Sequels — are they good, or bad? Since the early days of media, sequels have been prevalent, with gaming being no exception. When it comes to the business side of things, sequels can easily be seen as great, with brand recognition helping to bring in more money. On the creative side of things, however, are they worth it? Sequels have their weaknesses, but today I want to focus on the positives and strengths that they bring to the medium. They are important to the gaming industry, and I want to start with an optimistic look at what a good sequel does for the art form.
So what exactly is a sequel? Well, they are, in short, a follow up to an original IP, building on, or expanding an already completed story. In other forms of entertainment, sequels can be more hit or miss. With film especially, adding films to a franchise requires them to find a new way to create originality in familiar settings. Follow-ups rarely are made for films that failed to connect to audiences in the original, so expected quality for them is often much higher than the original; a hard target to reach.
One of the biggest benefits of video games is that empathy and the sense of connectivity is easier achieved than it is in a film. Cinema is entirely from a third person view, with the characters acting independently from the audience. This makes it so that their choices have to resonate with the viewer to produce empathy. With so many unique viewpoints, there are more points of disassociation between viewer and actor with each branch of logic.
Gaming, conversely, puts players in control of the characters for a majority of the game. Even linear or story-heavy titles still grant agency to players, making the connection between player and controllable protagonist simpler, and more natural. While cutscenes and cinematics as well as pre-recorded dialog, can pull players away, the sense of control over them in gameplay can and often does even this out.
Gaming sequels already have a stronger and established connection, and therefore have the ability to tell a more in-depth story. By having that advantage with an association, there is a greater want to follow characters we’ve come to know and love. Having a stake in their well-being, players will fight harder, while feeling more of the emotional twists and turns a game takes.
A great example of a game building on narrative through sequels is Mass Effect. Commander Shepard was the perfect character to play as, being a blank slate, and it allowed for a deeper immersion into the space exploring game. The cast surrounding the hero fleshed out nicely and made for some intriguing moral choice systems that forced strong emotions through tribulation. With Mass Effect 2, all the previous baggage of the first game was built upon, and the continued story being told was able to ramp it up, now that the groundwork had been laid.
Not only do plots get more exploratory, but the worlds themselves are open to interesting new moments. Sequels in games like Fallout thrive, as different locals within the same canon universe get more and more interesting. The gaps between Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas were some of the most interesting to me, as both worlds had the same basic rules. It was the outlook, and development of each ruined area that took on vastly different properties, and each title executed on this well. The bleak, war-torn and grim outlook of the Capitol Wasteland varied greatly compared to the bright light dreamland of the Mohave Desert.
Another franchise that explores the same universe is the Resident Evil games. Starting originally in the Spencer Mansion, Resident Evil has spanned 10+ games to date, with each one of them telling a unique story through a rotating cast of characters and settings. While the plots have moved away from their Umbrella Corporation roots and overall absurdness, they still occupy the same levels of schlock horror and B-movie camp, to varying degrees of success.
What Resident Evil does with their sequels, again to different grades of achievement, is mix up the gameplay formula. This is what I believe to be one of the greatest benefits of video game sequels. Staying with Resident Evil, it was their move from the fixed camera tank controls of the originals, to the over the shoulder 3rd person gameplay that created one of the best games ever, Resident Evil 4.
Now I could do an entire review on Resident Evil 4 as it’s in my top 3 games of all time, but keeping it brief, let’s look at what it did for the series. First, it took the slow, methodical horror pacing of the previous games, and sped things up. By moving from survival horror to survival action, it created a different kind of panic. The slow-moving zombies of Raccoon City were more obstacles to be avoided while solving puzzles. The fast-moving, swarming villagers infected with Las Plagas were terrifying, but in a large-hooded-man-chasing-you-with-a-chainsaw kind of way.
