It all started with George Lucas.
The man who once testified before Congress that “people who alter or destroy works of art and our cultural heritage for profit or as an exercise of power are barbarians” released the Special Editions of the original Star Wars trilogy on VHS in 1997, using new digital technologies to alter these works of art with bafflingly hideous changes like making Han Solo’s neck jerk awkwardly to dodge a clumsily-inserted blaster shot from Greedo. He altered them again for the 2004 DVD release, the 2011 Blu-Ray release and the 2019 4K release on Disney+, in which Greedo now says “Maclunkey” as he shoots. (Lucas apparently made that change before selling the copyright to Disney.) Obviously, directors had been releasing new cuts of their movies for some time when Lucas decided that, actually, being a profiteering, power-hungry barbarian sounded pretty good, but no one else had ever decided to make the original cuts totally unavailable by legal means and keep them that way seemingly forever. (The original trilogy will enter the public domain at some point, assuming we don’t turn the planet into a charred lifeless husk, but that won’t be for another seventy-something years at minimum.)
In the years since, few others have made the original versions of popular works of art unavailable in quite so calculated and malicious a manner. But in a world where art is increasingly available only in digital formats – and especially one where such art is increasingly stored on faraway servers and streamed to our computers rather than stored on them – the ability of copyright holders to alter or destroy works of art has grown exponentially. There’s Kanye West repeatedly “updating” his 2017 album The Life of Pablo on streaming services after release and Netflix letting Mitch Hurwitz recut the Rashomon-like fourth season of Arrested Development into a chronological order with shorter episodes (the original cut is still available on Netflix, but buried with the trailers). It’s not necessarily a power they frequently flex in obvious ways, at least outside the video game industry. But it’s still a power they have, and it should worry us.
The term in the games industry for post-release alterations to a game is the same as for any piece of software: a “patch”, or update. Patches have been a part of video games for decades – originally just PC games, but nowadays, console games too – in a way post-release alterations to other kinds of art haven’t, for fairly obvious reasons. No flaw in a film print will make it simply stop playing, but if a game tries to execute a bad line of code, the whole program can crash. On a basic level, all computer programs are mathematical functions and sometimes you just need to fix them. But as long as you’re fixing basic functionality, and as long as you can make patches available pretty much any time after release, why not “fix” other stuff? Some of those changes are enough like questions of functionality that it’s hard to quarrel with them. Let’s say you couldn’t quite get environments to load smoothly during your original development time, but you’ve figured it out now. Why wouldn’t you patch it? It’s not a matter of whether the game can run or not, admittedly, but you’d have to be really wanky to defend the artistic validity of lagging software.
But lots of those changes are more subjective. If a particular gun in a first-person shooter is more powerful in practice than you intended, and players who are proficient with that gun have a huge advantage over other players, is changing that a “fix”? I guess it corrects a mistake, but we typically expect the creators of a work of art to live with the flaws in a work at the time of its publication. Any artist could spend their whole lives tweaking their novel, film or album, but once it’s published, it’s no longer their property, it’s part of the common property of humanity. Copyright holders may be temporarily entitled to control how and when a work of art is reproduced – up to and including authorising variations on the work like director’s cuts or expanded editions or whatever – but they don’t own the original work and they have a moral duty to protect it until it enters its rightful home in the public domain.
Earlier this year, the film adaptation of Cats, directed by Tom Hooper, became probably the first film to be patched during its theatrical release. It had an incredibly troubled production and didn’t lock in its final cut until 36 hours before it was set to premiere. Or so the original reporting went. But then it came out that the first cut released to cinemas was still incomplete: the film’s visual effects weren’t finished (e.g. Judi Dench’s hand was visibly human, even showing her wedding ring) and an updated version was rolled out a couple of weeks later. There were lots of jokes about Cats getting a day-one patch (a patch issued on a game’s release date) and, to be fair, I do think the patch – like everything else about Cats – is largely a laughing matter. But it also exists at the crossroads of a lot of changes in the entertainment industry and growing tensions in the public’s relationship to popular art that I’ve been concerned about for a while. I don’t think we’ll get a repeat of the Cats patch any time soon or that post-release updates of films during their theatrical runs will ever become common: there are very specific structural reasons for the frequency of day-one patches of games due to a combination of creaking industry bureaucracy and their nature as computer programs that will never be true of art that isn’t also a computer program. And, besides, if copyright holders are going to start fucking around with our art, they’re not going to do it in theatres, where they have to rush out new prints in a physical medium. No, they’ll fuck around with it in their servers or in the cloud or in whatever they come up with next that essentially boils down to “you think you own this, but you don’t”.
