The Death of Canon

25 04 2011

My mind annoys me sometimes. I had a perfectly nice topic to write about today, something that would had a good chunk of argument, a healthy shot of relevance and a good opportunity to make a conclusion, something that I’m always pleased to have considering that many of my thoughts tend to fizzle out before they reach a satisfactory ending. But instead, after dipping into a few internet pages for a meagre amount of research, I happened to notice something that sent my mind off on one, into the realms of contemplation where a thousand dodgy ideas all pop up at once, a place in which even half-decent conclusions are never found. So I’m running with that instead. Into the fog we go…

Friday’s update on the Star Wars: The Old Republic website was the announcement of the third novel linked to the game. After two fairly steady efforts in Fatal Alliance and Deceived, this is the big one, a novel focused on one of the most popular Star Wars characters to emerge for a good long while: Revan. If anyone dominates the established canon of the Old Republic era, its him, so a novel detailing long-held plot secrets about his adventures in deep space and his encounters with the Emperor will be like manna for the fans. Or at least it would be if Revan hadn’t been the player character from Knights of the Old Republic.

In that game, Revan could be a man or a woman, a soldier or a scoundrel, an expert lightsaber duelist or a master of the force depending on your choices when customising the character. More importantly, he/she could be good, evil, or anywhere in between. All this customisation culminates in this: every player will have realised the character differently in their mind’s eye, regardless of whether they made the same plot choices or got the same ending as a hundred thousand others. Every player of KotOR had an original experience which will inevitably fail to match that of Revan in the new novel (which is called, inventively, Revan). On top of this, the novel will also deal with the fate of the Exile, the player character from KotOR 2, doubling the scale of the problem facing the author Drew Karpyshyn. Although he was the head writer on KotOR, Karpyshyn still has a hell of a job on his hands satisfying the fans of the game.

I was going to follow this point through a nice easy argument about how video games can’t be compatible with other forms due to their interactive nature, so on, so forth, but that was until I saw this on Karpyshyn’s website, in an FAQ about the book:

 ‘Q: Why are you destroying my KOTOR memories?

 A: I don’t see it that way. First, you still got to enjoy KOTOR – I don’t have a time machine to go back into the past and change that. And even while you were playing it, you had to know that your version might not be the “official” version. So nothing’s really changed. And in order to tell Revan’s story properly, we had to have one canonical version of the character and events.’

The emphasis is mine, raising as it does something that I find very unsettling. I cannot agree with Karpyshyn here. The implication is that an ‘official’ version of Revan’s story somehow has more worth than one which I played through, or which any of the game’s millions of players experienced. It is an underestimation of what videogame storytelling, or perhaps more specifically storytelling in games with branching plots, is all about.

Player experiences in such games often diverge, but once the demands of a sequel, in this case in the form of a novel, are made clear these experiences are drawn back together to form a solid canon. Are playthroughs that differ from this canon somehow invalidated? Will a player who made Revan a conquering tyrant feel completely estranged now that the character has been defined as a redeemed Jedi knight out to do battle with evil? Certainly, to a player with knowledge of canon, the experience of playing through KotOR again will be different, but is this in a negative way? I don’t think there is a clear answer here: videogame criticism is yet to reach the point where such concerns are taken into account, and with good reason: every player will feel that little bit differently about it. My own gut feeling, for what it’s worth, is that whilst some may now look on KotOR, or at least its branching plot,with a bitter eye, the majority will not.

I can’t help but think that similar situations in the future will become of increasingly diminishing importance to fans.  And so we come to that hideously complex idea that my brain has repeatedly thrown at me: intertextuality (or whatever the gaming equivalent is called) and its effects on canon. We’ve already seen gaming franchises trying to deal with problems of canon by making sequels where the player’s choices are imported from previous games, such as with Mass Effect 2 or the upcoming The Witcher 2. Common sense says, however, that this cannot be continued, due to the exponentially growing amount of consequences that developers will have to factor in. I’m pretty sure that oncework on the story of Mass Effect 3 was finished (if it’s even done yet), someone at Bioware drew up the definitive, canonical story of Commander Shepard.

What we’re dealing with in the case of Revan, however, is intertextuality not just between games, which is relatively simple – as academics in literature will recognise, having been doing the same thing for poetry and prose for years – but intertextuality across forms, in this case between a book and a game. This sort of interaction is becoming more and more common in modern culture, most obviously in the case of Star Wars, with books, films, games and, arguably, visual art and music all coming together to create a single monolithic fiction. These immense worlds are built on a corporate basis, inevitably leading to problems of canon: as Karpyshyn notes in his blog post, ‘it’s almost impossible to write something in the Star Wars universe without accidentally contradicting some small piece of established lore from somewhere else’. With more and more new histories flooding in from more and more writers, how on earth can it remain as a coherent whole?

It can’t. What’s more, as these worlds grow larger, I can only see canon as we know it becoming so difficult to hold on to that, ultimately, it will become needless to try. We’ve already seen examples where canon is deliberately subverted to experiment with new stories, most obviously in comics (which have a torrid history with canon) and more recently with the Infinities strand of Star Wars, which has brought us such disturbing moments as the death of Han Solo and Chewbacca on Endor at the hands of Starkiller in DLC for The Force Unleashed 2.

 As the concept of canon becomes less important, the key aspect of a fictional world will not be its history: new artists won’t try to find empty spots in the lore in which to insert their ideas, since the tendrils of previous works will inevitably wrap around new works. Instead, the key point of fictional universes such as Star Wars will become the aesthetics, the feel and the tone of the thing. In a sense, all work on an established intellectual property will become fan art, inspired by and conforming to certain artistic foundations, but unable to be reconciled with any idea of fictional truth. Is The Dark Knight any less of a ‘true’ Batman work than the Adam West TV series? Is the tabletop version of Warhammer 40k more important than the version seen in Dawn of War? I can’t see these questions being of any consequence in a world of a thousand crossovers. Thus, at present some people will still be disappointed with Revan, feeling that it invalidates their experiences of KotOR, but once canon declines in importance the issue will become less and less important until it doesn’t matter at all.

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28 09 2011
End of the Line, For Now « The Joy of the Digital

[…] – ‘The Death of Canon’: What happens when the story of a big RPG, played and experienced in different ways by thousands of […]

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