When Valve's Portal was released as part of The Orange Box collection in 2007 I, like many of my gaming friends, fell almost instantly in love. There's a lot to like about Portal, from a clean and coherent visual design to clever and unusual gameplay, but the characters are what really won me over. The silent and near-invisible protagonist, Chell, makes for an interesting player avatar. A viewpoint character who is so unobtrusive makes it easy to get immersed in a game, but the tiny hints at who Chell might be are intriguing enough that she's not a complete cipher. And Chell's silence is more than compensated for by the constant and hilarious commentary from the antagonist, GLaDOS. I'm sure there are players out there for whom the humor of Portal fell flat, but everyone I know was completely charmed by the darkly comedic script.
Portal 2 is out now, and I've been eagerly saving my pennies, whilst cautiously keeping an eye on my various social networking accounts. A couple of months ago, when BioWare's Dragon Age II was released, my Twitter feed was jam-packed with plot spoilers as various friends devoured the game. This wasn't actually an issue for me personally, since I'm not playing the Dragon Age franchise (. . . yet), but it reminded me of how carefully I had to skim my LiveJournal reading list when Mass Effect 2 came out last year. I'd been so invested in my personal version of the main character (a female Commander Shepard named Raine, with a hairstyle I deeply envy) that the idea of being spoiled for details about what could be happening to her before I could experience them first-hand was agonizing. I suspect I'll be taking a total Internet break for a while when Mass Effect 3 is released.
I haven't been as worried about Portal 2. I am very interested in what will happen to Chell, but for some reason I'm not as spoiler-shy as I was with Shepard (probably because of the differences between the narrative styles in the two franchises). Still, I've been a little hesitant to read all my feeds, expecting a Portal 2-related explosion.
And there's been one. But, interestingly, none of what has been scrolling across my feeds is actually about the game. I know people are playing it; I can infer from the lack of disappointed commentary that they're enjoying it (my friends tend to be a little more vocal about the things they dislike than anything else during a first playthrough of a new game). But what my friends are actually posting about isn't the game itself, but rather fanworks inspired by the Portal franchise.
In the past month, I have yet to see any discussion of Portal 2's plot or mechanics on my Twitter, Buzz, Tumblr, LiveJournal or Dreamwidth feeds. What I have seen are links to a tutorial for making an egg cup that resembles a turret gun from the series, pictures of a sweater inspired by the Weighted Companion Cube, and a short slash fanfic putting characters from Stargate Atlantis at GLaDOS's mercy, among other things.
In my last column, I talked about some of the ways a gaming franchise will expand to include material in a variety of media. On a purely mercenary level, this means more products to sell and the possibility of using another medium to draw in customers who wouldn't otherwise have been attracted to the franchise. But it also enriches the original world of the franchise, and encourages a greater depth of fan involvement. And the resulting permutations are often bizarre and fascinating—and provide intentional entertainment, of course.
As much fun as I have looking at the way things like the Record of Lodoss War franchise products spiral recursively around, unofficial fanworks are even more interesting. By "fanworks," I mean any creative product by a fan which utilizes some element or elements of a source text—in this case, a game.
Some of these fan creations strongly resemble official franchise products, such as add-on modules for games. There's very little immediately apparent difference between an adventure module put out by Wizards of the Coast and one written by a D&D fan, for example, and the same can hold true for computer games as well as their tabletop cousins.
Fan-produced add-ons can be simply more material for play, in the same mold as the original products, or they can explore things that are left unexamined in the official canon of the game. Some game and franchise creators actively encourage the add-on type of fanwork. The community-created expansion packs for Neverwinter Nights are one well-known example. And this type of fanwork can occasionally become an entirely official franchise element in its own right, too, whether in the way that Ed Greenwood's homebrewed game world was picked up by TSR, or through shout-outs and "Easter eggs" in games that acknowledge specific fans or fannish activities. There's the more subtle influence of creators choosing to emphasize characters that resonate particularly with fans, as well.
Other works take materials from a game and then depart from it almost entirely. Machinima filmmaking, a type of animated cinema, largely relies on the graphics engines of computer and video games to supply virtual "actors" and settings. Machinima creators use a variety of techniques to make their films, sometimes relying on in-game mechanics to create the action, and other times manipulating game-generated characters with digital puppetry. Some films include voice acting and elaborate storylines, such as Rooster Teeth Productions' Red vs Blue, which uses graphic elements from the Halo franchise, with a sitcom-style plot that incorporates a number of gaming references and in-jokes, but also has a broader scope and appeal.
But fan creativity is never limited to the original medium of the game being celebrated. One highly visible form of fanwork that jumps to a completely different format (well, mostly—live action role-play costuming confuses the issue of which media are canonical a little bit) is cosplay, where fans create elaborate costumes based on fictional characters. Most commonly, cosplayers take inspiration from anime, science fiction, and fantasy movies, or manga and comics, but video and computer game characters make a strong showing. Cosplayers are a staple at conventions, and some take the art of recreating canon costumes to awe-inspiring levels. Costume contests have become very popular—and hotly competitive—events at some gaming cons, such as BlizzCon, where several of 2010's contestants created and wore wings with spans in excess of their own heights, among other impressive elements.
I have to admit, though, that my favorite fanworks are those that involve the celebration of particular games in very unlikely materials. The Weighted Companion Cube sweater made me wish I was more skilled at knitting, and while I'm not particularly enticed by a turret gun egg cup, I've given some thought to trying my hand at modifying My Little Ponies. Yes, you read that right. There are a lot of game-inspired My Little Pony mods out there. My favorites are those that take inspiration from games that I was playing back at the same time I was collecting my own plastic herd, such as AnimeAmy's Sonic the Hedgehog Pony.
I have been known to do some pretty out-there gaming crafts, myself. Embedding dice in glycerin soap is a favorite of mine (and they make excellent gifts for fellow gamers), and when I say that I've given some thought to modifying toy ponies, what I mean is that I have some toy ponies waiting for me on my craft shelf right now.
What it comes down to is that gaming fans are a diverse bunch, many of whom are creative and eager to share their works with each other. The idea of the basement-dwelling, antisocial gamer in a permanent state of adolescence doesn't come close to the reality of most gaming fans—though the obsessive interest in specific titles that this stereotyped caricature often displays can be pretty accurate.
Speaking of which . . . As much as I liked the first Portal, and talked about it to anyone who would hold still long enough, and invited unsuspecting friends over to visit only to make them sit down and "enjoy" it with me, I never did create any fanworks inspired by it. But maybe Portal 2 will finally get me going with one of those ponies I've been saving, or motivate me to knit something other than yet another scarf. Of course, I'll have to know something about the actual game, first.