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.

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“… 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.

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“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.

I can’t see you.

The demo for F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin was released yesterday and though I enjoy it for a variety of reasons there’s one element that stands out, something I’d not expected.

Due to either a design decision or a bug (regardless of which, the fan reaction means it may well be changed) it’s impossible to play in fullscreen on a monitor with a 4:3 or 16:10 aspect ratio. The game is locked to 16:9 resulting in a letterbox effect on my monitor, with black bars taking up the top and bottom sixths of the screen. Curiously I never actually noticed this consciously until at least five minutes into the demo, and even then I never found it to be a significant problem, in fact the exact opposite.

This letterboxing together with the Metroid Prime style “on-visor” HUD combined to focus my attention into the centre of the screen and triggered a mild sense of claustrophobia; akin to wearing a full face helmet. In hindsight it seemed to act a lot like the vignetting effect Valve implemented in Left 4 Dead. Together these two sensations greatly increased the tension of the scripted horror sequences.

Corvus Elrod has spoken about the limitations of the first person perspective and how it is hardly a realistic representation of the way we see the world. I agree with his assessment, the current method used for first person cameras is inherently limited and unrealistic. However I see this a major part of its success and appeal. The restricted field of view makes for an increased level of tension.

It’s commonly accepted that what you don’t see is more frightening that what you do, and with such restricted vision there’s a lot you cannot see. This lack of information regarding what you are facing, and where it is in relation to you, can lead to an enjoyable unpleasant experience. It should come as no surprise that the game which popularised the first person perspective, Doom, is one often praised for its ability to provoke scares.

I’m surprised there are not more games that make use of the potential of the first person perspective to create compellingly tense or frightening experiences. Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth is one of the rare exceptions, it’s use of a limited first person perspective is responsible for one of the most memorably frightening moments I’ve had in any game. During an investigation of the Marsh Refinery in the town of Innsmouth I found myself being pursued and then directly chased by a Shoggoth. As it bore down on me, squeezing its bulk through the corridor I needed to keep moving forward, closing and bolting doors behind me in an attempt to slow it’s progress. Though I was fascinated by the concept of the Shoggoth and how it would be depicted in motion I never once turned around. If I had stopped to look I wouldn’t have been able to get away before it caught me; so I never stopped. I was compelling to keep moving forward.

In my head the descriptions I had read of the creature and the faint blurred glimpses I had caught of it earlier – when my wavering sanity permitted – caused me to form a horrific image of what was bare feet away, ready to devour me if I slowed for even a moment.

The very fact I couldn’t see what form the Shoggoth had taken and exactly how close it was meant I was constantly on edge. A greater freedom to manipulate the camera or a wider field of view would have lessened that tunnel vision like sense of focus and allowed the less horrific reality of the situation to disperse and release the vice like grip the game had on me for those moments.

Even outside of the horror genre the tension that can be evoked by restricting the camera is a powerful tool. I’ve talked before about how I feel Mirror’s Edge is at it’s best when you are being chased. A big part of that is the inherent restrictions of the first person camera. You cannot see what is chasing you and that leaves your imagination free to make up all sorts of terrible threats that may or may not be accurate. A third person camera for these sections might have served to make the navigation and jumping themselves easier but would also have increased the likelihood of catching a glimpse of your pursuers, taking away that sense of tension.

That very sense of not being fully informed about the threats that surround you is at the core of good horror games. The shape in the shadows you can’t quite make out, that sound of undeterminable source; tension, suspense, fear, rely on not having complete information.

Knowledge is power and only when we are powerless can we feel truly frightened or horrified.