In a previous article, I talked up the positives of sequels, but to every coin, there are two sides. Every Yin has a Yang, and Eddie Redmayne has recorded roles for both The Theory of Everything and Jupiter Ascending.
Though I’m not here today to explain why Jupiter Ascending is a cinematic joyride you should definitely partake in, but rather to talk about what sequels do to drag down the medium of video games.
One of the key points of positivity I spoke about in the previous article, was the power of creating empathy and kinship with many facets of a game. By putting players in the game and giving them agency, the characters, story, and world all hold more personal meaning. Breaking it into those three pieces, each area is extremely vulnerable to being diluted, or flat out broken, by sequels.
Starting with characters, let’s look at an iconic figure in video games, Samus Aran. Often, she is called one of, if not the, strongest female character in gaming. Over multiple titles, she gained a reputation as a self-sufficient woman who could do alone what an entire battalion of soldiers couldn’t. Starting from her zero mission of the original Metroid, she’s taken out space pirates, Metroids, and a perennial smorgasbord of galaxy-ending threats left and right. For the longest time her strength as a character and a woman, in particular, was never in question.
Then came Metroid: Other M, and we see what sequels can do to even one of gaming’s greatest heroines. Despite her long track record of kicking butt and getting the job done, Samus’ character was reduced to a stepford wife style personality. Multiple bad writing decisions took away her independence and replaced it with hamfisted, stereotypical “female” check-boxes. Not only that, but they took the motherly aspect of her seen in Super Metroid, and went several steps too far.
Where Samus would openly defy orders for the greater good in Metroid Fusion, she was now putting herself at risk and not activating vital suit functions, just because she wasn’t “authorized to use them.” Another major blemish was that despite having faced off against the leader of the Space Pirates, Ridley, she suddenly suffered a sudden an uncharacteristic PTSD episode. Now, adding in weakness to a strong character is understandable, but writing that in and overriding another piece of characterization is inexcusable.
Due to continued sequels, Samus eventually succumbed to having her positive identity being tainted by poor writing choices. Samus is lucky, as it took her a long time to get to this point. Many times, however, a sequential game will tarnish its characters much quicker. This is much more common with individuals who are defined primarily by a single game story arc. A character who goes from weak and powerless, to strong and powerful over the course of a game benefits from the single serving, rather than over saturating their stories.
I didn’t use the word story there by accident, because while individuals can be corrupted by sequels, memorable stories can be just as easily dampened by the follow-up. Stories that were written to be a singular fable can fall into the trap of forcing a follow-up. Strong settings can also get less exciting the more you explore them in many cases. Often times, what we perceive to be true and the mysteries an environment holds, are more exciting and engaging than reality.
A good example is what Mass Effect: Andromeda has done to the legacy of its games. While Mass Effect 3 had a controversial ending, the overall consensus was that the franchise had a strong story. A black spot has formed, however, and it’s due to Mass Effect: Andromeda, a sequel because they tempted fate and failed to reach the high bar set by its predecessors.
While the story, characters, and environment are important, it’s key to note that gameplay can also suffer in sequels. Sonic the Hedgehog is a character who has been around a long time, though he only survives due to nostalgia at this point. So many times, Sonic games reinvent the wheel with each title. Moving back and forth between old school 2D platforming and 3D platform sections, adjusting it further with new features in every title, the series has a very negative reputation.
Gameplay being forced isn’t the only issue, as often times developers get complacent with what works, causing subsequent releases to have stale gameplay. While Resident Evil 4 was a massive hit due, in part, to their innovation, the follow up Resident Evil 5 failed to meet expectations. As someone who was hyped for Resident Evil 5, I found it a lesser version of a game I loved. Because it was a sequel they knew would sell, the finished product was a game only trying to recreate the success, without putting in the work a newer IP would have.
That mentality is a plague in the mindset of gaming, as it breeds lazy work. Where good sequels are the ones that build on strengths and innovate away weaknesses, all too often, sequels just do what the first game did. Call of Duty is an example of a franchise that makes bad sequels. While sales for them have been strong after they shocked the world with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, the sequels from then on have been getting poorer in terms of quality. By resting on their laurels, they have actively killed off the creativity that brought them back into the forefront. It even got so stagnant, that a return to the World Wars has been called innovative!
