To Change or Not to Change: Artistic Integrity of an Evolving Medium

Posted: June 8, 2013 by aegisfang in Ancient History, game design, Game Players, Game Research, Games and Writing, New Media
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Today I would like to start a discussion on the artistic integrity of games with 3 topics in particular in mind: revised endings, HD upconverts, and extended editions.  When I say revised endings, I’m talking about the Bioware idea of trying to revise the ending after having already released the game.  HD upconverts and reboots refers things such as Age of Empires II’s new HD edition that was recently released on steam.  Extended Editions I find to be something of a misnomer because in this case my example is the extended edition of Anna which I would argue is not so much an extended edition as the developer releasing an entirely new version of their game and saying “Wait! Wait! Give us a second chance!”  I have very mixed feelings on each of these.  They have merits, but there is a question of whether the change is too much and thus irrevocably and sometimes even negatively affects the game.  Let’s go through each of these and then see what kind of discussion we can generate.

First, revised endings: would you really revise an ending?  Is that really how creative works should be treated?  Ok so in some ways Mass Effect is a bad example because Bioware was really clarifying an existing ending more than they were creating a new ending from scratch, but still let’s examine the idea.  Is it really ok for a developer to decide they want to change their ending?  James Portnow and Daniel Floyd of Extra Credits argued at their magfest panel back in January that Bioware should really only have changed their ending if they felt they could do better.  I don’t like the idea of changing a game’s ending particularly based on fan reaction.  Fans don’t get to change movie or book endings.  Why should games be different?  There is a very defined difference between something being interactive and giving the person interacting with it complete control.  At the most, players have the right to mod a new ending in if they want.  They do not have the right to outrageously demand a new ending from the developer no matter how much they feel the current ending betrays what the game stood for.  The player controls the direction of the player character not the artistic vision of the game.

Next, we have HD upconverts.  HD upconverts have a lot more merit to be argued.  They allow a new generation of gamers to experience games from previous generations of gaming.  However, there is something to be said for the experience of this new generation to not be quite the same as the experience of those who played it at the time.  This is one of the major arguments against emulators.  Emulators are great for continuing the tradition of gaming and preserving its history, but at the same time playing on an emulator does not allow the same controller or interface experience or even body of knowledge of the players who played at the time it released.  You cannot go back to that age of games the way you can with classic movies or books.  For that matter there is still no consensus on what the “classics” of gaming would be.  That said I think I’m ok with PC upconverts to HD because the PC has not changed much from a keyboard/mouse control standpoint or at least not in a way that a current PC could not be adjusted for.  As for HD upconverts of other games from console generations, I don’t think there is enough data to really judge yet so I suppose we’ll have to wait and see.

Finally, I’d like to bring up the subject of extended editions.  I’m not opposed to the idea of a developer saying we can make our game better so let us try it again.  I would worry about developers making it worse or completely changing the nature of a game in such an extended edition.  Anna did an ok job with this.  They kept the tone and managed to improve a little on the story and lack of explanation, but they also introduced a host of new bugs as well as new and again unexplained mechanics.  This too probably requires far more case studies before we can really judge, but I remain cautiously optimistic about the idea.

Artistic integrity is an important conversation to have about games.  It is a medium built on interactivity and the idea that each work is created by the developer for the player.  It is important to ask though how much input the player should have in that process.  It is important to ask if the developer should be allowed to change the work after it has been released and in what ways.  It is important to discuss how we should preserve games and to what lengths we can go to do that and what changes we are allowed to make in the name of preservation.

  1. Nice article!

    “I don’t like the idea of changing a game’s ending particularly based on fan reaction. ”

    At the same time, though, you can’t necessarily apply the same standards to games as books or films. Both of those have an almost unlimited shelf life, which can go on for decades after its release. Games are mayflies in comparison — they’ve got a very limited window to sell, and they HAVE to sell if the developer is going to continue making games. So if they’re making changes to better suit an audience’s tastes, that may be a necessary evil.

    A novel, when you boil it down, really has no budget beyond what the publisher gave to the writer as an advance and what they spent on promotion. I can write a novel with no cost involved but time, and I can keep selling it over a period of years, even decades. Games don’t have anywhere near that luxury, especially ones coming from a publisher that has constant overhead and has to keep bringing in profits for new investments.

    Until gaming stops with the planned obsolescence model and picks a technology platform that doesn’t get thrown out every five years to start over from ground zero and remains commercially relevant for long periods of time, it’s always going to be commercialism over art, and the crowd’s going to win over the creator.

