Thoughts on the Post-Release World

Why do we fear change in our art? Is it a natural opposition to change? Do we recoil at the (somewhat) new notion that something may be improved after release? Or do we enjoy the security of a static work, so that our opinions and thoughts are never forced to grow, or change?

Today, Mass Effect: Andromeda is a different game than it was just a few weeks ago. Or is it? In response to (justified) criticism, Bioware altered several narrative and mechanic aspects of the game. Despite a decade+ of precedent for post-release support, this has ruffled some feathers.

The Takin' King

Mr. Kuchera is correct, in that we do need to have a conversation about our post-release world, but I’d rather that conversation didn’t mire itself in flailing rhetoric. Post-launch support is not new, and it is not going away. We need to expand and refine our qualifications of this phenomenon, not fight it.

Which brings us to:

Reviews

I can understand anxieties about the usefulness of reviews when a product/work can seemingly change at the drop of a hat. Games writing is hard enough to get into (hence, this blog), and the apparent obsoletion of an entire genre of criticism is, well, fucking terrifying. And so our conception of “reviews” must change to accommodate the post-release world.

The case for the consumer review is becoming increasingly flimsy. It seeks to objectify opinion and artistic merit; it craves a static work – its validity depends on one. It rejects the notion of post-launch support. Tell me, who wins that battle? An archaic approach to criticism, or an evolving trend driven by a billion-dollar industry?

I suppose there are a few solutions. We could simply update reviews to reflect changes – which is clunky, retains the consumer review format, and is poor for garnering those sweet sweet clicks – or, maybe, we should write reviews that actually reflect the emotional core of a work.

Mass Effect: Andromeda will be a somewhat different game in a few months’ time. And in that future, I am confident my review will still accurately reflect the experience of play. No amount of post-release fiddling will change the fact that Andromeda is poorly executed at almost every level. Not every game will be a FFIV or Rainbow Six: Siege. Sometimes, a work of art is just fucked.

But, hopefully, it will become slightly less fucked.

Improvement v. Completion

This piece is not a response to Mr. Kuchera, but, God help me, I have to talk about one specific bit that’s gotten stuck in my craw.

Mass Effect: Andromeda is decidedly not an unfinished game. Absolutely not. I played over 50 hours of that game (and liked maybe 4) and I can tell you that the Mass Effect: Andromeda we got was a complete work. To say otherwise is a reckless use of the press platform. The rabid mob of consumers who hurl terms like “unfinished” at works they don’t like does not need to be either riled or validated. They certainly don’t need more in their numbers. Games do not magically become unfinished when a company responds to legitimate criticism with fixes and tweaks.[1]

[Having since posted this piece, I have edited it a few times. Does that mean it was unfinished? No. It just needed some improvements]

Improvement does not suggest a lack of completion. It is not some sinister ploy by EA to palm your cash. It is not something to be pushed against. It is, however, something to be examined and criticized.

Thinking Critically on Patchwork

There is a character in Andromeda named Hainly Abrams. She is a trans woman. I know this, because – in the very first conversation you have with her, ever – she reveals this to you in a speech that includes (but is not limited to) her deadname.

In response, a million voices (on twitter) cried out. Rightfully so! And Bioware, bucking the trend of gaming figures digging their heels into their fuckups, conceded that they had failed to execute on their attempt at inclusivity. Similarly, they also accepted criticism of the lack of gay romance options.

There is something different to a narrative patch than a mechanical one. Okay, that gun doesn’t shoot as good anymore is different from a character’s continuity. Does Hainly’s clunky self-outing still exist? It may no longer be in the game, but it was in the game. It is an indelible mark on my understanding of that character – as well as her conception.

So what do we do here? Do we treat the upcoming improvements as holy writ in our critical consumption of the game? Surely, we don’t forget what she was? We must keep that critique alive, so that Bioware doesn’t make the same mistake twice. But then, are we not impressing that upon newcomers to the game? LGBTQ+ people already have to put so much effort into carving out even the tiniest space in the art we consume. We have to work to enjoy a Thing. What if some young trans woman boots up a copy in 5 years, and is thrilled to find someone like her in a video game, only to have her enjoyment tarnished by the weight of the past?

Truly, the correct answer to these questions is that they should have written her well in the first place.

But what do we do about a less complicated issue? Not every future narrative change will be a Hainly, or a Ladykiller in a Bind. What if, say, Bioware were to pull a Kanye West and “fix” something no one realized was broken? Continuity, truly, is a monster. Perhaps all we can do is reflect on the old, and grow comfortable with the fact that, sometimes, things change. Maybe it means that we must seek enjoyment and critical consensus in something broader than individual moments – fun though they may be. I wonder, too, if this will change the way devs approach the craft of game narrative. If any pieces of dialogue can be tweaked or changed, then the broad structural skeleton upon which they hang must be sturdy.

This is all to say, despite the fact that we’ve inhabited a post-release world for over a decade now, I still have no idea what the fuck is going on. Maybe it’s time we started to engage a little deeper with it.

[1] There is a case to be made that some games make it to shelves unfinished (I’m still actually mad about Skyrim on the PS3, which was in an inexcusable state upon release), but Andromeda is simply not one of those games. I can see it now – an executive, in the offices of Bioware. He sips on a brandy and says, “Ship it boys, this one’s a Mass Effect!

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