FEAR 2. Fable II. Skate 2. Far Cry 2. Gears of War 2. Resistance 2. Fallout 3. Unreal Tournament 3. Devil May Cry 4. Soulcalibur IV. Street Fighter IV. Fatal Frame IV. Resident Evil 5. Tomb Raider a million. The games industry does seem to be enamored of sequels these days. While this has always been true, it seems that developers have gone on a sequel bender lately and can’t turn out anything that doesn’t have a badly overextended story and a number on the end of the title. While I’m not crazy about the trend, I don’t think it’s quite as pathetic and tragic as it might seem if you’re comparing the game industry to the movie industry. I think regular sequels can be a perfectly healthy practice, as long as they’re done right and with an understanding of why game sequels work better than their movie counterparts.
Sequels usually have a lot of story-based baggage. It was fun to meet new characters and ideas in the first game, but in the following games the sense of discovery is gone. We already know their Deep Dark Mystery or whatever it is that made them seem so compelling the first time around. We’ve heard their story, uncovered their secrets, and worked through their issues. Now they’re boring. The writer can squeeze some extra mileage out of them by giving them another set of secrets, but then it seems like everyone has an endless parade of skeletons marching out of their closet. Is there anything the Umbrella Corporation could do at this point that would shock us? The first time we uncovered their nefarious deeds it was a revelation. Now they would need to build a factory that turned babies into toxic waste to be dropped on endangered species by enslaved underage single moms before anyone would raise an eyebrow. And even then, it wouldn’t really be a surprise.
Worse, when the inevitable sequel rolls around the game suddenly has to serve two audiences: The people who played the previous game and those who didn’t. Characters have to stop and explain things that everyone already knows for the benefit of the late-comers. So then the writer is trying to tell a tacked-on new story while making sure the audience is up to speed on the old one. It’s not impossible, but it adds a lot of narrative cruft.
But videogame sequels can be a good thing. They can build on the gameplay of the original, taking player feedback into account and using their acquired knowledge to make for a richer experience. The story turns to mush as it ages, but the gameplay becomes more polished. Despite the howling of “story is king” people like me, games live or die based on the strength of their gameplay, not the setting, the story, or even the characters. A well-writen story can make a good game into a great one, which is why I’m always insisting that designers need to spend time making the writing less horrible. But if the gameplay sucks and the story is great, then you don’t have a game. You have a movie that’s a pain in the ass to watch. When I sit down with Thief: Deadly Shadows (which is just the numerically-challenged title for “Thief 3“) I think, “Oh boy! More amoral sneaking around in a corrupt world of magic and steamworks,” not, “I can’t wait to see what Garret is up to these days.” Nothing against Garret. He’s a great character and all, but you could make a good Thief game without him. You couldn’t make one without the sneaking around in the shadows stuff.
Which brings me to the nefarious trend of cliffhanger endings. I’m not sure what hate-filled demon/marketing consultant first came up with the idea of ruining the ending of a game in the hopes of selling more games in the future, but I would like to invite that guy to cover himself in onion and garlic breading and dive headfirst into the nearest deep fryer. The player has just spent
forty twenty eleven hours fighting the forces of evil in order to uncover The Truth and set things right, but the designer decides to hold the ending ransom in an effort to get the player to pony up for the next game, which hasn’t even begun development yet. The design document is a text file on the designer’s home PC that so far only says, “add boobs and quick time events.” Eventually that document will be written and presented, funding will hopefully be acquired, the team will be put to work, marketing campaigns will be set in motion, and the game will ship. Assuming nothing goes wrong, sometime next decade the sequel will appear on the shelves, just in case you want to see what happened next.
This is the most tiresome and cynical move a game designer can make. A satisfying resolution to the story and its major mysteries is your reward at the end for all your efforts. The player is really here for the gameplay, and if the play is good they’ll already have an interest in the sequel. There is no reason to deny them their ending. Booting diners out of the restaurant before they’re done eating will indeed leave them hungry for more, but they’re not going to come back tomorrow and try to finish their meal. They’ll just look for satisfaction someplace else.
I can’t imagine that cliffhanger endings will actually sell many games. Having been bitten once, is the player really going to trust the developer to play fair the next time around? Even if they do give the game a chance, the development cycle of games is too slow to take advantage of the cliffhangers they’re creating. I was really into the plot of Dreamfall at the time, but that was back in 2006. When the game ended, I was angry and frustrated with the lack of closure. I might have been willing to run out and buy the sequel right then, but today? I’ve forgotten most of it. If the sequel – which still doesn’t exist – were to appear in my lap right now, I wouldn’t have any great urge to play it. I can’t remember the characters, the sub plots, or even what was going on when the story was yanked away. I don’t care anymore. And I certainly wouldn’t want to open myself up to the chance that I would get re-invested in the world, only to be frustrated yet again.
I think the Final Fantasy series has nailed what makes a videogame sequel work: Find the elements that define the experience for the player and keep those, but wipe everything else clean. There’s no need to drag the same group of teens from one adventure to the next, repeatedly saving the world from an infinitely respawning league of evil dudes and their ceaseless cataclysm generator. We get a new world, a new disaster, and a new slate of characters to meet. They might crib some elements and character ideas from earlier games, but you can jump into the series anywhere without needing to worry about what has come before.
We don’t need to follow the story of Max Payne as he grimaces his way into middle age while his body count climbs into the six digit range. Instead of dragging his one story out, give us a new, alternate version of the guy each time. In one game he’s a young cop. In another he’s an aging private eye. A bodyguard. A detective. Each game would have the key elements: Noir atmosphere, a main character named Max Payne, bullet time gunplay, conspiracies, dangerous dames, and graphic novel styled interludes. That’s the formula. No need to drag the rest of it along with us from one game to the next. And besides, it’s not like
The end of this column will appear in a future issue. Unless the column gets canceled. Or if the problem goes away. Or I stop caring. Or I die. Be sure to check back every week to see if I decide to wrap this up.