Courtesy Supergiant Games
Would Bastion mean as much if we just watched it?

I’d like to think that most of the audience of this article is familiar with the television program Whose Line Is It Anyway? be it in its original BBC format or the American version. What makes the show so memorable, funny, and watchable are not necessarily the host, the games themselves, or even the “contestant” comedians. It’s the people we don’t see much of. In this case, that isn’t the production crew or the camera operators. It’s the audience. The audience, through participation and excitement and laughter, make the show much, much more than the sum of its apparent parts. It has all the trappings of your standard television program, but once it begins, the differences become glaringly apparent.

If you were to show a theorhetical time-traveler from the 30s a game like Uncharted, Assassin’s Creed, or Mass Effect, they may mistake them at first for films. Then, they’re handed a controller, and the protagonist they just saw cracking wise, stabbing Templars, or shooting (or snogging) aliens is suddenly obeying their commands. We don’t just watch these stories unfold; we become a part of them. The difference is in the controller we hold, the keys we press, the gestures we make. Flailing at a movie screen or television set used to have no influence on a story’s outcome. Now, however, the player is invited to join in the storytelling experience.

I am, of course, speaking of games that go into the design process with this level of interactivity in mind. Not every game is going to set out to create an immersive environment for storytelling. To be honest, not all gamers want that, either. Some just want to blow things up, like some TV viewers just wanting to watch rich people slap the spray-on tans off of one another. There’s also the fact that things like Heavy Rain exist, which many people consider a film you occasionally interact with through your controller. As in all things, there are extremes on both sides.

The fact remains that video games present creative minds with new ways to tell stories, just as films and radio and books have done for years. Even when video games were somewhat nascent and confined mostly to standing cabinets in arcades, among the flashing lights and rudimentary sounds were games like Missile Command, trying to do more than simply bilk kids for quarters. Much like the pioneers of literature, visual art, and motion pictures, early gamesmiths realized the potential of the medium and started pushing boundaries. Naturally, there have always been those who have pushed back, and video games have no shortage of those voices.

Apart from the general alarmists decrying violence and sex in video games, there are other alarmists who would have you believe that the medium would be ruined if the audience for a given game has too much influence over it. Once a game is on shelves or available for download, they say, it’s a work of art like a Monet or a Kubrick, and should be treated with the same respect. Opponents of the Retake Mass Effect movement in particular are fond of this argument. They are on recoard as saying the movement is not only a cabal of craven crybabies craving a creamy cake conclusion to their beloved franchise, but also that its success means nothing short of the degradation of the medium as a whole.

Whenever I hear this argument against changing a game’s story after publication, I think of the film Kingdom of Heaven. The film that was released to cinemas had a great deal of issues in its plot and pacing. Director Ridley Scott would later release a Director’s Cut of the film, smoothing out many of the rough patches and turning a mediocre entry in the realm of historical drama to a highly enjoyable and quite adept film on the nature of faith and religion set against the backdrop of the Crusades. There were still historical inaccuracies but they didn’t get in the way of the story. As satisfying as it is to see a work of this magnitude change for the better after its release, imagine how much more potent that satisfaction would be if there was a more direct emotional investment, say if we were assuming the role of main character Balian instead of just watching Orlando Bloom be that guy.

Part of the reason video games matter so much to their audiences is because the audience are active participants. Deus Ex: Human Revolution or Bastion would be excellent stories on their own, but the investment made by the player makes their plot points even more important, their twists even more shocking. The compulsion exists for the players to push onward, to find out what happens next, to see how the threads of character and setting weave together to underline the themes of the work. And if at the end, those threads begin to unravel, the player can become confused, or disappointed, or even angry. Unless this was intentional on the part of the designers to provide some sort of commentary on player expectations or some other greater meaning, the designers may be called upon to address the issues, to in essence fix something the players feel is broken.

This is where video games truly differentiate themselves from other media. Games have been patching for decades, as developers and players discover bugs that escaped the QA process. The advent of DLC has upped the stakes, allowing companies to monetize new material and also provide updates that there may not have been time to fully complete before launch. While monetized DLC is a subject for another discussion, in this instance the potential is for new content to be added not just to supplement the storyline, but to bring it to a more satisfactory conclusion if necessary. I will agree with some of the alarmists that if developers always caved to player demand, games would suffer for it. However, savvy developers will be able to look at their work after the fact, see the flaws being pointed out by players, and if the game overall would be improved by changing something, it will be changed. It works for game mechanics, it works for NPC behavior, it works for weapon balancing, and it can definitely work for storytelling.

Art is constantly changing. I’m sure there were those scoffed at the notion of a pointilist or a cubist painting because the artists did not subscribe to traditional ways of putting oil on canvas. When motion pictures started talking, supporters of vaudville and those seeking tight censorship over films were dealt a nasty blow over their protests. Video games, in this day and age, are also facing a time of change, as players and developers move closer together thanks to the Internet and the dissolving of barriers between the producers of this art and its audience. With players being active participants in the execution of the art, excluding them from the process and holding up the game divorced from player input as sacrosanct cripples any progress of the art form. The playing’s the thing that makes video games so singular and wonderful.