If Games Can Be Patched, Why Can't Their Stories?

Who controls the story of a video game — its writers or its players? The obvious answer — that a storyteller is a storyteller, end of discussion — has driven some reporters (including me) to condemn and dismiss the widely circulated fan petition that asks BioWare to change its ending for Mass Effect 3.

But by cutting all discussion and discarding the question as if it were some mathematical equation with an immutable answer, maybe we're doing a disservice to the entire medium. Maybe games can be more than just expressions of auteur theory. Maybe video games can be the first form that allows for the democratization of storytelling.

From a narrative perspective, video games have several distinct advantages over other forms of media, like television and film. The biggest advantage is that games aren't stuck to one final form. Thanks to a regular stream of patches and expansion packs, the massively multiplayer online game World of Warcraft looks drastically different in 2012 than it did in 2005. Downloadable content adds extra levels and features to everything from Call of Duty-level blockbusters to Costume Quest-type indies. It's tough to find a game that hasn't been modified in one way or another since release.

(Of course, we have to acknowledge Star Wars, whose creator George Lucas has done his absolute best to alter everything on a near-yearly basis. But that's an anomaly in the film industry. For games, change is the norm.)

If online experiences like StarCraft and League of Legends can constantly evolve based on community feedback, why can't their stories?

There's even some precedent for gamemakers altering their stories' endings based on fan response. Fallout 3 DLC pack "Broken Steel" added a new conclusion to the post-apocalyptic RPG, allowing players to continue their adventures past the game's original finale. Bethesda boss Todd Howard acknowledged that the dev team "underestimated how many people would want to keep playing" after the end and added a new option accordingly.

When fans complain that a game is buggy or unbalanced, developers are often quick to accommodate and patch their games accordingly. So if a large contingency of fans is upset about the way a game's story ends, maybe its writers should consider taking the same route.

In a video game, a player's desires are constantly at odds with a game's limitations. A player will always try his or her hardest to do things that the game doesn't expect him or her to do. Developers usually anticipate that struggle. The best ones use it to enhance a game's story, building contingencies based on what they think the player will do to screw everything up. Open-world games might install safeguards or change their stories if you go out and kill the wrong person, for example. You might see an entirely new piece of narrative if you head someplace too early, or do something too quickly, or make too many bad decisions. Good gamemakers subvert your expectations.

Can't fan-driven change be another form of this subversion? If a fan makes a sharp, passionate argument for why a story should have gone a certain way, is it unreasonable to expect a developer to consider that, and maybe even implement it? If online experiences like StarCraft and League of Legends can constantly evolve based on community feedback, why can't their stories?

I don't think it's productive for fans to demand that a developer change a game's ending because they're unhappy with the way it turned out. No matter how terrible Mass Effect 3's conclusion may be (I haven't seen it yet), it's the ending that developer BioWare chose. It's their story.

But there's a second side to that coin. In a medium that is constantly changing based on what audiences want and how players play, maybe there's room for stories that evolve and adapt based on our criticism. The solution won't come through petitions or message board moaning. It will come through smart, reasoned discussion and interaction and justification on both sides of the aisle. It will come in a way that is more like the tabletop game Dungeons & Dragons, in which the audience is just as important, if not more important than the storyteller. Stories don't have to flow in one direction.

Top image via DeviantArt's Emperor Tokikin, depicting a version of Bowser and Princess Peach's wedding from a Paper Mario game... but what if this was the ending Mario fans demanded with no Super Mario to be seen?


    They better not change the ending to mass effect!!! i loved it. I dont want these kids who jumped on the band wagon with mass effect 2 affecting the game's ending. The ending was a good way to end the trilogy.

      Considering the the story from ME2 onwards took a drastic turn from where it was originally intended to go, it would seem you sound more like a ME2 bandwagon hopper. The original story as it was planned out in 1 is actually preferred by many ME1 players.

        and what was that ending... cause the ending in ME3 wasn't real... tis all a dream! it felt like a Manga ending... NONE AT ALL. confusing and made no sense, at all!

        I like the ending of big text on the screen that says "YOU WIN" RTAHER than the crap we got at ME3 would be preferable!

      Agree with Jace. Personally, I don't mind the ending. It was suppose to provide a conclusion to Shepards story within the ME:Universe, which it does. It's also suppose to be a "new beginning" which it looks like it is. It sets up the Universe perfectly for future installments.

      [SPOILER] Your actions in ME3 determine how many of your companions survived (and apparently how many are seen leaving the ship). The fact that Bioware has said to save your ME3 saves hint that your choices do matter, even if they don't matter in this game [/SPOILER]

    because the whole community will never be happy. know what you will end up with? hollywood focus groups. '10% of people said they liked script A's first 10 pages and 17% like B's....97% liked section C but the 3% ethnic minority might possibly be offended (ALWAYS an assumption as its NEVER true) so we'll change it!!!'

    Script by design and popular choice sucks arse. Hollywoods been doing it for years. Thats why test screenings happen. MIB2 was a prime example and MIB3 too. Hell MIB3 has been shooting with a 50% finished one!!!

    The endings are quite frankly, bad.

    The total redundancy of any of the choices you made.

    The fact that if you go in with minimum and do none of the side quests - or go in with everything maxed out - and you get the same endings with only a token difference that is made moot at the end of it anyway.

    The confusion over top tier endings requiring over 5000 war assets, but lack of info about if this is total assets or effective assets.

    The complete lack of an epilogue.

