I was listening to this week’s Waypoint Radio podcast and they briefly discussed fan fiction and its merits when compared to original works. Their discussion is worth listening to, as is the rest of the podcast.
Regardless, it got me thinking. My first “long” project was a fan fiction for Star Wars: Republic Commando. I remember finishing the game at the time, and I was upset at the way the game ended, so I decided I was going to do something different. It was a labor of love. Since then I’ve moved to more original stories and worlds, but I can’t deny the influence of other works in them.
Sadly, fan content is usually one that simply won’t be monetarily rewarded, which means it will, as a rule, be relegated to an activity made by hobbyists and fans in their spare time. There have been cases where fan works are elevated to cannon, but it is simply not the rule. And in this world, not being considered as part of the cannon and being restricted to online communities means that these works, regardless of their quality, are simply less important/relevant works.
I find that to be a shame. The beauty of fan content is that it can push into other directions that the author never intended, revealing new perspectives of the same universe. Fan content can also (attempt to) improve in what was made, as is the case of many mods out there. Something as simple as the Evac All mod for XCOM 2 represents an attempt to improve in the experience of the base game by virtue of providing an alternative to what is essentially the chore of selecting all soldiers, extracting them one by one. The Long War mod for XCOM: Enemy Within takes the base game and pushes it to be both harder and much more diverse, providing the player with a challenge and many more tools than the base game to deal with those challenges. Then there is DoomRL (recently renamed to DRL), which brought Doom to the rogue-like genre and provides a different experience than the series proper. Not to mention, for many this is the way they get to flex their creative juices.
Thus, conventionally, the author (or, well, the rights owner) is the ultimate authority regarding what is or isn’t true in a given universe. Ideally, this would keep help maintain a cohesive universe. Lets then consider for a second that comic book universes have undergone massive retcons, and those are universes that have lived decades and been built by people blessed by the owners.
On the other end, once the author publishes their work, it would leave their hands and the work would become what the consensus decided it would. Anybody may contribute or alter and their modifications are only as strong as other people decide to built up on them. In fact, a work would be things based on the context it is discussed and considered. Different communities could have their own cannons that’d be as valid as any other, and they’d be free to adapt it to fit their views and it’d be the work. In an extreme case, the community interested in the work could reject further work by the original author and exclude them (except, not quite, since the original author could continue to produce regardless of others).
As a creator, I would be afraid to move towards the second case. Part of why I enjoy working on stories and the worlds they are set in is because they are mine. I get to decide what goes in, what doesn’t. I can explore anything I want, or nothing at all. And while nobody could take that away, it would suck to know that what I made was essentially taken over by other people and I was discarded. Never mind that, at some point, we wouldn’t even be talking about the same thing yet we would still be using the same language to do so.
But I enjoy seeing where others take things. As long as there is a clear indication of what it is based on and that it is not a blessed work, I’d be fine with people giving their take on something I made, or even presenting their own alternative. I admit that I have my limitations, or perhaps I simply don’t want to head in a particular direction that others might want to go to. In fact, royalties to be discussed, I am not opposed to the idea of people selling content they made based on a work that I did, as long as it is marked as such and the consumer knows that this work is someone else’s take on it.
To go back on my examples, Long War is as much XCOM as XCOM: Enemy Within vanilla is. MISERY is simply a different, harsher take on STALKER. For me, personally, they both respect their base work and considering the quality of those mods… the first one influenced the sequel, XCOM 2. If STALKER wasn’t dead, I wonder if MISERY wouldn’t do the same? I don’t think it is fair that these works are less than the original work considering the amount of work that’s gone into them, and the understanding that is required of what it was originally trying to do, what the spirit of it was, and taking elements of it further. They might no be for everybody, and some derivative works certainly aren’t, but it bothers me that they will always be less.
I just wish there was more that creators could (and would) do to reward fans who engage and create derivative works, and that one day they could stand along-side original works without having to hide it. It’ll be quite the day, if it ever comes.