Today I want to talk about a subject for which I’ve honestly seen little discussion in the game development community. That’s not to say such debate doesn’t exist; if it’s out there, I have largely failed to find it. The issue is this:
What are the effects of fan-fiction on games? Particularly those games which allow user-created mods?
Anyone who’s played role-playing games in the last decade probably knows what franchise I’m about to discuss. But before that I want to explain the impetus behind this post.
George R. R. Martin
GRRM is the author famous for his series, “A Song of Ice and Fire”, the epic fantasy series which spawned the hit “Game of Thrones” television show. In 2010 Martin wrote a lengthy blog post about his views on fan-fiction. I suggest you read it in its entirety, but I will be quoting what I feel are the important highlights for those of you who have the “TL;DR” attitude—probably not the best for this subject…. But I digress.
Definitions of Fan-Fiction
This is one of Martin’s early statements:
One of the things I mislike about fan fiction is its NAME. Truth is, I wrote fan fiction myself. That was how I began, when I was a kid in high school writing for the dittoed comic fanzines of the early 1960s. In those days, however, the term did not mean "fiction set in someone else’s universe using someone else’s characters." It simply meant "stories written by fans for fans, amateur fiction published in fanzines."
I’m quoting it now because I will be returning to it later in this article. But I want you to see early on his definition of fan-fiction because I suspect it differs from what many of you feel. It certainly is not in alignment with my own definition of fan-fiction, which I consider fiction “set in someone else’s universe using someone else’s characters”.
The Heart of the Issue
This part of Martin’s post, for me, succinctly pin-points the crux of this topic:
Consent, for me, is the heart of this issue. If a writer wants to allow or even encourage others to use their worlds and characters, that’s fine. Their call. If a writer would prefer not to allow that… well, I think their wishes should be respected.
And Now What You Knew Was Coming
Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls series is a wonderful example of a game fantasy world which embraces fan-fiction and apocrypha. In fact, I have a personal story related to all of this.
After the release of Daggerfall in 1996 and the announcement of Morrowind a couple of years later, I joined a group of indie developers—still a teenager at the time—on a project called “The Amateur Scrolls”. Our goal was to create an Elder Scrolls game in the interim between Daggerfall and Morrowind. We freely borrowed from the setting of Tamriel and expanded on it with reckless abandon. Bethesda would have been well within their legal rights to crush our project, but quite the opposite, they gave us their unofficial consent and wished us the best. I remember receiving an email about it from Todd Howard and it left a long-lasting impression on me as a young developer.
Bethesda reciprocated our fan-fiction by adopting a few ideas of ours themselves. I realize that I have no way to prove this, but I wrote a detailed account of an assassination group, and part of their behavior was to leave behind messages on walls painted in the blood of their victims. This idea became part of the lore of the Morag Tong. Was Bethesda inspired by my own work? I would like to believe so due to the similarities. But as I said, I have no way to prove it. If they did borrow from my writing then I’m very honored, and if they didn’t then I in no way feel cheated or ripped-off.
Many Elder Scrolls fans love to create and share their own lore, and if you’re interested then I suggest you read /r/teslore. In fact, the seed for this article came from this recent post on that board, which I suggest you read.
How This Subjects Affects Me as a Game Developer
“L’astra Vojego” (LAVO), my indie studio’s flagship title, has a detailed narrative and setting. As well as characters—unlike the Elder Scrolls where the player creates an avatar for him or herself, our game has a specific protagonist who is a well-defined character in her own right. Our goal is not to provide a main character to act as a vessel for the player, but to instead put the player into the mind of this character, similar to modern “Final Fantasy” games or the “Metal Gear Solid” franchise.
However, our game will be intentionally easy to modify, and personally I hope to see fans create and share mods just as is done for the Elder Scrolls. This creates an environment in which mods can act as entry-points for fan-fiction which contradicts the world-building we’ve worked hard on creating. Is this bad? Does it dilute the original narrative and characters?
My gut says ‘no’. When I look at the Elder Scrolls I feel like there are many mods which complement the canonical world of Tamriel in interesting and exciting ways, and personally they do not devalue the original material for me. At the same time, I do worry about potential mods which affect our main character, Violette de Lucia. She’s a character we’ve spent a long time (years) creating, and in this regard I can sympathize with George R. R. Martin; there are certain fan interpretations of the character that I would not like to see.
Stopping those fan interpretations is, of course, a pointless battle. They cannot be prevented. But I must admit to some desire to protect “our” character from arbitrary modifications by fans. I have no intention to take this to such an extreme as to denounce or shun fan works with which I disagree on their interpretations or modifications. So perhaps a more positive approach is to give some sort of official sign of endorsement for mods and fan-fiction which feels in accord with the world and story we’ve set out to create.
Fan-fiction is unavoidable for successful games, especially those which allow mods to bind that fan-fiction to the gameplay itself. As game developers we have to think about to what extent we want to try and “protect” our creative work or if it’s even a battle worth fighting.
Right now I believe will be benefit from taking an open-arms attitude towards fan contributions. But ask me about this again a year from now and see if I still feel the same way.