A galactic ruleset under siege: the Mass Effect 3 controversy (rules of the text 5)

Two weeks have passed since the CEO of BioWare attempted to quiet the fans of Mass Effect with an announcement that the Mass Effect 3 development team would be working on a modification to the game’s ending. The announcement was gracious, and whether because internet rage tends to die down more quickly than anyone expects or because Dr. Muzyka’s announcement actually did mollify them slightly, the fans appear at least to have paused in their enormities, perhaps with the intent of seeing what will come of it, pitchforks still ready to hand.

Today BioWare announced that a free downloadable content pack will, this summer, provide new cinematics to add closure. Will the ending really change (what does “really” mean? What does “change” mean?)? We’ll have to wait and see.

But the practomimetic path that led us here has already produced an astonishing amount of new cultural material to analyze, in the ending itself, in players’ reactions to it, in the action they took as a result of those reactions, and most of all, I think, in the beginning of BioWare’s response to that action. All those things, from my perspective, have to do with exactly what I’m talking about in this series, because they show how much broader our ideas of what rulesets and mechanics are need to be than they have been to this point.

Just as I’m arguing here that we can see the text of GRR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire as a ruleset and as a performance within an existing ruleset, I think it can be very helpful to see that Mass Effect has mechanics that lie outside its combat-system, its dialogue-system, and the other parts of what we think of as the game, coded but also, as we see assuming increasing important, malleable by the game’s designers. These mechanics are not coded, but they control the relation of player-input to game-state nonetheless, when we see that the game-state is much more than what’s happening in what appears to us to be the gamespace.

In a wonderfully perspicacious article that appeared Tuesday, Rowan Kaiser lays out a case that those of us with an eye to the past, and to other narrative discourses, have been waiting for: BioWare’s plans to modify the ending of Mass Effect 3 are no more or less a violation of artistic integrity than changes made to the film 28 Days Later, or to Great Expectations, and the fans of Mass Effect 3 feel no more entitled than fans of things throughout history to exert their influence to re-shape a beloved work of narrative art.

Rowan’s examples make my point about texts and rulesets very forcefully: fans of all the works he cites were players of those works as rulesets, and engaged in those rulesets on the same basis players of Mass Effect engage with BioWare’s game. Within the choice-creating constraints of the mechanics enacted by these rulesets, players of Great Expectations (readers), of the Iliad (bards), of A Song of Ice and Fire (readers, again–including Roy Dotrice as the reader of the audiobook), of Mass Effect, all perform in such a way that the works they perform are legible only in their performance, to them and to others.

It is entirely unsurprising, then, that they should feel they have a claim upon these rulesets, whether textual or digital-interactive, because without their performances those rulesets could never take cultural effect, in their lives or within their communities.

But to my mind the way discussion of the Mass Effect 3 controversy has focused on issues of authorship is terribly limiting, and Rowan does a great job of putting paid to that part of the conversation. A guy like me who is steeped in cultural forms much older than the ones Rowan cites is perhaps even more inclined to say that authorship is always a kind of polite fiction and, in the case of attempts like mine, to connect games to culture heritage, indeed a pernicious fiction.

Thank goodness we don’t have to do that debate in this post, though, because I think we can get beyond that part of the conversation and into what really makes the Mass Effect 3 controversy if not different from older such controversies than at least interesting in a new way: the way the ruleset and mechanics of the Mass Effect series have themselves figured into the controversy. This isn’t the equivalent of reader outcry at Dickens ending Great Expectations sadly; this is the equivalent of Dickens allowing readers to choose Pip’s actions after every number of All the Year Round and then ending the story without consulting them.

It’s not about authorship, that is: it’s about rulesets, and the choices they allow. What we have in the Mass Effect controversy is an unprecedented chance to delineate the difference between various kinds of practomimetic rulesets–the chance to ask more interesting questions. How is the fan-participation in this discourse different from that in Rowan’s other examples? Even more interestingly: How does that participation relate to fans’ feelings about the choices they made in the three Mass Effect games?

Even more interestingly for me, but perhaps not for everyone: How does that participation begin to re-awaken the kind of fan-participation we see in Odysseus’ relationship to Demodocus, or the bards’ relation to the Choice of Achilles?

