Game Flaw: Canon
Why? Well, first allow me to digress a bit with an illustration related to the concept.
I love Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. It’s a spectacular book well deserving of its place in the pantheon of great children’s literature. In fact, I love it so much that I read it annually. (Don’t get me started on how awesome the The Wind in the Willows TV series is.)
Anyway, at one point, my love for the book so overtook me that I scoured the internet to see if there was any more of it out there. And it turned out there was—although not by Kenneth Graham.
At this point, The Wind in the Willows is public domain (game developers, take note!), so other folk, who no doubt love the text as much as myself, endeavored to write sequels. What I discovered were William Horwood’s four novels that occur after the original and Jan Needle’s book that happens concurrently with the original story. While Horwood’s stories pick up the flag and attempt to carry on (and admirably do so), Needle’s work turns the original on its head by taking the point of view of the villains of the original story and comment on class barriers in Edwardian England (with a delightful result).
I read the stories, enjoyed them, and never thought once about whether or not the events of the books by the later writers’ “actually happened.” Yet if we turn this example around, and instead of talking about The Wind in the Willows we talk about Star Wars, Star Trek, or Greyhawk, something else occurs.
This is because the sequels written by others are like slash fic written about Kirk and Spock. There is no expectation by the audience that the creator gave the go ahead for the later works.
What is Canon?
When used in regard to fiction (or in this case, games) canon is simply the material for a property considered to be genuine. But such concerns only arise when users are given reason to question the validity of what is produced for the property.
There aren’t canon concerns about CSI: Miami. The show has one outlet and is internally consistent.
In Star Wars, however, there are hundreds (thousands?) of individuals that have contributed stories, characters, histories, locations, races and other details in media as diverse as toys, comics, novels, movies, and TV shows. When you have that many contributors working concurrently to produce material in so many different places, it’s impossible to for anyone to keep track of it all and be a gatekeeper both for inconsistencies and for bad material. (Did you know there was a rabbit race in Star Wars?)
Canon happens when two ingredients interact:
• an authority over what is true for a property
• an inconsistency under that authority’s rule
As consumers of setting and story, we naturally assume that the elements within that setting or story should remain consistent unless some there’s some in-world reason for a change. If we’re told a character is an orphan, that character’s parents can’t suddenly appear without some explanation as to why we were earlier told the character had none.
Why is Canon Bad?
When people start talking about what is canon in your property, it means that there’s confusion about it. Somewhere along the way something done for your property has turned some element of it into a lie. Not only does it make you look bad, it can be divisive, splitting fans into factions and causing endless internet arguments.
The recent video of the “Red Shirt Kid” at Blizzcon shows the problem in action.
Ultimately, canon issues show your audience that you don’t take your property as seriously as they do. While any property can withstand that for a while, it’s one of the factors that causes consumers to lose confidence in your brand.
Why Does Canon Happen?
While any dumb mistake can cause a canon problem, it’s likely that you will create canon issues when any of the following factors occur with your property. If you’ve got two or more of the following, you inevitably already have canon issues.
• Continuing Story: If your property has a story that continues (in sequels, novels, or episodes of a series) you’re in the danger zone. Keep a close eye on the details.
• Deep History: If your game features a lot of fictional history, you’re canon fodder! Fictional histories create a minefield for creators. They’re details that are largely out of sight but surprisingly present in the “present” of your game. One false move and whamo!
• Broad or Deep Setting: If your game has a lot of details about the present setting, that becomes almost as bad as a deep fictional history. Having detailed descriptions of the current events or politics in many nations or having a lot of material written about the inhabitants of a single town puts any creator for your game in the unenviable position of reading all that material and not forgetting of confusing any of it.
• Multiple Contributors: When you have multiple creators, they will not use an identical standard for content nor will they all be perfect at keeping in mind history, setting, or any other guidance they might have. You can try to stay on top of this by limiting the number of creators to where it’s manageable for one person read all their work and smooth out differences, but that person will at some point miss something.