I don’t want to be melodramatic, because the ability of copyright holders to “patch” the films, shows and albums on streaming services or digital storefronts will only exacerbate the existing problems of the modern copyright system, rather than create new ones. Archivists will have a more difficult time tracking, cataloguing and preserving different cuts, especially if alterations are made under the radar rather than as part of a gimmick. Everyone noticed when Kanye started changing The Life of Pablo: it was one of the buzziest albums of the year, by one of the most polarising artists of the century, and it already had a lot of extra scrutiny on it because Kanye had announced it as a Tidal exclusive, then put it on Apple Music and Spotify almost immediately, a lie for which he was sued. But it’s not difficult to imagine copyright holders trying and succeeding to slip changes by without much attention. And it’s not like they’re gonna send out a push notification to archivists to let them know, or make different versions readily available. There’s no drop-down menu to select which cut of Blade Runner you want to watch on Netflix. They don’t even tell you which cut of a film they have. And that risk only grows as copyright holders set up their own bespoke streaming services to host all their movies and shows, rather than licensing them out to other companies. Netflix would never dare alter a Disney movie it’s hosting without Disney’s permission and Disney demanding Netflix alter it would probably go against the terms of their contract. But Disney can do whatever it wants with its copyrights on its streaming services without consulting anyone else, and does so frequently.
Of course, it would be remiss of me not to mention that many of these changes are not just subtle artistic alterations of debatable value, but drastic alterations to content, even censorship. Recently, several corporations removed or edited episodes of TV shows featuring characters in blackface (or just mud masks, in some cases) allegedly in response to Black Lives Matter protests. I’ve followed the recent protests quite closely and their central demands have been for the police to stop murdering black people and for the government to defund the police and reallocate their excessive budgets to programs that actually improve people’s lives, like housing and healthcare, so I don’t know what Netflix pulling It’s Always Sunny episodes has to do with that. It kind of seems like a psyop to turn people against an increasingly popular political movement to dismantle the police state by getting people to associate it with political correctness, which everyone hates, and spend time and energy arguing over symbolic issues, which don’t really matter, instead of continuing to mount pressure for meaningful material change to society. Or the entertainment industry is full of idiots who actually think they’re helping. Who’s to say? Either way, the last weeks have really highlighted how online distribution makes censorship easier and more effective, particularly given how much media is exclusively distributed online now and never gets a physical release. Just pull the episode and (maybe) put it back up with anything too inconvenient to the brand removed. It isn’t a new problem by any means, but previous instances of this kind of censorship – or at least those deemed newsworthy – have mostly concerned repressive non-Anglophone regimes, like Netflix pulling an episode of Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj because the Saudi Arabian government claimed his criticism of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman violated cybercrime laws. But recent censorship of comedy shows demonstrates how foolish it’s always been to frame this primarily as an issue of Western companies expanding into censorious foreign lands, as the New York Times did. The fundamental problem is the power of copyright holders and/or platforms to make inconvenient art disappear at will.
Aside from these fairly obvious practical implications, however, the idea of patching raises deeper issues about the nature of art itself, especially as some particularly toxic ideas that have incubated in the video game industry threaten to take root in the rest of the entertainment industry. For a range of historical reasons – from the long history of marketing games as software with features rather than art with qualities to the artificially-inflated price point of so-called AAA games – video games have long been thought of more like a commodity or product than a work of art. Obviously, in a capitalist economy, works of art are commodities and products, but they’re not just commodities or products. We tend to think of them primarily as aesthetic objects, not economic ones, especially when we talk about what we like about them. It seems crude and reductive to consider the artistic value of a movie or TV show or album in terms of its financial cost – i.e. whether you get enough bang for your buck – when there’s typically not even a fixed price range for them (if we pay for them at all). But it’s taken years for mainstream video game critics to start talking about video games in terms other than the purely commercial. In that time, literally hundreds of thousands of gamers have been trained by the games media to think of buying and playing a game as you think of buying and using a car.
