Video Games and Canon

Ok, so I’m writing this with reference mainly to Little Nightmares, but it’s also worth having the discussion about games in general – since games are pretty unique when it comes to how to think about the ‘canon’ of the story.

When we’re talking about texts (here meaning all narrative media, not just writing-based), we usually talk about evidence gained from ‘canon’ – that is, the content that is available in the media itself. For example, the ‘canon’ of a series of books is anything that’s discussed in the books themselves. In Harry Potter, it is canon that Harry has eyes that are emerald green, and look like his mother’s.

However, you might be able to argue that Harry Potter, in later life, due to never having many belongings as a child, grows up to have a house full of trinkets that none of his friends can convince him to throw away. This is never mentioned or discussed in the ‘canon’. This is more on the side of a character analysis – you’ve taken the facts that the canon gives you and created a hypothesis about the story. This is the same for deciding if the story is an analogy – famously, the X-men being a metaphor for LGBTQI+ issues. It’s not really stated in the story, but there are elements in the story that mean you can argue the case.

(In fandom terms this overlaps with ‘headcanon’, an opinion about the story not supported by canon but with varying degrees of evidence for it. I’m only not talking in these terms because headcanons don’t usually extend to analogies and metanarrative, but honestly if I was just talking character analysis, this would be a super useful term to use).

So, usually analysis goes like this: You look at the canon, you take the clues from that, and some information from meta sources (for example, the meaning of a certain image of symbol in the creator’s culture), and you create theories about the text using those clues.

But sometimes the canon isn’t straightforward. Ever tried to piece together a series like Kingdom Hearts, where the games aren’t really in chronological order and sometimes they contradict each other? Or something like Star Wars with a huge expanded universe written by a whole stable of authors but curated by a central party? Especially in the case of expanded universes – sometimes it’s not even clear what is and isn’t canon.

And then we get to video games.

Video games are an interesting case. They, unlike most other media, are interactive – the player can make choices within them. A lot of games, it’s true, are linear. Think the Doom games, or the HALO games. You’re not there to try and change the course of the plotline – you’re mostly there trying to get through the areas so you can get to the next plot point.

And then you have the big RPGs – I’ll be using Mass Effect as the example here, mostly because I know it pretty well. In a lot of those, especially new ones, your choices in the game determine not only the ending you get (like in Bioshock where you get a different cutscene depending on which binary choices you made during the game), but affect which characters live and die, which like you, which are available in the sequels, and which groups like and dislike you.

Before I get into discussing how to deal with those big changes in the questions, let me ask you this. And yes, I do understand how many angry comments I’m about to get for this. And yes, I do realise that I’m operating on a familiarity mostly with HALOs 4 and Reach – this question will change dramatically between games. Just roll with it for a tick.

Does Master Chief prefer an assault rifle, or the DMR?

From the evidence I saw when playing HALO, Master Chief definitely prefers the DMR. It’s the first weapon he pulls out in every combat, and if he doesn’t have it to start, it’s the first one he looks for getting onto the battlefield. Maybe the assault rifle is the standard issue comfortable gun for him, but the DMR is the one he really feels at home with.

But if you watched my friend’s game, the answer would be the assault rifle – it’s the mainstay of Master chief’s arsenal, the one that’s always by his side, and the gun to which he always returns when he’s finished pulling fancy sniper rifle tricks and just needs to hand out some pain.

Similarly, my Master Chief is a cautious long-range fighter. He’s deadly because he can take down waves before they have a chance to get in range, thinning the herd of Covenant long before they get a chance to have a shot at him.

Another friend’s Master Chief is deadly close up – you’ll never see him till he’s right on top of you and then it doesn’t matter if there’s one or ten of you, he’ll mow them all down with fists and shotgun before you have a chance to retaliate.

Then you get onto the big questions, and one of the big problems that they had while creating a Mass Effect sequel (oh, Andromeda, you could have been so much). By the end of Mass Effect, you could have committed genocide several times over. Not to mention that depending on the end you chose in ME3, you could have had a universe to play in, or not. A direct sequel to Mass Effect wouldn’t have just had to make some changes for certain characters or groups being missing, it would have had to be three entirely different games.

