On Video Game Sequels

Video game studios develop sequels for a plurality of reasons, most commonplace being narrative continuance and gameplay refinement, though numerically the latter often eclipses the former; direct sequels, where one player character persists as player character throughout, where that player character’s narrative is directly continued from title to title: these instances are fairly minimized, frustrating when considering the great potentials attached to such narrative constructions, large in scope and frequently ambitious: a narrative arc spanning three or four titles trends towards complexity, fostering greater player engagement, as the player grows just as the player character grows; a relationship is forged, a forging impossible if protagonists differ from title to title; intimacy is lost, while characterization is similarly constrained. A much coveted epic-like status is simultaneously unattainable if each player character’s story is presented within total isolation; no matter the length of any given title – and many of the greatest narratives and experiences are an oftentimes of lofty length – still something inexpressibly compelling defines narrative continuance. An interesting and inevitable case study here is the Assassin’s Creed series, that acclaimed titan of the industry, a lucrative property for Ubisoft (this lucrativeness being partial impetus for the series’ development: money and profit matter). Since 2007, with the release of the original title, the series has splintered off, has undergone ample and excellent and ample refinement, though certain of the titles mark radical departures from their predecessors – consider the three most recent titles, Origins, Odyssey, and Valhalla, titles which took the series in a completely new direction and titles which, crucially, feature entirely different protagonists from installment to installment. This shift in focus and self-contained storytelling was not always met with immense success – the simplicity of the earlier titles was more endearing, if not necessarily more enjoyable than these latest titles – though still the developers at Ubisoft must be lauded for their originality and persistence in developing the IP, this originality being of major import when developing an effective, impactful sequel.

As any given series – whether speaking of video games, movies, or even books – begins to swell in number of installments, creativity seemingly withers away; the well of inspiration runs dry, and accordingly the product suffers; the end result is one of repetition and unsatisfaction. To use film as further illustration, hearing the title Friday the 13th: Part IX or Saw VI is almost groan-inducing, because the longevity of those various series means novelty and emotion have long begun to deteriorate And so it is with video games. Ubisoft, cleverly, gave each of their titles more individualized names, rather than proceeding to assign them a formal numerical designator, a clever, masking trick, and still the massiveness of the series must be mentioned, even if efforts were made to conceal that massiveness: since 2007, roughly fifteen mainline installments have been released for Assassin’s Creed, a staggering number, the nearest rival and eclipser perhaps being Call of Duty. Again, though, Ubisoft have managed to ward off stagnation and creative poverty, largely by constantly reinventing the series; if the gameplay mechanics and world building are growing expected, if they lose their novelty, they can be bettered by undergoing substantial alteration, and throughout the series there periodically emerge titles of swelling innovation, helping explain the series’ continued successes and relevance. While it is acknowledgeable that one protagonist preserved from title to title increases narrative richness, the diversification of protagonists and world-building from Origins through to Odyssey only bolsters the innovation, maintains freshness. Large in scope on their own, these three titles do manage to attain an epic-like status, even if only tangentially and half-heartedly connected.

While these three titles can be praised for their innovation, world-building, and gameplay constructions, narratively they are inferior to earlier titles, specifically the games which make up Desmond’s saga, begun with the release of the initial game and concluded with Assassin’s Creed III’s release in 2012. As character, Desmond is mostly dull and unlikable, a bland figure with no endearing attributes, his voice acting, the whining nature of his delivery, destroying any compelling attributes. And yet Desmond’s presence, the influence he exerted on this collection of titles, cannot be overstressed in importance; he was like a binding agent, the entire series revolving around his existence and his plight, a plight he was situated in simply because of his ancestry, his relation to earlier members of the Assassin Order. With Desmond, carried over from title to title, a neat sort of cohesion was achieved here, and seeing Desmond grow and develop – for there is certainly some observable character development, even if Desmond is relatively shallow – is immensely satisfying and engrossing; the player sees the odyssey-like nature of his journey from reluctant bartender, indifferent to the ways of the world, through towards master assassin tasked with saving the world from the hostilities of a prehistorian race. This collected narrative, then, could absolutely be termed an epic. Once Desmond’s journey saw conclusion, the series’ narratives grew directionless. Gone was Altair, gone was Connor, and, most crucially, gone was charismatic Ezio Auditore, immensely likable and illustration of an almost perfect player character. Seeing his own odyssey unfold simultaneously to Desmond’s own is a true wonder to behold; Assassin’s Creed II, Brotherhood, and Revelations, when taken together, are emblematic of narrative profoundness – they communicate the great potentials realizable when one player character is carried over from title to title. With the conclusion of Desmond’s tale, no player character in the Assassin’s Creed series has been controllable in multiple different installments, and this partially explains why the sequels have floundered narratively. Beyond this one series, meanwhile, other developers have discovered the epicness defining one interconnected journey, as is the case with the original Gears of War trilogy, and most notably within the Mass Effect series, developed by Bioware, those narrative masters; Commander Shepard’s character arc, the planet hopping which that arc entails, is immensely profound, well-developed, while the preservation of player choices from title to title communicates a sharp sense of player agency, as if the player is directly acting upon that gameworld, influencing it in the direction of their choosing. A space opera, then, the Mass Effect series, linked by Commander Shepard just as much as early Assassin’s Creed was linked by Desmond Miles, further shows the merit of direct narrative continuance.  

