Reader Investment and Ownership of Story

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I wasn’t a gamer until I met my husband. I mean, I’d toyed with Bubble Bobble in my youth, but I never really understood the appeal of video games. Plus I get frustrated easily, so if I hit a level I couldn’t beat, I’d walk away. (Usually to go read a book, which worked out well for me!)

But when Husband and I started dating, once we got past that stage of having to go do “dates” someplace, I was introduced to a whole new world of video games: action RPGs. An action RPG is a story — it’s got fleshed-out characters, insanely detailed worlds, and highly customizable options. It’s basically a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book, but much, much, much bigger. You, as the main character in the game, are given a main quest, and encounter options for many side quests. In order to complete your quest, you need to explore the world, pick up new skills and bits of information, forge alliances with various characters, and vanquish enemies for loot. There are huge portions of the game that are simply conversations — you engage a character, listen to what she says, and then have 5 or 6 options for a reply. Based on that reply, she’ll take the conversation in a particular direction, giving you 5 or 6 new dialogue options, etc. Each choice you make determines how the rest of the game will play out for you.

So I’d spend afternoons hanging out on my Husband’s couch, reading a book or knitting a sweater while he played Mass Effect. He’d explain about the mission Commander Shepard was on, and I’d occasionally help him choose dialogue options. (One of the reasons I fell in love with him was he always chose the good, “paragon” dialogue options, no matter what game he was playing.) I loved that one of the characters was voiced by Star Trek: TNG alum Marina Sirtis (aka Counselor Troi). Slowly, I began to see the appeal, and I picked up a controller. At first, I’d only play through the dialogue sections, passing the controller to Husband during battles. But as I got more familiar with the mechanics of the battles, I became more comfortable with fighting myself. (Though, to be honest, I’m much better at Dragon Age fights than I am at Mass Effect fights. And I got pretty good at Red Dead Redemption, but nearly threw the controller through the TV when my character stumbled upon a rattlesnake and got bitten.)

What drew me in, what kept me interested in the games was the story. I cared about Commander Shepard. I loved making fun of Ashley, trying to draw out Garrus (and I’m not the only one!), and figuring out a way to romance Tali’Zorah. Through both Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2, the story grew and intensified, and the choices my husband made for Shepard way back in the beginning had ramifications on the gameplay yet to come. We got invested.

So I’ve been paying attention to the controversy about the Mass Effect 3 ending not only as a fan, but also as someone who makes a living in the world of stories. Without giving any spoilers myself (but if you follow these links, be ye warned), fans are not happy about how ME3 ended. And they put up such a stink that BioWare, the company responsible for the game, is issuing new content. (After a blog post that emphasizes how much they value fan feedback.)

Which brings me to the question I want to ask you: In this age of easily-update-able ebooks and unprecedented author interaction with readers, would you ever petition an author to change an ending, or add a coda to offer more reader satisfaction? Do you expect authors to listen to reader responses about book seven in a series as they’re writing book eight? If an author’s vision for the ending of her series is different from what you expected and hoped, does that invalidate the joy she brought you with her earlier books?

Comments

  1. Wow, that’s a tough question! On the one hand, there’s the idea of artistic integrity. Hopefully there’s a REASON the author ended a story the way s/he did, and the ending has meaning. On the other hand, everyone has creations that work better than others, and if there’s an overwhelming opinion that something didn’t work a reasonable person should take that criticism into consideration. Although it’s a good idea to allow time for opinions to settle, particularly if the ending is unexpected. An example that comes to mind is the discontent that followed the ending of Joss Whedon’s Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-long Blog. When I first saw it I was not happy (and from what I understand, there was much displeasure expressed online) but when I had more time to think about it, I got it. It WAS a good ending to the story he was telling… it just wasn’t what I’d expected. So for books and movies and other scripted creations, I think for the most part we should try to appreciate an author’s vision as it was, not as we expected or wanted it to be. Even when I don’t come around to liking the author’s ending (the Hunger Games series comes to mind) I try to appreciate it for what the author wanted and can daydream up my own ending!

