Writers vs Readers
Greetings, Faction Readers! I wish I had time to write to you more often, as my ravings on here always seem to get such good and insightful commentary. Alas, real life (such as starting life in a new country) has continued to assail my every waking moment, leaving little time to share my thoughts(?) with you.
In addition to my limited time, I find myself reading less and less. My precious leisure time has been spent more and more in the various worlds of PC gaming. Skyrim was the start, and things only spiraled from there with the release of The Old Republic, my continued forays into Azeroth, and the looming release of Diablo III. As such, I find myself with fewer topics to discuss when it comes to the world of fantasy literature. Fortunately, recent events in the world of gaming have led me to some interesting and rather timeless questions, which I will posit to you within the body of this month’s article.
Has the ending of a beloved novel, movie, or game ever disappointed you to the degree that you felt the need to write to the creator(s) and express your displeasure? Perhaps the ending was incongruous with the rest of the story, killed your favorite character, or was simply terrible? Personally, I have always found the endings of Stephen King novels to be a source of frequent disappointment. King crafts these amazing worlds, populates them with real people in unreal circumstances, but never seems to be able to tie a bow on the ending. The endings are either too pat, too silly, or completely flat.
What provokes this line of thinking is the astonishing outcry from fans of Bioware’s epic sci-fi series, Mass Effect. The third and final part of the trilogy was released this month after an eternity of hype. Through the course of the three games, the player plays the role of Commander Shepard, whose gender and personality are sculpted almost entirely by the player during the series. Shepard is a human space marine charged with ending an apocalyptic threat to known life in the galaxy. In an impressive feat of storytelling, Bioware allows the player’s storyline decisions to carry over from game to game, effectively allowing the player to script the epic narrative themselves.
Shortly after the release of Mass Effect 3, grumblings began to be heard on the gaming forums. These grumblings soon turned into howls of rage like only the internet could provide. These fans didn’t like the ending. In fact, these fans HATED the ending.. They REALLY, REALLY HATED it. Some even felt the need to file complaints with the Federal Trade Commission accusing Bioware of false advertising. I will admit that while I’ve played (and loved) the first two, I have yet to dive into part 3 so I do not have any personal experience with said ending. Perhaps some of you have finished the game but, as far as I can understand, fans seem to think that ‘not enough player choice’ was given with regards to the conclusion of Shepard’s tale.
As I haven’t seen it myself, I can’t comment on it directly. However, it made me wonder if, extremist responses aside, some of these fans have a point. Who really does have ownership of a story? Is it solely the creator(s) who invest time and creativity who decide, or do the fans who also invest their time and money into the story have a say? The easy answer, and likely the legal answer, is that whoever controls the intellectual property itself has the final say. Realistically this is how things work. No one files legal action (as far as I know) against Joe Abercrombie or Patrick Rothfuss because they didn’t like how their novels ended. It is pretty generally assumed in literature that the story belongs to the author and the reader is just along for the ride. I’ve certainly not enjoyed how some novels ended but it never left me wanting to demand the author change the story he or she had labored over for months or years. I’m sure it has happened at some point but, for the most part, people chalk up such experiences to disappointment and move on to the next novel.
It is the interactive and collaborative storytelling, it could be argued, of video games that has the potential to invite this kind of reaction. Players begin to see it as ‘their’ story. There is a sense of ownership you don’t usually find in fans of literature. Players don’t think of ‘Shepard,’ they think of ‘My Shepard.’ Do they have a case, I wonder? Legally perhaps not, but recently Bioware was quoted as saying they stand behind the controversial ending, but added, “This is not the last you’ll hear of Commander Shepard.” Does this mean they might have been moved by the protests? Maybe, maybe not, but the cries have clearly reached their ears.
Should they offer future alternatives to the ending of Shepard’s story? Or should players simply move on to the next game? Is anything ‘owed’ to anyone? As a reader, have you ever strongly wished you could change the ending of a tale? Should you be allowed to do so? As a writer, how would you respond to a similar situation? What if someone demanded you change the end of your tale? Would you hear their suggestions? What if you found their ideas better than your own? Whose story is it?
Personally, I’m not sure how I would respond as a writer. But even as a fan who hates disappointing endings, I know I would never ask a writer to change their vision. Still, I will be sitting out this Mass Effect situation until it sorts itself out. I just hope it ends well. I hate crappy endings.
Title image by JaxImagery.