[In this analysis, Gamasutra contributor Andrew Vanden Bossche examines how great games like The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker and Dragon Age 2 can still be considered bad sequels by series fans.]
Can a good game be a bad sequel?
Of course, though It's an easy question to get tripped up by, because we tend to assume that gamers want games that are fun with refined, interesting gameplay. That's true, but that's not all they want, to the point where there are many genres of games -- survival horror and RPGs among them -- that have traditionally thrived even if they aren't very fun to play.
Especially with sequels, what gamers want is more than just general "fun" (if there was such a thing) but a specific experience rooted in their memories of the game. A good game, then, is what a gamer wants. When this gamer goes to a store and looks at the boxes on the shelves, all we know is that the one that she won't return is not the "best" game but the one that meets her expectations.
And what games have more exacting expectations set for them than sequels? Good sequels have to invoke the feelings that fans felt when they first played the original, but even the designers who made it can't claim to know exactly what that is.
One might say that Diablo is a game about endlessly killing monsters for loot, but enough fans were enraged by the presence of rainbows in Diablo III's debut trailer to declare it a betrayal of everything the franchise stood for. This just goes to show that what designers believe makes a game "good" is not necessarily the same as what the players believe.
Take The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, an amazing case of a game actually suffering fan backlash precisely because it reached into the past. The colorful, childlike, cel-shaded graphics were met with derision not because they were a betrayal of the themes of the series, but because Zelda's fanbase was getting older and wanted something darker, more "something that would speak to them" now that they were growing up.
This doesn't mean creators are obligated to carter to the community's every whim; take Metal Gear Solid 2, an infamous case of betrayed expectations if there ever was one. An entire demo was even produced giving players the impression they'd be continuing as Metal Gear Solid protagonist Solid Snake, a premise which was completely subverted in the full game. This was by no means a popular decision, but it was a very deliberate one. It betrayed the community's expectations so much because it understood them so well, and ultimately that contributed to the game's success.
But sometime expectations are betrayed in almost imperceptibly subtle ways, and this brings us to the interesting case of Dragon Age 2, a sequel that came out less than two years after its predecessor and was met with an almost universally disappointed reaction. While Metacritic splits reviews by platform thus ensuring a variance among the scores as arbitrary and negligible as the differences between the versions themselves, what we end up with are, for Origins and 2 respectively, a 91 and 82 on PC, an 86 and 79 on Xbox, and an 87 and 82 on PS3.
It's clear that Dragon Age 2 came up against some negative critical reception, but why? Was it simply the lack of quality, or did it deviate from the precedent set forth in Origins that fans came to think of as emblematic of the game? While Metacritic cannot answer this question, specific reviews paint a clearer picture:
"This claustrophobic setting is the game's most glaring weakness: you can't have an epic adventure in a single city any more than a child will be content to endlessly explore his own back garden." (Edge, 6/10)
"Dragon Age II remains one of the best examples of where the Western RPG stands today, even if it can't live up to the epic scope of its progenitor." (Gamepro, 4/5)
"Nevertheless, there's a discouraging lack of epic-ness and focus, and no final prize to set your eyes on." (Gamespot, 8.0)
That word, "Epic," is a common feature of these reviews. But what does "epic" even mean? The word has less meaning than ever now that the internet has driven it to become a new synonym for "awesome," but it's safe to assume that these writers are talking about something more precise, a feeling of "epic-ness" that's associated closely with fantasy literature.
Dragon Age 2 zeros in on the rise to power of an individual over the course of many years in a centralized location, which is not an uncommon setup for a fantasy series, or at least its first hundred pages. That is the more or less the route that Dragon Age Origins took with its opening sections.
They're not just talking about an epic feeling, but a very specific kind of epic feeling, that's not measured just by depth or scale but by an adherence to a quest-narrative, a sense of world-saving purpose and scope -- Dragon Age 2 ends just as its scope widens to an acceptably epic breadth.
Dragon Age 2 was still well reviewed, but it seems that this sense of scope was something both critics and fans felt was an integral part of what made Dragon Age what it was, and the gap between the scores of both games. This certainly doesn't make Dragon Age 2 a bad game, but it does make it an inferior sequel. This isn't a gameplay consideration or a writing consideration, but a consideration of theme.
So who decides if a game is true to its predecessors? Scarily enough, it's the fans. Once a game is out there, what the game "means" will be decided ultimately by the fans, who may have very different ideas than those who made it in the first place. This loss of control is surely more than a bit disorienting, but it's also an opportunity to understand that work better. And creators must, because there is no way to stop fans from seeing a sequel through the lens of the first game.
The community is always right about what a game "means," because it is they who assign the game meaning. Good sequels work with this meaning as much as they work with the actual content of the previous game. Between one game and the next, the community has changed, in no small part due to the first game. Creating a sequel means understanding half of its foundation is out of your control.