What helped Resident Evil 4 become such a great game, and one of the reasons it has been ported to several different consoles, is that the brand recognition of the series allowed it to stay focused on building within a world we already knew. While location and even style of enemies changed, we as players went in expecting undead like enemies and shady villains pulling the strings behind it all. The name also got fans of the original games to give it a look, instantly pulling in a larger number of players than if it had been a new IP.
While Capcom has been able to innovate franchises that were once staled, Nintendo is another company well known for their love of sequels. Franchises such as Mario and The Legend of Zelda series are staples of Nintendo, transcending generations of consoles. One of the reasons they are as successful as they have been is due to the benefits of sequels. What Nintendo has done with the power of sequels, is utilize the ability to innovate and re-invent the wheel, with minimal risks.
Looking at The Legend of Zelda specifically, one thing that Nintendo benefits from is the change of formula. The base of each game is the same; a hero must save a kingdom by defeating an evil power and saving a princess. Yet each game changes things up almost dramatically in their execution. The Legend of Zelda: Windwaker, for example, set the adventure in a water predominant setting. It also made the hero Link a younger version of himself, and even altered Princess Zelda and her placement throughout the story.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, as many already know, shook up the formula even more, by changing the once linear style of progression towards that of a very open-ended world. Legend of Zelda before LoZ: BotW was open to a point, but you weren’t able to defeat the final boss without traversing a set of rails through plot points. Breath of the Wild removed those limits and allowed players to make their own story in a very ill-defined yet detailed world. Had the standards never been in place, and had Breath of the Wild been a new IP, it would not have had the benefits or personal player investment that a follow up to a well-known franchise holds.
Often overlooked is why so many sequels are better, or more highly regarded, than their predecessors. It’s because they allow developers to learn from experience. A new IP is often trying new ideas, or putting game devs into the position of learning how to tackle new concepts. While games like Horizon: Zero Dawn came out to high praise, many titles don’t have the luxury of hitting it out of the park on the first swing.
Especially in the days of mid-tier gaming, franchises such as Sly Cooper started from average roots. The original Sly Cooper was a well put together game that had an equal number of pros and cons. While I loved the characterization of both the protagonists and the antagonists, and the platforming was built solidly, there was a lack of charm to the environments. The branching levels created a linear experience, in a stealth game that just didn’t wow the way I believe developer Sucker Punch wanted it to.
Moving on to Sly Cooper 2, they took the best parts of the original, the characters, platforming, and art style, and moved them into a more open environment. The gameplay became more focused and engaging, without sacrificing what made it successful. Additionally, they dove deeper into the Sly Cooper gang and gave one of the best character arcs in gaming with Bentley, a character who was underutilized in the original. You can read more about my love for the game here.
This trial and error system allows for risks to be taken to try and fix up mistakes from the original. If you look at a list of gaming’s best titles, how many are sequels? Many of the same titles populate these lists; Super Metroid, Half-Life 2, Resident Evil 4, Final Fantasy VII, Diablo 2, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Silent Hill 2, Team Fortress 2. Every one of those games is commonplace among best of discussions, and each is a sequel in its own right.
The power of sequels is vastly underappreciated because so often, we know we already wanted them. Just this year, God of War and Red Dead Redemption 2 were smash hits, selling millions of copies and crushing sales records. Games like 2017’s Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild were requested long before release, and even upcoming titles like Beyond Good and Evil 2 were always wanted.
Sequels are so popular because they provide a level of interest from the outset, and many fall in love with characters. The extra empathy created by putting players in the shoes of characters, and tying our success to theirs, means we often want to see them through more and more journeys. Developers, likewise, have an easier time building better games, as they have familiar tools and tricks to install in their titles, affording more time for polishing what made a game good.
While I’ll be talking about the negatives of sequels next week, I want to acknowledge that sequels are what help make gaming special. As someone who’s favorite game, Sly Cooper 2: Band of Thieves, is a sequel, I know that it only was as great as it was thanks to the original game setting the groundwork. New IPs are great, and every game starts out as a new, fresh idea. However, often the follow-ups to those original titles tend to be the ones that hold the title of best games, and rightfully so.