Who controls the story of a video game—its writers or its players?
The obvious answer—that a storyteller is a storyteller, end of discussion—has driven some reporters (including me) to condemn and dismiss the widely-circulated fan petition that asks BioWare to change its ending for Mass Effect 3, the popular sci-fi roleplaying game that came out last week for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC.
But by cutting all discussion and discarding the question as if it were some mathematical equation with an immutable answer, maybe we're doing a disservice to the entire medium. Maybe games can be more than just expressions of auteur theory. Maybe video games can be the first form that allows for the democratization of storytelling.
From a narrative perspective, video games have several distinct advantages over other forms of media, like television and film. The biggest advantage is that games aren't stuck to one final form. Thanks to a regular stream of patches and expansion packs, the massively multiplayer online game World of Warcraft looks drastically different in 2012 than it did in 2005. Downloadable content adds extra levels and features to everything from Call of Duty-level blockbusters to Costume Quest-type indies. It's tough to find a game that hasn't been modified in one way or another since release.
(Of course, we have to acknowledge Star Wars, whose creator George Lucas has done his absolute best to alter everything on a near-yearly basis. But that's an anomaly in the film industry. For games, change is the norm.)
There's even some precedent for gamemakers altering their stories' endings based on fan response. Fallout 3 DLC pack "Broken Steel" added a new conclusion to the post-apocalyptic RPG, allowing players to continue their adventures past the game's original finale. Bethesda boss Todd Howard acknowledged that the dev team "underestimated how many people would want to keep playing" after the end and added a new option accordingly.
When fans complain that a game is buggy or unbalanced, developers are often quick to accommodate and patch their games accordingly. So if a large contingent of fans is upset about the way a game's story ends, maybe its writers should consider taking the same route.
In a video game, a player's desires are constantly at odds with a game's limitations. A player will always try his or her hardest to do things that the game doesn't expect him or her to do. Developers usually anticipate that struggle. The best ones use it to enhance a game's story, building contingencies based on what they think the player will do to screw everything up. Open-world games might install safeguards or change their stories if you go out and kill the wrong person, for example. You might see an entirely new piece of narrative if you head someplace too early, or do something too quickly, or make too many bad decisions. Good gamemakers subvert your expectations.
Can't fan-driven change be another form of this subversion? If a fan makes a sharp, passionate argument for why a story should have gone a certain way, is it unreasonable to expect a developer to consider that, and maybe even implement it? If online experiences like StarCraft and League of Legends can constantly evolve based on community feedback, why can't their stories?
I don't think it's productive for fans to demand that a developer change a game's ending because they're unhappy with the way it turned out. No matter how terrible Mass Effect 3's conclusion may be (I haven't seen it yet), it's the ending that developer BioWare chose. It's their story.
But there's a second side to that coin. In a medium that is constantly changing based on what audiences want and how players play, maybe there's room for stories that evolve and adapt based on our criticism. The solution won't come through petitions or message board moaning. It will come through smart, reasoned discussion and interaction and justification on both sides of the aisle. It will come in a way that is more like the tabletop game Dungeons & Dragons, in which the audience is just as important, if not more important than the storyteller. Stories don't have to flow in one direction.