The gaming industry is ever changing and so, it appears, are the reactions of the fans. With communities like Tumblr and Twitter, news and opinions are shared instantaneously, and maybe you didn’t care much for the companions in Bioware’s Dragon Age II (I didn’t, unfortunately), but rest assured, someone else definitely did and they are out there ready to tell you why. There is a plethora of art, fanfiction and discussions for games such as those belonging to Bioware’s gem of a fantasy franchise. Fans are expressing their love and opinions in a multitude of ways, but the level of involvement does not stop at pure appreciation; nowadays it is often angry, upset and very much personal.
It goes both ways; fans are showering the writers and directors with love, and it is an established fact that the voice of the fandom is often an influence on game designers. I suspect that a certain templar named Cullen from the upcoming Dragon Age: Inquisition would not necessarily play a major role in the much awaited game if it wasn’t for the love and attention he has received over the years from a huge amount of Dragon Age fans. Now you can scroll down Tumblr endlessly and find comments on his abandoned noodle-hair, his extravagant fashion sense and his unrequited love for your character should you have happened to play a mage in Dragon Age Origins. There are doodles, fanfiction and even music mixes devoted to a character we barely even spoke to in the previous two games. Fans speculate and discuss, they share art and news via networking websites, and devote a huge amount of time to characters and games in a way that has increased rapidly over the past few years.
This is because gaming has become personal; it compels the player to become involved beyond the act of pressing buttons and seeing the immediate result on the screen. It’s no wonder either, seeing as games such as the Mass Effect instalments and the increasingly famous Telltale games are built around the choices you make as a player. In games such as Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain, several of the playable characters might die unless you act quickly and make certain choices, and all of these mechanics tend to revolve around a story that is often intricate and downright clever.
In many games, you are offered the possibility of customizing your character, and this is, of course, often taken further with fan made mods. You can choose for your character to be nice or downright horrible, you can flirt, romance and/or sleep with other characters, and more importantly, many games unfold in various ways due to your personal influence on the playable characters. In other words – it has become more and more common to be able to identify with the characters you are controlling. And as we identify with our characters more and more and our choices are at the core of the game, what do these choices say about ourselves?
In the Mass Effect series, the lore is impressively in-depth and each playthrough offers a different outcome depending on your choices. More importantly, these choices are often placed on a morally ambiguous scale. This type of game challenges the player to contemplate (while in some cases desperately pressing the PS button to pause the game before a default choice will be made for you) the implications of what your choice might result in. In many cases, there might not be a straightforward answer and neither of the options will lead to what would be considered to be a positive outcome.
Mass Effect offers an array of relevant examples of challenging choices that the player has to make. In Bring Down The Sky, a DLC to the initial Mass Effect, Shepard has to deal with a batarian terrorist group who are planning an attack on a human colony. Why are they doing this? Because they believe that it is because of us humans that they have been driven out of the galactic community and are now suffering the dire consequences. I’ll refrain from discussing what conflict this might reflect in real life, but I think the answer is fairly obvious.
The choice is yours; do you save the hostages and let the bad guy run away, or do you shoot him and possibly save future lives but at the expense of the lives of the hostages next door? There is no wrong or right, but you still have to make that choice. So while we cannot shape a character completely in line with ourselves, we are asked to take a minute and make a decision based on our beliefs in morals and ethics.
Fans love these games because they force you to activate that good old brain of yours to make genuinely tough choices. This might be why so many fans also get very angry when a game of this calibre fails to live up to their expectations. Mass Effect 3 created an explosion of angry fans claiming that Bioware had screwed them over; that the ending was an insult, that they felt cheated. People made long documentaries and asked fans to completely shun the company and their products. Suddenly people didn’t just appreciate and express their opinions over a game; they appeared to feel personally targeted by the game itself. However, what is important to remember is that regardless of what choices you make there are only so many combinations that a game is built upon. While several endings are often presented, they have to follow a narrative that is somewhat linear despite the choices that the player is invited to make. There are only so many outcomes and varieties of endings that a game can offer, artistic integrity or not.
Gaming has definitely become personal when fans direct hate towards the directors and writers and when they claim that they will never touch a Bioware product again. Perhaps the fans feel cheated when their investment on such an emotional level does not achieve the result they thought that they deserved. Regardless, it’s the creation of these emotional responses that make these games remarkable. One can only begin to speculate what the future of gaming holds in terms of emotional scarring for us fans. Meanwhile, I’m going to quietly observe the art, love and anger expressed for these types of games whilst forever crying over the fact that Garrus is not my alien-lover in real life and that unless I romance him, he will go behind my back with Tali. How could you do this to me, Bioware? How could you?