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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.

SKYRIM-DRAGON-CITYIn 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.

Mass Effect 3As 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.

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Writers vs Readers, 10.0 out of 10 based on 6 ratings
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9 Comments

  1. Louise says:

    I’m a bit “on the fence” with the whole ME3 controversy purely because I never got into the series enough to really become that enthusastic.

    I will say though, that I imagined the Mass Effect series to start off small and tight, slowly spreading out over the course of the tale, encompasing player decisions and then tying it all together at the end with one (maybe two) extremely well made endings. I have seen the different conclusions and (without wishing to spoil) I think Bioware tried to create too many, somewhat artifical, choices and really it came out as none.

    From what I gather though, most people are peeved that there’s no closure. You don’t find out what happens to any of the characters.

  2. Marvel says:

    Best article I’ve ever read here.

    Well done.

  3. Well, BioWare is taking a stand that they are “expanding” on the ending, but not changing it.

    I think the problem here isn’t that BioWare hasn’t a clue what they are doing, it is EA leveraging it as a business instead of an art. When BioWare was absorbed by EA, many talented people fled from their shackles and carried on with other things in their lives. Suffice to say, between ME2 and 3 (The boss at the end of 2 was awful, I will give people that), as well as Dragon Age 2 and soon to be 3, they realize now they can’t use the credit from the name of a dead business any longer.

    In other words, we no longer see BioWare, we see EA.

    Do they need to change it? No, they need to explain it. This is what makes the video game a superior format of entertainment in this day and age. You can have your interaction, get lost in a story that takes anywhere from 10-100 hours to complete, feel like you are a part of the decision making and have a voice on what you like or you don’t. Venues like Twitter, Facebook, and other social media outlets allow it.

    Great article on this topic, I am sure it will get some minds thinking. All in all, this is the age of interaction. If you aren’t willing to give and take on your “artistic” output and understand this is what today is all about, you are going to lose out on winning the hearts and minds of your target audience.

  4. Jamie Gibbs says:

    I’m with Louise, it’s a tetchy subject, though I’m leaning more towards supporting the fans on this one.

    With a story contained within a book or a movie, the progression and ending are the prerogatives of the creator showing an audience their interpretation of a story. With a video game, however, all players have a vested interest in the game as they are much more immersed into the story. They aren’t merely spectators, but are actively becoming players in a performance that is shared across the world. Especially with multiplayer and online co-op, fans really do shape the stories of video games.

    If ME3 was a book, I’d have told the fans to stuff it. As a video game, I’m a little proud that gamers were listened to (and their methods of being heard were very noble and admirable too)

  5. Fordy says:

    Fan entitlement is a dangerous thing, and as a writer it’s occasionally annoying (if not infuriating). We certainly don’t want to get into a situation where books are written by committee. For media other than novels, however, the sense of entitlement seems much greater. I’ve worked in the RPG industry, and fan entitlement is almost rabid, particularly if you’re working on a game with a long history. You also get this with tie-in fiction, having written Warhammer fiction for Black Library I’m wary of the fan-rage that can result from ‘mistreatment’ of someone’s beloved IP. Computer games are clearly similar, because of the amount of fan-participation. Novels, on the other hand, are a more passive media, but readers still get involved in the characters and plot (if the author’s doing their job right). I don’t think this means that fans should ‘have a say’ in how a work is concluded. Authors have an unspoken contract with their readership anyway: I’ll write a good book and you buy it! As soon as an author breaks this contract he’s going to lose out on his readership pretty quickly. And let’s remember, all art is subjective, so one person’s crappy ending, is someone else’s rip-roaring finale. Not everyone wants their endings wrapped up with a neat little bow!

  6. Tiyana says:

    I don’t get what people mean by “not enough player choice” at the end. How many freakin’ choices do you need? And how many real outcomes can there be, logically? Either you defeated the Reapers, or you did not. Everything else is simply a variation of (or an illusion of choice spawned from) these two options, so of course those variations are going to seem not-so-different when you sit down and think about it. (Most of the payoff from players’ choices actually came in the form of building assets before the climax and ending, not during or after–the Genophage problem, the issues between the Geth and Quarians, etc. In this way, I believe Bioware truly delivered in their promise of making our choices matter.)

