Let’s talk about endings. I won’t mess about: we’ve forgotten how to stop. Big-budget videogames are starting to feel like that chili kebab you eat at the end of a night out. You know full-well that it’s a terrible idea, but can’t help wolfing it down just the same. And it’s not just videogames that have this problem; we’ve all seen adverts for television series or movie sequels that make us cringe and ask why they can’t just leave it alone. Cynically I want to say the biggest reason for this is money.
We’ve all heard of Guitar Hero in one form or another. What started as a pretty niche game back in 2005 on the PlayStation 2 turned into a multi-platform, multi-million, multi-instrument institution that brought music games high into gaming charts and to the forefront of our minds. Activision, not content to have a successful franchise they could plod along with for years like many others, decided to start churning out the games at an impressive rate. And by impressive I don’t just mean one or two a year. In 2009 there were no less than six Hero games released, spanning guitar-focused games, band-focused games and even DJ Hero. Six! That’s incredible. It came as no surprise that after 2009 enthusiasm for these games trailed off (we were lapping up Rock Band as well, let’s not forget) and Activision made the decision to stop flogging the old nag and put it to sleep.
I suspect we haven’t heard the last of the Hero games though. That’s not how we function. Money is obviously a major factor and, as Lord Alan Sugar likes to say, “you have to smell what sells”. Unfortunately all Activision left was a rather stale whiff once they stopped pushing these games. Six. It’s going to take a while to recover from that. What about other franchises too profitable to let die? Call of Duty for one. Why, Black Ops II was announced only the other day. It’s a sequel to a spiritual sequel of a line of sequels. Uncharted rose to fame and stayed there despite the tidal nature of the three home console games’ development; one not so great, one incredible and one not so great game (in that order). We can expect Uncharted 4 to be a corker (and there willbe an Uncharted 4).
I’ll try and stop hammering on about money now; especially as I’ve made my views on the Uncharted series abundantly clear, even calling for Nathan Drake to be put to death in his next outing. This brings me to my second point. Sequels are not only beneficial to publishers, but also to us, the fans. They allow us to spend more time with our favourite characters and appreciate their endearing features in new contexts. The problem is that we are a very nostalgic breed, us gamers. Don’t believe me? Why not take a look at just how many Mario games, or Sonic the Hedgehog games you can find. We’re so lucky we even get crossovers where they compete in the Olympic Games. How delightful!
Our love of these characters is such that we can’t stop making games about them, even bad games. We can’t stop remaking or republishing the old games in collections. We can’t even preserve the formula properly, adding more characters and features until the whole thing is a bloated embarrassment for almost everyone involved. I buy new Sonic games, just to see if they got it right this time, but still nothing beats the original games that came on cartridges and looked like crap on enormous TVs.
However, I cannot honestly put my hand on my heart and say that all sequels and remakes are bad. Mario has endured some hard years, but I struggle to recall a Mario game I haven’t enjoyed; same goes for Pokémon, in its fifth generation now with more creatures than I would have believed after the original 150. Yet both these series almost make a point of moving on in some way, such as the shift to a new region with each generation of Pokémon or Mario’s recent forays into space. What distresses me is to hear that a sequel has been created without any real goal or evolution. I’ll return to the Uncharted games for a moment, which have changed over the years, but I always remember the approach to the game’s creation where they created the set-pieces first, then built a story around it. It doesn’t really matter how technically impressive a game created with such a philosophy is, because the story, the interaction of the game with the player, will feel like an awkward ramble from A to B with some stuff to look at on the way but no real storytelling or craft on the way. This cannot be good for the evolution of videogames as a communicative medium.
As is often the case with me, I find solace in the independent gaming scene. Games here occasionally get sequels and sometimes even make the transition to something gigantic, but more often than not when a developer is finished with a game, that’s the end. They move on to other projects and create other great things. There is much less artistic stagnation and suppression in the indie world, and I think big game publishers and development studios would do well to take a look back at their roots and remember that their art can be so much more than a loose narrative that points the player’s eyes in the right direction every now and again, telling him to “look at this” or “admire that”.
If we stopped worrying so much about safe sells and let those creative juices flow a little bit more in terms of storytelling, videogames would benefit so much. I don’t even think I’d care too much if the new narratives featured familiar characters, but let’s see a little more variation out there on the shelves sometime in the next year or two please; I’m tired of seeing lines of numbers and numerals on the shelves. I’m not even fooled by this sudden inexplicable tendency to create sequels with the same names as the original games. So let’s be radical about it and say we’ll leave the past in the past and make like Walt Disney: “Keep moving forward”.
Video games were a part of Chris's life from the Mega Drive onwards. He has many happy gaming memories, including the first time he collected all the chaos emeralds in Sonic 2, collecting all SSBM's trophies (yes, all of them) and, more recently, collecting far too many platinum trophies on his PlayStation 3. In the real world, he has a degree in French and is currently living in Frankfurt, Germany. Follow him on Twitter @DPrime_Chris
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