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.
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”?
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?”
The first time I felt this dizzy, uncertain panic was with Ultima VIII. I was then, and remain still, an unabashed Ultima whore. The series had its own wobbly missteps before this point (dinosaurs in Savage Empire, “plantamals” in Martian Dreams), but it wasn’t until the seventh official sequel to the series that I felt like I was lost in the throes of some sour fever dream. “Where’s my party?” I thought. No Iolo? Shamino? Dupre? Nary a glimpse of Britannia? The game had changed so much and disposed of so many of the series’ staples that it was barely recognizable as an Ultima game at all.
A game sequel like Ultima VIII feels like a kind of intimate betrayal, a treachery against you personally. The twist-of-the-knife in terms of Ultima VIII (and its even more confusing follow-up, Ultima IX) is that the whole thing was festooned with bugs and, frankly, not very good when it was working correctly.
Thing is, a game doesn’t need to be bad for it to still feel like a betrayal. Metal Gear Solid 2 is a critically-acclaimed best-selling iteration in the series, yet its departure from the main character of Solid Snake raised a lot of hackles (and the game still ends up on a lot of “Most Disappointing Sequels” lists). Deus Ex: Invisible War practically defined the phrase “dumbing down for consoles,” and yet still works as a pretty great game in and of itself. Yet both of these games feel somehow disloyal, both to the games that preceded them and to the players that bought them.
In this author’s not-so-humble opinion, the recently-released Dragon Age 2 is a game so worth loving that to be caught cradling the disc with one’s pants down would not earn shame but rather, the understanding nods of passersby. And yet, many negative reviews cite the lack of a consistent set of characters between games as well as the far more personal and ultimately less epic storyline. With Dragon Age 2, BioWare chose not to go with a “more of the same” approach and, as a result, some fans cocked a suspicious eyebrow.
So, what to do? How to avoid the feelings of treachery and instability? Is there a way to do “different” that doesn’t lead into “danger?” Or is that a path that leads inevitably toward Sonic the Hedgehog syndrome, where the original magic is forever lost beneath the stampeding blue feet of a thousand bizarre-o sequels?
It’s totally possible. Of course it is. We all know that it is.
We know it because we’ve seen it. Fallout 3 barely resembles its predecessors, what with the first-person perspective and the transition from the dusty browns of Western America to the moldy greens and grays of the Eastern seaboard Capitol Wasteland. Metroid Prime is miles apart from the side-scrolling shooter it once was, yet still remains a vaunted and beloved entry into the canon. And ye gods and little fishes, how many times has Mario reinvented himself? Paper Mario? Super Mario Galaxy? Mario Kart? Star Nipples III: Mario’s Revenge?
Mmmokay, yeah, maybe not that last one.
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.
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.