Sequels: Continuing the Story.

Sequels focused on continuing a story started in the original can be uniquely challenging. Freed of the need to introduce world and characters the focus shifts to expanding the world, and a deeper exploration of the central themes. Providing a bigger context, a broader canvas, on which to explore the escalating consequences of the actions of the characters.

In The Godfather Part II we see Michael Corleone attempting to expand the operations of the family, while dealing with the choices made previously by himself and his father Vito. The continuing themes of family and respect are weaved throughout along with several references both direct and metaphorical to events from the first film; the final scenes strongly echoing the ending of the original in both tone and content.

“… if history has taught us anything, it is that you can kill anyone.”

The goal of such a sequel is one of expansion and escalation, the problems are larger, the stakes higher; to put it another way everything is “Bigger, Better, More Badass”.

This is seen in numerous game sequels, players are provided with larger locations to visit, more powerful tools to wield, and tougher challenges to face. The problems are bigger and so are the solutions.

In Half-Life the initial goal is to escape the Black Mesa Research Facility, there are detours, and the eventual goal becomes something greater but the story is essentially confined to Black Mesa. Escape from the facility comes only at the conclusion. From the very first moments of Half-Life 2 it’s explicitly clear that you will no longer be restricted to the confines of Black Mesa, the world has expanded and you are no longer solely concerned with self-preservation.

The Half-Life series also serves to highlight an inherent character development problem with game sequels. By the conclusion of the original game the player character will have faced and surmounted numerous challenges, often learning new skills and acquired tools and weapons along the way. They end the game a more competent more powerful character than they began it. In order to repeat this sense of character development and progression in the sequel players will be stripped of their acquired skills and abilities. Just how many times does Gordon Freeman have to lose his weapons, just so that they can be carefully portioned back out?

What purpose is served by developing a character when they are fated to lose all progression the next time they appear? Would audiences have accepted The Godfather Part 2 if Michael Corleone was no longer the Don but had to earn that position all over again?

One way to mitigate this is to treat sequels in an episodic fashion with only the most basic of story elements carried forward into each subsequent title. The Tomb Raider games use this approach, until their recent revival, each title was a self contained story with only the barest links to the previous games. Such an approach allows for recurring characters and themes to provide a sense of continuity, while not requiring an extensive knowledge of the back story that might be off putting to new players.

Some sequels sidestep the issue by developing the story around a different protagonist. While avoiding the previous problems such games still need to spent time reestablishing the rules and underlying context for the world. Attempts are often made to tie the actions of the new protagonist to those of their predecessor, such as in Fallout 2. In these cases the overarching storyline is not so much that of either protagonist but the world itself.

“My ancestor could beat up your ancestor.”

An interesting twist on this is the approach taken by System Shock 2, and more recently F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin, that of a new protagonist but a returning antagonist. Set some forty two years after the events on Citadel Station System Shock 2 features a new blank slate avatar who once again has to deal with the machinations of SHODAN. The story of System Shock is not really the story of the player at all, it is her story. This bring us back to a variation on the original problem; does SHODAN’s reappearance in System Shock 2 serve to invalidate the actions of the mysterious hacker, the player character of the original System Shock? The SHODAN found on Tau Ceti V only exists because of your actions in the original game but doesn’t her very survival call into question the value of your original success?

The beginning of Alien 3 changes the entire tenor of the final sequences of Aliens, as going back and watching it again we know that some of those characters are destined to die. Is the assumption that players are unlikely to revisit the original game so anything is fair, even turning what was once a  success into a failure?

The structure of games based on progression from a state of powerlessness to a state of empowerment seems at odds with the desire to continue a story arc; any progression in the first game is immediately negated for the start of the sequel in order for the cycle to begin anew.

3 thoughts on “Sequels: Continuing the Story.

  1. It’s true that Gordon Freeman has no specific abilities, he was merely an example (And I concede a poor one). I used him because each of the Half-Life 2 Episodes which are supposed to carry on directly from the previous games has manufactured a beginning in which his is stripped of all his weapons.

    A better example would be the Metroid Prime game where even though the entire structure is built around regaining lost power Samus rarely keeps the same tools or abilities between games. Why exactly does she no longer have X-Ray or Thermal vision at the start of Metroid Prime 2: Echoes? Or Agent 47 in the Hitman games, by the end of each game you will have earned or acquired a small arsenal of weapons only to start the next game with the standard handguns, garrotte wire and little else. Or the Prince of Persia games where the various abilities associated with the Sands of Time are stripped from the player at the start of each game only to be earned again.

    A worse example would be almost any Real Time Strategy game where skills and abilities are not lost at the end of the game but at the end of each discrete mission.

    I accept you point about the “negation” of Michael Corleone’s position I would counter by saying that he is still in a significantly more powerful position than he was at the start of The Godfather. This time around the story is not concerned with the struggle to obtain his position so much as his fight to retain it. I’ve seen few games that deal with this aspect of character or plot development, when was the last time a game asked you to fight to protect a situation you were responsible for in a previous game?

