[Reboots and relaunches have become a key part of the game industry, and in this column, writer Tom Cross takes a look at their tricky spot -- and why they often hide wonderful surprises.]
Franchise reboots are extremely popular these days. Video games may not have reached their reboot saturation point (Hollywood, on the other hand, definitely has), but reboots, remakes, and “re-launches” of games and franchises have become an important part of the industry. For developers and publishers, established IPs can be (or are often seen as) a boon for marketing, thanks to the supposed, vaunted built in audiences such games come with. Their significance for gamers is something to be debated.
Sequels are, of course, par for the course in the video game industry. No one is ever surprised when successful, bankable games receive their second or third sequels (assuming they don’t drop the ball on the second game), but a series reboot does elicit a raised eyebrow and word or two of censure or approbation.
Though this is doubtlessly a habit inherited from our days of seeing wretched 70’s and 80’s properties reborn for the screen, reboots are definitely an interesting prospect. Not content to produce a somewhat similar title (gameplay-wise) with a few tweaks, and a new story, developers head out into uncharted waters, in search of that elusive beast, innovation (or the almost as sought after “fresh” ideas).
From Dark and Edgy to Dark and Edgy
Reboots often come when a series has had so many successful installments that it no longer needs to change, rearrange, or innovate (a word whose meaning is always in flux, and is hardly ever known). The best examples are the games that went and lost their way in public, embarrassing ways. After the brilliant, roundly well-received Sands of Time
, Ubisoft produced the hilariously “dark” and “mature” Warrior Within
, and the slightly less objectionable Two Thrones
. Regardless of these games’ increasingly convoluted and self-important plots (something that the series most in need of a brain-wipe and reboot, MGS
, wrote the book on), the gameplay was what really needed reworking.
After all, we may tire of grungy, dark heroes and bald marines, but we also tire of manipulating “new” characters that handle exactly like their predecessors did. We want new ideas, or in lieu of novelty, the old thrust at us with a new spin. This is why Sam Fisher stalks (moodily, darkly, almost) toward us once again, sporting a darker past, of course, but also several new methods of death-dealing and skulking.
Yet even as we laud the “innovations” made in stealth (Splinter Cell
), survival horror (RE 5
), adventure (Tomb Raider
and Prince of Persia
), and puzzle games (Monkey Island
), we should also examine how these games use their new gameplay systems and titles to excuse minor (and sometimes major) experiments in narrative form and presentation.
It is, after all, difficult to sell various kinds of interesting narrative tricks and methods. Few large, commercially successful developers ever regularly produce games that eschew average narrative techniques. When they do, their products are regarded as strange aberrations, the work of “innovative” auteurs (in this case, innovative serves as a polite backhanded compliment).
Still, interesting and exciting design decisions (narratively) abound in games, in the brilliant games and the awful ones.
Reboots and Their "Audiences'" Desires
Different ideas for how to tell stories often stem from previous failure. When Lara Croft becomes so much of an invincible super hero that even her own villains can’t quite bare to contemplate her death, what do you do? You take away her weapons and ludicrous technology, give her a torch, and make things decidedly less hi-tech. Sound familiar? It’s what happened to Bond, when his masters realized that space lasers and ghost cars were even more ridiculous than all of the collected Bond toupees combined.
While the methods used to rejuvenate and reboot Lara may seem rather pedestrian, there can be no doubt that the results will be interesting. The designers of the next game have promised that Lara will be more “female-friendly” this time. Which of course begs the question: what exactly does that term mean, to players and to developers? What about her is not now female-friendly (and what exactly do they mean by "female-friendly)? For all of Lara’s faults (both built-in and acquired), she is a competent, collected, tenacious heroine. In fact, it is her growing perfection that has lead to her reboot.
Well gamers (retrograde and more socially "acceptable" misogynists, socially conscious feminists, upper-middle class Wii dabblers and more) may have their reservations when it comes to Ms. Croft’s sexualization (and the fantastically ignorant responses to her general presentation), I am interested in what a reboot might accidentally or purposefully enable.
Who is to say that a reboot might not imagine a character both strong and flawed? Regardless of the game, it would be nice to see our heroine featured in ads and screenshots that treated her like a human being (if you’ll recall her headless Underworld
photo, you’ll understand what I mean).
It’s not just the tone and purpose of franchises and their heroes that can change, however. When a developer is tasked with producing a reboot, they’re placed in an interesting position. They have to create a new game that will be nominally different from the previous entries in the series, different enough to pass for “innovative” or different, or in some way better than the originals. Changes made in this direction can be bad and good, as people will constantly tell you.
More subtly, designers in this position are given the power of brand recognition (hopefully, if PR people do their thing and the game isn’t too divorced from its so-called roots). Their game exists along a continuum of games (not that all games don’t, of course), and are thus seen as slightly more bad sales-proof.
What do you do then, if you are given this small amount of hope/freedom that many developers are denied? It seems that many developers take the series in whichever direction they think makes the most sense from a marketing/hypothetical consumer position, understandably. People think Lara should be less guy-friendly, vaguely, so they’re remaking her to meet this new standard.
