Creation is Passion

I was cruising around the BioWare social network, and came across a link to an interview conducted with Messers Hudson, Everman and Gamble. It wasn’t quite an apology for the dreadful ending to Mass Effect 3, but it certainly had the feeling of people who were deeply chastised. Here are a few select quotes from the interview.

From Hudson. “One thing that really stood out for us is that we underestimated how attached people would become to the characters.”

Everman said, “It shows how invested a player is in the story, and how much they care about the outcomes. I’ve learned that a bitter-sweet ending is much easier to watch in a movie, than experience in a long RPG where the player is very invested in the protagonist.”

And again from Hudson. “…all people would want to do was spend more time with the characters, sort of bathing in the afterglow – getting closure and just having some time to live in the universe that they fought to save.”

I was stunned that they wouldn’t have realized this… oh four years ago when this passionate reaction to Mass Effect 1 began to build. When the second game garnered high praise and major awards. When the anticipation for the third game hit a fever pitch. What did they think people were enjoying and anticipating? Shooting pixels on a screen? Players had spent five years with their particular Commander Shepard. The characters that were crafted by BioWare were engaging and fascinating. Romances were possible, close friendships, heartbreak, hard choices. Then there was this terrific science fiction universe that was almost a character in its own right. And the promise of a story that was epic in scale, and a message of hope and bravery. That friendship and loyalty matter. That good people can win against insurmountable odds.

So how could these gentlemen not have foreseen the backlash that would ensue?

Which made me wonder about the relationship game designers have with the act of creation versus the one experienced by writers? Is there a quantitative difference? And if so, why? When I think about my writer friends I can’t think of a single one who isn’t immersed in their particular world and the people who populate it. That is certainly true for George. Sometimes I think Westros is more real to him than present day America. For myself, I often find myself viewing current events through the lens of my Edge universe.

    Oh, that must be the Old Ones at work

, I will think. My Imperials universe is going to happen once we achieve faster than light speed. I just know it.

I am also deeply involved with my characters. If I wasn’t I could’t write about them. Why would their story matter unless I believed they were important, that they, in some fashion, illuminated the human condition? I love my characters. I have literally wept when I killed a character. I want to make sure Richard steps out of the shadow of his father’s disapproval, and we reach the stars, and that Linnet discovers her purpose and bring peace between The Powers and humans, and that Tracy destroys the Solar League and wins the hand of the Infanta. Because they are real to me. I’ve breathed life into them. I know events that happened in their childhoods that will never appear on the page.

And this isn’t the case for just the creator/writer. Readers invest in characters. They will make up stories about events that the writer might never examine or explore. They write fan fiction, and this isn’t a new phenomenon. Apparently people rioted on the docks of New York City in 1841 as they waited for the next installment of Dickens The Old Curiosity Shop to arrive. They were screaming “Is little Nell dead?” These Dickens fans were Invested!

And along come games. Where you aren’t just reading about the adventures of John Carter or Sherlock Holmes or the March Girls. You are the hero/heroine. The protagonist of the story. You are saving Ferelden from the Dark Spawn or the galaxy from the Reapers, or the Republic from the Sith, crafting the direction of the next step in Human evolution. You also haven’t invested just a few weeks or even a few months to read that book. You’ve invested hours of game play. So how could the designers not know this? Is there something fundamentally different in the way they approach story telling?

If there is, I think that’s a mistake. There is a form and structure to a story that goes back into the hoary past, and I think these tropes and rules should be applied to this new entertainment medium. Because I have a feeling the people gathered in the halls of ancient Greece felt just as passionately about Odysseus as modern game players felt about Commander Shepard.

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