I've got a theory...it could be bunnies...

by Mostly Harmless, last updated 18 Jul 2012 12:16

The daunting power of rewarding audience investment

I had my ipod on shuffle a few days ago and a song came on that caused me to go down a rabbit hole of sorts, so forgive me if I try to take you along for the ride.

The song was “I’ve Got A Theory” from the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and I immediately had to go off shuffle to listen to the whole soundtrack for probably the 50th time since my sister bought it for me years ago. I’ll be up front and admit that I want to grow up to be Joss Whedon. Don’t bother telling me that’s not possible, because I don’t care. I want his ability to write such engaging dialogue and fascinating characters, to be able to play around with narrative tropes so masterfully and to be able to pay homage to entire genres while poking affectionate fun at them the whole time. While I’m not blind to his faults or occasional misfires (or the fact that his TV shows are the work of more than just him alone), I think the world needs more Whedons.

And I want his brain.

Anyway, this soundtrack floors me every time I listen to it for a variety of reasons. Obviously, the actors were never originally hired for their singing ability so some songs work better as songs than others, but that doesn’t matter. The thing that kills me as I listen to it is how the more invested you are in the overall series, the more familiar you are with the characters and prior episodes, the more layers there are to the lyrics. You will also be more forgiving of any weaknesses of the singing because the meat of the narrative and the emotional development explored in the lyrics is just so damn good. While the episode wasn’t a black box or a cipher to first time viewers of Buffy, it never made any effort to cater to newbies in anyway and I love that because of what it allowed the writers to do. The episode was clearly written by people who loved their creation and who banked on the fact that most members of their hardcore audience would ‘get’ all the inside references and jokes with minimal prompting. By choosing to cater to the true fans of the series at the expense of everyone else, the writers freed themselves from having to spell everything out to the lowest common denominator and they achieved something that borders on magic, in my opinion. They let the characters have fun within the bizarre experience of being able to rhyme and dance on cue, they ran wild with such an implausible situation and because the whole experience rewards the audience for investing in and caring about the characters the episode works so damn well.

The “insider” bonuses run the gamut from referencing Anya’s phobia in a throwaway bit in one of the early songs, the hilarious digs at prior plot lines throughout the episode, to the intricate layers of subtext in Buffy’s “Give Me Something To Sing About.” Taken at face value, this song appears as nothing more than a paean to all the cliché’s about life and what you need to do to stay happy. Yet knowing the character and what she’s been facing, not just since the start of the season but for the entire run of the show, there is a haunting undercurrent of angst and despair from the very first line as she so desperately WANTS to believe what she’s singing. Taking into account Spike’s part at the end of the song, this sequence is one of the most emotionally effective explorations of existentialism and throwness I’ve seen in popular entertainment. Whedon et al. do wonders at laying out the basic concepts of wrestling with the fundamental coldness of reality compared to our wishes and yet somehow come out of it hopeful…and oh, they just so happen to do it within song AND include a few laughs along the way.

In fact, each of the songs throughout the episode are jam packed with extra layers of meaning that can only really be unlocked through the audience having a long standing connection with the various characters. By drawing on the audience's prior knowledge, the writers are also able to explore deeper into the mental landscapes of the characters because they don't have to waste precious screen time making each little idea obvious. This layering of references and meaning also tempts the audience with an incredible incentive to reengage and dig deeper such that I'm always picking up new themes and references each time I listen to the soundtrack or watch the episode.

And yet, to return to the sub-header of the article, as I reflect on all that I love love love about this episode, one of the things it also drives home is how for anyone who hasn’t invested in the show coming in, "Once More With Feeling" will likely seem cheesy, or at the very least it won’t have much of an impact on them at all. It’s hard to wrap my head around the fact that something so wonderful can’t be easily shared since it is dependent on investing hours of TV watching just to soak up enough background for maximal payoff. As much as the writers drawing on the investment of the audience to write the show freed them to create something so wonderful, something I don’t think would’ve been possible any other way, that freedom also locked their expression away behind a wall of daunting prerequisites. That feels criminal somehow, since I want people to experience what I do with that episode, but I know the price is viewed as too high by many.

This power of audience investment in characters also carries over into video games, which is why the rabbit hole that started with Buffy brought me back to Mass Effect of all things. Many of us have all commented on the power of the Tuchunka and Rannoch missions in ME3, and how the power derives from the strength of the connection with the principal players in those scenarios and our longstanding relationships with them. While anyone who enters the Mass Effect universe starting with the third title will still have information on which to base their decision in each scenario (albeit some options will be closed to them by the default storyline), the emotional and narrative experience will be a pale shadow of what is possible with an imported Shepard. The choice of what to do about the Genophage will have an intense moral calculus no matter how much of the prior games you've played, but the additional material the player brings to the table if they imported a relationship with Mordin and Wrex adds tremendous emotional weight to the decision and the outcome. The game is enhanced by the player's prior investment, with new levels added to the dilemma if you peel back the layers of what is involved. Paragon players may have to ask themselves if their trust in Wrex is really enough to override the very real threat posed by an unchecked Krogan population. They have to weigh whether their personal connection with someone so invested in a particular outcome should alter the variables, especially when their is no guarantee he will remain in charge or truly deliver the change in the Krogan he is attempting.

