Last time I spoke about how stories need endings. And I said, “Plus games that never end aren’t immune from sequelitis, but more on that in a bit.” So here it is—a sequel to that episode, talking about sequelitis and continuing from something that ended or didn’t.
“On the sequel, you’ve lost the element of surprise. Usually, on the first one you may not go very, very deep into character; the second one to start to explore the character a bit more.”—Sylvester Stallone
Sequelitis, according to Urban Dictionary, is defined as “The condition that many sequels to successful films suffer from: re-hashing of plot points, shoving the best parts of the original back in your face until you almost hate it, ETC, all while trying to make the movie “bigger and better” than the original through the addition of an over-abundance of special effects, or new characters that you just don’t care about (or, on some occasions, omitting major characters that people DID care about).”
For the sake of some meta-textual joke I’m not going to rehash what I said on the previous episode. I think you’re a capable enough audience to go watch that episode for yourself. But I do want to discuss this idea of more, and what we mean when we want more.
The first thing problem often levied against a sequel is that it doesn’t “feel” like a “insert-series-name-here” book or movie or game. And feeling is a nebulous a description as any, especially when it comes to something we can’t hold in our hands. This feeling we’re chasing as an audience is often that feeling of surprise as Sylvester Stallone puts it. But not just surprise, rather it’s the awe, the interest the pleasure of discovering something new that comes with the first time we encounter a new series.
And that’s not something we can never get back. Or can we?
A Good Sequel
I present you with The Empire Strikes Back. Not just the best Star Wars film, but also the one that does the most to create that sense of awe. Where A New Hope gave us two and a half locations. Empire gave us five, if you count the asteroid field and Vader’s flagship. It also increased the number of aliens, vehicles, force abilities, technologies, characters, and ideas we encounter. Basically it gave us more, more aspects to the universe of Star Wars that allows us to extract and imagine even more than what the cantina scene allowed.
Extraction is a key aspect of a good sequel and we’ll discuss that more in a bit, and I promise not another episode. But for now, it’s not enough.
Rehashing the same plot, generally means threatening the world. And Star Wars did that in two out of three with the original trilogy. And was it as good a second time around in Return of the Jedi? The excellent YouTube critic, writer and director Patrick (H) Willems explores those very issues with regards to Jurassic Park and its sequels. And his found that the focus on rehashing the same plot points or ideas, again, never created the same feelings. But leave the audience bored and uninterested.
Games sit somewhere between books and movies in what’s possible in a sequel. Books because of the sheer possibility in terms of the verbs characters can use, as well as the development and world building that can occur. And movies because of the emphasis on visual components and signifying to the player/viewer that what they’re seeing is much the same. So while it is entirely possible to switch game genres between games it’s generally not done. But it can happen in movies or books—basically the story can change genre though the mechanics can’t or shouldn’t.
The one exception I can really think of is Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3—Uprising which is ostensibly a real-time strategy game except during the Yuriko Omega section when it comes to resemble an action roleplaying game like Diablo. The fact is we have expectations, and those very often mean that there isn’t a change of large aspects of a work between the original and the sequel. Those expectations aren’t always shared between everyone so changes in tone, characters, locations, focus, themes can be argued both ways.
The fact that any sequel exists should ideally be enough for a fan because it is exactly what people want—more. The problem comes in those aforementioned expectations. But for this discussion we’re going to have to leave them behind because they can only be argued on a series by series basis at best, and at worst it’s only ever personal preference. More also means more story. Which presents a number of issues as a writer, namely—are there any hooks from the original on which to build a new story from?
A story hook is different from a narrative hook—the latter being an element of the writing or story that gets a person interested in seeing through what’s going to happen. The former is a justification for the continuation of the story. And it’s that we’re interested in. This is also where we come back to extraction. Which is when the audience is given enough details, but not all of the information, so they can imagine more. That’s imagining how things look, what and who else are out there in the universe. It can also be how magic works, what twists are forthcoming, how to solve the current conundrum, etc.
Extraction allows us to imagine more. It’s why the Cantina scene in A New Hope is so wonderful. It illustrates a universe we haven’t seen, giving us only bits and pieces to peak our interests and leaving the rest up to our imagination. The sheer number and variety of characters in that part of the movie alone far outnumbers any other scene.
Compare that to something like Star Trek, particular the movies, and the number of aliens present is minimal to none. Most are humanoid with little distinguishing them from one another. The scenes where we see more aliens tend to be at Star Fleet when there’s a crowd but even then aliens are the minority. In Star Wars in the Cantina, they’re the majority even if they aren’t throughout the rest of the movie.
Star Trek is a fine series, and what I’m not addressing here is how the TV shows, books, comic books, games and other works have added to the extractability of the franchise. Just in comparing the movies there’s been a major difference. And Star Wars has only recently passed Star Trek in the number of motion pictures but is nowhere close to the number of aired episodes let alone TV shows.
The best example of extraction in games comes from tabletop gaming, particularly RPGs like The Sprawl, D&D, or Pathfinder. These games are a combination of both the systems to play the games and lore that generates the worlds in our imaginations.
Not all tabletop games do this. My system MYNT, which is available online for free, doesn’t have a setting but is a set of rules that can be used to tell any type of story in any type of world. The same goes for GURPs. But it’s the systems that come with a setting that really demonstrate how to do extraction, and all with a simple rule—every paragraph needs a hook. A narrative hook in this case.
A Meeting of Mediums
Video games should conceivably offer us the best of all other mediums when it comes to extraction and our means and methods of creating narrative hooks. After all they make use of music, sound, art, animation, text, mechanics and systems.
Yet they don’t. Why? Well because of the culture of systematizing everything and thus making every element explainable. There’s little to be found in video games that doesn’t have some systemic justification.
This goes beyond art styles, or story beats and character to choices. It’s ingrained in the core of what a video game is—a system. Because there has to be a logic to how the system works and flows in order for the computer to produce any output it follows that all things built from that follow on from that structure. It’s rare for there to be the unexplained in games. Some of the games that do it best are Dark Souls and Shadow of the Colossus. But even in them there are still explanations and theories as to how and why things work they way they do in the game worlds.
I’d like to say it’s just a matter of whether we present these answers to the player. And maybe this is simply a result of the culture of entitlement around games. But the fact is we as players expect to know—how things work; what reactions we’ll get for a particular acton; why things came to be, etc. We expect answers. We expect to know all, because why wouldn’t we if we’re also being empowered to do all in a game? So narrative hooks in games that provide that element of extraction are often clunky at best, and explained away at worst. Things like the Civilopedia from the Civilization series, or the Codex in Mass Effect take away all that surprise.
Everything is laid out before you as the player. Yes in the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series that information may not be immediately available. However, when it becomes so it is no less fully explained, thus eliminating any possibility of being a narrative hook. That aside, there’s an issue that sequels to games deal with that no other medium does.
The Ability Reset
Video games rarely have a valid reason for why you are disempowered at the beginning of any sequel. Destiny 2 tries to justify this by having the very first mission be about the loss of your powers. To get to that point you still have to start powerful, and compared to where you were if you played the original game you simply aren’t.
Games where additional abilities or powers come from equipment similar to items the player acquires, like weapons in the Halo series, don’t have this problem. The character is always as powerful, the additions are new ways to focus that power. The Batman: Arkham series showcases how the two structures can work together—Batman is always powerful but new gadgets open new possibilities for him and the player to demonstrate that power.
From a writing standpoint it’s easy to justify the difference in power between games, because it’s conceivable for a character to not always carry particular weapons or gadgets. Of course if the game picks up immediately after the last one it becomes harder. Justifying such drops in power or abilities when it’s not tied to equipment is more difficult and often relies on some story justification. Or you can just ignore this development as so many games do. The final alternative is to switch to a different character entirely.
Switching to a new character presents a lot of problems that go beyond writing or game design. Namely it’s the issue of providing more of the same—new characters aren’t that, so how do you make, design and market one so they fill that gap that players of the previous game will enjoy and new players will be okay with. That I do not know. I do know that 343 struggled with this very issue on Halo 5. And while the marketing for the game made Locke a compelling character and set up a showdown between him and the Master Chief, the game failed to pay any of that off or really justify Locke’s presence at all. And now Halo Infinite won’t have him in it, or at least he won’t be the focus.
Exhaustion and Endings
The final issue faced by sequels is the question of exhaustion. Have there been so many iterations of this franchise that the audience remains. Books never seem to have this issue, especially given the long time between releases and the long-tail nature of their sales.
Games, similar to TV shows and movies, can have the problem of releasing too many versions. As a writer this isn’t your problem, but it is one you have to account for in making sure characters are interesting. What’s interesting when things need to remain the same? Well that’s when you have to look at the themes you’ve explored and what remains unexplored. For more on that be sure to check out the episode of The Writing Game on that very topic—Finding The Themes.
That of course ties back in with the Sylvester Stallone quote I gave at the beginning of this episode. Sequels are the time to develop characters further, to give them more facets. What those are—well that’s up to you as writer or designer. But more on that in a future episode. Just kidding. There shouldn’t be another episode on sequels anytime soon.