Some of the best video games of all-time have been sequels. It’s generally accepted that sequels are expected to be superior to their predecessors, due to the inherent interactivity of the medium, which allows for more improvements to be made with each new iteration. In fact, we’re generally disappointed when this turns out not to be the case. However, this runs counter to the majority of more story-focused forms of media, like literature, film and television. Outside of gaming, sequels are considered inferior to the originals as a rule, usually due to a ham-fisted attempt at shoehorning in an extension to a story that’s already met a satisfying conclusion. As time marches on, video games become more and more story oriented, which means that soon video game sequels will fall victim to the same exact issues sequels in other media suffer from. At the same time, the idea that each new installment will improve upon the original will likely always be relevant with regards to video games. So how can developers compromise between these two conflicting viewpoints?
As I said before, video game sequels, in general, improve upon the predecessors: refining existing mechanics and adding entirely new ones to create an improved experience. Despite the fact that many gamers bemoan the lack of original IPs, sales figures imply that sequels are much more popular. This is especially important for publishers, where even a single flop could spell disaster for all but the largest companies. The video game industry just isn’t as conducive to new intellectual properties as it once was… back when there weren’t any existing franchises.
Ironically, the games of old were always more suitable for sequels from a story perspective in the first place. Most games from the 8-bit, 16-bit and even many from the 32-bit eras of gaming had fairly simple storylines, akin to those of Saturday morning cartoons. I mean, just how many times did we rescue Princess Toadstool from Bowser or stop Dr. Wily’s plots for world domination? But as with so many other aspects of gaming, most modern games’ stories are much more complex, akin to more refined forms of media, specifically movies. Self-contained adventures with a concrete beginning, middle and end. For example, before a sequel was taken into consideration, the original Portal had a very decisive ending, where Chell (the main protagonist) simply escaped at the end. This was later modified with an additional scene via a patch just before the sequel had been announced. Less lucky in this regard was the original Bioshock, which had two fairly decisive endings, neither leaving much room for Bioshock 2, which itself had to play around with the first game’s canon by adding entirely new characters to the existing setting of Rapture. This attempt at retconing was met with much less enthusiasm compared to that of Portal 2.
Of course, other games tend to leave their endings open-ended. Sometimes, it’s because the creator wants to make an entire series as opposed to a single game. Other times, it’s just because the publisher wants to leave the option for a sequel open if the game ends up doing well. Unfortunately, when plans change or games bomb in terms of sales, the main victims are fans of these games. After all, MegaMan Volnutt is still rotting on the moon and loads of people are still waiting for the third installments of both Shenmue and Half-Life, even though most of us have given up hope. Reboots don’t generally fare much better, take a look at how well recieved DmC and Bomberman: Act Zero were.
So how do you reconcile the unique advantage that video games have always had with regards to sequels with the increasing disadvantages a greater emphasis on storylines modern games suffer from? Why, by making spiritual sequels of course! Spiritual sequels, while commonly associated with creators who have lost the rights to their IPs, could very easily allow for iterative sequels of old, without the worries of retcons and unresolved cliffhangers. As an added bonus, now all those whiners can get brand new shiny IPs with the added benefit of using a tried and true formula, allowing for a safer sell on the part of publishers and their investors, compared to an entirely original IP.
I can even think of a few good examples of some existing spiritual sequels that did fairly well. There’s the aforementioned Bioshock, which was actually a spiritual sequel to the System Shock games. The original Paper Mario was originally intended to be a direct sequel to Squaresoft’s Super Mario RPG. Same goes for both Vanillaware’s Odin Sphere and Muramasa: The Demon Blade, respectively codenamed Princess Crown 2 and 3 while in development. Compare Platinum Games’ MadWorld to Clover Studio’s God Hand or hell, Bayonetta and Devil May Cry. Blazblue and Guilty Gear. Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls. The point is, it’s been done and in many cases, it’s worked out quite well. There’s your proof of concept.
Of course, in many of these cases, the original games in question haven’t been all that popular to begin with. I mean, Princess Crown never even made it outside of Japan in the first place and God Hand was a colossal bomb in terms of sales. What if you tried a spiritual successor with something like Call of Duty, Madden or Grand Theft Auto? A lot of what makes megaton hits like those three sell as well as they do is brand-name recognition. As depressing as this may sound, there is an enormous customer base that only buys games in specific series (CoD and Madden being the most popular) and nothing else. While most gamers are aware that series like this are exceptionally rare, publishers and especially investors are not. And in these rare cases, spiritual sequels would be incredibly detrimental to the future of any devteams working on said games. Unfortunately, in these conservative times, many publishers hold that intellectual properties are much more important than refined gameplay and given the realities of the marketplace, they’re not exactly wrong.
Maybe there’s a possiblity for a compromise. You could do something along the lines of a spinoff or even a sequel in name only, sort of like what they did with Street Fighter 2010: The Final Fight (which was referred to simply as “2010” in Japan and had nothing to do with either Street Fighter or Final Fight) or Red Steel 2, which had nothing to do with the original. You could also make distinct references to the previous game through advertising. And of course, in cases where the game’s canon has come to a decisive end, nothing’s stopping you from doing a prequel elsewhere in the universe: Bioshock Infinite comes to mind almost instantly.
Regardless of what happens, this problem needs to be solved if the industry is going to “grow up” like so many producers are trying to do with the medium. Personally, I don’t believe that dropping one of the key strengths video games have over most other forms of media is a good way to evolve. At the same time, perhaps gaming should strive to deliver on more experiences than just fun, like some creators want the format to do. Regardless of what direction gaming takes in the future, it is important to discover a compromise between the advantages of improvement of game engines via iterative development and the potential for self-contained narratives in video games.