Depending on when you got around to listening to it, the version of The Life of Pablo you heard could be very different to the version I heard. Kanye West has been tinkering with his most recent record ever since he premiered it in February of this year, as the soundtrack to his Yeezy Season 3 fashion show at Madison Square Garden. He has re-recorded verses, changed beats, even subbed out Frank Ocean’s entire contribution to the hook of “Wolves” in favour of Sia and Vic Mensa (he fixed it!). It’s an approach to making and releasing music that’s entirely unprecedented in his industry, but one that’s immediately familiar to gamers.
West is, for all intents and purposes, patching Pablo. Patching has existed for almost as long as computers have; the earliest software fixes came in the form of paper tape users were expected to literally attach to their old-school set ups. Kanye can continue updating his record to this degree because it’s easier to upload an altered WAV file to TIDAL than it is to re-press an entire run of CDs, just as patching has become more prevalent as access to the internet and digital files rather than a post box and punch cards became all but a necessity for modern gaming.
With the pressure put on developers to hit impossible deadlines, many triple-A titles will hit stores before they’re technically finished. They ship in such a sorry state that huge day one patches are necessary before you can play them. Thereafter they will often continue to be altered for months following the release, as the developers receive feedback from players. The most recent example of the latter is Final Fantasy XV, whose announced upcoming patch is in an uncomfortable hinterland between patch and DLC. Not only will fans soon be able to enjoy the usual tune-ups game’s mechanics, but Square Enix will also be adding “gameplay enhancements for Chapter 13,” “scenes that will give you new insight into character motivations.” They’re not just “fixing” issues with the software; they’re actually going in and changing the game’s story.
This has sent a lot of fans into a bit of a tizzy, and perhaps understandably so. Many of them have already (somehow) found the time to complete the game’s huge open world of side quests, they have ferreted out every last crumb of plot, watched all the lengthy cinematics, heard all the expository dialogue espoused by characters as you run around the desert. Many of them have also sunk no small amount of time into watching the Kingsglaive CGI movie and the Brotherhood animated series, both of which act as preludes to the game’s main narrative and, arguably, are key to actually understanding it.
Now those same players are faced with the news that the story they experienced over those 40+ hours of gameplay and beyond is going to change. The canonicity of their playthrough is under threat. There were similarly anxious discussions about what the “definitive” version of The Life of Pablo was as it became clear West wasn’t going to leave it well enough alone. Was it the original iteration played at Madison Square Garden, since that was the first to get a public airing? Or is it whatever version has most recently been adjusted by Kanye, like redrafting a piece of writing? A common question asked of creative types is when they can judge a piece of work to be finished, when they stop making alterations; the consensus tends to be that you make it “good enough” to move on from, or better yet you have an immovable deadline that needs to be hit. Both answers seem somewhat quaint given how easy it is to now patch pretty much anything (even Kindle books get updates from time to time).
Believe it or not, here we reach an intersection of geek culture and theology. Textual criticism is a branch of literary analysis devoted to seeking out differences in printed texts, with the lion’s share of the field focused on versions of The Bible. Before Gutenberg invented the printing press, all copies of an original text had to be handwritten in order to be replicated. These historical transcribers would often make alterations when creating these bespoke reproductions, whether through error or mischief or some nascent propensity towards copyediting. Textual criticism has it that the most “authentic” version of a text is the original one, and so the aim is usually to construct as close to a facsimile of the original text as possible by comparing and contrasting these different, altered versions. Practitioners may also trace the evolution texts have gone through, or ferret out recension, in pursuit of curating a “critical edition” for scholars which highlights all the above.
Textual criticism of any text is founded on three assumptions: that there’s an original author whose original writing can be uncovered; that whoever this author was actually left behind a complete original text; and that said original is worth trying to reconstruct in the first place. Obviously, most people can agree on that final part when it comes to The Bible, and there are obviously many differing and varied manuscripts from throughout the centuries. I realise I am about to make a statement comparing a historical religious text to a JRPG, and that this sentence is inherently ridiculous, but: these assumptions are not so easily made about Final Fantasy XV.
