I've been having some conversations with my PhD supervisor about the finer points of one of my chapters as I near completion, and some interesting angles for further writing have come up. In some ways my thesis is setting myself up for a whole lot of more specific research questions later, which I guess is a good thing. This topic is one of them.
I'm becoming more and more interested in Mass Effect as time goes on. I haven't even managed to play the third one yet, but its now on its way to me from everyone's favorite importer, OzGameShop. I've already wandered into the territory I'm going to discuss here, though, before the whole fiasco with the ending to Mass Effect 3 transpired (and continues to). My thesis, generally, doesn't deal with people at large, but more with individual players as much as possible. Yet, increasingly, it is becoming apparent that to work out some of my interesting problems, I'll have to bring in "people at large" in a pretty big way. In trying to erect a useful framework for analyzing games, both in their ludological interactivity and dramatic narrativism, I've gotten into interpretations of canon.
Authorial... authority... is a big deal in videogames that hasn't (that I've seen) really been dealt with properly yet. On the one hand, the ludologists are (unconsciously) very much promoting authorial authority. They presuppose that what the designer says, via rules, is what is true. End of story. The stuff that might be debatable, the drama/narrative, they don't even consider so that's the end of it. Players, too, tend to validate this flavour of authority; game players subject themselves to the rules of the game, and accept a priori that winning is winning is winning. Of course, there are those who subvert the game and play it differently, refuse to finish races, or griefing other players, or role-play at the expense of levelling up, etc.
The other side of this story is the canonicity of the fiction. I've touched on this in my research already, trying to work through the canon of Mass Effect in simple examples like: who is Shepard? Is Liara attracted to men or women? Facts like these are trivial to assign in a traditional narrative canon. We know who Luke Skywalker's sister is, for example. It's Canon.
My supervisor, and other scholars like him, however, place far greater emphasis on what the fans have to say than I am used to doing. In the end, I'm not very post-modern this way--I still have some respect for authority. But its pretty hard to know what's canon and what isn't when the art itself allows the player to make a range of choices. The space for interpreting and reconfiguring the text is inside the text itself, as opposed to living on fan-fic pages where Draco and Harry make out. The space continues to extend, so you can have fan-fic outside the game as well--there's plenty of it. There is a difference between making a choice inside the game (male or female, Ashley or Kaiden?) and writing a piece of fan-fic outside the game, but is it a significant difference? Is the choice made within the game more like the fan-fic, or more like an authorially, canonically true event?
Obviously there are differences: I can only make choices in Mass Effect that BioWare have put there for me, like pursuing Ashley as a romance interest. I can act within the game according to their scripts. But I can do so for all sorts of reasons, and having done so, ascribe all sorts of interpretive meaning to those episodes that have nothing to do with BioWare's authority--and this is a valid, real *thing* that media studies has legitimated over the past few decades. The reader's interpretation is as real, if not more real, than the author's intention. Let's say I pursue Ashley not because I am also an ignorant xenophobe, but because I see Ashley as young and naive, and feel a protective urge to draw her out into the world and 'educate' her. Or perhaps her naivety is in itself attractive, a kind of innocence. All these interpretations can exist in my mind, and be 'real' according to reader-response theory. Is it any different when I write it down, as fan-fiction? Is it still "real" and legitimate, or has it somehow stepped outside and become non-canon? Does canon exist, in any form, in a model that includes legitimate reader-response?
It's difficult because on one hand the answer is an ideological "no." The author is dead. Reader is king. But on the other, can any of us deny that taking a couple sniper shots to the head kills Shepard? Or that Shepard is unable to carry on multiple romances at once? There do seem to be some things our reader-response cannot quite overcome. I'm just not sure what to call that stuff, and how far it extends exactly. I know vaguely of research into fan culture, particularly by Henry Jenkins, but haven't really gone there yet. It seems even more relevant with the distinct possibility that BioWare are going to release some kind of patch ending for Mass Effect 3--a move I instantly recoil from, but find academically fascinating. If BioWare do release a patch of this kind, they have essentially relinquished their authority. The author will have abdicated the throne, and I'm not sure even a relative modernist like me will be able to keep them in power!