Mass Effect, Creative License, and the Rights of the Player in a Story/Game #me3

This post is (thankfully) going to be shorter than yesterday’s. I wasn’t going to write another one on this topic at all, but there was a really good comment on yesterday’s post that led to a really long reply on my part — so long that I figured it would be better served as a post of its own.

The reason it’s interesting to me is because it has to do with the weird line between the traditional cultural definitions of “story” and “game” that a product like Mass Effect walks.

So, yesterday, Kaelri wrote (in part):

Frankly, I do believe that art is inviolate – that is to say, I don’t believe an artist has some sort of moral obligation to address the grievances of audience members who don’t happen to like what they came up with. If I’m a fan of a thing, it’s because I found the product and liked it; and if I choose to support it, as an advocate or a consumer or both, they still don’t owe me nothin’. Maybe they “should” pay attention to me for the sake of their business model, but that’s different from saying they “should” listen to me as though my fandom makes me a shareholder in the creative process.

First off, I get exactly where you’re coming from. I would even agree with you — when it comes to traditional media, a writer or really any creative person of any kind is not obliged to make fan-demanded changes to their work, unless they’re trying to make a more saleable product, or they just want to because their work would be better that way.

They can refuse, as I said in my original post — it might mean they never get published or that they never reach a wider audience, but that’s entirely their choice… when it comes to traditional media.

But, as I said yesterday, Mass Effect is something other than traditional media, which is why I’m going to disagree with you when it comes to this particular artistic work, and others like it:

I believe that we — the participants in the Mass Effect games — are co-creators.

Now, that’s a big statement, so let me dig into it a bit. This certainly isn’t true of every game out there — no one is complaining that they didn’t get enough creative input into the ending of Braid, because that isn’t what Braid is about — it’s not that kind of game.

Mass Effect, however, is that kind of game. It’s a conscious and (as I said in my made-up LotR example) difficult thing to do, but it is undeniably a can of worms Bioware chose to open, and once it’s open, they’re pretty much stuck with the consequences. The players have control of a lot of stuff that happens in the game series, if only with a binary yes/no level of input, and having extended them that authorship power you have, to a greater or lesser degree, given them access to the canvas and the right to call foul if they disagree with what you’re painting.

Again, this is not the case in every game out there (and it is not true of any traditional media of which I’m aware), but it is the case with Mass Effect. I can (with studious and somewhat questionable effort) entirely remove even someone like Garrus from all but a few scenes in the entire game series (the equivalent of having Samwise in one scene in Fellowship, no scenes at all in Two Towers, and writing him in as a bit-part escort for the last couple chapters of Return of the King). I decide whether many if not all of the character’s live and die and, with ME3, my influence is extended to the point where I can effectively wipe out two whole species.

It’s fair to say that Bioware is steering the A-plot, but when it comes to dictating the very tapestry against which that plot plays out, I am being dealt a lot of cards, and the hand that I play is a strong one. Certainly, my control over the personal stories in all three games is ironclad, and would be argued by many to be the most important and interesting bits.

So am I, at some level, a co-creator?

In indie tabletop RPG design, there’s an idea that some call “The Impossible Thing Before Breakfast.” It refers to the classic, old-school RPG notion that “The GM is the author of the story and the players direct the actions of the protagonists.”

The term was coined to illustrate the fact that story is made of the actions and choices of the protagonists, so claiming to control one but not the other is senseless. If you have influence on the story at all, you exert influence on the protagonists, and if you truly control the actions of the protagonists, you have real and concrete influence on the story.

Or you should.

And, to be fair, Bioware did a fantastic job throughout ME1 and ME2 with giving players that kind of control and influence. (They’re not as good about it in ME3, but they’ve (sadly) compensated by becoming very skilled at disguising a lack of choice with something that feels like you’re making a decision.)

I would say that one of the biggest problems with the end of ME3 — or at least the part that causes the loudest initial outcry — is that it very baldly revokes that player-authorship at the point in the story where the players want it most.

To say that the players — while certainly not equal partners in the process, but creative contributors nonetheless — should have no say in the conclusion of the story they helped create is unfair, and to defend it by hiding behind “artistic expression”, as Bioware has done, is an insult to the players’ input throughout the series and a rather crude misrepresentation of what Mass Effect has been to both the creators and the players for the last five years.

5 Replies to “Mass Effect, Creative License, and the Rights of the Player in a Story/Game #me3”

  1. The tabletop RPG comparison is a good one. At Spoony has been describing his experiences in tabletop gaming in a series called “Counter Monkey”. In a two-part episode he describes for two hours a game he was running where he had a specific story in mind that he wanted his players to follow. But through their unexpected actions he was forced to come up with a wildly different story than the one he was originally going to play out. Through this you see that players are a large part of the creative process of games, even if video games are much more rigid than tabletop games. It reminds me of various MMO games whose stories have changed based on player involvement. Before it shut down The Matrix Online had actor players, employess acting as main characters of the story and interacting with the customers, the story would change based on which faction was winning the current events.

  2. My view is this.

    The artist can do whatever they want with art. They can make their work as commercial as possible or they can make their work as inaccessible as possible and that is their perogative.

    However the audience has the right to not accept the vision of the creator and not purchased the products and have the right to constructively criticised the work of the artist.

    suggesting an ending change is simply constructive criticism.

    Now i personally support Bioware changing the ending but I recognised that they should only change the ending if they reflect on the constructive criticism and admit that the screw up and sincerely change the ending in a belief that it will improve the story.

    However, if they for reasons completely unknown to me thought the ending was brilliant despite all the criticism then they are entitled to ignore the fan complaint as long as they are willing to accept the loss in reputation/PR as a result in that.

