As I'm sure every Mass Effect fan knows by now, the ending of the trilogy has sparked something of a controversy. The reaction has been almost universally negative among the fanbase, with the majority of game websites and critics like IGN standing in opposition to that viewpoint, in some cases accusing those who dislike the ending of an overgrown sense of entitlement, or simply complaining for the sake of complaint (a.k.a, "whining). BioWare itself has issued multiple statements that defend the ending on the grounds of "artistic vision."
This defense is unfortunate, since it implies that the playerbase is simply not sophisticated enough to appreciate what BioWare has accomplished. Naturally, it has been latched onto by both the pro- and anti-ending sides of the debate as "proof" that one or the other viewpoint is valid, resulting in a continuous spiral of circular logic and opinions presented as fact. This blog post by sagequeen of Gametourists is a wonderful summary of how this tends to play out. After reading that post and thinking about it for a while, I decided to take it upon myself to address the aspect of this that she does not: whether games are art.
Many people hold a popular view that games cannot be art, because traditional art requires a passive audience instead of an active participant. To paraphrase, they "violate the relationship between the artist and the audience", in which the artists produces the work and the audience experiences it. Those same people will often claim that the parts of a game -- the music, graphics, acting, etc. -- are art, just not the game as a whole.
The arguments for why games are not art are the same arguments used for why film is not art, back when film was a newly birthed medium. They couldn't possibly be art, because they were commercial entertainment! Entertainment for the masses, no less!
People who made that argument conveniently ignored artists such as Mozart and Beethoven, who produced their art for the express purpose of commercial entertainment.
Another example: for some time after its development, photography was not viewed as a valid art form. It couldn't possibly be art when a painter would take hours on end to create a portrait, while a photographer would simply set up the device, press a button, and produce a portrait in a fraction of the time.
I don't know anyone who studies or critiques art today who will claim that photography or film are not art forms.
The problem lies in the tendency of new forms of art to be judged by the criteria used to define previous forms of art. You can't define a painting as a work of art using the exclusive criteria as you would use to define a film, or a piece of music, or a dance, or a play, or a book. There are similarities, definitely, yet each medium has unique properties which can only be evaluated on their own merits. They are still, undeniably, all art. Likewise, you cannot define a game as art using the criteria of other media.
Games are currently closest to films in their production and presentation; they involve moving images on a screen with an accompanying soundtrack, they involve screenwriting, music and voice production, in fact there is a lot of crossover between the two media, especially in the acting department (something well-highlighted by Mass Effect, with Charlie Sheen, Claudia Black, Carrie-Ann Moss, Raphael Sbarge, and others who have worked in film voicing prominent roles). As such, games are typically judged on the same merits as a film would be. Yet games are not films and can not be exclusively evaluated by the same criteria. Evaluating and judging games as films completely ignores the actual core of a game, gameplay. That is, the choices and actions of the participant (née viewer) which actively shape the experience.
In order to clarify, I'll divert to another form of art: sculpture. Sculpture, you might say, has no interactivity. It is presented in a non-malleable medium, as a finished product of the artist's work. The role of the participant in this art is, you might say, completely passive, to be a viewer of the art and nothing more.
And you would be wrong. Sculpture, as a three-dimensional form of art, is highly subjective to the input of the viewer; where one chooses to place the sculpture, how one lights it, and where one stands to view it all influence the perception of the final artwork. A perfect example is this modern sculpture in New York, or these scultpures by a Japanese artist, which rely on the viewer's interaction with the art to achieve their effect.
No work of art is an entirely passive experience on the part of the viewer. Various forms of art require differing levels of interactivity from the audience, but all of them require at least some action on the part of someone other than the artist. Books require active reading. Paintings require active viewing. Movies require actively inserting a disc into your DVD player and pressing "Play". All forms of art require the audience to do something, however miniscule, in order to experience the artwork.
Games are still experiencing push-back as an invalid form of art, precisely because they offer an unprecedented amount of interactivity and agency on the part of the audience in the finished product. Give one more generation the chance to grow up and achieve adulthood, and games will be viewed culturally as an art form just as valid as film, or music. Or sculpture. And I would argue that gameplay is, in fact, the main criterion that will be used to judge the artistry of a game on its own merits, independent from other art forms. How completely can the game invest the player in the choices and actions necessary to move the story forward and reach a conclusion?
Now, given that specific criterion (i.e., player agency) as one that can be used to evaluate the artistry of a game, Mass Effect succeeds brilliantly through most of its length. It's only at the end that it falls apart. Yes, when viewed from a literary perspective, the ending of Mass Effect 3 fails objectively. It fails to carry through on the main themes of the entire work, it fails to address the problems presented by the main plot, it fails to offer resolution to the climax. But on another level, that of gameplay, the criteria that is unique to games as an art form, it fails as well. This is a series of games that appealed to the highest level of art a game can achieve, that of the player agency, the ability of the player to influence the game world. The illusion that you actually influence the storyline and create the outcome has been something that BioWare has touted as one of the main attractions of the Mass Effect series through all three games.
That all collapses at the end, and the game railroads you into a false choice (I say false because choosing the color changes nothing important about the ending) that has nothing to do with any of your previous choices.
In summary, then: are games art? Absolutely. Is Mass Effect 3 art? Without question. Is Mass Effect 3 good art? Based on the criteria for judging a game as art... no. It is not a successful work of art, because it fails in what its medium attempts to achieve. And that is why the emotional response of the players has been so broadly and violently negative.