I’m almost certain I’m about to cover points I’ve gone over before, but if I’m still being bothered by it, it’s worth harping on until it goes away. To paraphrase Mark Twain, if a man is dissatisfied it is his duty to harp on about it, even if he thinks he’s the only one, just as it is the duty of every other man to vote him down if they disagree. And if they don’t disagree, perhaps it’s time we started getting some organized harping on going.
So anyway, sequels. Scourge of creativity. I’ve declared many rules in the past as to how sequels should be done – firstly that ideally they should be banned altogether, then, in my weak-ass conciliatory way, that was downgraded to a law that they should only be developed by people who didn’t like the first one much. Later, in passing, I mentioned that a good sequel is one that sees the original as a jumping-off point, something to build on, rather than one that merely wallows in the original and “pays respect.” Well, I’m going to add to this list of commandments now: You should never try to get a sequel out of a game that had a perfectly fine, self-contained story with no sequel hook, because it will never, ever end well. The only exception is when the sequel is almost entirely unrelated except for a few broad elements, as in Silent Hill 2, but when you’re trying to squeeze another adventure out of the same characters it can’t possibly have the same impact. Consider Bioshock 2 against Bioshock 1. God of War 2 against God of War 1. And indeed, Portal 2 against Portal 1.
Portal 1 was great because it was as long as it needed to be. The trick it pulled was that it appeared to simply be a fun little puzzle game with some funny instructional dialogue and only the bare minimum of plot required to connect the puzzles. Then, with only the merest dropping of hints throughout the game, the plot suddenly escalated towards the end. It was an interesting surprise and very well paced. The ending drew a firm line under it all, and while there was the overt implication that GlaDOS was still alive (hence the song), the player character escaped and there was nothing to be gained in victimizing them further.
In Portal 2 the plot is now center stage just in time for it to have very little more to say. All it could really do was paddle around for a while establishing backstory for things, and uncovering the mystery behind things can only ever make them less interesting. And the puzzles didn’t feel central anymore. Form was defining function rather than the other way around. I never got the impression that any of the new puzzle mechanics had any kind of decent payoff, you just got to play around with them for a bit before moving onto the next bit of plot.
And when Portal 2 wasn’t overdoing the plot it was retconning it. In Portal 1 I never got the impression that GlaDOS was supposed to be a credible threat. Her defining characteristic was that she was trying to be manipulative but completely didn’t understand human emotions. She thinks she can reach you with the promise of baked goods or by painting a heart on the side of a box. When the test sequence ends, her attempt to kill you is, frankly, pathetic, and when you’re running around behind the scenes, she can’t even tell where you are or what you’re doing. Now all of a sudden she’s some facility-spanning omnipotent monster.
I’m not trying to ruin anyone’s fun. Portal 2’s still a very good game, and these issues, it must be said, only apply to the single player campaign. The co-op I found to be much more appealing and much more within the spirit of the original. There, the puzzles defined the progression and GlaDOS seemed much more like her old self. Still flailing to grasp emotional basics she grows openly suspicious (perhaps envious) of the two robots’ growing friendship, trying ineptly to drive a wedge between them by praising them individually. This is partly why it’s so fun to work together, because on top of everything else it’s in defiance of her open disapproval. It almost seems like the co-op’s story paves the opposite path to Portal 1 – rather than a hitherto unimportant plot suddenly acquiring a dark twist, the co-op maintains a little plot hinting at a dark twist but it just turns into goofy fun at the end, spoiler alert.
I think it’s strange that more people don’t see a sequel as an opportunity to extend the concept, to create a completely new story that could have even more of an impact than the last one. It’s even more disappointing since Portal 2 acquired a whole bunch of more staff and resources than Portal 1 but just used it all to paddle around stapling an extension onto a story that had already been quite thoroughly and concisely told, which, as we’ve already established, will never be regarded as better than the original. I mean, prove me wrong. Name me one sequel to a game that wasn’t left open for sequels, with the same main characters as before, whose story was regarded as better than the first. Let me help you out: there aren’t any.
I hate this prevailing feeling that sequels have some obligation to the fans, retch retch. Let me tell you something about fans. Fans do not know what they want. You indulge their every whim and they lose interest. You’ve got to give them scraps of affection to keep them keen, glance at them occasionally like you’ve just noticed them and say “Oh, are you still here?” It’s exactly like picking up women.
“The fans seemed to like GlaDOS,” Valve may have said. “Should we have a sequel with more GlaDOS?” “Yes please,” the fans would say. “We have fond memories of GlaDOS in Portal 1, so therefore we will equally enjoy there being more GlaDOS in a sequel. Baa baa four legs good two legs bad, etc.” And then Portal 2 came out and the fans will be the very people saying it’s not as good as the first.
Not that I want to overuse this comparison but fans of Silent Hill 1 were quite vocally upset when Silent Hill 2 first came out and it was nothing to do with the characters in the original. Those fans were swiftly proven to be big, wrong twats, weren’t they? And because no one listened to them, Silent Hill 2 was fucking amazing. And it’s still regarded that way because there have been no direct sequels to Silent Hill 2’s events. James Sunderland’s story is over, and any additional ones would only hurt it. But I’ll tell you this – Silent Hill 3’s dialogue hints at James’ fate very subtly at one point and in Silent Hill 4 one of the incidental characters is his dad, and these little scraps of acknowledgement gave me a giddy thrill like an uncharacteristic smile flashed from an aloof object of affection. And now Silent Hill has moved to the West and the series has been overexposing Pyramid Head and Nurse Bigtits fan service, everyone agrees the franchise has gone downhill.
So here’s today’s lesson, and it’s simple one: fans are dumb. If you are a fan, all your ideas of what you want in a sequel are wrong so you should shut your stupid mouths and let the creators create. Why not click on the comments for this article and watch my point being proved?
Yahtzee is a British-born, currently Australian-based writer and gamer with a sweet hat and a chip on his shoulder. When he isn’t talking very fast into a headset mic he also designs freeware adventure games and writes the back page column for PC Gamer, who are too important to mention us. His personal site is www.fullyramblomatic.com.