Tuesday, April 12

On Sequels, Part 1

If there’s one thing many people are willing to decry with little to no information on it, it’s sequels.  They’re often seen as rushed out attempts to squeeze a few more dollars out of the oppressed masses, but there are some sequels that have done great things with the source material.  Silent Hill 2 is widely regarded as the best of the Silent Hill series, and leaves behind much of the mythology of the first game.  Yet, in the past, we’ve seen fans go ballistic over properties that ignore even a fraction of a beloved mythology.
Of course there are sequels that are seen as wholly awful creations that actually manage to devalue the series (Whatever remains of the series afterward) as a whole.  Highlander II, anyone?  But right now, let’s look at the qualities to successful sequels.  There will probably be spoilers for any games I talk about, fair warning.
First off, let’s look back a little to the beginnings of what would become my gaming world.  Spyro the Dragon.  He’s gone some weird places since his humble beginnings on the Playstation.  Spyro’s first adventure was a 3D platformer with some fairly basic mechanics.  The level design was simple and yet works as a fantastic blueprint for representing the perfect and steadily rising difficulty curve (future article!).
So what did the sequel change, and was it worth it?  Well, the series has gone on for over five games since the first, so I’d say it was a success.  But what did the sequel change?  What did the game do to make the series as enduring as it is?  Well, it began to add characters.  The first game had the player rescuing dragons with varying personalities, but they were only seen once and the writing slid toward the end, reducing the dragons to saying nothing but “Thank you for releasing me.”  But, in Spyro 2: Ripto’s Rage, we got a more vocal villain, his moronic minions, and a quartet of strange woodland creatures with distinct personalities.   So, adding relationships to varying characters, definitely a good start.  The game also adds some new mechanics, such as swimming, skateboarding, and headbutt slams.  The game didn’t add a whole lot to the gameplay style, adding only a few new toys to vary the play, and the story didn’t suddenly become a complicated web of twists and turns, but it took a previously successful formula and added some special and important pieces, helping to introduce those gamers who started with Spyro to a more mature series of problems and a larger variation of levels than “Lava Land” and “Ice Land.”  Overall, a sequel that began to test the waters, and keep the series alive.
Next off, we can look at two very well known games, Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Time, and Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask.
Probably the strangest transition in the Zelda series, Majora’s Mask is a polarizing kind of game.  I know of very few people, maybe none now that I think about it, who do not have a strong opinion on Link’s 2nd N64 outing.  While clearly not as successful as Ocarina, Majora’s Mask was a beautiful sequel, and so I get this out of the way: I enjoy Majora’s Mask more.
But Ocarina of Time was a wonderful transition in the Zelda series to 3D, and the game cemented Zelda as one of the best-loved series of all time.  An epic adventure of a young boy, learning swordsmanship and sacrificing so much of his life to save the world he owes nothing to, while traveling through tons of dungeons, adventuring through a world packed with side quests and extra story.  It was, and remains, a fantastic experience and great introduction to gaming.
And then, Majora’s Mask.  Four dungeons, repeating the same three days over and over, heavy themes of death and hopelessness, watching all of your work undone every time you need to do more, and reuse of almost all the character models from Ocarina of Time.  Some people saw Majora’s Mask as the kind of rushed, lame sequel sent out to cash in on the amazing Zelda craze.  However, the game went for an entirely different emotional turn.  Taking the familiar faces of the Zelda world, and the familiar mechanics and placing them in a world uncanny in its similarity produced a brand new mood for the series, reflected in not only the world design, but also the art style and music.  The game became dark and foreboding, yet still an artistic and critical success.  Here we see that going in a new emotional direction, while relying on the success of the first game, can open players up to whole new worlds of feeling and experience.  Majora’s Mask was a noble endeavor to broaden the horizons of the gaming public.
Lastly, I’d like to talk about the recent success of Dragon Age II.  Bioware decided once again to change the systems of the game, creating a less meticulous and more streamlined method of combat, and changing the in-game dialogue to a more simplified control method.  While this does mean less extended pauses in conversation, it simplified the role-playing aspect the first Dragon Age did so well.  Dragon Age was a story about a grand quest to unite the people of a country under a common banner, regardless of background or race (and racism is, let’s not kid ourselves, a massive overriding theme of Dragon Age).  It was a battle against a great evil, primal and seemingly unending, one that would slowly and surly obliterate the country, if not the world, except for the resolve of your small party.
Dragon Age II, on the other hand, is a personal story.  No longer about a world-sized threat, the endeavor was to create an identification with the main character and the struggle of their rags-to-riches life.  Combat became more fantastical, less about strategy and more about quick thinking, and the dialogue less about morality and more about personality.
Dragon Age II is a success commercially, there is no doubt about that, but there is debate about whether it is a success as an art.  I would say yes, if only for showing the same world and problem from both a grand perspective and a limited one.  Small things, like your character having a name people can actually refer to, being able to hear your character’s voice, all very important in bringing this more personal touch into play.
To summarize, there are many ways to make a successful sequel, and it lies within an artistic direction.  Sure, Madden games will sell for the next decade, but no one would call them successful artistic creations.  The real achievement lies in understanding the world previously created, and looking at it in a more fully realized manner.  Whether this is adding more personal relationships, creating a dark juxtaposition, or showing the different sides to the world’s conflicts, the ability to create fantastical art does not end after a single story.

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