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Sequels Can Be Good for Videogame Storytelling

Videogame Storytelling

In another post gaming sequels are king, I argued that the unique relationship between technology and the medium of videogames makes game sequels less gripe worthy than, for instance, movie sequels. In this post I’ll make the argument for game sequels as good for game storytelling. (The argument for sequels as the cash cows that allow developers and publishers the leeway to finance riskier endeavors has already been well made.)

First, though, I should make clear that I think the best video game stories are still likely to come from the rare games that dare to focus on stories that aren’t designed around the potential for sequels. A story whose main goal is to not end is at an inherent disadvantage compared to a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end, because a closed story structure is almost always stronger than one that doesn’t know where it’s going.

But the truth of the matter is that the vast majority of games are never going to take that risk. Most games want to leave the door open for sequels because, as my previous post points out, sequels are good for gameplay development (and for making money). In this much wider segment of videogames, sequels can often be good for storytelling.

This is in part because of the gameplay improvements sequels usually bring. For one thing, being able to focus on incremental gameplay improvement rather than building a game from the ground up allows more attention to the narrative—which is also being revised rather than developed from nothing. Take Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, for example. Able to start with existing templates for the rakish protagonist and his supporting case, and to do the same with the adventure/platformer/third-person shooter gameplay, Uncharted 2 does both better than the original game. Gameplay and narrative/character development interact more effectively to create an effective Indy-like adventure vibe. Indiana Jones is a classic in large part because of charisma (mixed, of course, with great action), and Uncharted finally hits that stride in Among Thieves. Storytelling depends on pacing, and the pacing of a game is contingent on how smoothly its gameplay functions, so (Uncharted 2 opening sequence SPOILERS in the next link!) sequels tend to get this right to a greater degree than first games.

Also, because sequel-oriented games tend to be more focused on gameplay than on story, the character development in the first game often tends to be a bit clumsy, a situation that often improves in the sequel(s) once developers have gotten to know the characters better. A great studio like Naughty Dog is capable of getting this right without a trial run in The Last of Us—but a few years before that, Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series took until Uncharted 2 to really get their protagonist’s charisma right.

The Call of Duty: Modern Warfare series provides another good example of a series stumbling onto interesting storytelling in the first game and really nailing it in the second. (Modern Warfare 1 and 2 plot SPOILERS ahead!) In the first Modern Warfare, Infinity Ward realized that their multiple-player-character approach opened up the door to doing surprising things with individual player characters (PCs) that a game with one (or two) main PCs can’t—as players found out when Sgt. Paul Jackson’s tour of duty ended prematurely in the “Aftermath” level. This narrative technique of using multiple PCs to enable bold narrative choices was taken a step further in MW2’s infamous airport level, “No Russian,” a choice enabled, I believe, by Infinity Ward witnessing the dramatic impact on players of “Aftermath” and similar moments in the previous game. Having taken one risk and succeeded, they (and their publisher) felt willing and justified to take the further risk of making the player do shocking things for dramatic effect, not just witness them and be unable to stop them. The narrative risks taken by Infinity Ward (and publisher Activision) in MW1 and MW2 wouldn’t have happened if those games weren’t sequels. Infinity Ward was able to build on their gameplay and narrative work in CoD 1 and 2, freeing them up to think more creatively about the narrative experience of a first-person shooter. And the fact that CoD 4: MW was a sequel actively encouraged them to think creatively, to avoid the sequel-killing situation in which the game comes across as just more of the same without any new experience to recommend it to players. This inducement doesn’t lead all sequels to be as narratively successful as MW 1 and 2, of course, but it does offer a nudge in that direction.

There are many other game sequels whose narratives and narrative/gameplay combined experiences are improvements over their predecessors for the basic reasons described above with the Uncharted and Call of Duty examples: my personal list would include Mass Effect 2, Red Dead Redemption, and the later games in the Elder Scrolls, Persona, and Grand Theft Autoseries, to name a few.

There’s probably an argument to be made that the effect of sequel-ready game series as opposed to games that focus on telling a good story now, in this game, is a net negative—though since sequels are never going away, I’m not sure how useful that line of thinking is. But I think sequels offer meaningful opportunities for good games in a way they don’t in other media such as movies. What do you think? Do you think that sequels are terrible for gaming, great, or offer a mixed potential? What downsides of sequels counteract the benefits I’ve mentioned in this post and the previous one? What are some great sequels I’ve overlooked here?

Written By: Brandon Perton