The Politics of Creative Autonomy in the Video Game Industry

The Politics of Creative Autonomy in the Video Game Industry

When Bioware Studio’s Mass Effect 3 was released in March of 2012, it was accompanied by a whirlwind of rage and disappointment from longtime fans of the franchise. The ending of the game—spoiler incoming, by the way—was widely perceived as a betrayal of one of the core components of the Mass Effect experience: player choice. 

In the first two installments of Mass Effect, players were presented with countless difficult choices throughout each game. Due in large part to the fact that Mass Effect was marketed as a role-playing franchise, and that Bioware had itself emphasized the importance of player choice, it was widely believed that the choices players made would have a substantial impact on the trilogy’s conclusion. Unfortunately, that did not prove to be the case, and the response from fans was unlike anything the industry had ever seen

You can certainly count me among those who were frustrated with the original ending of Mass Effect 3. When I discovered that the choices I had made throughout the trilogy had virtually no impact on how the story concluded, I lost any interest in ever going back to that story. The most appealing aspect of the Mass Effect experience was, for me, its immersive quality. The freedom I believed I had to make decisions that would ultimately affect the fate of that universe made it feel much more personal and genuine than any third-person adventure game or first-person shooter. But once the illusion of that freedom was shattered, so, too, was my love for the franchise. 

Despite my frustration, however, I steadfastly refused to join in on the calls for Bioware to remake the ending of Mass Effect 3 for the same reason that I laughed off suggestions that the final episodes of The Sopranos and Lost should be rewritten and reshot; who am I—who are any of us—to try and dictate the outcome of a story to its author(s)? 

Art is a mode of self-expression, and self-expression is widely regarded as one of the most fundamental rights recognized by Western society. It should therefore be treated with as much respect and defended with as much vigor as any other human or constitutional right. From conception to creation, every artistic endeavor represents an opportunity for the artist to communicate a unique worldview, insightful observation, or intensely emotional experience to their audience. To insist that an artistic creation be reshaped into something that caters to the tastes of one specific demographic is to engage in an act akin to censorship, as it risks stifling the artist’s voice to the point where that voice is rendered indiscernible and the final product in no way reflects the intentions of its creator. 

This is a point which some gamers, reviewers and activists appear to miss whenever the subject of politics in video games is brought up for discussion. A substantial portion of the left-wing gaming community has proven itself especially prone to belligerent outbursts whenever someone suggests that it’s both possible and acceptable for a storyteller to exercise their creative autonomy by keeping overtly political messages out of their creations. When Tommy Francois, Ubisoft’s Vice President of Editorial, explained that one of his company’s goals was to do precisely that—to create more “mature” games that don’t openly endorse or promote any specific political messages and allow players to come up with their own opinions via their interactions with Ubisoft’s open-world environments—his comments inspired some very frosty responses from his progressive detractors.  

Writer Chris Avellone, whose previous work includes Fallout: New Vegas, Prey, Neverwinter Nights 2 and Planescape: Torment, made similar remarks in a recent interview with VG247. He said that “it’s possible to do apolitical games,” and claims that he himself tries to steer clear of introducing real-world politics into his work. “The reason I take this approach is because I view games as entertainment,” he explained. “If you’re purposely pushing an agenda or point of view in your game – especially a real-world one that’s clearly divorced from the game world – and you’re dictating that perspective as correct vs. asking a question or examining the perspective more broadly, then it’s left the gaming realm and the ‘game’ has become a pulpit.”

More than a few left-wing gamers have come to the exact opposite conclusion, arguing that art is always politically biased and must necessarily be politically biased. Personally, I agree that it’s almost impossible to keep politics out of storytelling altogether, and I think Avellone and Francois have essentially admitted as much. But I also contend that it’s self-evidently not impossible for artists to consciously refrain from foisting their own political viewpoints upon their audiences, and it shouldn’t take an explanation from an industry professional to understand why some developers often choose to go that route.

The question is, what exactly is it that Francois and Avellone’s critics are looking for? Validation, maybe? Are they only able to enjoy a game that openly endorses the exact same brand of politics to which they themselves subscribe? I doubt that’s the case. The more likely explanation for this behavior is that there are some on the left who seek to impose an unspoken obligation on developers, an obligation to use video games as platforms for advancing progressive perspectives on a wide array of issues—or at least refrain from amplifying the tenets of right-wing ideologies. One of the ways to make that happen is to try and manufacture an environment that is overwhelmingly inhospitable towards developers and artists who resist that obligation by refusing to forfeit their creative autonomy, hence some of the vitriol directed at Chris Avellone and Tommy Francois. The goal, it would seem, is to transform the video game industry into an amusement park in which all of the signs indicating how tall you must be to ride each ride have been replaced with signs indicating how progressive you must be to design each game. 

This phenomenon isn’t exclusive to the progressive gaming community, however. There’s no shortage of online factions that have habitually refused to respect the agency of progressive artists who choose to express their politics through their games. When Canadian developer Beamdog introduced a transgender character in Baldur’s Gate: Siege of Dragonspear, they were promptly accused of promoting a social justice agenda, while Dragonspear writer Amber Scott was subjected to a torrent of online abuse. In the aforementioned Mass Effect 3, the inclusion of a gay romance option provoked a similar backlash against Bioware, though it never came close to reaching the same level as the controversy over the game’s ill-received ending.

Regardless of their political affiliation, no self-respecting advocate of artistic freedom would ever dare join in on any harassment campaign designed to discourage political storytelling in video games. Developers who use their stories to promote their politics should be granted just as much room to tell those stories as developers who, as Tommy Francois put it, “believe that games should offer a 360-degree view of life” and allow players to “interact with all points of view.” Games don’t have to serve as vehicles for the proliferation of any political philosophy, but they certainly can and should be allowed to fulfill that function. 

Besides, some of the most celebrated video games ever made have also been some of the most political games ever made. The Mass Effect series, which some consider to be one of the greatest role-playing series in the industry’s history, was unapologetically progressive in its presentation of diversity as a precondition for humanity’s future prosperity and long-term survival. The immensely popular Metroid, released in 1986, has long been praised for being one of the first mainstream video games to feature a woman as its main protagonist. And beloved franchises like Resident Evil and Deus Ex have never been shy about their hostility towards the cold calculus of corporate politics.

The preservation of creative autonomy should always be the top priority of every artistic community. Take that autonomy away, and the only thing any of us will have to look forward to is a future in which each and every story-driven video game is narratively, thematically and tonally indistinguishable from every other product on the market. Creators must be given space to tell the tales they want to tell, to craft the worlds they want to craft, and develop the characters they seek to bring to life. They should not feel obliged to compromise their artistic visions for the sake of mollifying either left-wing or right-wing audiences. It’s simply not the responsibility of artists to cater to any community, political or otherwise. Their only responsibility is to make the art they want to make, and now would be a good time for gamers of all political stripes to come to terms with that.

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