Gamechair Philosopher Rinse and Repeat: The Curse of the Sequel

For those of you who pay attention to the video gaming world, you’ve probably seen a lot of the same things lately. In the space of the last six months, we’ve had sequels to Assassin’s Creed (now into its 7th released game on all platforms), Mass Effect (6 games, not including books and comics), Call of Duty (8), Battlefield (22 including expansions and downloadable content), we’ve had re-releases of Metal Gear Solid (9 not including re-releases, but including the original Metal Gear games) and Legend of Zelda (18, minus remakes), as well as weird hybrid repackages like Marvel v Capcom (5 of those alone), or Streetfighter X Tekken (if you include every iteration of each separate franchise? 25, with 7 of those for Streetfighter II alone).

If you hadn’t worked out the pattern yet, I’d actively encourage you to stop reading this column.

In simple terms, video games reproduce more than a certain Irish-American political dynasty marred by tragedy and scandal. And that’s not for lack of trying on the part of certain K*****ys: god knows Jack got through more contraceptives than Bill Clinton.

At their best, sequels make a series better (à la Grand Theft Auto). They enrich the universe established by the original games, they improve the small problems that made the older iterations less good, and very rarely they completely re-invent the wheel, showing you not only that your original wheel was in fact a triangle, but that circles no longer cut it: only cylinders suffice, biatch.

At their worst, sequels dumb down what made the original engrossing and eminently playable (e.g. Deus Ex). They smooth out all the rough edges so that nothing sharp catches your eye again, and they destroy the credibility of the emotional investment you put into the original

But this presents a problem for those who enjoy ‘the originals’, and it also presents a problem from the perspective of quality control. Where movies benefit from the simple limitation of cost (i.e. Harvey Weinstein won’t bankroll your blockbuster unless it’s a guaranteed hit), video games are an industry that can still turn a buck on loyalty and volume alone. Hence why Bioshock 2 exists (and is profitable).

The key recommendation I got when venturing into the strange wilderness of sequels was to approach each and every game on its own merits. The disappointments are lessened this way, and your own personal enjoyment is increased exponentially when you discover ‘hidden gems’.

It is patently ridiculous (but inevitable) to judge Morrowind with Skyrim, or Fallout 2 with Fallout: New Vegas, because they are different games, with differing amounts of artistic input, differing technical standards, and often wildly divergent creative visions. Those who put down one game due to a superior successor or predecessor are fundamentally wrong: it would be equivalent to condemning every Sean Connery Bond movie because Casino Royale was perfect (and/or vice versa). Every game (apart from maybe those intentionally designed simply to milk the cash cow a little more… shame on you Assassin’s Creed Revelations) is made by a game studio that employs teams of committed individuals working to make the next game as good as they can. Those who dismiss the final product not on the grounds of the game itself, but on the grounds that it couldn’t be better are proverbial Australian ‘Occupy’ Protesters: not seeing their good fortune from the shitstorm faced by others, yet still demanding that someone else make their lives better.

A good sequel should, of itself, be a good game. If anything, the title should only induce you to take a second look. It shouldn’t make you automatically buy it like a good little capitalist drone. It shouldn’t make you assume that it’s automatically ‘not good’ compared to the last game.

It should, however, grant you engrossing escapism that grabs you momentarily and leaves you wanting more, weeks later.