  2. Games have something that films do not – the expansion pack. Like the sequel, these also continue the story, but usually pick up where the original game left off in terms of difficulty.

    And I just can’t get agree with your thoughts on HL2. How are players stripped of their skills or abilities? Gordon has no skills. All skills the player develops through playing HL1 remain with them when they begin HL2. And the NPCs even react to this, acknowledging how skillfull and legendary Gordon is. It’s not a blank slate, he doesn’t need to prove himself to them again, they “remember” from the previous game. Ok, his weapons and HEV suit are gone and need to be recovered, but he was in some kind of extra-dimensional limbo! It makes perfect sense for him to arrive in City 17 with nothing.

    Would anyone have accepted The Godfather Part 2 if it began with Michael just as secure and powerful as he was at the end of the first film, all his enemies dead? No, it begins with an assassination attempt. Everything he accomplished in the first film was ‘negated’ because his life and power he obtained is still in danger of being lost. I don’t see how this is any different from Gordon Freeman having to face new challenges in a new story.

  3. I would like to suggest that, just because you are stripped of the things that you feel make the character what it is. And it might be true that they fail to make you protect what you fought for in the game before it. We must note that the lost is normally nothing more then arm or guns in most of the cases you make. And if you look at the way most movies try and explain the existence of guns are of great numbers, through out the world that many hero’s toss there weapons as soon as they run out of ammo. Now if this was to hold try in all games it would be come clear it’s an issue. But at the same time most games often change character development between games to allow for character, and game growth to take the best of the worse if there was issues and extend it.

    I would not go so far as to suggest that any real harm befalls the story or the game for them removing the things that you feel make a first person shooter game have development if you take into count things like. The Cake is a Lie, one might suggest that what you thought you had you will lose and if you expect to get Cake chances are you will not have it. This reference in itself is that of a game, I would also go forward to suggest that just because you have your cake and it’s frosted and it’s top of the line. What are you to do when more content comes? Your to strong have to many weapons. So they have to make harder enemies or they have to scale it down to the growth of a FPS. Now explaining away equipment with things like a plane crash or black hole craps you out of it’s cosmic asshole. These things might be hollow plot devices but it only shows the developers do not have people to notice and or suggest better results and this is a flaw of development.

    Sure if at the end of the first Half life you see Gordon Freeman swear off combat or conflicted to live a free life only to be pulled back into it in the next game. The explanation of the reason he does not have the suit or the weapons is as simply as suggesting it’s because he got rid of them himself to help hide who he is and travel light and better with in the restrictions of the government with in the game. So the fact it’s down to plot devices and how they execute them between movies or games.

    It is a fact that lately in many resources or products they have gone back to make smaller animated video’s to help link references between movies together. This is true of things like the Dark Knight and the other Batman movie its suggested that the animated resources of or cartoons may at some point have some impact of reference to the behavior of the current movie batman. But then again the Batman and many comic characters have changed and shifted with time far better then most movie or video game characters.

    One of the worse plot devices I know of would have to be the nano aging acceleration of snake from Metal Gear Solid. I personally feel that placing a man who is physically that old no matter what is personal or ability recorders suggest is just asking for trouble. I honestly think they should have just cloned him and some how fixed the aging issue after the fact or whatever it was they did but the fact is it is a huge plot hole if you ask me. And sure I heard the most reason game filled in a lot of plot holes from the last games in a way that made it best game of the year on the ps3 that year or at least some claim.

    But I would like to point out things like, The Riddic games and movies. The fact is the games detail things he said in the movie, and there was a cartoon released with the movie pack to fill in the blanks between the movies. To help make the point, in the end most things come down simply to the idea’s of the people involved and someone making the point this does not make sense lets fix that.

    Honestly I feel Gordon Freeman getting rid of the suit and the weapons each time, is a move for him to travel more evenly with in the environment without being called out for what he is wearing or holding. And many games take place in a theme world that is based around the original idea’s of the first final Fantasy with story flow and development a lot like it.

    And even Squresoft develops games over and over changing themes game play and god knows what else trying to find the next innervation to stay on top. I also feel things like anime, often do good job of filling in the blanks or informing viewers of other idea’s with filler so long it’s not like Dragonballz filler. The problem is Filler often take as not being of original idea or concepts even thou the comic writers often help make the filler. So it leaves me wondering why the judgments we make one way or the other. Often conflicted with one and other when we could all just agree a good game is a good game. And the flaws we should be calling out are the things that really don’t make sense not the design or quality of the product presented. That is to say a FPS is bound to disarm and take things from you, it’s the nature of the game.

    Mass Effect 2 suggestions the main character is so damaged after attack on the ship that he has to be regenerated with assistance from machines. Nano’s but this would help to explain why he has forgotten or undergone changes of appearance and lost gear since in this case gear would not be rescued from space. From the last adventure, but that is also not to suggest that you might not one day find the remains of your old locker on a far away planet or something. We honestly have no idea, and that makes it interesting. But damage inflicted in combat makes or explains why the character is the way he is now. So I thank Bioware for at least making an intelligent movement even if they are using EA to release there games!

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