Mass Effected Endings

Authorial Voice vs. Player Choice in Digital Stories

  CREATE, ACT, CHANGE: 5th International Digital Storytelling Conference.

Hacettepe University, Ankara. May 8-10, 2013.

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For the uninitiated, Digital Storytelling  might be a deceptive title. However, it denotes a very dedicated and rich community of practitioners and researchers focused on "short form of digital media productions that allow everyday people to share aspects of their life story". During my attendance to the 5th International Digital Storytelling Conference, titled CREATE ACT CHANGE, I had a chance to acquaint myself with the priorities and perspectives of this lively and engaging community. 

For my presentation, as part of the panel titled "Digital Storytelling Formulas & Networks", I discussed the controversy that surrounded the ending of the video game Mass Effect 3 that erupted shortly following its release in March 2012. After going over the events surrounding the release of the game, I highlighted possible implications of this intense community reaction, and more specifically, the rhetoric of authorship employed by the fans, to the Digital Storytelling community.

Developed by Bioware studios, Mass Effect is a role-playing action game celebrated by fans and critics primarily for the extend to which it allows for player action to shape the main character and the overall narrative arc. Thanks to these qualities, the series enjoyed a fervently dedicated fan base that took immense pride in the characters that they built up and the story they shaped over the course of years, leading up to the frenzied anticipation of what was announced to be the last chapter of the story. However, the intense excitement turned quickly into vitriolic rage when a considerable number of the game’s most loyal fans started expressing disappointment with the concluding scenes of the game. One month after the release, and citing this disappointment, the developers announced plans for an “Extended Cut”, making significant additions to the ending sequence.

Building on the community reaction and the stances and actions taken by the developers of the game, this paper questioned the evolving role of authorship and fandom in the age of digital interactive storytelling. After presenting the series of events, starting from the fostering of a strong and opinionated community by the developers from the beginning of the franchise,  to the ending fiasco, as it came to be known, I discussed the unique position of the writers of digital interactive fiction and the compromises they have to consider as they are expected to turn in an engaging piece of narrative while allowing for player action.

Moreover, these fundamental issues regarding authorship are further complicated by the ever-increasing use of social media and other community building tools utilized by publishers and developers. In the case of Mass Effect, the hundreds of videos critiquing the endings posted to YouTube, threads on various forums that expand into thousands of pages and the widespread press coverage these community actions inevitably generated, played a crucial role in the ultimate response from the developers of the game.

Video games have become one of the most dominant forms of entertainment in the past decade and one theme among many theories to explain their appeal is the interactivity and immersion they offer to the player. Through this high profile, and recent, event that exemplifies some of the challenges that are faced by the creators of digital stories, my presentation aimed to offer a multifaceted analysis of the issues at hand based on a theoretical and historical framework, highlight the impact of social media on both community building and communication between the creator and the audience, and ultimately pointed to further areas of research and discussion points on possibilities of improvement.