With The Bible, scholars seek to produce critical editions, but the truly faithful wish to trace back the original text as close as possible since it’s their belief that then they will have the closest transcription of God’s message. Anything that has happened to that message in between is the result of reinterpretation, revision or retelling. That begs the question of what is the most “authentic” or definitive version of, in our case, the story of Final Fantasy XV. Is it the version that was released in stores originally, since it was the first one, or does the patching get it closer to Square Enix’s original vision that they hadn’t quite managed to capture when they went gold? A problem here is with the way games are produced and released. They are at once art and consumer product, with market forces having far more control over the shape of the art than even focus testing of movies or retconning of controversial twists in comic books. This discussion recalls the outrage over the ending of Mass Effect 3, which prefigured similar controversy surrounding this year’s No Man’s Sky.
Players who had invested a considerable amount of time and energy into Bioware’s space opera epic were disappointed by an ending which seemed to have little pay off. Features in the final instalment of Mass Effect were claimed to be missing, along with more abstract concept of emotional pay off. One fan went so far as to file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, echoing the Advertising Standards Agency investigation into Hello Games, with the justification that “after reading through the list of promises about the ending of the game they made in their advertising campaign and PR interviews, it was clear that the product we got did not live up to any of those claims.” Bioware sought to placate the rabble with the release of an “Extended Cut,” a free download of extra scenes created by the developer in response to the outrage. Kind of like the most recent version of the Kanye album adding “Saint Pablo” at the end of the original tracklisting.
Seismic changes to existing content and a proliferation of different “versions” of the same text might be unusual in game narratives and music, but it’s once again familiar to the audience of another medium. Thanks to home video and an curious fanbase eager to purchase them, alternate cuts of movies have become so common as to become quotidian. Almost every mainstream comedy will hit DVD and Blu-Ray with promises of an “unrated cut” featuring scenes they “weren’t allowed to in the cinema!” (a claim which is, more often than not, complete bollocks), and directors like Ridley Scott will go back and make significant changes by reinstating deleted scenes into Alien and Kingdom of Heaven. The most notorious of these after-the-fact tinkerers in cinema is George Lucas, whose boasts that the digitally enhanced re-releases of the original Star Wars trilogy were the “definitive” versions were roundly rejected by fans who preferred the uncluttered, analogue charm of the initial releases and Han shooting first. Scott’s Blade Runner, meanwhile, exists in myriad different forms, but the general consensus is that the narration-less Director’s Cut with the bleak ending is the “true” version of Rick Deckard’s story.
It’s difficult to map this approach onto the Final Fantasy situation, however. Critical editions of the game would be difficult. Once the patch comes through, all editions of Final Fantasy XV inserted into consoles connected to the web will start downloading it automatically. Reinstalling after disconnecting from the internet will mean you can boot the original game, with its original narrative elements, or else you could watch a play through. It’s not ideal, but it works. That won’t work for the digital release, however.
The Life of Pablo may only exist in one form on TIDAL, Spotify, and the current version available to buy from digital storefronts as well, but you can still illicitly access those earlier iterations through torrents of archived MP3s. The web is littered with articles and YouTube videos which compare the changes West has made to the record since its release. Making such comparisons between versions of a 40+ hour game is more difficult on a logistical level, as opposed to a thirty second verse of a song or an altered beat, additions or subtractions from a ninety minute movie, or even a book where different versions of a text can be placed next to each other. And unlike the Mass Effect changes, these sound like revisions of existing content, rather than additions to such. Archiving of physical games when is already a problem, but it goes doubly so for the move to digital media. A battery in a SNES cartridge will eventually die, but the raw ROM data can be dumped onto a computer memory and emulated. Unless you have the capacity to rip Blu-Ray data to an ISO image, and then emulate that, you aren’t going to be able to play the OG Final Fantasy XV years from now once the discs have degraded.
As such, fans are placed in an unusual position. Are they to bemoan the changes made, and decide en masse that the original version is the “definitive” one? If so, they are rejecting changes that are widely considered to have been implemented because of fan outcry. The other question is: will this be the only change Square Enix make to the game’s story? Could there be further iterations of the plot, more patches, which take things even further from the experience of those who played through the mammoth narrative soon after launch? That, too, is unclear. It’s possible that we’ll end up in a situation where people’s memories of playing the game are different not from any sort of confirmation bias, but because they literally played different games; proving that fact and making any cogent comparisons, however, will be far more difficult.