  2. Twitchdoctor says:

    Interesting post. I almost felt like it should have been three posts since there are substantial issues in all three areas. But let me just start with the endings issue, since Michael has started us off talking about that.

    You said: “Fans don’t get to change movie or book endings.” Well, in point of historical fact, they have been doing this for a while. The number of endings for Hollywood movies that have been changed based on screenings before test audiences is legion, including some very famous ones. “Fatal Attraction” for example had a very different ending where she didn’t die. But audiences were so outraged that this terrible woman who had violated the sanctity of the home (the adulterous male, of course, wasn’t at fault; this was the Reagan/Bush years after all) got away with it that they demanded a new ending. Now you could say that the distinction here is whether the piece is finished or not. In other words, are we revising an ending that already exists? Or are we talking about something that is still technically in-progress? There’s a lot resting on that word “technically.” Studios routinely shoot multiple endings for films now.

    The picture becomes even more complicated when we think about novels. Because Dickens published his novels in serial form, he revised several of them as they were in progress based on reader feedback.

    There is a certain irony in criticizing a revised ending for games partly because the endings for many, many stories in games have been famously bad. In part this is because many of the endings have, in fact, been thinly veiled attempts to leave the door open for a sequel. But it is also because of a psychological dynamic where games are such intense experiences that in fact we don’t want them to end and thus feel let down when they do, no matter the ending. But it is also the case, I think, that players don’t deal well with ambiguity. Most people don’t deal well with ambiguity, in fact. A lot of people criticized the ending (well, technically there were “endings” but only one real one if you wanted to survive) of the original “Half-Life” because it was weak and ambiguous, but to me it made perfect sense of the way the story had played out (the gradually escalating sense that things were not under your control, etc.).

    Isn’t there also a certain irony in criticizing a form that is all about maximizing choice and interactivity for taking that to the next level? But maybe it isn’t the next level. Maybe this is just a further sign of how deeply indebted the AAA game industry is to the Hollywood model, which has pioneered a world where films exist with different endings (Blade Runner is one example) but also where films exist in substantially different version (the changes introduced in the extended editions of all three LOTR movies are substantial enough that they are completely different movies from the theatrical releases).

  3. aegisfang says:

    You have both made some very interesting points. The first point that I would like to make is that gaming is inherently based on a relationship between the developer and the player much like that between a director and his viewer or an author and a reader. My problem is that I don’t like the idea of the players assuming too much control over the game. Even in the most open-ended games, the player and the developer are telling a story together. The player is bound by the rules the developer creates even if those rules are just in the nature of the world. I don’t like the idea of the player expecting the developer to reconstruct the world in their own vision. Modding is perfectly ok. Multiple endings are ok. It’s the idea of the player expecting the developer to serve them that bothers me. And there is an analogy for writers too, namely: Neil Gaiman’s infamous post “George R.R. Martin is not your bitch” My issue is gamers claiming that they are entitled to endings being served to them just the way they like them prepared. I do completely understand the irony in criticizing games for maximizing choice or revising their endings, but I would argue that I am not so much arguing against games maximizing choices in their endings as I am arguing against players claiming they are entitled to a broader ending than that envisioned by the developer.

    That said, I am not opposed to developers changing endings of their own free will or even in consultation with players. As I said in the original post, Kalypso changing Anna based on player feedback vastly improved the game albeit while adding a whole host of new bugs and unexplained mechanics. Nor am I bothered by the commercialism of doing so. I think Steam resurrecting and upconverting old PC games has been one of the smartest things they could do from a business model standpoint. I think the most important aspect of this is the idea that the developers and players need a relationship on something bordering on equal terms. The developer shutting out the player particularly on interactivity basically makes a game a movie, but at the same time the player cannot dictate to the developer what the developer must do for them. Developers and players need to work together so games can be better.

  4. Oh my goodness! Amazing article dude! Thank you, However I am having difficulties with your
    RSS. I don’t know why I cannot subscribe to it. Is there anybody else having
    similar RSS issues? Anyone who knows the answer can you kindly respond?

  5. aegisfang says:

    Thanks for taking an interest in this so long after I wrote it initially. I find it especially cool that this is what you’re reading in the midst of the identity questions that games and interactive experiences as a whole are going through. I haven’t written anything new in a while, but I’ll definitely start writing more now that I’ve graduated (provided twitch doesn’t mind).

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