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.