Better Than Before

Better Than Before
Evolution, Not Deviation

Chuck Wendig | 3 May 2011 12:30
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Take another longer look at the Ultima series, and what do you see? The series that is beloved, with the Avatar and Britannia and all those crazy Virtues, is one that is itself born of a very different shift in the games early on. The first three games don't use the party mechanic and in fact don't follow the pursuits of the Avatar through Britannia at all. The first three (packaged under the name The Age of Darkness) follow the exploits of The Stranger as he routs an evil wizard from the land of Sosaria.

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So, how does that work, exactly? How does one sequel branch out and become an emblem of betrayal while another is loved and lauded?

The answer lurks in the trailer for BioShock Infinite. You watch the video - and, yes, I'm saying this long before that game hits shelves in my own version of divinatory gameomancy - you can see that so much of what we've come to know and expect about BioShock are nowhere to be found. No underwater city, no art deco design, no dark corridors. The same characters do not appear to be present, and if all the indications are true, Inifinite is only peripherally set in the same storyworld.

And yet, despite all this, that video feels implicitly like a BioShock game. Fallout 3 feels like Fallout. Metroid Prime is still a Metroid game even though having wildly different trappings.

That's the key, isn't it? To make a sequel outside the comfort zone, beyond the "do the same thing, only bigger" attitude, you have to grab hold of what lies at the heart of a game property. And what lies at the heart isn't necessarily its mechanics, its characters, or its graphics. It can be, but every property is different. At the center of each game universe lurks a unique feel, a kernel of origin that, when maintained, can grow a whole separate game that still feels like a proper scion of the original. (For the record, this is why I think Dragon Age 2 works as a sequel despite its somewhat dramatic shift - it maintains that thing that makes the series what it is, which is to say, it continues to embrace the BioWare notion that the game doesn't merely have a story, but rather, the story is the game.)

The way to avoid the "different is dangerous" problem is to know that the proper path is one of evolution, not deviation; of organic growth, not stagnant shifts; of star nipples and racist Atari games.

Okay, maybe not that last one.

Chuck Wendig is equal parts novelist, screenwriter, and game designer. He currently lives in the wilds of Pennsyltucky with a wonderful wife and two very stupid dogs. His "vampire in zombieland" novel, Double Dead, releases in November, 2011, and his short story collection, Irregular Creatures, is currently on sale. He is represented by Stacia Decker of DMLA. You can find him dispensing dubious writing advice at his blog, terribleminds.com.

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