Something has been bugging me for a while about the way we respond to games sometimes. Due to the increasingly modular nature of games and significant growth of community efforts from publishers and marketing, it feels like we have actually taken steps back in treating games more like products than art. We like to throw games up on pedestals or present them to naysayers as a medium with legitimate narrative heights, yet when players encounter something they don’t like in a game, be it some unexpected mechanics or story beat they don’t immediately love, the demands come to make changes. We demand the devs “fix” the game, or “fix” the ending, or “fix” the visuals. We’re not talking bug fixes, we’re talking content on the creative end. It makes me wonder, has our sense of ownership with games grown out of control?
I’d like to cite a few examples that come to mind: Mass Effect 3 and Final Fantasy XV. These are the most egregious examples of what I’m talking about, several years apart. Both of these games have huge fanbases, full of people who happily dropped the dosh to play on day one. But due to some decisions made in the storytelling department, swaths of people lashed out in straight-up anger towards the devs, demanding “fixes.” The fans saw the story, the product of the creative side of the games’ development, as something that was damaged and in need of repair, as if writing and telling a story is the same thing as writing lines of code to make guns shoot, wheels spin, or hair sway in the wind.
In the case of Mass Effect 3, the outrage was directly squarely at the ending. The story leading up to the game’s final minutes were near universally well-received, as each section of the game focused on resolving all the major plot threads. From the ultimate fate of the Geth and the Quarian fleet, to the resolution of the Genophage problem, nearly everything that saw significant time in the previous games came to some kind of conclusion.
Unfortunately, the actual ending, the very end and the resolution of the Reaper invasion, wasn’t as satisfactory. Players mobbed the BioWare forums, social media, and even BioWare employees with seething rage over the ending not being good enough or something. BioWare would eventually cave and develop more story content, and the situation would happen again (and much worse) when Andromeda released.
With Final Fantasy XV, the game’s whole situation was a lot messier. The development took over ten years (arguably half that if you count the talent change as a fresh start) and it had the unfortunate position of following up the extremely divisive Final Fantasy XIII series. It bucked a lot of tradition, courting western RPG conventions and approaching JRPG story structure in a new way. The narrative itself was a challenge to the usual tropes as well, largely about Noctis struggling with powerlessness as his world moved around him, without him.
This led to a more vague, indirect style or narrative delivery, with the deeper lore of Final Fantasy XV relegated to background noise and media existing outside of the game. Meanwhile, the game was more about the bond between the main characters and Noctis’ personal struggles. This came to an ugly head in the infamous chapter 13, which brought the background stuff to the forefront with just enough to wrap things up while still keeping everything intentionally vague and uncomfortable. Along with some strange design choices, this made fans cry out against the game’s storytelling as being “unfinished” or, again, in need of fixing. And again, Square Enix and the Final Fantasy XV team relented.
So what’s the takeaway here? Well, it seems like a team can spend years making a game, writing and telling a story, then get yelled at if it doesn’t gel with the audience until they go back and change it to something more digestible. And the publishers and developers, who have no choice but to court these kinds of rabid fans to keep their profit margins, give in and do just that. And since it works and is always met with apologies from overworked directors and staff, the behavior gets to continue, strengthened by success. I don’t like it.
Video games are the perfect medium to get weird and try new things, but every time someone does so it gets trashed until it goes back to the workshop and hammered into something more easy, less challenging. If we’re going to insist games sit on the pedestal of art, then we need to back off and talk about these things in discussion, not yell at developers on Twitter until they make changes to their creations.