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Games Aren’t Books

Now that Bioware has said they will “amplify” the unsatisfying ending to the Mass Effect saga some game critics are bemoaning the power of the “spoiled” fans, and saying that games are art and this crybaby attitude is threatening artistic integrity.  They point out that people might not like the end of The Hunger Games or the Harry Potter series, but they don’t get to demand that the author write a new ending.

Yeah, that’s because books are different from games.  These big video games are much more like a movie, and the endings of movies get changed all the time after having been shown to test audiences.

When I buy a book I know I am reading that author’s vision of their world and the outcome for their characters.  If I find the book unsatisfying I simply don’t buy another book by that author or I take a look at why they made that choices they made.  For example. I would have ended the Harry Potter saga with Harry still getting to marry Jenny, and Hermione and Ron together, and Voldemort defeated, but I would have had Harry have to lose his wizard powers in order to defeat Voldemort.  Sacrifice that earned the essentially happy ending.  She didn’t do that.  She gave me a basically happy ending, and I’m okay with that.  I still love the series, and think it was a great achievement.

But a video game isn’t one person’s vision.  It is a vast collaborative effort just like a movie.  Rumor has it that the producer and two writers went into a huddle and crafted this mess of an ending, and that no other parties were involved in the decision and it wasn’t tested.  Big mistake.  If it had been they would have known they had a problem.

Because video games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age are about choices that can lead to different outcomes.  In Dragon Age your behavior will dictate how many companions you have to fight the Archdemon at the end.  If you’re too much of a dick you can end up with a bare handful of people.  If you’re a greedy bastard and don’t build up your armies they are going to be weak when you call on them to help you fight the Darkspawn.

In Mass Effect there are also choices.  Who dies?  Ashely or Kaidan?  Do you save the Council or let them die?  Do you preserve the Collector Base or not?  These were big choices, and everyone was led to believe they were ramifications to these choices just like in Dragon Age.  Then you get to the end of Mass Effect 3, and you realize none of those decisions had any consequences at all, and have no bearing on the end of the game.

The other result of all these choices is that the player in one of these ambitious video games feels like they are crafting the ending.  Unlike in a book where you may identify with the protagonist, but you know the only choice you have is the choice made for you by the writer.  You go into the reading experience expecting that.

In movies a test audience has been your surrogate.  In my earlier post I mentioned Pretty Woman and how the ending was completely changed after outrage on the part of the test screeners.

Video games are no different, and to claim they are more akin to books, and artistic integrity must be maintained is just silly.  It’s comparing apples and oranges.  I think the fans are entirely justified in their anger, and using the shield of artistic integrity doesn’t take into account these differences between games and books.

5 Responses to Games Aren’t Books

  • rand says:

    “Yeah, that’s because books are different from games. These big video games are much more like a movie, and the endings of movies get changed all the time after having been shown to test audiences”.

    But isn’t that what’s wrong w/ movies today? Lack of singular vision? The desire to get as many tickets sold by adhering to the lowest common denominator? What if Orson Welles had bowed to studio pressure & had “Citizen Kane” end w/ the reporter finding out what “Rosebud” was? Or if (a personal favorite) “All That Jazz” had ended w/ Joe Gideon surviving his heart ailment, his excesses & his demons (especially since it was autobiographically based on director Bob Fosse’s own life). Or most famously, if Terry Gilliam hadn’t taken out the ad in Variety & allowed Universal to keep their ending of “Brazil”? I think an ending, like every aspect of a story well told, no matter the medium, has to have integrity, happy or sad.
    Video games are the next generation (no pun intended!) of communal cultural entertainment, as film/tv are such products of the last century & books before that. Shouldn’t VG’s have the same integrity as all good storytelling?

  • MelindaS says:

    Ah, but I think players are an essential part of the gaming experience, and the beauty of games is that you can offer a choice. As a player I’ve built my character, I have a sense of him, of his past, his personality. To remove any possibility of choice violates what makes these games so great. When I watch a movie I may be engaged, but I’m essentially a passive observer. I’m an active participant in my console game, and I want to have more input. As one of my buddies on FAcebook said “It’s as if you’re reading a plot your own adventure book, then you get to the last book, and they say, well everybody dies, and the entire universe is trashed, but do buy our next book.”

  • rand says:

    That is such a great point! You do have a much more vested interest as the partial creator of your character than filmed or written entertainment. As a non gamer I didn’t realize that (The last game I played was “No 1 Lives Forever 2: A Spy In H.A.R.M.’s Way”). Then maybe it’s up to the VG designers to create codebase that takes into consideration the variables of character creation when programming gameplay. That way the ending can have integrity to the game’s story while satisfying the player.

  • Brian Hogg says:

    I get the comparison you’re making, but I think it’s off: you say games are more like movies, and movies are changed as a result of focus groups. This is true, and video games go through extensive testing, and, depending on the company, stories get altered during the test process. Where I think your comparison falls short is that this focus group testing happens BEFORE the movie is released; the studios don’t change the movie after its in front of the viewers. I mean, sure, there are frequently tweaks when the movie goes to video, with different cuts being chosen, but rarely anything large. It’s not at though Disney saw the terrible returns on the excellent John Carter, then rereleased it the next weekend with “Of Mars” tacked onto the title, or with more screen time for the adorable alien dog that stole the show.

    Your counter-argument about novels is interesting; Rowling didn’t alter the ending of the last Potter book, but surely she could have. There’s nothing preventing the author of a series from changing things up and being a literary George Lucas after the fact. As new editions of books get printed, fictions authors certainly could make minor or wholesale changes. Non-fiction authors do this, adding new information to strengthen their arguments in the paperback, adding an afterward that affects the end narrative. There IS precedent for it, and the ability is there, especially with ebooks.

    You say that you feel more of an ownership of the story in a game than in a book. I find that interesting, as I’m both a reader and a gamer, and I don’t ever think that the story’s being presented to me is “mine” in any way. I know that it is culturally, and I believe it should be something we get to play with, but that strikes me as different from the more commonly held type of ownership. Perhaps I’m unusual in that respect, but whether or not I am, I wonder if you’d be able to get the majority of hardcore Potter fans to agree that theirs is not as deep an involvement with or investment in the story as a Mass Effect fan. 🙂

    I think a more apt comparison might be to TV shows, which take input from the fans in indirect and direct ways. When that happens, though, it seems to be more of the “going forward” type of input, not going back and changing things that are already out there.

  • MelindaS says:

    Really interesting and thoughtful points, Brian. It might be more of a personal thing about how deeply you invest. I invest deeply in books, but I don’t make up back stories for Frodo or Harry — though I did for Snape who was the most interesting character for me.

    But in my video game — I have this whole elaborate backstory spun out about my Shepard. I do feel ownership over [u]my[/u] version of Shepard. There is an interesting link on my Facebook wall about the statements coming out of Bioware. They do not match up with the ending at all which inclines me to think there was some kind of backroom dealing with EA that went on.

    Well, we’ll see what the DLC provides later this summer. I’m still holding out hope for more choice.

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