If there’s one thing we nerds enjoy, it’s canon. Is this canonical? Is that? Is my OTP canonical? How does X fit into the canon? One need not look any further than the reaction to the announcement that the Star Wars Expanded Universe being retired into the Legends label to see how much a concise and clearly stated canon can matter to people. So there gets to be this mindset among fans of just about anything that whatever is stated to be canon is something akin to a holy text that must be viewed as complete and immutable from whatever state a fan finds it in. And that last bit is important because what eventually sets the bar as ‘betraying’, ‘contradicting’ or ‘ignoring’ canon depends a great deal on exactly what state the canon was in when and how you first were exposed to it.
After all, while the Green Lantern Corps was introduced in 1959, the concept of the Emotional Spectrum and the other Lantern Corps like the Red Lanterns, or the Sinestro Corps, didn’t come into being until 2006, despite it beings established that these things were in existence all along but the Green Lanterns may not have been aware of them. If you were a fan before Geoff Johns’ new interpretation of the Green Lantern universe, you might find this idea a bit on the heretical side. After all, how could the Guardians not know/expose this info? How come it took decades of issues before it was revealed that Parralax was a big space bug that was sealed away and they knew about it but kinda didn’t want to bring it up? On the same hand, if you came after that or say first got interested in Green Lantern due to the Green Lantern Animated Series – then the Emotional Spectrum and the other Lanterns are just part of the universe to you. Easy peasy.
Already we can see that time and method can dictate the view of what is considered to be canon and what isn’t. Will new Star Wars fans a decade from now when the JJ Abrams Trilogy comes to a close even think that the Legends novels were anything more than interesting What-If stories? That the Yuuzhan Vong are nothing more than glorified fanfiction characters? Perhaps. But aside from fan-interpretation and viewpoints of canon, what about when canon is changed by the ones who created it?
If you want a good example of fans getting upset at a ‘violation’ of canon by the ones who write the story themselves, look no further than our good friends at Blizzard Entertainment. Almost every expansion is met with cries of ‘That’s not what this character would do’, ‘Blizzard doesn’t care about their own canon’ or ‘This violates their own lore’, etc. I’ve played World of Warcraft since 2006 off and on, and I’ve seen these complaints so many times I’ve lost count. But it always comes back to this idea that what WAS should be preserved in a little box, and left to the point where it is never changed or influenced. Heck, I remember people complaining about the difference in characterization between Warcraft III and Vanilla WoW, almost like there was some sort of inexplicable 5 year jump mentioned in first few seconds of the opening cut scene. These characters change, the situation changes, and the world moves forward. The Forsaken were pretty much born out of Sylvanas’ quest for revenge against the Lich King. You can’t very well expect them to stay the same after their sworn mortal enemy is dead.
There’s also the issue of the fact that since WE are aware of all the details of the story and lore, we often will forget that the characters don’t. A character may not know the truth of all the details, or even heard the news if its something that happened on the completely other side of the planet and thus will act according to what they know and not what WE know. The concept of ‘metagaming’ can extend to fiction too, ya know. So while things sometimes look like a violation of canon, it can honestly sometimes just be a matter of ‘the characters wouldn’t know that’. Back to World of Warcraft for example, it’s stated in some places that the Eredar corrupted the Titan Sargeras into turning evil, it’s later revealed upon meeting the Draenei – an exiled faction of the Eredar – that it was actually the reverse. Sargeras had corrupted the Eredar. Is this a retcon? Yes, but does it break canon? No. No one who originally told the tales of Sargeras & the Eredar would have been in the position to know the facts of the tale. They are legends and fables, passed down for generations. Now when they meet the Draenei? Well, heck, Velen was THERE. He knows. Now he’s explaining it. Now you have the myth, and the fact. That’s developing canon, not violating it.
Wanting a canon to stay rigid, to have nothing new enter or depart the scene and for characters to stay the same as when we first fell in love with them just is flat out bad for storytelling. Is BioWare futzing with their own lore with TOR? Yes. Yes they are. The story is moving forward, a new enemy is appearing from beyond the borders of the galaxy and using a vastly different technique of force wielding to pursue a mission of galactic conquest. Honestly, from a personal standpoint, it’s not nearly as conflicting as say KOTOR to KOTOR2 when in the space of 5 years the entire Jedi Order was completely wiped out leaving only a few stragglers like the Exile around. No wonder they decided to set SWTOR 295 years later. Yeesh.
Now I’m not saying there aren’t ways you can mess up canon. Even Blizzard has admitted to messing up with mixing up established facts and they have employees devoted to entire task of keeping this stuff straight. But there’s a difference between ‘This never before explained thing has appeared and is attacking’ or ‘This ancient prophecy we just uncovered is coming true!’ and things like ‘Superman was never from Krypton, he’s from Snorglack-VII and always has been. Ignore what we said earlier.’ (And heck there are even acceptable ways to do that with continuity reboots, and elaborate explanations, that might reek of B.S. aren’t technically violating canon.) There are times when you just screw up and forget that you’ve already established some detail, and there are times you introduce retcons that will devastatingly run in contrast to how a character is viewed (Did you Batman ALWAYS hated rock music because his Dad told him it was bad the night they died?) but there is also just the idea that you are expanding the story and the universe.