And even as I think beyond those two missions to other things I did enjoy about ME3, I'm drawn back to all of the side references that were thrown in, that were only meaningful/more meaningful if you’ve been along for the whole ride. As just one token example: if you have Garrus and Liara with you on Surkesh, Garrus makes a sly reference to the Shadow Broker mission when you discover the Yahg there. That one easily missed line instantly made my relationship with the characters feel all the more real, especially since my Shepard had Garrus along for the SB DLC mission. And speaking of LOTSB: one of my other favorite internal references from the series (which also happens to be a brilliant lampshade) is Liara’s comment about “security upgrades” while raiding the Shadow Broker ship. My first time through I laughed out loud with the characters because I was thinking the same thing, just as she brought it up. I felt like the time I'd invested in the story was being rewarded and the moment added a greater sense of reality to the characters, as if they were reflecting on the world as well.

And even beyond direct references to prior experiences within the series, the ability to carry relationships with the same characters through 100 hours of gameplay helped establish the same kind of investment that can be found with TV shows. The investment can be even more intense in a series like Mass Effect since you have what at least feels like actual influence over your relationships (I’ll admit that under the hood your influence is limited, but the game still feels like your actions matter). I want more of this in my gaming, since it allows the medium to explore more meaningful topics in more engaging ways. Despite the number of sequels prevailing in gaming at the moment, the worlds and interactions seem far too shallow, the internal references too lazy or obvious to capture the true depth required to pull off something great.

Ultimately, I understand why building stories that draw deeply on audience investment can seem daunting in any medium because of the way it locks content away from new or casual participants, but I think the benefits and potential payoff to the story are more than worth it. While intricate plots and mysteries are tricky to justify as being worthy of the investment (LOST/BSG/X-Files, I'm looking at you), focusing on the characters as the source of narrative "reward" opens up lots of opportunities to add a greater sense of meaning and depth without the same danger of failure. I think this may be because a character continues to grow the more the audience learns about them, offering further opportunities to cash-in, whereas a central mystery often reaches a point where it either simply ceases being a mystery upon reveal or unfolds into yet another mystery that ends up making the investment harder to pay off in the end.

And yet, while playing with audience investment can be tricky in any narrative environment, I think games are different than TV shows in that the player is already directly invested in the game by playing it, so building on that investment, rewarding it on a narrative, emotional level should be easier. Unlike a TV show where the writers can never be sure what episodes people will have watched, which references the audience will have in their tool kit for any given scene, a game developer knows a player has been through particular sequences and has the ability to specifically track and reference their path in excruciating detail. That whole concept of narrative consequences, of carrying my Shepard's story forward was part of what made me so interested in Mass Effect to begin with, and boosted my investment with the way ME2 tied back to ME1 while hinting at even greater things to come in ME3.

Furthermore, in the same way that rewarding investment in the characters of the Buffyverse gave room for the audience to "forgive" the less than perfect singing in a couple of tracks, drawing on audience investment grants any writer some leeway to experiment or miss on a few things without the entire train going off the tracks even near the end. Unlike shows that focused on mysteries (and likely owe their lackluster finales to that point), Buffy never treated its mysteries as its core strength so there was less pressure on the finale to be a perfect bow to tie everything together and cap off the entire show's run. Buffy's last episode wasn't its best, but I didn't care. The characters stayed true to themselves throughout and the ride was a rewarding blast, which was more than enough for me.

For most of the series, Bioware hit enough of the right notes with the characters that I was willing to overlook missteps in plotting, even throughout most of ME3. While my expectations for a stellar finale were waning as the game progressed, I saw glimpses of something satisfying since the important pieces were all there. I cared enough about the characters to see the story through and to see where they ended up. With the way the ending broke so strongly with everything that came before it, however, Bioware overdrew their account and the rest as they say is history1234.

In the end, the way the writers rewarded the audience for caring about Buffy in “Once More With Feeling” guaranteed that the series at large will always remain in the back of my mind as more than just another TV show. I'll also argue to my dying breath that the attention given to the fact that the fans were as connected with the characters as the writers throughout that episode elevated an interesting idea into undeniable art. And despite the bitter ending, Mass Effect will remain memorable because I invested in the characters and felt, at least at times, like that affection was recognized.

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