“The fans are all upset. They’re always going to be upset. Why did he do it like this? And why didn’t he do it like this? They write their own movie, and then, if you don’t do their movie, they get upset about it.”–George Lucas
I was thinking a bit more about the Mass Effect 3 ending. I may do a post later on with my thoughts on it specifically, but while I was thinking about it, the idea occurred to me that it was so disappointing because it was so anticipated. Fans had years to think about how the Mass Effect series would end; and so whatever happened would likely disappoint them. It is an intrinsically bad ending, don’t get me wrong, but its badness was amplified by how much everyone had been thinking about it.
The same thing happened, for me anyway, with the Harry Potter series. A big plot point, discussed by fans and even used in the advance marketing of the last book was “is Snape good or evil”? Everybody had two years to think about this question, and we all knew what was going to happen. Even if you bet on the wrong outcome, chances were you’d heard alternate theories that turned out to be correct. It may have made it sell better to promote the debate, but it weakened the book’s dramatic power.
It’s hard to surprise your audience with twists when you are telling a story with long intervals between each installment. The only way out is to not leave clues to what’s coming, but then the endings or plot twists will feel unsatisfying; like they just came out of nowhere. The best plot resolutions have to have been logically set up beforehand.
Sometimes a writer can stumble on some good twist in the middle of a series. For instance, few people see the famous twist in The Empire Strikes Back coming, unless someone has spoiled them on it. I’ve heard that this is because George Lucas only decided to do it after A New Hope was released, so he hadn’t left enough clues to give it away before hand, but was able to satisfactorily retrofit his twist on to the second film with the vague setup given in the first. But he was very lucky.
Lucas also didn’t have the internet to contend with. If he had, some random fan probably would have accurately guessed the ending by pure chance while speculating on some forum. I see this as the inevitable fate of the Half-Life video game series: if they ever do release Half-Life 3, there is no way someone won’t have already guessed what the deal is with the G-Man and posted a huge essay about their theories to be discussed on some forum.
There’s no question that internet fandom has intensified this problem; for it enables like-minded people to interact and ponder their favorite series. I don’t think this was as much of a problem before the internet, even though there were stories that appeared in installments in magazines and the like.
This problem is lessened a bit if you are not doing a sequel that directly continues a particular story. J.J. Abrams was very smart to come up with the alternate timeline business for his new Star Trek movies, because it pretty much allowed him to do whatever he wanted. And although it still does not really live up to its title, I think a lot of criticism from Fallout fans of Fallout 3 was blunted because it was set far away from the other games. In other words, it’s easier to do a series that is a loosely-related group of stories in a certain setting or around a set of themes than it is to tell one coherent story over installments. And it’s easiest of all to just tell your story in one shot. To bring us back to Mass Effect 3, I’m convinced that had they condensed the story of the whole series into one game–with the same endings–they would have gotten way fewer complaints. On the other hand, they also would have made less money.