Video Game Sequels: First Blood

I’ve been planning this post for a while now. I remember sitting in my Reading American Technologies class, idly doodling in my notebook, and thinking of examples of good sequels. Then, roughly a month later, I was sitting in front of our new flat-screen and trying to come up with bad examples. So, a lot of planning has gone into it. At the same time, I don’t think it’s ready. I haven’t done all the research I need to do. I haven’t crafted a narrative, cobbled together a theme or even come up with a summary. It’s not ready for prime-time, but I know it’s never going to be. The industry itself has a hard time figuring out what a sequel should look like. I’m not going to be able to string together a definitive answer here. So, going in, know that this is all cold, hard opinion. If you’ve been to the Stories section of Trivial Writing, then you’ll know I’ve been focusing on literature this week. It was thinking through some of my favourite narrative tropes that made me realize exactly what I had to say here. Gotta roll with what you’ve got. So, let’s kick some tires, light the occasional fire and get to it!

First, let’s talk bad sequels, because I don’t have a lot to say about that. A sequel, as many of you probably figured out, implies a series of games. More than one. This complicates the traditional game-review paradigm already. Surely, if I were to be reviewing a sequel on its own merits, then it wouldn’t matter that it’s a sequel. We could just release the same game over and over again, like the Mario business model became contagious, and no one would care. Unfortunately, people do care. Games aren’t made in a vacuum. So, while I’ll give Mario a pass because it’s basically the kiddie-world’s entry point into the platformer genre, releasing the same game again with a number tacked on the end is our first definition of a bad sequel. Clearly, there are more than a few games that are guilty of this particular sin. That being said, it doesn’t happen as often as you’d think. We’ll get back to why in a bit.

Originally, I’d come in here expecting to beat BioShock 2 across the back like a poor, abandoned rug, but something occurred to me. It’s actually a very competently executed game. My main problem with it was always that it felt largely unnecessary. Its story, developers and inevitable comparison to the brilliance of the original would always brand it as such. Looking under the hood, though, I couldn’t say it was bad. Bland. Occasionally frustrating. Yeah, those are words I’d apply to the game if you cornered me with a bottle of jager and a voxophone, but it’s not bad. I still remember enjoying the experience. I still remember wondering if saving the Little Sisters meant that I could find redemption, but fearing that I’d always be considered a monster.

As it stands, I can’t really say what I consider a bad sequel to be. Honestly, I can find some redeeming quality in most of them. Well, most of them that I’d actually play. There are games that are horrible that just happen to be sequels, but, at that point, I’m not usually a big fan of series to begin with. Can we really call a bad game that’s a sequel to a bad series a bad sequel? I’ll leave that question to the philosophers and grammar Nazis. That all being said, I feel like I can only really talk about how I’d go about making a good sequel. Let’s start with the lens of film. If you’ve watched a book or read a movie review, then you know that the sequel to a movie is usually a continuation of the story of the first. Or a re-hash. I mean, can we really say that there was a real, observable difference between 101 Dalmatians and 102 Dalmatians? …besides the additional dog, obviously. I don’t think so. I also don’t think it’s a bad thing, either… That’s the final hint I need! So, let’s leave that hanging and talk games. Don’t worry, I’ll resolve it all by the end. I mentioned Mario earlier, so let’s start there. To refresh your memory, here’s what Mario looked like when it exploded as a platformer.

Super Mario Bros Theme v1.3 NES By Kirby_Konata 223372-super-mario-bros-2-nes-screenshot-this-game-has-some-verySuper_Mario_Bros._3_NES_ScreenShot3

