The word “canonical” limited what Star Wars: The Force Unleashed could aspire to be. In abiding by the established Star Wars fiction, The Force Unleashed‘s designers had to play by rules similar to those of a time traveler, treading carefully around certain events for fear of upsetting the delicate balance between what’s already happened and what they want to add. Starkiller’s journey was a side story that couldn’t directly touch the tale of the movies – just set them up. Only the “evil” ending, where Starkiller offs Darth Vader and replaces him as the Emperor’s servant, diverted from the sanctioned mythology. This ending, of course, was not canon.
When fandom can be split into tiers of knowledge, the most die-hard fans feel like their investment in a franchise was worth the time it took to become experts on a series.
As the importance of storytelling in games increases, developers are taking steps to establish games not as their own individual tales, but as pieces of a larger franchise’s story. In launching a game alongside a novel, comic book, internal wiki, and an announcement of a trilogy, developers are building volumes of lore before the first game is even out the door. Little about a franchise is now left up to chance, and every piece of meaningful content must fit into an overall story. This has its clear advantages; the Mass Effect trilogy, for example, thrives on its pages of codex entries, prequel novels, and supplementary games.
These kinds of auxiliary fiction pay off in allegiance; when fandom can be split into tiers of knowledge, the most die-hard fans feel like their investment in a franchise was worth the time it took to become experts on a series. Simply put, it’s cool to know more than other people, especially if you can show that knowledge off and inform someone at the same time. For creators, having a compendium of knowledge to work from means not having to create concepts and characters on the fly – they can see what’s already there and work off concepts, characters, and locations established elsewhere. The most obvious example of this, Halo: Reach, took a novel that was supposed to be backstory for the core series and made it the forefront of an entirely new game.
Metal Gear is another prime example of a franchise where previous knowledge informs appreciation. Metal Gear Solid 3 may be the earliest entry on the series’ timeline, but even in telling a story distanced from the rest of the games, it’s best appreciated with a fan’s eye. A nod here, a young Revolver Ocelot there, MGS3 is teeming with references to the rest of the franchise, and one of its biggest payoffs is witnessing the birth of several story threads that won’t necessarily resonate with someone who doesn’t follow the series. Anyone approaching the game as a newcomer can relate to themes of MGS3 as a singular work, but only those who’ve played any other entry will appreciate what MGS3 does for the larger Metal Gear story. And it’s this appreciation of a story arc told over several games that can create superfans waiting on any morsel of info fed to them; ask Half-Life fans what Portal 2 means for both series, and you’ll see what I mean.
Unfortunately, Metal Gear also has a great example of how fiction can burden a franchise. Metal Gear Solid 4 sits on the opposite end of the same timeline as MGS3, and as a result is heavily weighed down by its canon. For every time MGS4‘s narrative moved forward, it made a long-winded allusion to the past. Every time it brought up a concept from a previous game, it had to bring the audience up to speed on why it mattered to the current plot. Tasked with bringing closure to the various loose ends of a story begun in an era when plot was an afterthought, MGS4 could only succeed by telling rather than showing. At the very least, Kojima Productions wasn’t confident enough that someone just getting into the series could jump in without being briefed on every bit of minutiae.
Lore doesn’t even have to be intrusive to bog a game down. The Legend of Zelda series seems to consistently struggle with moving forward while keeping its essence, both narratively and mechanically. But besides the series’ fight with its past from a gameplay perspective, recent entries suffer from the increasingly direct connection between entries. Nintendo’s insistence that every game in the series fits within a forking timeline seems counterintuitive to their own sentiment that in the end, the needs of the gameplay overshadow story concerns.
So if creating narrative links between games can create a perception of staleness, how can developers afford not to play it safe?
Connecting the games under the premise that there’s a single story being told over the course of several titles implies that there will be a payoff, a reward for fans that follow the timeline from game to game – a premise that frankly seems unlikely, considering that every Zelda game is essentially a retelling of the same story. Tying the games together may deepen fan investment, but without a substantial reason to do so, the whole affair seems pointless. It also means that no Zelda game can diverge too far from the timeline’s tale without some sort of absurd justification. As much as Skyward Sword tried to revitalize the Zelda formula, it was stuck explaining the series’ origin, which likely bound it to a more traditional design. Why purposely tie down game design to a story that you’ve acknowledged doesn’t matter all that much?
Even franchises where connections between games are irrelevant are taking cues to create ties between newer entries. Final Fantasy stuck to several themes across its early entries (Chocobos and Cid never went away), but it wasn’t afraid to create a new world after each entry while iterating on its combat systems, going as far as completely reinventing itself aesthetically for its PlayStation debut. But as the franchise moved forward, it began tying more of its entries together, building on the popularity of certain games and tying them to new ones. Building on past successes is sound strategy when millions of dollars are at stake, but in the long run, attaching Arabic Numerals to Roman ones and creating sub-series for single titles makes the franchise look stale, even when the franchise reinvents its combat from game to game.
So if creating narrative links between games can hamper creativity and create a perception of staleness, how can developers working on multimillion-dollar projects afford not to play it safe? Reboots are by and large the most pervasive approach; several series (e.g., XCOM, Devil May Cry) are using franchise names as a way to pick and choose concepts they’d like to implement. But while reboots allow for some freedom in jettisoning baggage built up over several years, they still come loaded with expectations. The new Tomb Raider, for example, will probably not be a rhythm game.
Developers should not abandon the concept of lore altogether; creating a world for fans and creators alike to explore can be rewarding for both parties. Branding something as an isolated entry in a franchise gives developers a chance to experiment with a familiar concept without the backlash that expectations create. These titles aren’t risk-free (any game that flops damages its publisher and developers), but because they’re cut off from the franchise proper, the potential damage of their failure can be mitigated. If they succeed, the franchise can even move further in that direction.
BioShock Infinite fits this bill. What makes BioShock tick is still there – the supernatural abilities, the dystopian city – but everything else about it has been reworked, from the combat to the narrative. Even with the city of Rapture excised, Infinite’s held together by the key variables of the franchise. As a result, the game looks like the product of people who know what the core of their idea is and aren’t afraid to rework that core for the sake of creating something new.
To a lesser extent, the same is true of Assassin’s Creed; though most of its narrative and gameplay follow a close pattern, the franchise’s setup allows for a great amount of freedom in choosing a setting that fits what the developers want to do next. There’s a reason some of Assassin’s Creed III‘s team dubbed it a “backdoor new IP.”
But it’s understandable that huge shifts in a franchise as large as Assassin’s Creed are done with a degree of caution. Lore is stability, and companies thrive on stability – having a base is how companies survive. It’s hard to take risks when hundreds of people’s salaries could rely on your success. But when exploring myriad outcomes is such a large part of what makes games what they are, it’s important that developers take that to heart and create games that make us wonder what could’ve been – even if George Lucas will never sign off on Starkiller replacing Vader for real.
Suriel Vazquez is a freelance writer currently living in Omaha, Nebraska. He’s written reviews and features for GamePro, Bitmob, and now, The Escapist. You can contact him via email here.