There are certain rules that one must abide by in order to create a successful sequel. Number one: the body count is always bigger. Number two: the death scenes are always much more elaborate – more blood, more gore – *carnage candy*. And number three: never, ever, under any circumstances, assume the killer is dead.
-Randy, Scream 2
Hey now, NPCs, here comes something a little different!
The Asking Big Questions series has been a communal, inter-blogatory staple here at The Well-Red Mage for a bit of time now but this is the first time I’m handing the reins over to one of our amazing mages for the next entry. The Badly Backlogged Mage (who is and/or might be Mr. Backlog) is up to bat this time with a question he, ever thoughtful, once posed to us mages in our private Discord chat, namely: What makes a good sequel?
This is interesting because it follows our previous Big Question, which was “What Video Game Series got Infected with Sequelitis?”. So this time we’re examining the positive side of the sequel coin rather than the negative. We can probably all agree that sequels can be great but there’s a difference between an inspired second chapter and a simple clone.
As always, we invite you to share your thoughts either in the comments below or in a blog post. If you post, be sure to link back here so we can see your answer! Get specific, stay generalized, whatever just tell us what makes a good sequel, in your most-esteemed opinion! Here’s my arcane colleague the BB Mage to handle the rest.
-The Well-Red Mage
Sequels are not a new thing. There have been sequels to films, sequels to books, heck even Shakespeare’s Henry IV: Part Two is a sequel.* It’s fair to say though that video games have taken “sequels” to another level, to the point where it’s now unusual for a big budget release to not be a sequel.
The reason is pretty obvious – a sequel video game can take its predecessor as a starting point and improve on its existing mechanics (often re-using the existing game engine/assets). But a film can’t “tweak” existing footage to improve an existing story, or re-use old special effects.** Though as the Mail Order Ninja Mage and the Well-Red Mage pointed out in our last installment, “better” at sequels does not make you “perfect”.
So what makes a good sequel?
It’s a Big Question (capitalisation deliberate), and we here in the Well-Red Team are interested in your thoughts. But as I’m posing it, I’m going to go first. And after a lot of thought on it, I’ve decided that the rules of sequelling really boil down to two main rules. Let’s call them, “the sequelling commandments”:
“Thou mayest sequel only if thou hast some “new idea”- things to say that are as yet unsaid, concepts to show that are yet unshown, or mechanics to explore that remain unexplored. This is the great and first commandment. And the second is like it; thou shalt love thy “new idea” greater than even the franchise itself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.“
Let’s look at those in more detail.
- Thou mayest sequel only if thou hast some “new idea”.
I’ll give an example.
If you’ve read my work before you’ll know that I often talk about RPGs and RPG history, which often results in me talking about the firsts of the great RPG franchise. It wasn’t Fallout, Final Fantasy or even Ultima; but a game most people have never heard of – Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord.*** Wizardry was a runaway smash hit, with sequels that naturally followed. The screenshots from the first three games in that series looked like this:
I can’t tell you which is which.
But around the same time as Wizardry was released, a young man named Richard Garriott released Ultima, which also bore sequels. The first Ultima was good but not in Wizardry‘s league.*** But the screenshots from the first three games in that series looked like this:
Each game had distinct new ideas. And even when the games did not work (Ultima II: the Revenge of the Enchantress didn’t really work) they still had useful ideas that were refined and successfully implemented in later games. By the fourth game, Garriott created Ultima IV, regarded as one of the best RPGs of all time. Wizardry, meanwhile, did nothing new until Wizardry IV. But this was the first time they’d tried anything new with the series, and just like Ultima II, it didn’t immediately work. And so Ultima IV remains a classic, while Wizardry IV is forgotten.
To turn to a more modern example – Nintendo. Yes, Nintendo rehash the same IPs over and over again, but they can and often do make those games feel and play completely differently. Mario Sunshine is not Mario Galaxy is not Mario Odyssey.****
2. Thou shalt love this “new idea” and keep it holy; yea, greater even than thy love unto the franchise itself.
Each new game in a franchise needs to be given the freedom to do its own thing to the best of its ability. Sometimes that means doing things that run contrary to the established franchise. And it always means that any trappings from the prior games need to help, not hinder, the concept that the new game is working with.
Wolfenstein 3D. Streetfighter II: the World Warrior. Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger. Grand Theft Auto III. Metroid Prime. The Legend of Zelda: the Wind Waker. Each changed the established franchise to such a magnitude that any of them could have been stand-alone games. That freedom, the ability to take their own idea and make it work, made each of those games far better than they would have been if they’d been watered down to better “fit” established canon.
