Aaron Yells at Clouds: Narrative Ownership in Games

Perhaps it’s because I grew up playing video games in the era of consoles, where you had no choice in anything, and didn’t play a game where you had a choice in anything until after grad school, but there’s been something happening in comment sections of games journalism sites lately that’s really bothered me. (No, not the whole Gamergate thing. That’s not even worth flippantly talking about.) The issue I’m talking about is that there seem to be a very vocal group of gamers who demand that developers be constantly open with their development processes, that they—the gamers—have full choice within games, and, before the games are made, have a voice in what the game is and what it becomes. Now, it also may be the fact that, primarily, when I think of narrative, the thing that pops into my head is the novel or short story. In that, it would be patently absurd for readers to make the same kinds of demands. (Granted, that doesn’t seem to stop some rabid fanbases like the A Song of Ice and Fire crowd from doing just that.) Why? Because novels and short stories are, ostensibly, one-way media. Setting aside the idea that you should be interacting with text, we’re left with the notion that games are the only true interactive art form. Thus, goes the thinking, shouldn’t gamers have more of a say in things?

It probably won’t surprise you to see that, no. I don’t think that’s the case at all.

Backing up, though, there are a few things that prompted this. The first being the comment section on a Polygon article inspired by our second thing, this post on Ask a Game Dev. As a summary, a game developer talked about developers’ practices of being tight-lipped on details about anticipated games, and what the gaming public’s reaction usually means for them. Third, posts and comment threads like this on the SWTOR subreddit. We’re getting super nerdy here, so a little description might be worthwhile: Bioware, maker of the game Star Wars: The Old Republic, are releasing a new expansion that, they say, will drastically change the way the game is played. Beyond that, and some hints about changes to the way your companions will be handled, the way in-game professions will be handled, and a few other things, they’ve not been forthcoming with information. The subreddit has been reacting exactly like you’d think they would: Stopping just short of calling BioWare fascists. The fourth is the Mass Effect 3 ending debacle which probably prompted BioWare to not share many details on things in the future. There are tons of thinkpieces about that floating around online, so feel free to do your research on that. I’d rather not revisit it in this space.

The running theme in all of this has been that the vocal gaming public has shouted for more knowledge of games that they want to play. They say, in a commonly-held idea, that they pay a lot for games, and so they should be entitled to more say than, for example, someone who goes to see a movie. (In my mind, this is an example of some pretty faulty logic. A movie is $12 and a game is $60 because of a lot of reasons, scale among them. Paying more money for media does not mean you get more say, otherwise Comcast would have millions of shareholders.)

Growing up when I did, and playing the games that I did, this strikes me as utterly insane. If developers want to bring the public into the creative process, then that’s fine, but they must have a much higher regard for the public than I do. I’ve tried to think of what Blizzard’s games would be like if the fans had any say in it, and all I can think of now is that World of Warcraft would oscillate wildly between the easiest thing in the world, and something you have to turn into a job where you put in doctor hours.

But at the heart of it all, I think there’s a simple misunderstanding: When people talk about “investing” in a game, they’re misunderstanding the metaphor. You are not investing money in a game. You are investing money in the chance to be entertained. You are paying for a product, and when you pay for a product, you get whatever the product is. Sure, you can change the way future products are made, but you have to open a sane dialog with the manufacturer, or boycott, or any number of post-purchase actions.

Investing in something, on the other hand, is very different. You give an organization a large amount of money beforehand with the expectation that a) you will see a return on that money and b) you may have the chance to steer the company—usually in the form of being involved in shareholders’ meetings or, if you have enough money, at the start of the company. I’m making an assumption here, but something tells me that gamers are not bankrolling BioWare or EA in order to fund wide releases.

The counter to all of this is Kickstarter, or Indiegogo, or a new thing called Fig. Fig seems to be a combination of Steam and Kickstarter, but with a little less communication between creator and backer. I don’t know what to think about that, mainly because the linked Polygon article is so gushing in tone that I come away deeply skeptical. However, the article does point out something important that should keep at bay the hordes of gamers shouting about gamer agency:

“The reason why they were coming in and providing that money was because they trusted so much the creative control brought by the developer. We love getting our community involved in these games, but it’s community-informed. I don’t think you want a community-designed game.”

A community-designed game, I think would be a deeply post-modern thing. A chimera so hideous that none would be able to look upon it without their faces melting a la Raiders of the Lost Ark, and that’s not just me being elitist. When you have an entire community designing something, it becomes a game of telephone, or one of those writing exercises where people write a sentence or a paragraph and pass it along. Occasionally, you might get a good plot, but by and large, it’s going to be absurdism without the art.

Who, then, owns the games? Well, the artist. The same answer as you find in novels or films. It’s their narrative, and while they may be willing to ask for input, they get the final say. Why? Because they’re doing the work in creating something. Compromises may be made along the way, and the finished product may be vastly different than what comes out at the end, but when it’s all said and done, it’s the artist who created the world and they get to say where it’s going to go from here.

The best example of this in non-games, I think, is Star Wars. Here’s a series that started off with three movies that were wildly different from their original inception, then expanded upon with three prequels that people over the age of 8 hated. The movies may completely ignore the language of film, storytelling, and any number of other, important things, but George Lucas stood by his creation, and you have to respect him for that.

So, what? What am I saying to people who are frustrated that they’re not receiving information about things at a steady enough pace for them to feel okay with the future of a game franchise?

Partially, I’m saying that these people should calm the hell down. We live in a time where, if you binge-watched an entire season of a scripted show a day, you would not be able to watch all of the new television shows in a year. And that’s just scripted TV! That’s not counting reality TV, talk shows, sports, or the news! Not to mention movies! Books! Magazines! Other games! We, in fact, live in a rough approximation of the world built in Huxley’s Brave New World, except for the fact that our government is not nearly as benign as theirs. My point being: If you want to do something other than rend your hair and grind your teeth in anticipation of not having a flawless gaming experience, you have other options. You have so many other options. You have, I think, too many other options, to the point where, if we, as a society, were smart, we’d say, “No. That is enough, thank you. I do not need any more; I’m just fine as it is.”

But we’re not. So we’ll keep making media, and in the case of games, you’ll continue to see baffling statistics like this: From May 12 to June 12, people who played Witcher 3 just on PC logged 1,770 years‘ worth of playtime. What that means is if you made that a real life block of time, and placed it chronologically in the continuum of human history, a very unfortunate strawman Witcher 3 would have started when a Roman Emperor named Philip (yeah, good luck finding people who knew about him without looking up the year 245 on Wikipedia) did… well, Imperial stuff, would have continued through the fall of Rome, onward through Charlemagne, the Inquisition, the Reformation, the colonization of the New World, the Enlightenment, the Napoleonic Wars, both World Wars, the Cold War, the Iraq wars, and then, stepping outside for a Doritos and Mountain Dew break, would have been sunburned immediately, as his skin would have become translucent and Gollum-like.

My point to gamers is this: You have other options. Calm down. If you’re dead set on playing games, then find something else until more information is released. Shouting about not being respected just makes people who aren’t you respect you less. You would, rather, probably be better off if you went and read a book.