On The Backs Of Giants

Sean Sands | 22 Feb 2008 17:00
Op-Ed - RSS 2.0

It is - and has been for some time - rather in vogue to criticize sequels, dismissing them most often as the product of lazy developers trying to cash in on established properties. This assumption has, of course, been proven correct at times, with some popular gaming cash-cows ruthlessly milked until the desiccated husks are left to rot in bargain bins or on the used games wall (though perhaps not as often as is often implied). Considering the recent GDC coverage of Gears of War 2, Resistance 2 and Fable 2, clearly the industry's fascination with sequels is as healthy as ever. From Half-Life 2 and its pseudo-episodic extensions to the fourth iterations of both Call of Duty and Civilization, it seems that the bulk of executable files that populate my desktop contain some number between 2 and 5. A fact, as it turns out, that doesn't particularly trouble me.

Among the pile of dirty secrets that I keep locked away in places to which there are few keys, is the fact that I love sequels. Occasionally they disappoint me, just as any game holds the potential to disappoint, but by and large they constitute some of my most anticipated and loved games. Being able to slip into a familiar environment with instantly recognizable rules and mores is like relaxing into a warm bath. I am here today to sing the praises of the sequel.

I understand that sequels in the gaming industry represent to many people a lack of creativity, a void of innovation and the worst kind of lazy development, but to work from such negative assumptions is to miss the power of storytelling and world-building that videogames provide, not to mention the practical advantages of working with a head start. Launching from a framework where game developers already have the foundation and mechanics phase out of the way - where the world is a known quantity rather than rebuilding the wheel - doesn't necessarily mean that development of a given game will just be the application of a layer of varnish. I've played too many fantastic sequels from Quake 3 to Half-Life 2; Master of Orion 2 to Ultima VII, to be nearly so dismissive of the creative power that can be infused into these games.

When it comes right down to it, sequels are the blood of the gaming industry. They fuel the business so that it can - and is encouraged to - create new intellectual properties, to which it can then go on to build all new sequels. The success of Halo 3, which itself is an adequate enough exercise, is the foundation of inspiration from which developers will try to find the Halo killer, and the argument that can be convincingly made to publishers that there's the kind of money in the prospect we normally associate with Columbian drug cartels or your average MLB contract.

But that's not really a good defense of sequels, so much as a good defense for why someone might green-light yet another Turok or Splinter Cell game. Halo 3 might not even be a very good example of why I actually like sequels, as much as a good example of why they sell. The best defense for the quality of a good sequel comes from the games that take the opportunity to refine and improve on an established experience, which, in my mind, was not most recently typified by Microsoft's behemoth franchise, but rather Activision's Call of Duty 4. Where neither game strayed far from the foundation of play established in their previous versions, COD4 managed to infuse its familiar tropes with fresh ideas in all the right places to take the tools of success and create a new experience.

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