The original Wolfenstein was a stealth game for chrissakes. Putting stealth mechanics into Wolf 3D “because that’s what Wolfenstein is” would have been a horrible idea.
These are very different games. They don’t pretend to be similar.
The most obvious example of an offender for this rule is Bioshock Infinite. Now I loved that game for sure, but it had some irritating hangovers that did not fit, and were obviously just there “because this is a Bioshock game”. Scavenging in bins while the shops’ shelves are full. A society that gives away free plasmids (sorry, “Vigors”) but no-one ever uses them. Murdering hundreds of policemen while a Disney princess looks on. It’s weird.
The lesser commandments
There’s a number of other “sequel rules” which are really just specific examples of the other two rules in action.
3. Thou shalt not blindly add “more”. For the God of Gaming cares not for size, scale or length; but only for player investment.
More is not better, bigger is not better, longer is not better. Better is better.
Games usually get better from streamlining the experience – when every aspect of its design works together seamlessly to deliver a strong and cohesive experience. That’s Arkham Asylum. Taking the existing mechanics and plonking them in a sandbox environment, or adding in a bundle of new guns, items and powers just for the hell of it, that’s Arkham City. It’s the exact opposite of improving the game design – it’s like trying to improve “Rock/Paper/Scissors” by adding “dynamite/tank/penguin”.
If you want to make the sequel a sandbox game, fine. Make it a sandbox game. But commit to it – make the entire game revolve around that new direction, and if there are any old mechanics that clash with that new direction, ditch ’em.
Scale creep and spectacle creep are related problems, and equally unnecessary. If you saved the city in the first game, you don’t need to save the world in the second game. Films run into this problem all the time (and probably explain why reboots are so popular). I have never forgotten watching a card game in Daniel Craig’s James Bond and thinking “by this point in the last film, Bond was driving an invisible car through an ice castle while being chased by a space laser”. Guess which one was the better film.
But I think that films can avoid it, and I know that games can. Because it’s not actually scale or spectacle that matters, it’s player/viewer engagement. And games have got the edge over films here because they are interactive, you make the player care about what’s happening on screen by making them care about their decisions. My little decisions in Papers Please had more weight than, say, the ending of Mass Effect 3 because mechanically my decisions were significant. Whether or not they also affected The Fate of The Universe (Tm) was irrelevant.
4. Thou shalt ensure that the resulting gameworld, furnished as it is with the relics of games past, supports and hinders not the new idea.
On one end of the spectrum you have Fallout 3. It’s mechanically completely different to Fallout 2, but it was sure as hell improved by the Pipboy. At the other end you have Doom 3, which was made worse by the luggage of its predecessors.
The much-maligned “flashlight/handgun” issue in Doom 3 made perfect mechanical sense to inject a horror angle in the game. If the mechanic had popped up in Resident Evil, no-one would have batted an eyelid. But it clashed horribly with the Doom play aesthetic that had been transported across from the other games. Same with the oodles of video and audio logs.
If you want to make Doom 3 an entirely new genre to Doom II, great. In fact, I encourage it. But that requires committing to the new direction, which means ditching the “marine on mars power fantasy” if it no longer fits the game you’re making. After all, Wolf 3D certainly was not afraid to ditch the disempowering aspects of Wolfenstein.
Believe it or not, fans were originally angry about Metroid Prime because “Metroid is not 3D”. The fans were wrong.
5. To every rule, an exception.
Games are an art form. And while it’s fun to write rules, you can’t really make rules for art.
Monkey Island 2 was a brilliant game. Sure, it was just a quick rehash of the ideas in Monkey 1, but it improved the execution of those ideas so much that it just didn’t matter. Super Metroid was Metroid on steroids – and it was awesome, doubtlessly helped by the fact that 8 years passed between those two games. There are surely many other examples.
To every rule, an exception. Because gaming is an art, not a science.
Which is why we love it so 🙂
* Complete with mindlessly re-hashing the original, poor continuity and an after-credits teaser in Henry IV: Part One.
** Unless you’re Ed Wood.
*** I’ve argued this before and I stand by it.
**** although the same cannot be said for, say, Mario Party 1 through 10.
The Badly Backlogged Mage courageously fights a rearguard action against his unfortunate spending habits. You can follow his crusade at https://mrbacklog.wordpress.com/
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