    Like you mentioned, Jesse, I believe a major problem was the lack of closure, a so-so denouement. Having played the game, I have no doubt this portion could have been better. As for the final choice players get to make at the end… Well, there are various theories out there on how to interpret the endings and some of them (to me) make more sense than others, yet I’m still conflicted about it. When the endings are interpreted in a very literal what-you-see-is-what-you-get way, there are so many holes in the internal logic of the story that it boggles the mind. However, if you interpret the endings in a less-than-literal, artsy way, you still don’t know with 100% certainty whether or not the Reapers have actually been defeated.

    That is what frustrates me.

    Though, to answer your questions (some of ‘em, anyway), I don’t think Bioware should offer any alternate endings whatsoever. It’s their story, in the sense that they wrote it and have the ultimate right to leave it as is. It’s obvious that they care about their relationship with their fans, though, and believe they, too, have a stake in how the story should play out or else Bioware wouldn’t have even bothered with announcing plans to release free content this summer offering more closure. Personally, I was vastly pleased with the game, and a head-scratching ending is not enough to warrant this kind of outrage, imo–because, really, it was like less than 1% of the entire game time-wise (depending on how much you played), the rest of which was truly phenomenal as far as game play and emotional payoff go.

    The negative responses have been so narrow in focus so as to be grossly disproportionate. It just doesn’t make sense to me.

  7. Nino van Vuuren says:

    Since I don’t really play computer games I will only comment on the book side. I find this a very interesting topic, something your average reader will probably never contemplate. When I was a kid I read a couple of “build your own adventure” books, where at certain points in the book you get to chose how the main character would react – and I hated it! As a reader I enjoy not having a responsibility regarding the outcome of the story. I have enough real life responsibilities, and definitely would not want my ‘escape from the world’ world to have any.

    Another thing also is that I do not read a book for the ending, but for the story of how they get to the ending. I would often even turn to the last chapter, read a couple of sentences, an then be even more intrigued at how they got to the ending. And this makes me wonder what are other peoples motivation for reading?

  8. Phil Norris says:

    I’m not a gamer so couldn’t give a rats fart about ME3. I though agree with Stephen King’s endings, especially his dire three book ego wank that was Wolves Of The Calla, Song Of Susannah and The Dark Tower. Including himself as a character was a low point for me, and part of the reason I’ve not read any of his stuff since.

    The opening books in the series – The Gunslinger, The Drawing Of The Three and The Waste Lands – are a perfect trilogy, and Wizard And Glass is a fine standalone fantasy story. Beyond that I do wish King could go back and re-think what he did, cut out the dross with himself as some godlike figure, and give Roland a better ending than what he did.

  9. I’m so glad you included this as one of your articles for IBBA! This alone has made me vote for you, though you also intrigued me by included an article about Mythology (I do mythological posts every Monday, and recently did one on trolls, so I like that you focus on mythological creatures as well). I also like that today, you also threw up a post about J.K. Rowling! Plus, fantasy is my heart, so you were the first adult blog on the list to fully appeal to me.

    The reason this article struck me is that I’ve often read books where I didn’t love the way it wraps up. As a writer, I try hard not to do this myself (except for one time when it was horror and couldn’t be helped, since it was left up to the imagination). I almost did a blind-buy of ICO/SHADOW OF THE COLOSSUS for my PS3 last year, but saw that the endings left something to be desired. This made me not buy it, and now I’m not sure about LAST GUARDIAN, when originally, the artwork had me salivating. Most recently, I played FFXIII-2 (Another way your post resonated with me! When you’re immersed in an RPG, you have less time to read!) and was sad by the way THAT ended…or didn’t end. Annoying!!!

    Finally….oh no!! Patrick Rothfuss doesn’t end his books well? I’ve been reading THE NAME OF THE WIND after hearing such great things about it, and now I’m nervous!!!

    Anyway, good luck from a new follower! :)

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