One of the most universally and endlessly appealing elements of the video game are the worlds that the medium creates. More vivid than those of a novel, more interactive than those of a film, more personal than those of a legend, Dragon Age’s Ferelden, Bioshock’s Rapture and The Elder Scrolls’ Tamriel are all some of the most compelling and diverse fictional worlds.
A key aspect of the video game is its interactivity, how the responsibility for and prestige associated with creativity are shared amongst developers and players. For a time, players built their own worlds within the parameters established by developers; while not strictly a ‘video game’, the expansive fan-made backstories and legends behind, say, Bloodbowl teams, affectionately termed ‘fluff’, are a testament to the creativity of both fans and developers. In some ways, this lessens the burden on developers and designers to produce deep, lore-driven worlds; they are more at liberty to provide a skeletal structure to their worlds, and let fans run wild, allowing ideas, characters and themes to flourish more organically. My own experiences with Bloodbowl would support this idea; not once have I engaged with an ‘official’ Games Workshop codex, yet through fan-driven sites such as Fumbbl, I am all too aware of the legendary Wood Elf thrower Cherrystone Hotpack.
More recently, however, players and developers have begun to work together to create the same worlds. Some of these attempts are incredibly successful, such as Sports Interactive giving free access to the database of their gargantuan Football Manager series, allowing players and fans to tweak the match engine to test out new footballing theories, or just generate a new star player and watch his career bloom. Some attempts have been less successful, with the 2008 title Spore promising a galaxy of creatures and civilisations for players to create and interact with, yet being severely hamstrung by limited gameplay features. The more recent No Man’s Sky can been appreciated in a similar light, as a game that opens up a galaxy for the player to explore, expecting them to generate lore and adventure through their own experiences, rather than anything that can be read from a canonical Wiki article.
These latter two examples are less successful because they imbalance the roles of creator and player. While an idyllic equal divide between the two sides is perhaps the dream of a ludological purist, it’s simply not practical in the immediate term. It is unreasonable to expect individual players to fill gaps in lore when the lore itself is nothing but gaps; the only narrative thrust of Spore, for instance, is a vague directive to fight the supposedly evil Grox, yet the game’s absence of any reasoning for doing so makes the whole process seem pointless. The optimal player-developer relationship, with world-building in mind- would be a more balanced one.
A yet darker, and more ominous example, can be found in the universally negative responses to the conclusions of Mass Effect 3. BioWare’s RPG epic was widely praised for its complex and meaningful use of player choice to drive the narrative, yet abandoned such subtleties at the conclusion of the finale, giving players four relatively abstract choices to pick from, none of which took into account the previous 150-odd hours of gameplay. The fan response was to carve out a new ending beyond the game itself, demanding an updated conclusion that lead to BioWare releasing DLC to pad the endings. It is at this point that people from across the world of gaming need to retain a sense of perspective; while fans and developers can work together to tell stories, neither party has the power nor the right to demand that the other’s are wrong or need to be retrofitted to suit a particular group’s whims. The ideal conversation around the endings of Mass Effect would have been on why BioWare, as the party given the responsibility of delivering an ending, crafted the conclusion they did, rather than what would be the most effective way to protest against EA products.
The underlying lesson of Mass Effect – that it is by working together that we can achieve great things – is an apt conclusion to these considerations. As technology develops, and society itself becomes more nuanced and breaks down the roles and responsibilities of binary ‘creators’ and ‘consumers’ of content, the responsibility for weaving these stories and creating these worlds will fall to all of us. And not just the responsibility to push for the tales we want to be told, but the responsibility to respect the tales that are important to other people.
Look at the fluff of Bloodbowl: Cherrystone is a great player, but his existence doesn’t devalue the efforts of my own awesome Elf thrower.
Image credit: wolle1301 (via YouTube)