Talking about Games: The Sequel Paradox

Words: 1687 Approximate Reading Time: 10-15 minutes

I’ve been playing a lot of God of War: Ragnarok lately. I recently managed to finish it completely – both the main story and the exploration. I can safely say that I definitely enjoyed the experience.

This essay isn’t about God of War: Ragnarok. But it is about sequels.

Sequels are a rather common element of media, especially in the modern era. It is hard to avoid memes and discussion about how various film or video game franchises have dragged on and on. Final Fantasy getting ready to hit its sixteenth entry (and that’s only counting the main titles). The Fast and the Furious films getting ready for their tenth entry. Sequels to old television shows or films or games that we’d thought long dead. The sequel is by no means a new phenomenon, but it can often feel like we are drowning in them.

A lot of the focus on sequels is economic. If a particular piece of media is successful, then investing in a sequel feels like a safe bet. This may be true for the creator(s), but also from the standpoint of any corporations that may need to put money into making that piece of media into a reality. The fact that so much money is poured into the biggest productions means that failure is, to some extent, not an option. So going with a product that was successful before helps to deal with some of the uncertainty.

But the point here is not to talk about why sequels are prevalent. I’ve written before on how we can get a host of problems when we take a game that was meant to be “complete” and then try to force a sequel out of it.

For this essay, though, I want to focus on what we as players demand out of sequels. And through that lens examine that tightrope that developers are forced to walk when they embark on creating a sequel.

What Do We Want?

Let us start with the initial problem.

A game comes out that is well-liked. Players develop a first-time impression of the game that excites them, gives them the feeling that they want even more. But of course now that the game is finished, they can’t get “more.” They can play the game again, but that results in just shadow of their first time through: the surprises are no longer surprising, the twists are already known, etc. The game can still be fun, but it’s not going to be fun in the same way.

But then a sequel is announced. And thus there is cause for new excitement. Because this sequel does promise another first-time experience. You can recapture that feeling again.

Only therein lies the problem: in our play, we are not engaging with the sequel on its own terms, but in the context of its predecessors. We are specifically trying to capture the feeling that the earlier games gave us. It is a demand that the sequel struggles to live up to. Perhaps in a sense no sequel can ever live up to that expectation, but at best try to shift our expectation enough to distract us.

So let us ask “what do we want out of a sequel?”

To which the answer is mixed. Surely a lot of the mixture is from different groups of people desiring different things, but we should not ignore the very real possibility that at least some people want two mutually exclusive elements without realizing it.

The first thing that people want is something familiar. We could almost call it more of the same. