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The Secret to Sequels

The key to a good sequel is trying not to erase or even compete with what has come before. A sequel ought to complement its predecessor, not improve upon it.

Video games have a lot of sequels. They have for a long time (Patricia Hernandez, “What’s that? Modern-Day Gaming Has Too Many Sequels? Actually…”, Kotaku, 11 September 2013.). There are plenty of reasons why games lean so heavily on sequels. After all, reusing a successful idea makes for an easier pitch to investors, and for all that audiences complain, there’s plenty of demand for them (google “X games that deserve a sequel” to see what I mean). Furthermore, sometimes sequels are just a good idea (L. Rhodes, “Opinion: Why sequels are sometimes good for gamers—and how they can be better”, Polygon, 25 October 2013.). But considering how natural sequels apparently are in the gaming ecosystem, relatively little writing has been done on what makes sequels work or at least when they’re most appropriate. I’d like to suggest that the key to a good sequel is trying not to erase or even compete with what has come before. A sequel ought to complement its predecessor, not improve upon it.
There are a number of problems that come with treating games like appliances with a specific function, and sequels can quickly become a symptom of that thinking. The Thunderforce Powerblend 8 is a markedly better blender than the Thunderforce Powerblend 7 because of significant and measurable improvements in blending technology. Audiences are encouraged to believe thatGears of War 3 must inevitably be better than Gears of War 2 because it came out later, has a bigger number tacked on the end, and was designed as a result of some revolutionary new advance to Gears of War making practices. That same line of reasoning is, I think, behind lead developer Cliff Bleszinski’s then controversial bitterness toward reviews of Gears of War 3 (Jim Sterling, “Cliffy B. ‘upset’ by hateful 8/10 Gears of War 3 reviews”, Destructoid, 16 September 2011.).

Before the third game in the trilogy, Gears of War was about all that one could want from a major series. It was based on a relatively new but refined mechanic, it inspired a wave of imitators, but it had its own distinct identity. But what often gets glossed over is just how different the first two in the series are from one another. The first was claustrophobic and tense. There were only about eight good guys with names, two of whom died and two who retreated from the screen as soon as armed baddies started showing up. GoW was about four dudes descending deeper into a ruined world against monsters. Actual monsters: creatures representing the unknown and unknowable. The player controlled cogs were forces that used jury rigged, brute force weapons, and the locust horde were horror tropes that could pop up literally anywhere.

In Gears of War 2, World War II adventure movie tropes dominated the tone, replacing the horror theme of the first. Convoys of armored vehicles battled for snowy European towns and cities burned by mortar shells. Yes, the game included more guns and bigger enemies, but the tone had shifted away from four low-level grunts trying to survive against invisible aliens that could emerge from the ground at any time. Now the player was securing a position for an allied regiment to pass, or they were firing a howitzer against a dinosaur outfitted with anti-vehicle artillery. The game sacrificed the identity it created in the first game but created something new in its place.

The bit in the first GoW where wretches shriek from the darkness wouldn’t have made sense in GoW 2 because the second games involves whole armies moving against whole armies. The additions of the second don’t overwrite or even improve on the first game. The second game is different enough to create an entirely different experience with pretty much the same mechanics. What makes the second so good was that it was not trying to be Gears of War but more that it was trying to be a different game. Critically, one could play Gears of War after playing Gears of War 2 and still enjoy it and take something from it. One does not aim to undermine the other.

Where the third failed, in my opinion, was in splitting the difference between the two. Gears of War 3 tried to recreate the intimate horror of the first with a huge cast of established war vets. It offered newer, bigger, and more refined guns but took the player away from the large-scale battlefields of the second. Cliffy B. was upset that 3 was scored lower than 2 even though it was “an improvement on every level.” What Mr. B. failed to grasp was that players didn’t want an improvement. They didn’t want the same but more. They wanted something new. His mistake was proving that his studio had more than one ace up its sleeve, only to show that they only had two.