But gameplay refinement within sequels is of equal import; in developing sequels, studios seek to analyze and scrutinize the blueprints previously employed, and using those blueprints craft something of greater grander and complexity; this is expected, and in almost no instances could a sequel’s gameplay be reckoned as inferior to the gameplay of an immediate predecessor. True, particularly radical gameplay departures – like those seen in Assassin’s Creed Origins – are divisive and thus can potentially alienate the playerbase, though alienation does not instantly equate with inferiority; gameplay resonates with different people and for different reasons, and studios seek to expand and enrich that resonance when they craft follow-ups. Once failings are remedied and once strengths are improved upon, then overall enjoyability naturally sees a dramatic elevation; foundationally, Assassin’s Creed and Assassin’s Creed II are incredibly similar, though an imbalance of enjoyability is present, that latter title dwarfing the former in enjoyability; no dramatic innovations were sought with Assassin’s Creed II, but every aspect of its predecessor was honed to complete perfection. This principle, being commonplace, can be applied to any number of franchises spanning multiple installments, and an additional useful illustration is Borderlands 2, which could be considered as the perfect sequel; every aspect of this title – gameplay, narrative, world-building, presentation, characterization – are substantial improvements. It is staggering to consider that these advances came within the span of but a brief three years, years which allowed Gearbox to hone their ample creativity, to ruminate upon their design philosophies and then implement those philosophies more fully and more efficiently. The gameplay did, again, see expansion, with more visceral gunplay, creative and quirky weapons and other equipable objects which incentivize experimentation, and comparatively robust and flexible progression systems. Still, it was within the realm of presentation that Borderlands 2 met with its greatest successes. Cleverly and reflecting a reverence for the past, while striving for aesthetic and creative greatness, Borderlands 2 seized upon the aesthetic principles defining the original Borderlands; massive are the innovations in the sequel, though still the titles display a bold linkage; lessons learned were not discarded but were instead utilized. Speaking further of this connection, the striking cel-shading of the first installment is preserved, but Gearbox took that stylization in a wholly unique, compelling, and arresting direction; gone were Borderlands’ dull environments, mere repetitions of craggy brown deserts, only periodically disrupted by more imaginative aesthetics and atmospheres. Here, with Borderlands 2, the environments saw a sharp injection of life, abounding in diversity, stylization, and technical and creative excellency. The intensity of these effects is remarkable; Borderlands, while enjoyable in its own right, was not exactly a masterwork or some major developer accomplishment with a widespread impact upon the industry; it was flawed but fun. But, most critically, it was successful, and with an expanded budget and the insight arising from experience, in developing Borderlands 2, Gearbox did, arguably, alter the industry in some fashion. Immensely well-received by critics and fans alike, its almost endless, infinitely replayable nature has contributed to its longevity and continued reverence. Notable, too, is the fact that no player character is carried over from Borderlands to Borderlands 2, though some secondary characters are present within both titles. But even without one singular, coherent narrative preserved between various installments, massive are the successes of Borderlands 2, successes built upon in Borderlands 3, though that sequel suffers from an abysmal narrative – regressions, like innovations, are always a tangible possibility when developing a sequel.