Now, I’m going to get controversial here, but I believe that Final Fantasy is another example of a lazy franchise. Hear me out. While I cannot deny the successes of a number of their games, the series abuses the brand loyalty they’ve created. Yes, there have been some strong successes, such as Final Fantasy XV. The issue isn’t with the quality of the games; the issue sits with their reliance on sequels, as opposed to creating new IPs.
Final Fantasy games are unique, in that the majority of the sequels aren’t direct sequels to each other. Worlds, characters, plot, gameplay, all of these change between titles for the most part. So, why do they continue to call them Final Fantasy? Because they know targeting the same audience will guarantee sales. By simply using the name and a few similar terms, excitement generates not because of the game’s quality or its own merits, but by the hype the name holds on its own.
What this means for the industry is that name recognition can become what publishers lean on and create a still-water pond of creativity. So, often companies will spend resources to make sequel after sequel, creating stagnation in IP diversity. While in the short term this might work, all it’s going to take is one failure. With companies like Square Enix putting all their eggs in a single basket, they’ll have little to stand on when the bottom eventually falls out.
It’s not just companies like Square Enix abusing name branding though; and this leads to something that personally, I find disgusting. Sequels are used to abuse their fan bases through shady business practices. Destiny, Bungie’s first new IP after leaving Halo, was a game that had a long shelf life due to player engagement. A MMORPG of sorts, its success paved the way for a sequel, giving Destiny 2 so many advantages at launch. What did Bungie and publisher Activision do with these perks? They removed features, and then monetized them.
One the biggest and most devious changes was with the shaders. In the original Destiny, they were used to change armor color for an entire outfit. Randomly awarded like weapons, they also boasted unlimited uses, a key distinction. With the sequel, shaders were changed to no longer influence your entire armor, but only individual pieces. This could be seen as a stronger customization option, but another change was turning them into single use items.
What this meant was that players were left only two ways to acquire them; grinding or buying engrams. Bright engrams are equivalent to Loot Boxes, from games like Overwatch, and only hold a few random items. Trying to complete a set would require more engrams, and the chances of getting the ones you needed are stacked against you. You can grind and spend up to hundreds of hours, or start spending money to buy them. The fact they were so popular in the original title means that they used the sequel to “encourage” players to part with money to return to the norm.
(Authors note: Article was written before the announced split of Bungie and Activision.)
For all the good that sequels can do, the biggest issue with them is legacy pollution through over-saturation. While yes, some of the greatest games are sequels, there are a lot of them that killed franchises. Games like Duke Nukem Forever, Dead Space 3, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed 2, Banjo-Kazooie Nuts and Bolts, Medal of Honor: Warfighter, all saw their series end or stall heavily with them. Other franchises might not have died, but going back to Sonic, his game list includes stinkers such as Sonic the Hedgehog (2006), Sonic Unleashed, and Sonic Boom: The Rise of Lyric, that are universally hailed as embarrassingly bad games.
Sometimes, a story just needs to end. If we never get a Psychonauts 2 or a follow up to Conker’s Bad Fur Day, that’s not a bad thing. These cult hit games live on due to the success they had, and the complete experiences they gave us. While I could call on n-Space, Inc and Nintendo to release a sequel to Geist, what might that do a game I love? At best I get a new addition, but there’s a strong chance it could sour my memories of the original, making it not really worth it.
At the end of the day, sequels aren’t an inherently bad thing, but can be when leaned on heavily. Games like Horizon: Zero Dawn show us that new IPs, that are given a chance, can be revolutionary. Likewise, the success of that title came from a team that had, until that point, released repeated entries solely for the Killzone franchise. By breaking away from what they knew, we got a game that I argue was 2017’s Game of the Year.
Sometimes, we need to stop calling for a return to what we know, and instead explore the untapped wonders of mystery. Change is scary; this is coming from someone who changes electronics only after they burn out, and has been wearing the same pair of glasses for almost a decade. In gambling, the reward always equals the risk. If you only bet pennies, your winnings amount to a few dollars. When you risk hundreds, you have the chance to win tens of thousands. You’ll lose some, yes, but all it takes is that one win. Let’s leave the penny machines and search for the jackpots.
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