    The fact that at no point during the dream sequence or the catalyst or the end cutscene did I feel like this was a Mass Effect game - they just felt so out of place for me.

    The total destruction and undoing of the Mass Effect galaxy as we know it.

    Honestly - it destroyed the wonder and epicness that Mass Effect had built up for me over 3 games and 5 years.

    Damn shame - because Mass Effect 3 up until that point is one of the best games in the last few years - but personally with games, I remember the destination more than the journey. We play games for the ending. We watch movies to see the ending. We read books for the ending. They end. The end needs to be amazing and tie everything up or at least leave nothing in the mind of the player about what has happened (The exception to this is of course unless the point of the game is to ask us what is important like Inception etc).

    Patching a story is not the same as patching features or mechanics. The latter is prone to design oversights and imbalances; patching these things are appropriate as developers may realise that their product isn't working as they had envisioned. Story however is more artistic in nature. People may interpret it differently to what the writer intended, but in the end it's what the writer/developers wanted. For Bioware to patch the ending of ME3, they would have to admit that it was broken in the first place. Maybe it's appropriate if we have a game whose ending is clearly unfinished, but Bioware have produced something as they intended and they can't just back down on it because of fan bitchiness.

      Except when they did already.... with their ME novel (way harder to update than their game)... a month ago.


      Good old misinformed crusaders, gotta love the internet.

     If you want Calculon to race to the laser gun battle in his hover-Ferrari, press one.
    If you want Calculon to double-check his paperwork, press two.

    If the battlefield 3 forums have taught me anything about individual gaming communities, it's that they're full of whining, bitchy kids who couldn't agree on anything, ever.

      Ha! You should check out the Halo forums.

        YOU SHOULD CHECK OUT THE elder scrolls forums. It doesnt need to be a multiplayer game to see people whinge and bitch at each other.

    Stories should never be changed for anyone.

    It's as simple as that.

    Ok so I haven't played ME3 yet, and have no idea how the story goes or ends, but why should they change the ending? Patching stories is WRONG. If a story happens to be crap, it was meant to be that way.

      keeping in mind that "crap" is totally subjective anyway.

    I think the problem with the ending of ME3 is how everything is structured. If it were a book or a film then the ending would be alright because we (the player) didn't guide the protagonist through the story. As it stands my ME3 playthrough was about 27 hours and I've played ME1 and 2 about 2-3 times each now. None of my choices/actions in the three games make a difference in the end. I think a lot of the anger stems from players having their characters shafted after that much time and investment.

    Personally I would pay for a DLC that retcons the ending.

    I don't know, I've actually been thinking about this for a while. How good would Bionic Commando be if they updated and patched the final level of the game and got rid of that stupid plot twist.

    I don't know about ME 3, but how do people feel about the precedent that Fallout 3 set?

    In it's vanilla incarnation it left your character dead, which of course is bad enough (not being able to continue play). But what made it worse is that your death was completely stupid and should have been avoidable, either by:

    A: Sending in a Rad resistant/immune minion or
    B: Donning an rad suit and popping some Rad X

    And as stated Bethesda changed it in the Broken Steel DLC and in mine and many others opinion it was for the better.

    I'm glad to see some more 'subdued' comments here today, rather than the awful mess from the other day.

    I haven't played ME3 yet so i can't comment on that particular ending. If it sucks, like a few people have stated, then I'll probably be disappointed. I might voice my opinion, or tweet a statement of disappointment.

    At no stage will I sign a petition to change the ending & spew venom at BioWare. I would hope they're not even considering it.

    Patch broken aspects of games? Absolutely! Patch a story that doesn't meet your expectations? Bollocks!

    That being said, if it does suck as much as (some) people are saying, I hope BioWare take the critisism on-board when creating future titles.

    I wonder then, somewhat tangentially, if the ending (I haven't seen it) to ME3 has caused this much of a furore amongst the fans, what kind of angst and discussions must have taken place at Bioware while they came up with it?

    Like anything, there would have been dissenters amongst the story writers, not to mention those who only worked on technical assets or marketing and so forth. I've certainly heard of this sort of disagreement coming out when much-loved TV series' end.

    I'd love some 'fly on the wall' behind the scenes clearing of the air from the production team to that end.

    At first I was going to say that the ending shouldn't be patched, but when they test screen movies they often change the endings if the audience dislikes it. In the end it's up to the developer, if they want the ending to stay as it is then it should no matter how bad others think that ending is.

    Sure you could patch in a new ending for a game, but only with small adjustments. If you make it too wildly divergent then you start running the risk of needing to ret-con, and all your foreshadowing would start falling apart. Then, if it's a game with choice, you would need to account for all the possible choices a person could have made up to that point and fit it in with their version of the story.

    Blizzard did it with the Burning Crusade, retconning in the Draenei and Blood Elves, then the Death Knights in Wrath of the Lich King and mostly pulled it off but there were still a lot of gaps that people noticed. Then you have efforts like Mass Effect: Deception which got the fiction incredibly wrong and people noticed it like a cheap fix to your walls.

    to me the ending felt like i was reading one of those 'choose your adventure' books. they tend to have the same ending but its felt like pages were missing. it lacked crucial details and felt incomplete. where was the dialogue of shepard ordering joker to fly everyone out of the firing line as a last attempt to save his crew? where was the explanation of the cruible? how the hell did tim get onboard?
    storytellers have pulled off the martyr storyline successfully before but this is not the case. so much felt left out let alone the fact that the core concept of ME was abandoned in the process. if you recieved a book with missing pages you would want a complete copy wouldn't you? then why not here

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