If, as Victoria Szabo has suggested, this thing we sometimes wince at calling “digital humanities” is the application of digital methods to the traditional objects of humanistic study, in the Mass Effect 3 controversy we have a tremendous and unexpected chance to do digital humanities. We can use digital game-culture to study the discourses with which humanists are more familiar–as long as we remember the rules of the text. In my next post I want to try to do just that, by beginning to expand my reading of player-performances (including fan-outrage) as expressions of the Mass Effect ruleset with regard to what I regard as the two distinctive features of that ruleset: multiculturalism and irrevocability.


  1. Games as mechanics? Series as spaces? And, to throw another question in there too, which decisions matter (or do they ever)?

    My perspective of this, as someone who has not played Mass Effect 3 and probably will not get a chance until after this DLC comes out, is one of frustration. Assuming this patch is not forced on me, I have to choose which version of the game is canon (if that can be said to exist at all given all the other choices). Is it the first one or the one that came after people complained?

    Of course, added to that is my current knowledge of the ending(s). Which is also the problem too. If, by knowing that many people are dissatisfied with the ending, does that change the experience for me? Is, before I can even play it, the possibility space skewed for me?

    If, as you hint at, the series is presenting a unified theme of “your path matters” and then, as this kerfuffle illustrates, breaks that contract by tying the player to certain tracks, make it less of a space (as series) or a greater one by, when players return for multiply playthroughs, they attempt to solve this problem? That is, in knowing that an ending is coming, it changes how they shape their performance up to that point on return paths. More than mastery, but in perfecting what *they* want too.

    What happens, I guess I am saying, to performances both before and after the ruleset (in both mechanics and story) changes? Which one, if any, is more valid, the player composite narrative or the author changed options? What happens, as I have read in several places, if a certain reading is only accessible via a perspective that is locked in DLC?

    1. Author

      Great questions, but for me all answerable by saying: “Let go of validity in your now-antiquated modern sense.” 😀

      1. Okay, so, I am going to put away frustration at not being able to Mass Effect 3 for this comment and concentrate on this subject instead.

        If we view both the author and the user as capable of configuring the work in separate acts, if they are both in their own ways using performances from rulesets to create, from a set of inputs to a different set of outputs, viable rulesets as a result, are they confined by the overall fiction? That is, can viable practomimes be said to be constrained by the ruleset used in the creation?

        What, given that assumption, does that mean for this situation for Mass Effect 3? If all performances are important, does that mean that the players /should/ expect that, given the contract as part of the overall space, they can always see the work support their interpretation of events?

        It would seem to be the case, if the choices can be viewed as picking one path over another, that the chain of decisions that represent the composite practomime is dictated by those known from the ruleset from which it was created. In other words, when more choices (or information) is added, does that change the ruleset in a significantly way? And, in turn, does that ruleset change future performances from that ruleset?

        In looking across media using the contract of metaphors that a franchise presents, what happens if it conflicts with itself? Is that information invalid or just part of those who see, read or experience it? What happens, and this is what I am interested in currently, if limited knowledge of the metaphors are used in performances?

      2. Author

        I think what happens is that you get a wonderful multiplicity of variegated performances and the rulesets thereby elaborated. Mass Effect becomes an infinitely variable possibility-space, kind of like the organic life of its players. Does it change the ruleset in a significant way? If by “significant” we mean, “having meaning,” then for the performer the answer is of course “Yes,” but the answer for others could be “No” or “Kind of” depending on the way their own performances take shape. That’s why I think BioWare’s response to the controversy has been so interesting: it says publicly that players’ performances have a crucial role in making Mass Effect legible. In the process, the notion of “canon” (which I think is usually a pernicious one anyway, in most of its manifestations) takes a major hit. Good.

  2. One might add to the list of questions what effect the online play has on the ruleset of ME3. No longer an ancillary feature of the game (buy and RPG, get a 3d shooter for free!), the ME3 devs built multiplayer play into the storyline (you can’t get the “best” endings unless you play multiplayer missions). This gets me thinking of the self-sponsored ruleset making that goes on when players negotiate roles and responsibilities in cooperative play.

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