    Really, if bioware were proud of the ending but were pressurised to change the ending due to “giving the fans what they want”. does anyone thing the ending would be any good? The idea of getting a group of people who love the original ending and then getting them to retcon the ending they are proud of (for some unknown reason) seems like a recipe for disaster as they would be doing it with gritted teeth and would be clearly phoning it in and may well result in them producing an ending that is even worst than what we got.

    Lastly, I make no distinction between video games and movies and literature, music etc. After Sherlock Holmes death was retcon, Planet Zeist from Highlander 2 was retcon. Even with something like music, 2:30 minutes of Moonchild by King Crimson was retcon in the recent reissued album as well and all of this was due to artist taking in constructive criticism from fans and sincerely changing their work to improve it.

    This may sound controversial but, I think people are allowed to request change in movies/book/music/tv series etc as in my opinion that is just constructive criticism. The writers have the right to ignore it but fans shouldn’t be mocked for requesting change.

    I don’t see the interactivity of video game gives that medium extra entitedment from the audience because each choice you make was designed by the artist. It’s essentially the artist creating a branched narrative and creating multiple plot point and this has been done before in choose your own adventures books.

  3. I agree with your previous post. I really like the comparison with LOTR and support a “corrected” ending for ME3 … however I can’t quite get my head around the suggestion you are making in this post that players are in *any* way co-creators of this game.

    Your comparison with table top gaming, while interesting, is fundamentally flawed. Table top gaming/RPG lets players make any choice they can imagine.
    The GM paints a broad brush environment and has a story/dungeon in mind … might even introduce compelling reasons why players should comply with the intended storyline (ie: Go to this particular town and clear out this nest of evil/band of dragons or you’ll all lose something/someone you love … ). However the players can all decide to do something completely different … and the game will continue as they dictate.
    The GM doesn’t even have to present “options” – and in this regard these players *are* co-creators.

    Mass Effect and its ilk don’t allow any kind of similar freedom. They don’t take any player input that is outside the pre-defined programmed choices or in-game limitations.
    These games are essentially very high quality “pick-your-own-path” stories.
    However there is nothing here that we, as players, are creating.
    Every choice, every consequence, every mission, every outcome has been written/designed/programmed by Bioware’s team.

    There is nothing that we, as players, can do in-game that would be a surprise to the game developers (unless we uncover a software glitch … “Call of Duty” anyone?). We can’t do anything that they haven’t programmed.

    Players are certainly heavily invested in the characters/world … and no doubt shape their game experience to their own preferences (as far as they are able within the confines provided) so it feels personalised. This is still not creating anything.

    I completely agree though that the ending, as it stands, is terrible.
    There have been comments posted on this ending along the lines of: It is “too intellectual for most gamers” .. or “Casey Hudson is an intellectual and expects others to be …”.
    This is an insult to intelligence!
    This ending isn’t remotely intellectual/high-brow.
    What it is, is trite; nonsensical; unimaginative; lazy; highly restictive; full of major plot holes; bears almost no relation to the rest of the game series, and does it no justice at all. It also bears no resemblance to the ending(s) promised.
    For these reasons alone the ending needs to be changed – I just don’t hold out much hope that any “fixes” provided will be much of an improvement – unless they completely replace the ending – or make the existing ending only one possible outcome. This is unlikely given Bioware’s references to “tweaks”. A tweak won’t fix anything.

    1. I agree with your insightful remark:

      ‘Every choice, every consequence, every mission, every outcome has been written / designed / programmed by Bioware’s team. There is nothing that we, as players, can do in-game that would be a surprise to the game developers’

      I feel the answer is to create a simulation which procedurally generates stories (plural) based upon a single unifying theme, you adopt a character to role-play as, following them into a emergent narrative arc that has not been scripted beforehand. You will need a mechanism of reward to ensure that they “stay in character”, hence: ‘Kudos points’ are awarded for completing missions/quests in a manner that fits with your role. This means that you could be compelled to make a Heroic Sacrifice (something which you would ordinarily try to avoid as a dreaded GAME OVER), because it was how your character would act in that dramatic situation and you knew that you would gain a lot of Kudos for your performance. This could then be used to unlock another character – perhaps, replaying the story from another perspective, such as a Dorian Gray/Faust.

      Soap Operas often interleave offset narratives so that there is no ultimate end, as well as contriving episodic cliffhangars. This provides a useful half-hour model to simulate with AI driven NPCs which interact with each other ‘off camera’ as much as to the player’s direct knowledge; meaning that they are not the sole focus of the drama. This software could become commercially viable via dint of a subscription.

      I am currently working on Middleware to boost video game developer productivity and support what amounts to a new form of drama that effectively “writes itself”.

  4. You’re actually completely correct about the players being co-creators of the series. I’m sorry I can’t find the article I was reading a couple of days ago about this, but Casey Hudson and other members of BioWare have gone on record in interviews before, saying that analysing fan feedback and changing the games based on that feedback has been a core part of their development process for ages. The romances with Tali and Garrus were implemented due to extremely positive fan feedback towards the 2, the improved levels of weapon customisation came from the backlash against the stripped-down RPG elements of ME2, and a lot of Lair of the Shadow Broker was in response to fans being disappointed in Liara’s too-tiny role in ME2. All these idiots are yammering about how BioWare is compromising their artistic integrity by bowing to fan pressure, but changing their games based on what their fans tell them is something they’ve been doing since early in ME2’s development process, and none of the changes they’ve made have been as important as fixing this horrid ending.

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