These are, from top to bottom, Mario, Mario 2, and Mario 3. The first one was a simple, 8-bit, precision platformer with tight controls. Mario the Second was a worthy, albeit floaty, successor to the original. It experimented with multiple characters with different stats. It eschewed the ability to throw fire for the ability to pick up and throw objects. Mario III went back to the precision jumping of the original and added the ability to fly, as well as turn to stone, hop in boots and be a frog. There were also HUD and mechanical differences, but let’s glance past that and look at their stories. Mario is your basic save the princess nonsense. Mario 2’s plot has always been incomprehensible to me. Although, the princess is with you, so let’s pencil in “save the kingdom.” Mario 3 framed itself as a play in the opening credits and pretty much focused on princess saving. So, we’re not really breaking much ground from game to game on the story front. These were good sequels, though, because they were focused around your primary mode of engagement: platform-based obstacle avoidance and level completion. However, they didn’t do the same thing over and over again. Each of these games experimented with what they could do within that framework. What if I could throw things? What if I could fly? How should this change the level design? What can I do with this game now that programming has improved? They had small tweaks that made big differences. No one in Mario 1 would have ever thought that only two games later they’d be turning into stone to avoid obstacles. So, let’s skip ahead a console generation and look at Super Mario!

Super Mario World ScreenshotDonutPlains

Ahh… nostalgia. Super Mario World didn’t add much in the platforming mechanics department. In fact, it stream-lined a lot of those elements considerably. Now, instead of P-wing and Hammer Bros. upgrades rubbing up against stars and mushrooms in your inventory, you didn’t have an inventory. The power-ups were restricted to stars, mushrooms, flowers and feathers. However, they added two very big things to the game. The first was an interactive world map. Sure, Mario 3’s world map had a similar interface and moving enemy encounters (still very cool), but Super Mario World’s map was changeable. You could unlock new paths and secret levels that were hidden in better places than behind obvious locked doors. You could go to the switch levels and release blocks that would change other levels in very cool ways, often unlocking new areas altogether. We’ll talk another day about how hidden items in games were a bit different when we didn’t have so many to play (I memorized most of the SMW levels by heart by the time I got a new game), but let’s let that stand there. The second major addition to SMW was… you guessed it… the Yoshis! Besides adding an extra tragic double-jump, the Yoshis unlocked capabilities that Mario just couldn’t have. You could interact with berries and blocks in new ways, as well as take an almost unlimited number of hits in a level, if you could jump back on Yoshi in time. It was also extremely neat to have a mount. Seriously. Kick ass.

The core of the game remained unchanged, though. It was still mostly about platforming. I’m not going to insult you by outlining the story differences, either. Newer Mario games follow basically the same formula, but the addition of 4-player co-op was a big mistake. Any guesses why? Yeah, it changed from a precision platforming and obstacle avoidance game to a partner platforming and precision Wii-mote flinging game. Some of the new items are interesting, but they’re small additions to a tired franchise. I was going to say they hadn’t changed anything, but the new items add interesting avenues of mechanics exploration. It’s just unfortunate that those considerations get thoroughly over-shadowed by the co-op. Just… guys… Nintendo, please remove co-op collision. That’s all it’s going to take. I know you think it’d be really cool to bounce off another player’s head to reach new heights, but it requires a degree of coordination that drunken 4 am multi-player just doesn’t allow. Even when we’re sober and manage it, it doesn’t compensate for the rest of the experience. Bubble-catching yourself is cool, especially for younger siblings, but it’s not a fix for broken platforming. Sorry. You changed my core engagement, so the whole game suffered. You didn’t alter anything else to reflect that, either.

So, as you can see, a sequel can be released that is largely the same as the first, but the differences can redeem its personal identity. After all, and I can’t stress this enough, it’s the engagement that matters but the differences that define. That’s why you can have a hundred very similar games that are arguably good sequels or genre representatives. Yeah, they’re the same on the outside. That’s why you’ve got to plug in, because it’s what’s on the inside that matters. For a film example, movie sequels follow the same narratives, because it is the movie’s narrative that engages us, but the story that defines a particular iteration (Think: Ocean’s 11 and 13). Unless, that is, it’s a movie with a particular style. Look at Tarantino or… Michael Bay movies! Every time I watch one, I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve seen it before. That’s because their engagement is always the same, and it’s hard to build on explosions. That doesn’t mean I won’t watch his movies. After all, I re-play Need for Speed: Most Wanted once in a while, and I’m not about to stop doing it.