• Multiple Media: Changing the medium often demands altering the message. Plus, putting out content both through a game and another medium means that anyone who is trying to keep things straight has to manage the transitions from one medium to the next. Pity the writer of a 16-page comic book who has to read a trilogy of 300-page novels in order to present things correctly.
• Concurrent Design: If you’re working on several products for your game at the same time, that’s a huge red flag. It’s far too easy for the left hand not to know what the right hand is doing (or the other left hand, or the other right hand, or the leg, or the other leg, or . . .).
• Changing Standards: Your game property might change owners. It might get new staff as old staff leaves. You might have a new product goal that demands you look at your property in a new way. Perhaps your gatekeepers grow lax or more stringent about one thing than another. Whatever it is that causes you to change your standards for how fiction for your game is produced, your fiction’s fans won’t have gotten the memo, and even deliberate changes for the good of your property will look like mistakes to them.
Fans Don’t Get It
Even if you have canon gatekeepers employed full-time, something will slip through, and then thanks to the power of crowdsourcing on the internet, someone will notice. When you have that canon issue, your consumers who notice won’t care that it’s hard (or impossible, if your property is large enough) for you to avoid it.
One person who is passionate about your brand found it, so why couldn’t you? You must not be as passionate about the brand as your fans!
That’s not true, of course. Often the folk who work on a fictional world for a game are among the most passionate about it—that’s why they sought out the job—but your brand’s fans can’t help but think of you as the callous “suits” who are ruining their beloved setting.
You might think enlisting continuity wonks is the answer. That can help, but ultimately you can’t enlist as many as exist out there in the public, and any wonks you use are only a few fragile human beings set against the eyes of thousands or millions of consumers.
If you’re looking to avoid canon issues, what do you do? Well, if you’re already running a large fictional IP for your game with a deep history, broad setting, and concurrent stories over multiple media, the best advice is, “Do the best you can.”
If you think a reboot of your setting will help, be sure you’re right. Far more reboots end up pissing off consumers than pleasing them. The folks who are pointing out canon issues now will not be pleased when their expertise is thrown out the window. That’s okay—if you can afford to “fire those fans,” and your new version will acquire a much larger audience. But be very sure that is the case or you might end up sending your game property down in flames.
If you’re not already hip deep in canon issues, here are some tips to keep you on the shallow end of the pool.
• Limit Scope: The first key to controlling canon issues is limiting scope. If your consumers aren’t told what’s over the mountains and they can’t go there in the game, then anything can be on the other side. Keep the details of your setting and characters to just what is necessary for consumers to have a fun experience with your game.
• Do Not Advance The Timeline: When you advance a timeline, you create history. Having both history and an ongoing story gives you two of the main ingredients for canon issues. Instead of telling the story that happens after the story, consider telling a story about a concurrent event in a different location (maybe on the other side of those mysterious mountains).
• Retell Story: If you are consistently retelling the same story in new ways, you wipe the slate clean with each new telling. A lot of comic books do this with their main characters (although that does cause some rancor among fans). Also, think of the Super Mario Bros. titles. Each game has a similar premise and characters, but no one worries much about their continuity.
• Keep Story Character Driven: If you tell a lot of stories about world-shattering events, you’re laying down the landmines for future stories in the setting. If you keep stories focused on characters and the emotional content instead of the pyrotechnics of World War Whatever, it both makes for compelling gameplay and leaves you room to tell a lot of stories.
• Embellish At Your Own Risk: Don’t talk about history unless you have to. Don’t draw the map for the fans unless they need to know what’s there. As a world-builder, it’s tempting to, well, build a world, but ultimately the player of your game doesn’t need to see all the detail you’ve lavished on your creation. They only need to see what will make the game fun. Focus on what the player needs to know to have a good experience in play, rather than what it would be cool to know.
• Limit the Number of Key Creators: This is a tough one, particularly with long-established properties. If you can keep the lion’s share of creative control with—at most—a few key creators, you’ll have both a clearer and more compelling vision for your game and fewer canon issues. Would you want to watch a movie that had seven directors over the course of its filming? How about if it had seventeen? At a certain point, there are just too many cooks in the kitchen.
To anyone dealing with canon, I wish you all the best!