Lore doesn't even have to be intrusive to bog a game down. The Legend of Zelda series seems to consistently struggle with moving forward while keeping its essence, both narratively and mechanically. But besides the series' fight with its past from a gameplay perspective, recent entries suffer from the increasingly direct connection between entries. Nintendo's insistence that every game in the series fits within a forking timeline seems counterintuitive to their own sentiment that in the end, the needs of the gameplay overshadow story concerns.
So if creating narrative links between games can create a perception of staleness, how can developers afford not to play it safe?
Connecting the games under the premise that there's a single story being told over the course of several titles implies that there will be a payoff, a reward for fans that follow the timeline from game to game - a premise that frankly seems unlikely, considering that every Zelda game is essentially a retelling of the same story. Tying the games together may deepen fan investment, but without a substantial reason to do so, the whole affair seems pointless. It also means that no Zelda game can diverge too far from the timeline's tale without some sort of absurd justification. As much as Skyward Sword tried to revitalize the Zelda formula, it was stuck explaining the series' origin, which likely bound it to a more traditional design. Why purposely tie down game design to a story that you've acknowledged doesn't matter all that much?
Even franchises where connections between games are irrelevant are taking cues to create ties between newer entries. Final Fantasy stuck to several themes across its early entries (Chocobos and Cid never went away), but it wasn't afraid to create a new world after each entry while iterating on its combat systems, going as far as completely reinventing itself aesthetically for its PlayStation debut. But as the franchise moved forward, it began tying more of its entries together, building on the popularity of certain games and tying them to new ones. Building on past successes is sound strategy when millions of dollars are at stake, but in the long run, attaching Arabic Numerals to Roman ones and creating sub-series for single titles makes the franchise look stale, even when the franchise reinvents its combat from game to game.
So if creating narrative links between games can hamper creativity and create a perception of staleness, how can developers working on multimillion-dollar projects afford not to play it safe? Reboots are by and large the most pervasive approach; several series (e.g., XCOM, Devil May Cry) are using franchise names as a way to pick and choose concepts they'd like to implement. But while reboots allow for some freedom in jettisoning baggage built up over several years, they still come loaded with expectations. The new Tomb Raider, for example, will probably not be a rhythm game.
Developers should not abandon the concept of lore altogether; creating a world for fans and creators alike to explore can be rewarding for both parties. Branding something as an isolated entry in a franchise gives developers a chance to experiment with a familiar concept without the backlash that expectations create. These titles aren't risk-free (any game that flops damages its publisher and developers), but because they're cut off from the franchise proper, the potential damage of their failure can be mitigated. If they succeed, the franchise can even move further in that direction.
BioShock Infinite fits this bill. What makes BioShock tick is still there - the supernatural abilities, the dystopian city - but everything else about it has been reworked, from the combat to the narrative. Even with the city of Rapture excised, Infinite's held together by the key variables of the franchise. As a result, the game looks like the product of people who know what the core of their idea is and aren't afraid to rework that core for the sake of creating something new.
To a lesser extent, the same is true of Assassin's Creed; though most of its narrative and gameplay follow a close pattern, the franchise's setup allows for a great amount of freedom in choosing a setting that fits what the developers want to do next. There's a reason some of Assassin's Creed III's team dubbed it a "backdoor new IP."
But it's understandable that huge shifts in a franchise as large as Assassin's Creed are done with a degree of caution. Lore is stability, and companies thrive on stability - having a base is how companies survive. It's hard to take risks when hundreds of people's salaries could rely on your success. But when exploring myriad outcomes is such a large part of what makes games what they are, it's important that developers take that to heart and create games that make us wonder what could've been - even if George Lucas will never sign off on Starkiller replacing Vader for real.
Suriel Vazquez is a freelance writer currently living in Omaha, Nebraska. He's written reviews and features for GamePro, Bitmob, and now, The Escapist. You can contact him via email here.