To some extent, that makes sense, since gaming has historically been a quite expensive hobby, with gamers expected to drop hundreds just on the hardware, then sixty-plus dollars per game to actually play anything on it. But art isn’t the same as other kinds of products. If you’re sold a car that wasn’t assembled correctly, it won’t function as it should. How it should function is (mostly) a quantifiable, identifiable and investigable fact: there’s the basic set of things a car must do to be a car – move when you accelerate, stop when you brake, etc. – and whatever features this particular car has, as promised by the manufacturer and dealer. There are all sorts of laws and regulations that (at least in theory) dictate how cars should function for their sale and operation to be legal. If you are sold the car under false pretences, that is a crime and you can be compensated for it. But our experience of art isn’t objective. Two people can watch the same film at the same time under the same conditions and have completely opposite opinions about it. One can call it the worst film they’ve ever seen and one can find it a transformative and life-affirming masterpiece. I know, because I’ve literally heard a film I found transformative and life-affirming called “the worst film I’ve ever seen” by someone else at the same screening. (It was Martin Scorsese’s Silence.) How a piece of art “should” function isn’t quantifiable, identifiable or investigable. I’m open to some nuance around that point when it comes games because games are software and there are certain basic things software should do to count as functioning software. But when it comes to other kinds of art, I worry about this purely consumerist attitude growing more common. More and more people aren’t just calling films bad when they don’t like them. They want them patched.
I’m generally sceptical of the notion that fans have an increasingly powerful role in popular culture, especially with regard to the “fan boy” boogeyman. I especially detest the practice of entertainment outlets writing about fan petitions, like the change.org petition to remake Game of Thrones season eight, as if they reflect any kind of reality. Most of these petitions only go viral and get the insane number of signatures they do because entertainment journalists bring attention to them on social media, at which point other people spread them around in posts mocking them. They usually have virtually no organic support or momentum until people outside the fan community in question – often journalists with an incentive to see them go viral because it gives them a clickbait-y topic to write about – promote them to either mock them or manufacture controversy. Even at that point, a not-insignificant portion of the signatories will never be people with any strong, passionate feelings about removing The Last Jedi from canon or making a ship in The Witcher an official couple, because it is not difficult to sign an online petition. It’s always a mix of people who saw it on social media and went “sure, I agree with that”, people who signed it as a joke and bots, with people who actually give a shit about the petition’s stated goals generally in the minority.
But to the extent there is a problem with fan entitlement – and there is, it just mostly affects smaller creators and is fuelled, not reflected, by cynical media coverage of manufactured fan outrage – I’m not sure it’ll ever make patching a widespread problem outside video games. I used to worry that the success of gamers at getting the endings of video games they didn’t like changed would lead to the same thing happening with movies and TV shows, but there just doesn’t seem to be the same appetite in Hollywood for bending over backwards to please vocal fans at the expense of underpaid, overworked developers that exists in the games industry. Maybe Hollywood know their monopoly is sewn up too tight to be bothered. But unless the underlying consumerist principles of this attitude are attacked, it doesn’t matter that the patches don’t come.
The mere possibility of the patch – the idea of it, in our minds, as something that could be done if studios only had the will – will always encourage at least some people to think about art like a product or service. They “fixed” Mass Effect 3 by patching its controversial ending and will probably “fix” further games in the future. It will always be this tantalising possibility for other kinds of popular art, dancing along in parallel but never crossing over and becoming real. People will always want it and that will shape the way they think about art. I’m not worried about a critical mass of such people actually getting films remade or exerting some sort of clumsy control over the direction of a TV show. But I am worried about what it will do to critical and cultural discourse – how we think about and talk about art as individuals and as a society – when there’s a growing trend towards thinking of artistic “failure” in the same binary way we think of engine failure. Video games aren’t allowed to be failures, or disappointing, or even just “different from what I expected” without a certain segment of their audience behaving as if they’ve been swindled and betrayed. Just because that attitude will never be as good at getting results with films and TV shows doesn’t mean it isn’t an utterly poisonous way to approach art. In a way, you’re not approaching art at all when you treat it like a product that must meet your expectations as a consumer. You’re just standing there, demanding it come to you in the form you expect, and when it doesn’t, you throw a tantrum. It’s such a childish, destructive, stupid way to engage with art and it just drives me insane.
Art doesn’t fail in binary terms. It doesn’t even fail in objective terms. One man’s worst movie ever is another’s masterpiece. When we insist on looking at art through the narrow lens of our unexamined expectations, and judge it on whether it meets, exceeds or falls short of them, we close ourselves off to so much of what makes the experience of art so enriching. We don’t let ourselves be won over by something different from what we thought we wanted or liked. We become passive consumers of art, not active appreciators. And that’s right where the bastards that run the conglomerates that control all of popular culture want us. Because as long as we’re asking for patches, we’re still asking for the slop they already wanted to sell us, just with a little sugar. We’re not asking them to take creative risks and fund personal films again instead of funnelling capital into mediocre tentpole shite, we’re just asking them to shine the turds.
We’re not questioning their right to control popular culture, we’re just begging them to be mildly more benevolent overlords.