Sticking a big fat “2” onto the end of a title changes the way that we think about a game. Unlike other narrative based mediums, there’s an important distinction a critic needs to deal with when it comes to sequels. It is more, or is it another?
When we talk about “more” of something, we mean iteration. We mean that after seven Assassin’s Creed games, that core gameplay is silky-smooth. We mean that every generation there is a new Mario Kart game, and it’s usually beloved because it’s more Mario Kart — and if you liked the last one, you’re probably still gonna like this one. Iteration is how we end up with polished articles: a good piece of theatre is usually rehearsed until the bitter end, strong movies tend to start out as sketches on a storyboard that slowly transform into a fully realized film, and games, well, games find their mechanics honed through countless hours of fine-tuning. Locking down that elusive ‘feel’ is a long, long process.
You hear it all the time: if you liked the last game in ‘x’ series, this is more of the same, but better. On the flip side, lots of sequels end up with the disparaging, “ehh, it’s just more of the same” criticism, and these games —the games that leave us wondering where the magic went— are a significant part of why we meet sequels with such skepticism. It’s easy enough to understand that only so much will have changed in an annual sports game —after all it still has to be the sport— but when we start having to wrap our heads around a second Bioshock game set in Rapture, or four individual Super Mario Bros. games that are mostly the same, that is when sequels start lose their appeal.
And the reason is simple: sometimes we don’t want more, sometimes we want another. There are lots and lots of sequels that don’t feel like iterations of their predecessors, even if technologically speaking they very well might be. Say what you will about Metal Gear Solid, but none of those games feel like canned sequels. They are games that succeed at creating fresh takes on a familiar framework; none of them are finely tuned versions of the game that came before them, they are all very much their own. I’d say a big part of the reason why Final Fantasy six through ten are so popular is their ability to channel the themes of the series into new scenarios and gameplay opportunities. The moment that the franchises’ owners began to assume those themes were by themselves made the series special, was the same time that most people lost interest.
So I need to address the fact that reducing art into category A and category B is almost always a bad thing. I want it to be clear that by virtue of being a collaborative effort, any and all games will exhibit unique and distinct qualities. I’m also not here to argue about semantics; ‘more’ and ‘another’ are just meant as placeholders for a bigger discussion that should be happening between enthusiasts and critics alike. What the distinction does illustrate is that the virtues of a sequel are not the same in all cases and that time doesn’t dictate how ‘fresh’ a successor feels.
So let’s unpack that a bit.
Time is not part of the equation. Something that is “more of the same” won’t suddenly feel brand new just because we have to wait for it. As consumers we don’t forget that, for all intents and purposes, Mario Kart has gone mostly unaltered for almost 20 years and 8 iterations. We aren’t bothered by the similarities, we anticipate them, which leaves us feeling nostalgic, but uninspired. In fact, I’d argue that a game firmly routed in its own traditions can seem doubly stale if we’re forced to wait for it. That Twilight Princess (2006) is so unapologetically similar to Ocarina of Time (1998) is jarring, whereas the similarities between Portal (2007) and Portal 2 (2011) are largely endearing. Both of these are examples of sequels who strive to recreate the magic of their predecessors, only Zelda attempts to do it by emulating its forerunner, whereas Portal does so by trying to find new ways to stir the same emotions. And to be absolutely fair, the criticisms I’ve heard of Portal 2 are specifically of the moments that lean too heavily on the first game.
On the flip side, a series like Assassin’s Creed with annual iterations can be tired one year, and inspired the next, by leveraging what’s been built into something that is distinct from the game before it. Again, the similarities don’t bother us, what bothers us is that from one year to the next a series can change from something innovative, into a sequel that feels rote. As a player looking forward to a new entry in a franchise you want to be stimulated the same ways a second time, which cannot happen if a game is mimicking design we’ve already seen. If a series is built on imagination, it needs to be just as imaginative its second time around; if a sequel can’t deliver just as much creativity in its second outing, it will feel like a let down.
This is the dichotomy of AAA development; games thrive through iteration, but its impossible to be surprised by the same thing twice — even if we want to be. In some ways what we’re left with is a branding problem, and in others its a development one. There are cases like Mario Galaxy (2007) to Mario Galaxy 2 (2010), where we see a team left with tons of inspiration wanting to strive for excellence being cut short by virtue of its title, and others games like Call of Duty, whose DLC ends up feeling like a short-term purchase because it doesn’t transfer from one title to the next. There is no one solution, because there is no one problem.
With sequels being such a ubiquitous idea in the industry, we have to pay attention to what kinds of sequels are being made. It’s easy to be swayed —or dissuaded— by what you might think a sequel is. Feel free to disagree with me, since obviously I believe in the value of the critic, but I’m of the mind that this discussion falls heavily at the feet of reviewers and critical thinkers alike to elevate the discussion of the sequel. Are they being made to best capture the succession of a series, or to create more of the same, and then more importantly is it a good or bad decision for the franchise. There is no one way to make a sequel, but paying attention to what makes a series tick is an important part of establishing what makes a sequel worthwhile.