Franchises like Halo and Mass Effect maintain story-lines over their runs, but that’s not really what marks them as sequels. Okay, maybe Mass Effect is a bad example because its story is an integral portion of its engagement, but its game-play maintains a certain continuity. Halo 1, 2 and  3 all built on the concepts of the original. 2 dropped the health bar and picked up dual-wielding. 3 added items and some pretty spectacular set-pieces. We’ve got a good head of steam going, and I could probably drop things right here, but I want to apply these ideas to two series that are going to complicate matters: Far Cry and Silent Hill (yeah, you knew it was coming).

Far Cry 1 was your basic “realistic” shooter, set on a tropical island. It had a couple of stealth mechanics that it tried to blend with shooty game-play, but it didn’t let you know how well you were concealed. That, and enemies all knew once you’d been noticed. Not the first game to commit those sins, but oh well. Far Cry 2 was more of the same, except it swapped settings and added a sand-box element. It improved the mechanics in general and dropped the linear narrative focus down a notch. Far Cry 3 came afterwards and boy, was it a load! A load of awesome, that is. It introduced Mr. Lin E. R. Narrative to Ms. San D. Box. The resulting marriage would make waves to last an entire release cycle. It also spritzed them with elements of character progression for good measure. These three games are very different. Yet, they are undeniably of the same ilk. They’re about being on one end of a deadly weapon in a first-person perspective and the world around you being both hostile and foreign. It’s, as the name suggests, a far cry from anything we experience on a daily basis. That, in and of itself, can be engaging. Oh, yeah, and the graphics are good. Whee! Let’s step over to the other end of the power fantasy and look at Silent Hill.

2436728-6498758650-3_19_14-011  silenthill3d_5 silent-hill-4

Each one of these games engages you on a narrative level, but they’re all different narratives. They do, however, share a sense of oppressive loneliness and otherworldly hostility. They also take place in the same kinds of environments. Their movements and combat systems are almost interchangeable, despite 4’s power attack system, and Silent Hill/Dark Silent Hill is always involved somehow. There’s also a history of sur-really daft puzzles and horror elements between them. Oh yeah, they’re also desperate, life-risking searches for the truth. Despite all of these similarities, they all feel like different games because of the themes they explore. Yeah, they might communicate through overt symbolism, but the meaning of the symbols is relevant. 1 is the history of a dark cult and the search for your fatherhood. Also, you save the world or something. 2 is a search for redemption, self-discovery and the costs of former. 3 is a quest for revenge and justice. 4 is a murder-mystery about falling in love and terrible level design. I’m not going to say 4 was a good sequel, or touch on why 5 (and ups) mechanical design compromised your feeling of helplessness before the alien presence. However, they’re great examples of how you can have something that’s almost an exact replica of something else feel very different. Each game engaged us with ourselves and then explored something about it. I know, it’s almost entirely ephemeral. You can see why it would be hard to make a good sequel out of this. SH2 is still my favourite, but they’re all decent games. It helps that they were designed with their controls in mind. They’re a part of the experience.

So, that’s sequels. Maintain your core engagement while experimenting with what you can do. I’m not sure what the limits are to experimentation. I mean, Far Cry 2 added a bloody sandbox element! That’s a huge switch from linear narrative. However, it didn’t change the core of the game. It’s hard to exactly define what engagement is sometimes. I’m sure it will become even harder as we experiment with different input devices and control schemes. I mean, Just Dance 2 is the obvious sequel to Just Dance, but is Guitar Hero: World Tour really a sequel to Guitar Hero 3? No, of course not. It’s the sequel to Rock Band. Ah! But what was Rock Band cribbing off of? At the end of the day, the hope is that the sequel will be a better game than the one before it. There’s an argument about genre guidelines swimming around in here, as well, but I think Extra Credits’ “Aesthetics of Play” episode is pithier than I could be in this medium. Before you go, what, in your opinion, is the worst sequel ever? Shoot me a message or leave a comment. Seeya!

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: