notice it. The ending is all the fans are talking about, yet it hasn't really been mentioned in reviews. People are saying it "ruined" the game (or even the series) and yet the bad ending didn't seem to have any impact on review scores. What's the deal?

To answer this question, we need to talk about how games are reviewed.

Disclaimer: I am not a journalist. I am a pundit. I don't write news stories. I don't generally write "game reviews" in the sense of giving consumer advice, and I've never given a single review score to anything, ever. I'm actually a programmer and author by trade, and the only relationship I have with the hard journalism side of games coverage is that I'm friends with some journalists and I think they're great people.

First some stuff you probably already know: Journalists don't actually sit around all day playing videogames. It depends on the outfit in question, but a "game reviewer" can have a lot of duties that extend beyond the stuff you read. Some of these are not terribly glamorous, but they need to be done if you're trying to run a business. Reviewers also don't get a lot of time to play games. The review copy shows up shortly before launch, and they need to have their review up as close to launch as possible if they want to keep their site relevant.

It takes time to play through a game. It takes time to distill a ten-hour (or even thirty-hour!) experience into a 2,000 word article. If we're talking video reviews (and everyone is doing video reviews these days) then you need even more time to record the audio, capture some game footage, make some titles, and edit it all together.

The upshot is that there just isn't room for in-depth analysis of a game. When I first beat Mass Effect 3, I was simply disappointed by the ending and the lack of closure. It wasn't until I thought about it the next day that I started noticing all the logic holes. It wasn't until the day after that that I realized just how much the ending conflicted with existing lore. Even after that I was still thinking, "Well, the ending I chose was bad, but maybe the other two options are better." (Ha!) It wasn't until I turned to YouTube and watched all of the endings before I realized what a mess the whole thing was. If I'd been playing on a deadline pre-launch, that additional analysis wouldn't have made it into the review.

Story analysis takes time. You have to be caught up on your lore. You need time to reflect. This is especially true of a BioWare game, where you might need to play through the game more than once to get an understanding of how much your choices mattered. (Or if they didn't.)

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