Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Are Players Just Audience?

Part 1: Sisyphus

Over the last weekend, I finished my first playthrough of Mass Effect 3. For the moment, it looks like it will be the only one. My immediate reaction was that of vague disappointment. I felt dissatisfied, but I couldn't put my finger on why. It took me a bit of introspection to come to the same conclusion I later saw in countless blog posts, tweets and articles: the ending completely invalidated all the effort I had put into the game.

All those hours of chosing my answers carefully, pondering what I would do if I had to face a situation like the one Shepard was facing, wondering whether I was being consistent and, in general, carefully crafting a character and learning more about myself in the process -- all that effort was for nothing. The game gave me three options, all of them cataclysmic and none of them even remotely satisfying. Under my guidance, Shepard had achieved what no sentient life form had ever achieved before, but it didn't matter, the choices were still the same. One of those choices went completely against every major decision I have ever made, since Mass Effect 1, but that didn't matter, the choices were still the same. And after I took one that looked the least unpleasant, I was treated to a cinematic that opened new questions while providing no answers whatsoever and left with no closure and a bad taste in my mouth.

Later, I sat down to read about other people's reactions. A small part of me still wishes I hadn't done that. Up until then, my misery was based only on my own experience. And then I read about other endings. Nominally, there are sixteen of them. In reality, it's 90% the same ending, with variations in small details. In other words, it wasn't merely something I had done in this playthrough. No matter what I did, no matter how many times I played the game again and again, I would never get a significantly different ending.

They say that misery loves company and it turned out to be true in the end. While finding out about other endings made things worse, I was strangely comforted by the fact that I wasn't alone and that other fans were speaking up about this and voicing their -- or rather, our -- outrage. Further reading brought small glimmers of hope: official Bioware responses could be interpreted in a way that left open the possibility of changing the ending.

I wasn't going to write about any of this. Others have done that more eloquently and I've never acquired the taste for shouting "me too" in the crowd. What changed my mind was Ken Levine's reaction. And then Ben Dutka over at PSX Extreme took it to another level. And suddenly I couldn't stay silent anymore.

This argument wasn't unexpected. On the contrary, it's a fairly standard line of defense and usually it's completely valid in certain aspects. Usually, but not anymore. Videogames have changed that and people like Ken Levine and Ben Dutka are either not aware of it or don't want to accept it.

Before I get to what has changed, however, I'd like to go over the things that haven't. It's not just my flair for dramatic. I want to clear the air first. As a geek, I have a natural distaste for bullshit in all its forms and I want to make certain things clear to both my readers and the people out there who are making their righteous statements about artistic integrity.

Ben Dutka is right, up to a point: we don't have the right to walk up to an artist and demand from them to change their work. Or rather, we don't have the right to have that work changed just because we demanded it; whether we demand it or not is merely a question of etiquette, not of rights. We have not been granted any intellectual ownership rights by purchasing the work of art or anything of the kind. We've been granted the right to experience that work of art. Whether we enjoy it or not is immaterial.

The problem with that attitude is that people use it to hide from the rest of the ugly truth: art has never been able to stand completely on its own. It's not just an independent fact, an axiom. It's the product of a process in which there are several crucial roles. If we don't acknowledge this, we're simply not being honest.

Part 2: Apollo

A work of art needs an Artist to make it and an Audience to appreciate it. Otherwise, it's simply a tree that fell in the forest with nobody to see or hear its fall. The cold, hard, ugly truth is that the Artist needs a Patron. Either that or a Day Job, but we'll get to that in a moment. The point is that the Artist, like any other human being, needs to earn a living.

Patrons used to be reasonably wealthy people who would commission Artists for specific projects, e.g. "Paint my wife, dude, I need something to hang in my new home!" Over the time, the business model shifted. The patronage became crowdsourced and the Middlemen stepped on the stage. Nowadays, the Artist will typically go to a bunch of Middlemen for help with any and all of the following: getting the means to create a work of art, gathering an Audience for a work of art, putting the Artist together with other Artists to collaborate on a work of art and, ultimately, getting paid for a work of art.

The rise of Middlemen wasn't the only consequence of patronage being crowdsourced. Art and entertainment started overlapping a lot more than before. The Audience demands what Kurt Cobain sang: "Here we are now, entertain us!" You want the patronage? Deliver!

Like it or not, but the fact remains that the most famous modern Art is inextricably entangled with Entertainment and Business. Sure, you can still adamantly refuse to compromise your artistic integrity. If you're very, very good, you might be able to get away with it. If not, you still have a perfectly valid option of practicing your art as a hobby. The stereotypical image of "Starving Artist" comes from people who refuse to accept this reality and try to be professional artists without an impressive track record and with rigid artistic integrity.

Ben Dutka can lament this reality as much as he wants. He can warn us that it leads to Art degenerating into "some hideous, mutated, mass-generated assembly of likely sophomoric compromises". Guess what? We've already arrived there. That place is called Hollywood. The last Hollywood movie I myself have seen that stuck out as memorable work of art was "Inception" and even that was watered-down art.

Do I want videogames to degenerate into Hollywood-like decadence? Hell, no! Things are bad as they are: just look at Assassin's Creed and how it's getting stretched beyond recognition, worse than the "Wheel of Time" used to be before Brandon Sanderson took over. No, thanks. I'm all for artistic integrity. But let's not pretend that things are not the way they are.

And, by all means, let's not allow the defense of artistic integrity to become the reason for the Middlemen to further crush it and suppress it. Get it in your heads, Artists, those Middlemen have the power to crush your integrity and they will not hesitate to use it, because that's how they make their living.

