With the controversy over Mass Effect 3's ending, there's been a lot of discussion over whether the gaming community is overly entitled. It's certainly unusual to see so many people demand this kind of revision to a creative project, and the easy kneejerk response is to talk about how gamers have a giant entitlement complex. Is that the entire story, though? I'd like to suggest that there's a reason why gamers feel this passionate about game storylines, and it has to do with the unique space that games occupy as interactive entertainment products.
As games become more complex, mature, and story-driven, we will increasingly see tension between the player's expectations and the artistic vision of the game's developers. This is particularly true of games in which the player controls a self-designed alter ego like Commander Shepard. As interactive experiences, games necessarily give narrative power over to the player, something that can be difficult for designers and writers to handle. This makes the interaction between player and game very different from that between a reader or viewer of books or movies.
The difference can be seen in what I like to call the "stupid test." When a character in a movie makes an obviously stupid decision, like going outside alone when it's well-known that a masked killer lurks in the shadows, we laugh or perhaps discuss how incredulous the whole thing was. When a player-controlled video game character is made to do something obviously stupid in a cutscene, we tend to respond with anger. "Hey, I wouldn't do that!" Because video game characters become our alter egos, ham-handed plot advancements become personal.
Because of the unique properties of interactive entertainment, game developers need to keep the player experience in mind at all times. In particular when gamers have control over the identity and personality of a game's main character, there are limits to how far a game developer can take a personal artistic vision for that character's story before players start to feel that too much control has been yanked away. At the same time, trying too hard to please all fans will lead to bland, uninspiring stories in which the main character is never truly challenged. Tragedy and failure are often important shaping moments in the history of a character and should not be avoided in game stories, but they need to be approached carefully in games so as to produce the appropriate feeling of understandable loss rather than of frustration or anger when it seems that the loss could easily have been avoided.
All of this doesn't excuse fans who go too far in their expectations of game developers, however. Game fans seem to have a particularly difficult time understanding that their personal experience isn't universal, and the shrill sense of entitlement exhibited by some fans gives us all a bad reputation. In my time working in this industry, I've been frequently perplexed by the minor details that some fans loudly insist completely ruin their enjoyment of a game, from dwarves that aren't Scottish enough to less-than-optimal tree textures (I'm not kidding). There sometimes seems to be little understanding for the difficult process of game design amongst fan communities, or, on the other side, little tolerance for even well-reasoned criticisms of a favorite game.
Our hobby is growing up, and it's time for us as fans to grow up as well. If we want games to continue working toward immersive, character-driven experiences, we need to learn to provide intelligent critiques of game design without resorting to personal attacks or self-centered demands. We need to practice identifying the things we personally don't like about a game without automatically assuming that they're a result of poor game design. Once we've taken a step back and decided that there are examples of poor design in a game, we need to learn to speak our minds rationally and with respect for the people who have worked hard on the games we play.
After all, the games industry doesn't pay as well as the rest of the tech world. Making games is a labor of love for game developers, and often the development teams that receive the most vitriolic complaints from overly entitled fans are the very teams that are striving to evolve gaming and walk the line between games as art and interactive entertainment. It would be a shame if the increasingly loud demands of game fans were to sour some of our greatest developers on the industry. We may make decisions for our characters, but we'd never have a chance to experience that kind of interactive entertainment without the hard work of game developers. If we approach developers with respectful debate instead of angry arguments and demands, I think we'll find that we do a lot more to improve games in the future.
Date: April 5, 2012
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*