So … what is the canon of Mass Effect, then?

Did Shepard save the Rachni Queen, or not?

Was Shepard a patient diplomat or a ruthless and direct hard-line leader?

From an analysis perspective, does success in the Mass Effect universe come from honesty? Openmindedness? Deciding to take matters into your own hands? Compromise? Integrity? Sticking to your values no matter what?

All of these things change depending on how you play the game. Shepard gets Paragon and Renegade points, and Charm and Intimidate skills, which give you other options for resolving conflicts, getting people to back down when they otherwise wouldn’t, intimidating people into agreeing, or otherwise convincing them or forcing them into changing their mind on things so they think more like you. You can’t even go off the character responses in the side quests a lot of the time, because there are two or three ways that you can get a “favourable” response from each character, which will of course change the experience of the game. Essentially, the ‘canon’ is different for each player, and often between playthroughs for each player.

This of course doesn’t mean that you cannot analyse the game, or draw conclusions from what else is there. The very range of decisions that you’re given is a meta-comment – where the restrictions are in games is often as important as what you are actually allowed to do. You can also look at the external game world and all the decisions that happened before and around Shepard. The companions express opinions, too, and make you consider questions that the developers thought were important, and form the game world experience, too.

It’s got to be a bit of a tailored approach, different for every game, is the thing, depending on how the game approaches the choices. Never has there been a medium that’s so good at presenting a few ideas and then directly asking the consumer “now you decide who is right and how this argument should end” – I think that a lot of video game analysis has to centre around how the questions are framed rather than how the questions are answered.

So, now that I’ve gone on for long enough on a topic where my answer basically boils down to a great big cosmic shrug, let’s talk Little Nightmares, because I am actually about to give a direct answer in the case of that game specifically.

While I do want to do one of these on a big sprawling RPG at some point (probably the Pillars of Eternity series – still deciding how I want to approach that, though, since there’s a good 200+ hours of content in the series so far), this game I’m focusing on at the moment is much shorter. Little Nightmares is a fairly linear game, and I think it took me about 11 hours to finish the whole thing, including the DLC. There also aren’t multiple paths, and the ending is the same no matter what you do during the game. However, there are some secret items that you can collect, and one in particular that changes a lot of the tone of something that happens during the end of the game. This particular post is spoiler-free so I’m not talking any further about that one until I actually mention it in the future posts.

So I’m going to be mostly talking about this game in the same way that I would a novel, and I’ll be fairly sure that the conclusions I draw will be the same for most characters (since Little Nightmares also has a very prescriptive puzzle format – you can’t really do things in a very different way to other players – there’s no way to have a particular favourite weapon, for example, or much variation available in the playstyle (except to perhaps have a main character who’s demonstrably better or worse at puzzles). So really the only variation in interpretation is whether the main character found all the secrets, changing the implications behind the decisions (game decisions, not player’s decisions) in the final section.

As for the sources I’ve been drawing on: I’m not going to be addressing things said in interviews, or the comics, or any of that extra material. While there are some interesting things in each of them, I’m sticking to the game and the DLC for this. Partly because I haven’t read through every single interview, so I can’t speak for the whole body of those, and also because I think you have to be able to draw a line somewhere when it comes to how much the creator externally influences an analysis – it’s often useful to keep in mind what a creator said they meant by some things, but what the creator/s intended can sometimes come across wrong, or be lost in translation, or there may be things in a work that they didn’t intend, so I don’t think you can rely entirely on what creators say about their work. The soft Death of the Author theory, or the Implied Author, for those who want the fancy academic title for it.

I mostly wanted to write this post to bring up the issues, so that I can reference back to this and use it as a point of comparison for Little Nightmares in future. It’s also here because there will be that particular thing that can change between playthroughs that I’ll comment on, and I didn’t want to have to write all this out in the middle of another blog post.

So, with that out of the way, next time into the meat of the game!

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