    Games are a weird art form though. I’m not a video game player, but I am a tabletop gamer and have been for over a decade. (Yup, I’m a geek.) Good game-stories in RPGs get audiences engaged differently than a novel or a movie because it is community storytelling. Players ARE a character. Instead of experiencing a finished product, they make decisions that affect the storyline, finishing the product as they go along. The narrator never has complete control like they do in a book or movie, and I think this giving over of control should extend to the ending. Granted, tabletop gaming is an even less finished product than a video game, but when I’ve created stories, I’ve modified them as we went along – sometimes radically – based on what the players chose to do. It’s their story, too, not just to experience but to write. They’ve gotten to do it all along, so why should they passively accept an ending dictated to them? Having alternate endings to RPGs makes much more sense to me than alternate endings for art forms that are completed before interacting with an audience.

    On the other-other hand, George Lucas letting Jar-Jar fade into the background in Star Wars episodes 2 and 3 helped me stomach them, so… maybe sometimes it’s a good thing when creators of “finished product media” listen to fans!

  2. I think it’s funny that Jax mentioned George Lucas, since that’s exactly where I was going to go with this. I think taking audience/player/reader feedback into consideration for sequels is probably good practice–as long as the feedback is from a substantial portion of the audience.

    But seriously. Han did not shoot first. It is not okay with me to go back and “tweak” a previous installment because you changed your mind, regardless of feedback. With books, particularly Carina books, being in a digital format, it would be possible to change an ending and redistribute the new version. Not easy, mind you, with all the third party retailers, but certainly easier and less costly than collecting all the copies of a print run and reprinting the whole thing. Just because you can, doesn’t make it right. (Still looking at you, George. You’re gettin’ the stink-eye.)

    Stand by your decisions. If people aren’t happy with the result, make the next movie/game/book in the series better.

    Also, in case you missed it the first time (and I can’t stress this enough), Han shot first.

    -Rachel

  3. I know that JK Rowling had this issue because of the popularity of her books whilst she was still writing the last few. Fan fic and fan sites popped up everywhere predicting the end and events for certain characters. She adressed some of these and said why she wasnt going that way, but ultimatley went a different direction for most of it of which no one could predict. I wonder though if she purposley changed the ending to not meet with any of the rumours? Had she written them all before they got so famous do you think they would have ended differently?

    I have had crit partners who suggest different endings for my books and for the most i leave them as they are but my most recent, Scholars Forbidden lesson, i heeded their wishes and changed it. Not becasue i liked the new ending better but because it still maintained the flow of the story, it just exposed a little more than my original one, had a bit more punch if you will. However, this was done before it went up for sale. I think its bad practice to change a book once it has already been published, its like saying oops we forgot to edit it oh well. Its unprofessional and sloppy to not get it right the first time even if your fans disagree, your the writer, you get to decide how to end it.

  4. The Harry Potter series (and all the attendant fan-fic) popped into my mind, too. It was my understanding that the series ended the way it did because she grew too attached to her characters to end the stories in a way that perhaps would have been more appropriate (at least to my mind, and nearly everyone else I know agrees). Assuming that everyone has read all 7 books (if not, SPOILERS BE HERE), killing off Sirius was a necessary, if sad move, and ditto with Dumbledore. Other characters suffered unnecessary deaths perhaps, but the struggle and futility of war was shown by their deaths, even if it was a bit heavy-handed (Lupin and Tonks, whichever Weasley twin bit it, Hedwig, etc). But out of all of them, Harry needed to die and stay dead. Or not, perhaps, but I truly felt that Rowling was waffling in how she dealt with Harry and Voldemort’s showdown, and I was incredibly disappointed with the ending (and the epilogue). I thought it was weak plotting because an author had grown too attached to her characters–not that that’s bad, because it’s not–but because I think it weakened the overall story. Attachment or no, the story should come first. If you miss the characters who died, go back and read an earlier book.

    All that said, disappointed though I was with the ending (I thought some of the book 7 fan fics were incredibly well written and felt truer to Rowling’s world than her book 7), I would be irate if she went back and changed it. I have no problems with director’s cuts and alternate endings, but as others have mentioned, I do have a problem with doing things like George Lucas does. Re-editing and completely changing aspects of a movie/book/etc bothers me if I no longer have access to the original (which is what really bugs me about most Star Wars re-releases; luckily, I got versions which have as a “special feature” the original theatrical releases). I’m interested and often excited to see what changes a director or writer would make, but not at the expense of destroying the original so that they can’t be compared.

    But maybe that’s just the historian/archivist in me. Or maybe it’s because I think Lucas is a bit money-grubby. Regardless, I don’t mind seeing alternate versions, but don’t destroy the original–you put it out there, so people should be able to see both versions.

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