Similarly, the first two Arkham games are excellent compliments to one another. Arkham Asylum is a chess game between the Joker and Batman: the Joker’s months-long scheme to release the Titan formula against Batman’s contingency plan for a riot in the asylum. Hallways are tight and claustrophobic and enemies are more or less united against the dark knight. Batman has to calculate his riposte until the Joker runs out of moves.

Arkham City, on the other hand, shows a reactionary, impromptu Batman simply trying to clean up the chaos of Gotham City (Mark Filipowich, “Opening Arkham: A Defense of Arkham City, PopMatters 31 January 2012.). A lot of my colleagues atPopMatters were ambivalent about Batman’s second outing, citing the disorienting new cast of villains (G. Christopher Williams, “Review: Batman: Arkham City, 10 November 2011) or a frustration with the caped crusader’s passivity (Nick Dinicola, “Batman is Boring in Arkham City, 25 January 2011). But that’s one of the most fascinating differences between the two games. In City, Batman is overwhelmed by the sheer population of criminals working against him. No one of them poses a grand threat because the second that Batman’s dealt with the crime lord Penguin or the mad scientist Mr. Freeze, a clan of ninjas or a lunatic with a collection of funny hats is right there to upset his next action. As soon as he’s dealt with one threat, he has to scramble to deal with the next one. Batman is not a solution. He’s just another troubled figure in a troubled city. He just happens to stem the flow of chaos rather than encourage it.

What makes Arkham City fascinating is that it shows how, without a plan, Batman can only keep things together. He can’t orchestrate a solution like he was able to in Asylum. City is an open world chock full of violent lunatics whose schemes extend only as far as their next victim. What can one CEO in spandex do to fix that? Nothing. He can only manage the wreckage. That doesn’t make City any better than Asylum or the other way around; they’re both great games that do great things. One tone, structure, aesthetic, or set of themes might suit a player more than the other, but both are completely valid and neither challenges the other’s existence.

Which is why it’s so disappointing when reviewers are forced to conclude that Arkham Origins is just an attempt at improving a formula (Jonathan Bolding, Batman: Arkham Origins Review—Good But Not Good Enough”, The Escapist, 28 October 2013). Improving on either Arkham game is futile because both are resounding successes at doing different but connected things. It doesn’t matter if Origins doesn’t live up to either of its predecessors. It’s the attempt that’s the problem. Origins could have been a 1960s throwback to Adam West campyness, or it could have been a film noir whodunit with combat or stealth pushed aside in favor of clue hunting and interrogation. It could have been a psychedelic white-album reimagining of the Batman mythos, it could have had long playable sections of Alfred fretting about Wayne Manor while listening to updates on the news. Lord knows that decades of comic book canon offer a huge variety of paths to take the Batman mythology. There’s no sense in trying to outdo what’s been done so well, so why not tweak the template, even just a little?

It’s worth noting that audiences still dissolve into fan-based slap-fighting over the Final Fantasy games even though there’s very few mechanical distinctions to differentiate them from one another. The reason isn’t because one of them is clearly better than any of the others (seriously guys, don’t make me turn this car around), but players are still passionate about them because they all approach different ideas, themes, and aesthetics within the same basic framework. JRPGs might not be cool anymore (for more reasons than I’m willing to go into here), but for a time, they were good at knowing when they struck a perfect chord and moving on to the next note. The point of debating which Final Fantasy is best should not be to reach a conclusion, rather it should illustrate just how good these games were at hitting the nail right on the head and then moving on to the next nail. That is, to torture the metaphor, how one builds something.

Video games are a risk-averse business and an art form that honestly still hasn’t figured itself out. Like narrative or authorship or whatever this month’s hot-button issue is, sequels aren’t destroying or saving the medium (despite what certain melodramatic corners of criticism say), they’re just a part of it. And since they’re a part of it that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, it’s worth noting when they work and how. Sequels don’t have to aim to make their precursors obsolete, and they don’t have to compete with a beloved precedent. Sequels are at their strongest when they go somewhere unexpected. It might come across as obvious when it’s stated in so many words, but it’s harder to pull off than it is to say. And audiences and critics would do well to take note of and reward sequels that create their own identities.

Originally posted on PopMatters

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