Better Than Before

Better Than Before
Evolution, Not Deviation

Chuck Wendig | 3 May 2011 12:30
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The sages and scholars have predicted, by reading the bones and entrails of game reviewers, that when the year 2014 rolls around all games released will be sequels to other games. New Halo. New Zelda. New Grand Theft Auto. New Custer's Revenge. Okay, maybe not that last one.

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The majority of these sequels, the prognosticators say, will firmly fall into the category of, "More of the same." Developers will go down the list: bigger guns? Check. Larger levels? Done. New enemies? Bingo. Master Chief will get a new helmet. Link, a new bow. General George Armstrong Custer will become 22% more racist than before. (Okay, again, maybe not that last one.)

If it ain't broke, they'll say, don't fix it. And that makes sense from a financial point of view. The logic is if I and a million others buy and enjoy a game called Star Nipples: The Quest For Curly's Comet, one assumes I enjoyed the game's mechanics, characters, and storyworld. When the time comes to write and design Star Nipples II: The Wombat Directive, the mission is clear: Give the audience what they want. They came for the star nipples, so by god, give them star nipples. Certainly some changes are appropriate - they adjusted the transition between levels of the Star Nipple homeworld because reviews complained that they took too long to load, and since everyone so adored your robot droid sidekick "Curly" from the first game, they decided to raise him from the mechanical dead and give him new powers and weapons. Like a robot Jesus.

But from an artistic point of view? The approach feels hollow. Why not exercise those game design and storytelling muscles? If we are to assume that games are an art form and a powerful storytelling medium - and, for now, we must assume that very thing - then the endless sequelization and "more of the same" attitude only serves to diminish the power of that assumption.

Ah, but there's the rub. It's all well and good for an audience to appreciate the effort to bring something genuinely new to the table, but if they just spent sixty bucks on your game and feel cheated because the eighth iteration of Halo is a side-scrolling puzzle-RPG hybrid with Master Chief's 12-year-old daughter as the protagonist, then that appreciation is flushed down the toilet faster than you can say I Miss The M6D Pistol From Halo: Combat Evolved. (For the record, I'd play that version of Halo 8.)

Sequels are in many ways about comfort: comfort for the players and comfort for the financial bottom line of those that produce the sequel. But where, then, lies artfulness and innovation? How far can one deviate, and what marks the lines that shouldn't be crossed?

At what point does "different" become synonymous with "dangerous"?

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We've all sat down and started a game and wondered: "What the hell happened? Where's the game that I expected? Where are the characters I love? Am I on drugs? Did I actually spend money on this?"

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