Mass Effect 3 has the potential to become the textbook argument for publishers to impose their will on artists: "Yeah, we let you guys do your artsy-fartsy stuff in Mass Effect 3 and look how that turned out. Look at this sales chart. Look at it, damn you!"

I'm sorry you're sad, Ken Levine, but you're also wrong. Leonardo da Vinci was told to paint the wife of Francesco del Giocondo. He could have decided to paint the lake behind her, instead, but he didn't. He did the work he was hired to do. Was he "disappointed in the emotional feeling" he got because he "didn't really create it"? I guess we can't find out because he's not around to give us an interview, but I look at La Gioconda's smile and I doubt it.

Part 3: Orpheus

None of that, however, was my main point. All of the preceding discussion applies to the traditional artistic media. The videogames have changed the equation and that's really the bone I want to pick with Ben Dutka.
I think the fact that video games are interactive, and the fact that gamers have more control than ever (customization, user-creativity, etc.) has confused things but the fact remains, a story is a story. It's art, regardless of the medium.
I take issue with that claim. It's the same logic that RIAA and MPAA use in their claims and in their fight for SOPA and PIPA: "Nothing has changed." Everything has changed, Ben, and it's time to face it.

You cannot be a game designer without learning one important lesson: you are not telling a story, you are helping your players create their own stories. One of my most favorite books on my non-fiction bookshelf is "Game Architecture and Design", by Andrew Rollings and David Morris. I still remember the sense of wonder and realization when I read the following words:
Even puzzle games like Tetris in one sense tell a story and are thus "dramatic" to an extent.
Reading those words, I flashed back on all the times my buddy and I would get together and excitedly discuss the game of Descent II we just played over the modem; I remembered the Elven Runes website where people would post their logs after an exciting session of MUME. The image these words painted in my mind was surprisingly vivid: a bunch of people gathered around a fire at night, swapping stories. For a guy who has never had an actual campfire experience, that image was most alluring and the realization that this experience is, in a sense, what videogames bring to countless players around the world was... mindblowing, to put it mildly.

Just what role does your story play in the game you create? That's not a new debate. Just ask Ernest Adams what he thinks about it. Still not convinced? Digital Worlds has a post about the whole debate.

Here's the bottom line: we, the players, participate in the creative process and our participation is crucial because it's the final step. The players complete the creative process.

And that, Ben, is what gives us the right that no other audience had before: the right to demand that our role in the storytelling and creative process be honored and respected.

Do I have a legal right to demand a satisfying ending for Mass Effect 3? I don't think so, although at least one person disagrees with me.

Do I have a moral right? I believe I do. I paid BioWare and EA what I owed them. But whether they like it or not, they owe me, too.

Yes, Ben, I want to set a precedent, no matter how dangerous you think it is. I want BioWare to recognize the fact that their audience is not just an audience anymore: we're minor artists ourselves. We're storytellers. We watch the tree fall in the forest and then we go and build our houses from it.

To people like Casey Hudson and Paul Barnett, these creations might not be as important as their own artistic integrity. But the least they and the rest of BioWare could do is not tear them down.

So what'll it be, guys? What kind of designers are you?

If you liked this, check out the follow-up: My Playthrough on Your Fridge Door.


Anonymous said...

This is very good. Very very good. I am a philosophy student and studied aesthetics and ownership in some detail. I had tried to voice my opinion, but you seem to have done it far better and more eloquently than I ever could have. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

I agree completely. I was debating posting a similar blog (I have NEVER blogged before) just in the hopes of getting a similar message across. Now I no longer need to to do that! :)

My particular view on it is as if that painting by Leonardo was not only commissioned by - but contributed by the commissioner. What if the commissioner actively added to the painting during the process? If Leonardo turned to him and asked "do you want your wife's eyes to have a subtle or fierce lustre to them?". What if Leonardo took that commission based on the premise that the contributions by the commissioner would change the painting? Would change the end result?

That is what game development is, this is what Bioware has made their game development into - an interactive artform that asks the gamer to contribute to the art in the form of critical decision making. They have stated that this is their goal, and in so many ways they succeed wonderfully... which is why so many people are emotionally invested in this series. Although they falter in a few other places, the biggest stumble is right at the point where it matters the most.

So once again, kudos on wonderful article that defends gamers' right to feel upset about art they contributed to at the behest of Bioware.

rbwhitaker said...

I absolutely love what you say at the end. That the players not only participate in the creative process, but complete it. That sums it up perfectly.

I'm glad you took the time to write this up. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this posting.

Your observation that the player completes the art is an incredibly important point. I hope the computer gaming "establishment" will be able to accept this, but the current invective from the gaming media illustrates their fear. I am irritated by the tone. Demeaning the player's necessary contribution to this art creates resentment and hurts everyone.

I - as a player - have always felt my place in this process. But you have given it much better words than I could.


Anonymous said...

Wow, that post is absolutely beautiful and sums up the displeasure fans are experiencing with tact and dignity.

All this talk of "artistic integrity of the original story" by the developers ignores that BioWare very quickly jettisoned their original ending due to script leaks.

Elli said...

Wonderful analysis. Thank you for this. We have seen a significant change in the last five years alone in the relationship between consumers and providers in all aspects of the society, from political to social life - and the providers have to get with it.

What bothers me most is that I am absolutely sure this was a business decision, not any mistake on BioWare's part, but just an attempt to make more money. They simply didn't expect such a backlash. Perhaps I am too jaded, but knowing this, all these arguments on "artistic integrity" are such an insult to the intelligence of us as consumers, it makes me livid. I have no tolerance for carefully worded nonsense.

Here's hoping they will give their fans the acknowledgement they deserve, if nothing than for the sake of gamers-in-making. Because I, for one, am done with them.