As a series progresses, creativity may indeed diminish, though creativity recedes for a second reason, too: audience expectation. The most popular, best-selling video game series naturally have the largest audiences, each with their own demands, perceptions. If any given developer strays from those demands, they risk alienating the audience – publishers risk losing profit. When considering this point, the Call of Duty series must inevitably be mentioned; an industry juggernaut since the release of the original Modern Warfare in 2007, the series has gone on to exert a massive influence on the industry’s development, the paths taken. Give the numeric abundance of the series, it follows that relative creative stagnation has occurred, though this is compounded by the mentioned audience expectation, constraining. As a result of these demands, variation from title to title is minimized; observable, certainly, but minimized – the games are characterized by iteration rather than profound innovation. While a tragic admission, it is an understandable state of affairs. This precise series is in a very unique situation, though, in that three developers are developing titles simultaneously; each respective release year sees a different studio’s installment (yearly releases should be mentioned here, as they point towards the industry’s fascination with wealth, even as yearly releases generally suffer from the fiercest iterations). Still, Infinity Ward, Treyarch, and Sledgehammer Games have their own distinct identities, and while built upon the same foundations, some differentiation is present. With the release of Advanced Warfare, Sledgehammer Games showed a desire to take the series in a different direction, prioritizing enhanced movement and locomotive options, resulting in a faster, more frenetic pace. This is admirable, and would determine the shape of the series for some time; experimentation was being conducted, and that experimentation saw fullest illustration in the game’s single player campaign, which is tragically overshadowed by the multiplayer dimension, a hallmark of the series. Even with this overabundance of titles, the Call of Duty series manages to skirt total disaster owing to the staggered development cycles. Were this staggering absent, releases might grow increasingly infrequent – which could be interpreted as a positive; or, conversely, game quality and production values may see diminishment; in rushing a sequel, disastrous may be the consequences. But Activision are smart if greedy, and animated by a desire for profit, they release sequel after sequel, some of these titles being completely self-contained, others linked by protagonists or narrative occurrences. Completely original IPs, so crucial to the industry’s growth and development, have receded in importance for that precise publisher, while original IPs are vastly underemphasized in a considerable number of studios, partially yet tragically understandable: something frightful characterizes a new IPs’ development: if it is bold and innovative, unexpected in design or mechanics, then it may never achieve successes, even if the product is solid. Developers take risks when developing new IPs, but risk taking leads to greatest industry and societal progress. But this industry being an industry greatly concerned with profit, it is valid to state that some developer envision a sequel even before publication of the initial title of a potential franchise. But returning to Activision. For all its failures, at least this publisher listens to the player base, communicating player perceptions to the development studios so that they can implement alterations to increase player satisfaction. Fans of the series clamored for “boots on the ground combat,” and after a fair few years the developers embraced that grounded design philosophy. In this modern world, then, players have a great deal of sway, can support series with their wallets. Desperate of courting player favor and player dollars, even such impressive studios as Bethesda cling to tightly to an established blueprint; Skyrim may be defined by repeated, sometimes immense improvements over Oblivion, though still they are cut from the same cloth; Bethesda is cautious – consider also the iterative Fallout series.   

Being bound by expectation, it follows that studios – especially the largest of studios – fall into an established formula, clinging tightly to that formula precisely because of its financial successes. Ubisoft, specifically Ubisoft Montreal, must be mentioned again, in that they adopt a formulaic approach. Still, so masterful and impassioned are the developers of this studio, the games they produce are enjoy despite that predictability. And their titles are very predictable, their open-world games being the greatest offenders. While some differentiation is certainly present, particularly regarding world-building and presentation, almost all of their series could be grouped together, linked by certain commonalities: Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, Watch Dogs, Ghost Recon Wildlands and Breakpoint: in many ways, these titles are excessively similar, and while belonging to different franchises they cannot thus be reckoned as formal sequels, but they do possess the unifying nature defining sequels. Ubisoft in the present moment seems attracted to this blueprint – repetitive open world game design – precisely because it currently dominates the industry. Another Far Cry game is not going to rattle that selfsame industry, will not improve upon it or advance it; this is almost a certitude. It takes an original IP’s release to bring about true progress, and the relationship between franchises (sequels) and original properties is a profound, complex relationship. Original IPs are brimming with power; consider only the highly experimental, artsy indie scene, the publication of such titles as Braid, Limbo, and Bastion – completely original – leaving indelible marks upon the industry; iteration and mimicry are both rejected. Were these games turned into sequels and churned out at a rapid rate, then much of their special luster would wear away, perhaps swiftly; they would be drained of their soul. True, certain developers circumvent this hopelessness, develop subsequent titles without attracting lessened luster, most obvious being Playdead Studios, whose Inside is a spiritual successor to Limbo, adopting its basic control scheme and design philosophies, though sufficiently altering them as to preserve freshness. And even studios like Ubisoft realize the importance of these experimental IPs – look only at their RPG Child of Light, an aesthetically arresting title with robust battle systems and character progression; this title is like the antithesis to one of their major properties, enjoyable though still repetitious, no matter the departures taken, their intensity. Connecting narratives can be an additional source of strength – consider the Tomb Raider reboot trilogy, masterful achievements and improvements over their predecessors in every conceivable fashion; an existing character – Lara Croft – is seized upon and then utilized in a completely unique, compelling fashion. Sequels, then, serve an immensely important, vital function within the industry – they sustain it, anchor it. As series progress, the spark of life may grow weak, though impassioned developers are also empowered developers; while faced with constraints and audience demands, if these developers utilize their heart and their spirit to their fullest extent, the end result is sure to be a positive one. The balancing of new, sometimes experimental, IPs and massive franchises can be a shaking balancing, but one is hopeful that they can exist harmoniously, for such harmony will lead to greatest industry progress.

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