As fans we sometimes have the tendency to get a bit zealous with our devotion to what we know. We like the permanence of the whole thing. It feels good. But that’s not necessarily what’s best for the story. For a story to grow, canon must be altered and expanded. Maybe there were 9 planets, but due to later revelations there are now 8 (or like 25). Canon must always be somewhat flexible in order for things to move forward. And I think we as fans need to be flexible with it.
Thanks for reading.
With my recent return to Star Wars: The Old Republic, I keep finding myself mentally comparing things to World of Warcraft. I have no ill feelings toward WoW in my heart, and it still stands as a fun game. In fact, I will be one of the first to defend Mists of Pandaria in a conversation. After all Mists has done wonders for the way that Blizzard has decided to portray story in their games. However, there is something that has been gnawing at me since I’ve come back to SWTOR. Where do I fit in the story?
Dating back all the way to the Ruins of Ahn’qiraj, WoW has had an ever shifting sense of perspective that seems to draw less on the player characters being heroes and more that they are the upper echelon of the nameless grunts. More and more the stories, especially for raids, have focused on large organized armies assaulting the dungeons/bosses/whatever to accomplish the goal, with you simply being the tip of the spear (or in some examples the rest of the arrowhead with an NPC being the tip). No longer are you the hero, but simply the ones more likely to survive out of a massive attack by a hundreds if not thousands.
For example, the Shattered Sun Offensive’s assault on the Sunwell, the Ashen Verdict’s battle in Icecrown, the Guardians of Hyjal in the Molten Front and assaulting the Firelands, backing Thrall and the Aspects during Deathwing’s Fall, The Sunreavers or Kirin Tor breaking through the Thunder King’s walls, and the entirety of the Alliance or the Darkspear Revolution during the Siege of Orgrimmar.
In each of every one of those examples, you are not the heroes or saviors. You are simply one part of a much larger effort to defeat the enemy. This has even extended into questing in Mists of Pandaria, where it no longer matters if you’ve killed C’thun or defeated Kel’Thuzad the master lich twice, you are just another nameless faceless piece on the board along with so many others. Now this isn’t universal either. There have been raids and dungeons throughout the expansions that have you and your group as a small team working your way into a dungeon to silence a dark big bad all on your own. Historically, these usual are the first tiers of raids in each expansion. Karazhan, the Molten Core, Blackwing Descent, Mogu’shan Vaults… there’s no army with you for these. It’s just you against the dark. Imagine if all of Ironforge joined together for a massive assault against Ragnaros with an army that took over the Dark Iron cities with Magni leading the assault. Magni who steps on Majordomo Executus’ tail and demands to be let into the Firelord’s chamber. Magni who proclaims victory once the Hand of Ragnaros is firmly planted in the earth and the enemy vanquished. Would that be better?
Compare this to Star Wars: The Old Republic where you are cast in the role of the hero for the entirety of the narrative. YOU the Jedi Knight confronts and battles the Sith Emperor. YOU the Bounty Hunter who wins the Great Hunt and goes after the Supreme Chancellor single handedly. YOU the brave imperial that freed the Dread Masters from their prison. The game devotes itself to you and you alone being the central figure of your tale. Compare Rise of the Hutt Cartel Imperial Side to the Horde side start of Mists of Pandaria. In both, a small tactical squadron lands in the area to cut a swathe of it and get what is of interest to their respective faction. The big difference is that in Mists, you are a lackey to General Nazgrim who is leading the team. You report to him and he tells you what to do. In the Rise of the Hutt Cartel, you are the leader of the small team. Mostly guiding the narrative and giving the orders to your subordinates who provide support and information to you, their leader, to help carry out the mission. Star Wars: The Old Republic goes to great lengths to make you feel like you are the star. Even in the Operations (Raids) and Flashpoints (Dungeons), you are treated by the NPCs like they HAD to get you because you are the best of the best and only you are capable of handling this problem, not because hey, you’ve got a better health pool than the grunts, so you make it to the end.
However, that’s not without it’s drawbacks either. When you see five bounty hunters rocking the ‘Champion of the Great Hunt’ title, it breaks the illusion a bit since your brain stops for a second and goes, “Hey, wait a minute. Didn’t I win that?” And the answer is yes, yes you did. This isn’t the worst thing ever, but I will admit it’s a drawback to the immersion. But ultimately it comes down to experiencing the story and the feel of leading the narrative along. I say feel, because honestly there are no dead ends, and no real way to break off the rails that Bioware has laid down for you. This may cause issues with role playing a character when everybody has followed the same path, but I’m not a real hardcore role player in game so I am not even gonna attempt to go down that road.
So which one is better? Well that’s for each to decide for their own. I personally enjoy feeling like the hero and leading the story forward, but I can see that there’s an allure to the whole thing. And honestly, when you sit and look at all the NPCs that are aiding in raid boss kills or massive armies tackling the citadels of evil, that’s really our fault from the get go. Since I can remember I’ve heard things like “It’s ridiculous that X boss can be killed by 10/25 nobodies.” Well, okay then. We’ll have a somebody do the killing. You just help. And it’s not for me. I won’t lie, it makes World of Warcraft – a game I LOVE the lore to enough to create an entire site like the old Oddcraft blog and do things like the Warchief Election – a little bit harder to get in to and enjoy.
So what about you? Which form of storytelling do you prefer and why? I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this, Internet.