In with the Old: Sequels, Reboots & Spiritual Successors

Naughty Dog‘s The Last of Us was arguably the most notable game of the last generation of gaming consoles, and it will definitely be a game to be remembered for a long time. With such success, it’s fairly safe to assume there will be a sequel – rarely in entertainment, whether it’s film or games, has there been a case where a title is an amazing success and those who made it don’t give in to the temptation to create more. It’s not all just about sales – the fanbase often demands sequels, as they can’t get enough of the product.

The Last of Us became a huge hit as a standalone, one-off story: it wasn’t building on top of something, but instead it introduced a new world, new characters and a story untied to anything we had seen before. For some, this is what made it so special: it was all about this individual story, and these specific characters, not a franchise or long-term plans for a series. It sold because word spread about how good it was, not because there was a title attached that felt familiar to consumers. Granted, the name of developer Naughty Dog was a big factor, since the Uncharted series is one of the most popular game series in recent memory.

The world of The Last of Us, however, is very special in and of itself. It’s got a real history, and there’s plenty of depth to it ripe for exploring; I don’t mean that literally, as in open world games and such, but rather as a prospect of another story of unique characters, through whose eyes we – the audience – would learn more of the environment. Naughty Dog invested much time and effort in creating that world, and as this game was intentionally made to be the story of its main characters specifically, there’s loads of things that were never quite the focus, and thus weren’t explored or resolved.

Many fans of the game gasp at the idea of revisiting the terrifying world; for some of them, doing so would violate what the story and the universe mean to them. I agree in the sense that I don’t want to see Joel or Ellie again (we certainly will, in some way, although probably not as the main characters), but instead go somewhere else entirely and see someone else’s equally unsettling story. Think of it like this: countless people love The Walking Dead, the original comic and/or TV series. But many of those same people also fell in love with Telltale‘s game of the same name; some, such as myself, even love Lee and Clem even more than the characters from the original one. The world is the same, but the story is nearly entirely unrelated, and that’s how it works best.

Another concern for some fans – a much more relevant one, in fact – is wearing out the intellectual property. Although it’s fairly cynical to say so, every additional entry tends to shave off a little bit of “value” from a series. It’s not true for every situation, but I’ve noticed that generally, the longer a series has existed, the less I begin to care about whether or not the story progresses in the direction I would hope, or something to that effect. There’s the risk of a series being driven into the ground, which can happen in more than one way.

First, there’s the obvious risk of franchise fatigue – a broader term could also be used to cover all sorts of entertainment. It’s basically what I meant by the franchise’s value wearing out, in the form of the audience growing bored with seeing too much of a given franchise. It obviously also affects the creators, in case they’re not swapped out; who wants to do the same thing over and over, especially when that thing is creative in nature?

Franchise fatigue has been the demise of many video game series, especially during the modern era where video games are more popular than ever. However, there are other ways to kill a series – as a slightly controversial example, Resident Evil has been catching a lot of flak for years, mainly because many consider the franchise to be grossly mismanaged and poorly directed. The risk for something like this increases as time goes on, especially when the people behind the series change; there are always those who believe that only the creators who worked on the previous titles can make a decent entry in the series, no matter how talented their replacements are.

Strictly business

Whether or not it’s good for a game or a series, sequels to popular titles are practically inevitable. The reason should be fairly obvious: the video game industry is a network of people who are there to make a living. It’s someone’s job to generate a profit with games – they’re generally not meant to be art, created solely to be an expression of whatever the creators wish to express; rather, games are entertainment, meant to be sold. If a game sells well, any businessman worth his salt knows it’s feasible to create a sequel – that just makes the most sense. If something works, do it again – that’s the oldest trick in the book.

What that will result in, however, is the inevitability of artistic or creative dimensions always being overridden, if a series is successful. Therefore, even with Hideo Kojima leaving Konami, it’s practically certain that there will be more Metal Gear games; they will be heresy to anyone like me who idolizes Kojima and greatly admires his talent as a creator, but they can’t be stopped. The people at Konami know consumers will buy those games, even if it’s just out of curiosity.

Exhibit A: Shinji Mikami, the father of Resident Evil, made a statement that Resident Evil 4 would only be released on GameCube. Nonetheless, Capcom ignored him and allowed the game to be ported to PlayStation as well. Disapproving, Mikami quit Capcom. That didn’t stop the series from being continued – the following game was terrible in every way, but they made it, because they knew it would make them money. And despite the (deserved) bad rap Resident Evil 5 got, I believe it did make them a profit.

It’s quite popular to assume that money is the main reason sequels are made, but there’s a fair chance a lot of them are a labor of love: just like gamers like diving into a fictional world an investing their time into it, developers may enjoy giving of themselves to creating that world just the same. Sometimes, when a creative team enjoys making a game, it’s entirely possible that they can’t wait to get to do it again. To use a familiar example, if Naughty Dog had felt like the second Uncharted game was a chore to make, would the third one have been any fun to play?

I stand by what I said about the value of a series being worn by sequels, but there may be a reverse side to it: if a creative team is in love with their own creation and really like developing their game, that may feed into their creativity and inspiration, and benefit the next game taking place in that same world.

Changing the Direction

Aside from extending a series in one of the basic directions (forward with sequels, backward with prequels, or in between titles), there are a couple other ways of continuing a franchise that have become very common in recent years. One way is to go back to the beginning, and start again from nothing but the basic pieces of what the series was initially built of; movies have done it for decades, but in video games, rebooting has become a thing only in the last decade or so.