Sometimes, however, this opportunity inspires developers to try out new methods of storytelling, new ways of implanting the narrative into the game, and into gameplay itself.
Lost Turns into Something Conradian
The two best (and not necessarily similar) examples I can think of this are Far Cry 2
and Prince of Persia 2008
. Far Cry 2
may not be labeled as a reboot, but it is obvious to all that much of the spirit of Far Cry
moved on to the Crysis
games, along with Crytek. The new Far Cry
used the open-ended island combat sections of Far Cry
as a springboard for a new, vast freeform approach to mission-based shooter gameplay.
While that aspect of Far Cry 2
has been the subject of scrutiny and acclaim, the game’s storytelling techniques were just as interesting. The games used three methods of characterization and storytelling to varying levels of efficacy. Players created their own miniature narratives during, before, and after missions. These mini-stories worked in concert with the game’s obliquely oriented narrative and NPC interaction. Finally, the game featured detailed character animations and avatar/character/environment animations. In most games, a player is a floating eyeball attached to a gun. In Far Cry 2
, you possessed arms, legs, and a body, and you had to use those body parts to interact with cars, doors, people, and other obstacles.
While none of these mechanics are strictly brilliant or revolutionary, together they created a story that was at once both incredibly involving and physical (the physicality of your player and of NPCs could never be denied), yet distancing and cold (your character’s villainous acts as a mercenary, combined with the reactions of other people, created a dark, unpleasant social landscape), a gamespace that could be navigated as one pleased, within limited parameters.
While Far Cry 2
has its strengths and weaknesses, the differences between it and its predecessor are staggering. It broke off from Far Cry
and created a new tone and direction for the narrative experience it provided players (and allowed players to create), a narrative that took its subject material quite seriously, even if it included less-than-meaningful references to Heart of Darkness
, and Nietzche (really, video game designers, this last one has been absolutely done to death... We know about the abyss and all by now, never mind that most games misquote it or misrepresent it).
What Far Cry 2
did that impresses me more than its “emergent” gameplay and “story spaces” is create a narrative and gameplay experience that were both quite different from the first game. Not only were these aspects different, the way the game arrived at them was different.
It is that divergence that exists between the different methods used to create stories and gameplay/story interactions, which appear strikingly in these remakes and series reboots.
You Explore Levels, I Explore Lives
Far Cry 2
is not alone on this radical end of the narrative remake spectrum. The most recent Prince of Persia
title featured interesting strategies where it came to storytelling. Rather than tie its story and in-game dialogue to specific plot points and checkpoints, dialogue between the two protagonists could occur at any point in the game (assuming, of course, that previous dialogue that enabled the present dialogue had already occurred).
Dialogue was also tied to geographical location and immediate stimuli. Elika and the Prince would discuss each area and event as it took place. Players could ignore these conversations if they liked. Much was made of the fact that players were almost “forced” to carry out these conversations, thanks to an incessantly blinking “talk” reminder. This may be one reaction a player might have, but if that same player turned off the hint prompts, they would never know when conversations were possible. In this case, players had to guess when new topics could be broached: after the Prince is infected with Corruption, or after a confrontation with Elika’s father, for instance.
It may seem like a gimmick, but combined with the game’s large bank of area and action-specific mini-dialogues (the duo would comment on each other’s progress, nimbleness, and failures, and these comments would change as the two grew closer together), Prince of Persia
created deep, potentially interesting characters who would only ever divulge their secrets and feelings if the player was willing to aid them in doing so.
As Open As the Wasteland, and More Fun
There is often talk of the roads not taken in massive RPGs: Fallout 3
is lauded for its creation of multiple paths and spaces, so many that a player who beats the game knows for a fact that they missed entire stories and interludes. This knowledge enriches their experience; they are constantly aware that there are other things happening (in actuality of course, they waiting to happen) in the world. Prince of Persia
does the same, using dialogue, and thus, character depth and friendship. It may sound useless, but the opportunity to change how your characters view themselves and each other is just as affecting as the ability to create a morally ambiguous series of gun battles and close shaves.
This kind of ingenuity is not relegated to these two Ubisoft titles. Splinter Cell Conviction
is an especially exciting-looking title, and all because of one “gimmick.” The game’s interrogation scenes feature revelatory moments and “discussions” of events past and present. These words are converted into black-and-white images, as if from an old movie camera, and thrown up onto the walls, as if Sam Fisher was viewing them in his shadowy, cobwebby head. It goes to show that these kinds of tricks and new methods of presentation and storytelling can be incredibly effective. Of course, it helps if they’re planted within successful franchises. They’re given the benefit of the doubt, and if they succeed, they’re lauded for their “innovation.”
Regardless of who succeeds in what area, we all win when steps like this are made. Let’s hope more developers are allowed to experiment in this way, lest all of our series and franchises enter the twilight realms of Two Thrones
. Then again, we can always just reboot them, right?
[Tom Cross writes for Gamers' Temple and Popmatters, is the Associate Editor at Sleeper Hit, and blogs about games at Delayed Responsibility. You can contact him at romain47 at gmail dot com.]