Tuesday, May 31

On Sequels, Part 2 - Continuity and Cliches

If you recall, last time I talked about three ways to create a fairly satisfying sequel, but what I want to talk more about to day is how sequels deal with continuity and sometimes fall into very cliché territory.  Sequels are sometimes planned from the very beginning, the first story existing as it’s own self-contained work, but leaving a couple dangling plot threads.  See: Star Wars, A New Hope.  At the end of Star Wars, Luke has gone through the hero’s journey, he’s left behind the regular world and entered that of the Jedi, he proved he does not need the constant tutoring of his master, and succeeds in defeating the great evil.  He is rewarded for his victory, and everything seems well.  But we know Darth Vader is still alive, we know that there must be the confrontation between he and Luke.  There is more story to tell, and it’s major story, but we get our happy ending and the initial plot finishes.  Think of how major a plot thread is left dangling by Vader’s existence.  Keep in mind, I’m not saying that’s bad, I’m saying it’s the right way to do it.
Too often, games, more than any other medium, leave useless, meaningless dangling plot threads at their ends, hoping to have the game end on a cliffhanger rather than a real dénouement.  To throw out a good contrast we’ll take .hack//G.U. (I know, bear with me), and Kingdom Hearts II (Already a sequel, I know, but this flaw is on excellent display).
In case you couldn’t guess from me discussing the end of these games, SPOILER WARNING.
I’ll start with Kingdom Hearts II, because it revels in exactly the problem I’m talking about.  Kingdom Hearts Duex has its own (mostly) self-contained story that you can play through without worry about what came before, although you may not get the full experience but whatever.  The ending kills all the baddies, keeps all the goodies, and only leaves a couple insignificant dangling plots that you probably don’t need to worry about anyway.  So what about after all that?  Do we see the characters return to perfect sunshine and smiles Island?  Is everything resolved and their life set back on track?  Actually, yeah.  OR IS IT?  No, not really, because we see the character get… gasp!  A letter from King Mickey, requesting their help.  It’s time for adventure again!  Everything is wonderful and the next game totally isn’t a cash grab!
Anime: The Game
On contrast, we have the end of .hack//G.U. Volume 1: Rebirth.  That “Volume 1” tells us very quickly that the game clearly will be headed for sequel territory, and we expect a cliffhanger ending.  And what happens?  We defeat our big bad, our character clearly grows as a person and finishes the initial task he set out to do.  Except during this journey we learned of an even greater enemy and a greater chain of events, bigger than just that character’s journey, although it’s still about that, too.  But at the end of the first volume, we see that element truly rear its ugly head, we end of a cliffhanger of possible death and we know that the story must continue from here.
The problem here has almost everything to do with stakes.  Kingdom Hearts has none.  We as an audience can be interested in what this letter from the King says, we can want to know about it, but there’s no reason to.  All of the villains we had any reason to care about are long gone, all of the character’s lives are happy, and no one event really lingers in our minds.  It’s like the writers were told at the very end of production “Oh, we’re going to make a sequel, write that in, would you?”  and all they could do was weep at their desk for 15 minutes as they realized either everything they worked on would have to be changed, or there would be a sad and meaningless cliffhanger for the next game.  .hack works in this area, because we already know all about the two villains we’ve had to deal with and will have to continue dealing with.  One is defeated to give us our ending, our climax, and the other exists to continue the story, to make us remember the greater threat.  More time is probably spent on the bigger enemy, and it gives us much more reason to give a damn about another game.
Oh Bioware, my love...  Come and take me away.
While that’s probably one of the biggest clichés for video game endings, there’s another problem entirely when it comes to continuity.  Games are in a unique position here, because other media only really needs to maintain specific story elements, whereas games are also under the burden of deciding what to do with their game mechanics.  Bioware takes a lot more flak than I wish they did for this, because with series like Mass Effect and Dragon Age, they appeal to a gamer culture that often tends to learn a system down to its very core.  So when Bioware talks about changing the gameplay and removing RPG elements, or changing the dialogue system, they’re going to receive criticism, one way or another.  For the record, I like the gameplay in Dragon Age I & II, though I prefer the dialogue method of the first.
Many people would say that this isn’t really a problem for games, changing an interactive element of the game doesn’t lead to continuity problems like changes to story can, but I disagree, and I think we need to pay more attention to how gameplay influences the feel of a game.  While Dragon Age Origin’s battles may have felt boring to some people, or had not enough applicable strategy, they were battles I could understand happening.  I turn to Dragon Age II and I see my character (Rogue) leaping unreasonable distance, teleporting around the battlefield, and attacking less by swinging a weapon and more by doing an improvised gymnastics routine.  Which is fine, I like feeling as awesome as that makes me feel, but those moments were extremely rare in the first game, limited only to moments when you defeated a particularly strong enemy.  It gives a large contrast in the feelings of the game.  In Dragon Age, I knew I needed that army to fight against the Blight, to deal with the Archdemon.  But In Dragon Age II, I feel I could take a few armies with each hand.  Again, that’s not a bad thing, but it’s something to be aware of.
If you want to create a sequel, ask yourself why.  Is it because you want to use the same kind of gameplay?  You better make sure you have hints of a new story in the first game, or think up an entirely new one, and always be aware of the feeling of your game.  The choices you make about what a player can do will ripple through every aspect of their experience, and thinking you can achieve the same feelings by making players have different experiences is just as flawed as it sounds.

Also: get the first version of the setup and rules for my board game, Elemental Gate, here.

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