Usually, a reboot is an attempt to resuscitate an IP that has come to a creative dead end, or has become unprofitable for whatever reason. Sometimes reboots might happen when the IP’s ownership changes, but I believe that’s more common with movies than with games, where it seems it’s still more convenient to just keep going forward with the newly acquired IP, rather than go through the trouble of rebooting it for your own use, which I don’t think makes a lot of sense, seeing as rebooting seems to be all the craze otherwise.

Back in 2010, one of my favorite game series, Castlevania, was rebooted, in the form of Castlevania: Lords of ShadowCastlevania had probably become stagnant and even irrelevant, although not because of bad games, but rather the incomprehensible management by IP owner Konami. I was disappointed in the old series being put to the shelf, but I was actually very impressed with Lords of Shadow. I even liked the other two games in the trilogy, even though I seem to be in the minority. However, after that, the series returned to its still-warm seat in limbo, probably to wait for another reboot that may never come.

A bit less depressing reboot story is XCOM: Enemy Unknown. The series was rebooted after the original continuation had been buried for years, and hadn’t exactly been at the peak of its popularity for even longer. This was actually a decent time for a reboot, since the original game was no longer relevant in any considerable way, and the development and marketing of the new game was done pretty well. While the game was vastly different from the original, there was still enough similarity to justify the use of the X-Com name.

I also want to make a note of Mortal Kombat, which is almost like comical commentary on the whole rebooting trend; after all, it’s a fighting game, and those never have story of any consequence. Furthermore, Mortal Kombat as a series is probably at the tail end of fighting games in terms of story coherence. Nonetheless, this game is, in a way, a reboot – although not in the traditional sense, because it actually continues the story from Mortal Kombat: Armageddon; only the timeline jumps back into the beginning, when Raiden sends a telepathic message to his past self. So does it actually qualify as a reboot, since it sort of acknowledges the existence of the original continuation?

There has been some restraint with the reboot fad, though. In the gamer community, I’ve seen a lot of desire for the return or reboot of such period characters as Spyro and Crash Bandicoot. Theoretically, there’s an audience for those characters and their games, but I always tend to think they belong where they are: in memories, and in history. Spyro, for example, was a fantastic game when it came out, and in that time, it was just what players wanted, with all the new processing power and what have you. But these days, there’s no place for him. The trends have shifted. But who knows, maybe in a few years, he’ll be retro enough to be relevant again.

Lords of Shadow re-imagined the Belmont family. Simon wasn't quite as important anymore.

Lords of Shadow re-imagined the Belmont family. Simon wasn’t quite as important anymore.

Spirit Path

If there’s an opposite to mismanaged sequels or over-milked franchises, it’s probably the phenomenon known as spiritual successors. The term is usually used when (in this case) a game is created with the goal of preserving key components of an existing game or franchise, without the use of that game or franchise’s name. In other words, “it’s about the game, not the name”.

Spiritual successors are often considered a “true” gameplay experience in the vein of its predecessor, commonly created either by a person or people who had something to do with the original one, or at least people who can be considered true fans of the original. This generates trust and curiosity – there’s a kind of mystique to it, sort of like the creator of the successor would step up and say, “I’ll show you how it’s done”. Spiritual successors are mostly relevant in two cases: either the predecessor is an old game that has been all but forgotten, or the existing series has fallen from grace and the fanbase feels it’s headed in the wrong direction.

By default, spiritual successors enjoy a certain beneficial buzz, because they’re supposedly all about the essence of what made the original game good. They don’t use the original’s name, but in truth, that name is used in indirect advertising to create the aforementioned buzz – “the spiritual successor to *that game you used to love*!” Thus, these games don’t actually start from nothing, even though that’s how it seems on paper.

That said, I’m finding myself really excited about a variety of spiritual successors lately. Probably the biggest one for me personally is Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, crowdfunded through Kickstarter by Koji Igarashi, who is considered the godfather of the Castlevania series from Symphony of the Night onwards – in other words, the Metroidvania games of that series, which are also called Igavania games, for obvious reasons. It’s likely a game similar to the six Castlevania titles released on Nintendo DS and 3DS, which were all pretty alike, but I simply can’t get enough of that gameplay. Bloodstained is both an interesting promise for a game and a statement, as well: I’m in for supporting it just to spite Konami for their mishandling of Castlevania alone. But I also have great trust in Igarashi and his vision.

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. Very excited about this game.

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. Very excited about this game.

Another title I was positively stoked about was Pillars of Eternity by Obsidian. Being a big fan of both Obsidian and their games, participating in the crowdfunding project was a no-brainer for me. This is a case where it’s all about the game – it felt like it had been so long since a game like this. Of course, there was Dragon Age: Origins, which was a fantastic game, but this was still something different – more specifically, there’s something unique about the way Obsidian makes games. And I mean that with no disrespect to BioWare, they’re also wonderful, but Obsidian is in a league of their own.

Although Mega Man wasn’t exactly my favorite game growing up, I’m still beyond excited about Mighty No. 9, behind whom is Keiji Inafune, credited with (at least partly) creating Mega Man back in the day. The story behind this game is pretty similar to that of Bloodstained, in that Inafune had a falling out with Capcom similar to Igarashi had with Konami. Those stories are interesting in themselves, and in the best case scenario, they may result in great games we wouldn’t get otherwise.

Thank you for taking the time to read my blog! Next Sunday, I’ll be imagining a world without Nintendo.


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