What LucasFilm Could Learn From J.K. Rowling and BioWare

I have imagined myself a writer just about as long as I can remember.  It was a small wonder I failed to win a Hugo for six-year old me’s spiritual successor to Roland Emmerich’s blockbuster “Independence Day,” entitled simply “Thanksgiving Day.”  I won’t keep you in suspense -- yes, it did feature alien turkeys.

And while my graphic novel's readership didn't extend further than my family, in all my subsequent ventures I was and am still aware of the relationship between a creator and audience, something that LucasFilm now struggles with thanks to their re redefinition of the Star Wars universe. 

  Star Wars: The Old Republic , another game removed from Star Wars cannon, from  Bioware 

Star Wars: The Old Republic, another game removed from Star Wars cannon, from Bioware 

As gamers, we are no strangers to experiencing a story by proxy.  We are actors after a fashion, learning by playing a role.  It’s a degree closer than the omniscient third person of a theatre or cinematic audience.  We are forced to play out a basic level of prescribed events and thus are given a taste of responsibility for our actions. This is where emotion stems from in video games. Who can forget a certain airport sequence from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2?  How many people cringed in horror when they realized a miscalculation in Mass Effect 2's final mission led to the death of a friend like Garrus or Tali?

These experiences pale in comparison to the breadth of the Star Wars Expanded Universe. George Lucas initially created the Star Wars Universe to be “…a creative space for other people to tell their own tales.” LucasFilm recently issued a press release stating that the new Star Wars Episode VII would not respect hundreds comic book series, novels, or video games related to the Expanded Universe.  Starting April 25th, 2014, only the six movies and the Star Wars: Clone Wars animated series would be kept. They claim they are not discarding the Expanded Universe, but are no longer constrained by the Star Wars comics, novels, video games and the fan-contributed experiences intertwined with them. 

It's worth noting that this isn't a move LucasFilm makes alone. Disney acquired Lucasfilm in October of 2012, elevating then co-chairman of LucasFilm, Kathleen Kennedy, to president of the studio, reporting directly to the Disney Studios chairman. Still, George Lucas remained a creative consultant under the terms of the deal. 

The announcement, met with widespread scorn and no small amount of panic from the community, invited comparisons to the destruction of Alderaan in Star Wars: A New Hope, “as if a million fans cried out in horror and were suddenly silenced.”  My gut reaction was with the angry mob, but as I engaged with fellow fans and writers, a bigger question gripped me.

Was LucasFilm’s move a breach of the creator-audience relationship?

 Alderaan explosion and metaphor for fans' hearts thanks to  Wookiepedia , the hub for Expanded Universe content.

Alderaan explosion and metaphor for fans' hearts thanks to Wookiepedia, the hub for Expanded Universe content.

The answer lies in the act of asserting canon.  

Novelists, painters and especially game designers require an audience to engage with for their work to have meaning, and part of a creator’s purpose is to design the initial terms of engagement. Gordon Freeman, accomplished physicist, spends the course of Half Life 2 battling the ministrations of the enigmatic and tyrannical Combine. It's Valve's job as a creator to control the initial world, and they decided to design Half Life as an FPS rather than a turn-based strategy or stealth game.  Thus, George Lucas -- and, by extension, LucasFilm and Disney -- has every right to make a set of rules around the films, video games and media. He is likewise under no obligation to make room in the stories he tells for talking vegetables, meth-dealing bank robbers or rainbow unicorns.

But for all that control the creator enjoys before releasing their work, there is an equal and opposite lack of control post-release.  Every audience will undeniably bring their own experiences and fill the creative space with their individual and collective perspectives. So while the creator certainly enjoys ownership and a certain level of control over their work, they cannot control audience experience, and to an extent, audience contribution.

BioWare Had Simliar Problems with Mass Effect's Ending. 
Something similar happened with in the Mass Effect series. The first two games, heavily saturated with high-pressure decisions, had fans anxiously excited to discover the results of their collective actions. But when gamers reached the end of their 240-hour journey in
Mass Effect 3 and the final confrontation with the Reapers failed to make sense, let alone satisfy their experience, they were furious. 

And in their attempts to rectify their anger, a 20-minute long conspiracy theory introducing the elaborate Indoctrination Theory was born.

Mass Effect fans refused to accept an ending that did not meet with their expectations for the medium, and therefore created a narrative debatably more compelling than BioWare's canon. And after the swarm of absurdity mixed with conspiracy theories, Mass Effect 3’s designers eventually doubled-down on their canonical ending with a late-developed DLC “corrected” ending.

Imagine if BioWare had actually delivered on an open-ended conclusion that was heavily informed by each players choices in Mass Effect. Imagine if instead of making imperious declarations about canon, LucasFilm had allowed the filmmakers similar open-ended freedom, so they could continue the creative process for both fans and films. A heavily-financed interpretation of the expanded universe could translate as just another shining star in the fan-filled Star Wars galaxy.

Learning from J.K. Rowling - Preference without Command
Perhaps LucasFilm can instead learn from J.K. Rowling's conduct surrounding Harry Potter and Hermoine Granger. J.K. Rowling, six years after the release of her last Harry Potter novel, announced her regret of not having Hermione end up with Harry.

In this instance, Rowling is the model for how creators can attempt to control content after the fact.  She did not re-release Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows to frantically stand up a Harry and Hermione romance; she announced her preference and her wish that she had written it differently.  This opens the door for fans who agree to imagine what might have been knowing the author would see merit in their ideas, but does not invalidate the experience of those who were invested in Harry’s relationship with Ginny Weasly.

As video game enterprises become more grandiose and immersive, designers would do well to note the backlash against the defrocking of the Star Wars Expanded Universe.  The internet has created a forum for fans to exchange ideas, theories and realities of their own with little difficulty, and proprietary attempts to devalue those communal exchanges will reap exponentially negative returns as time goes on.  

Making hard, public decrees about canon is a ham-fisted attempt to inappropriately exert that control.  Like a romantic partner dominating a relationship, LucasFilm’s declaration that the incredibly rich storytelling found in the likes of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic is no longer a valid part of their universe directly invalidates the feelings and experiences of all the fans for whom it is a critical part of the lore.  Worse, there is no mention or appreciation of what the community wants; LucasFilm appears to be merely interested in exercising their proprietary rights.

Many die-hard Star Wars fans are disappointed enough may refuse to engage with the new content. I may be one of them.  Creators are best served by engaging and respecting their audiences, rather than attempting to rule with an iron fist.

 

Justin Mohn is a Missouri native and started his path as a gamer playing F22: Interceptor on the Sega Genesis. he tends to focus on the policy aspects of video game narratives.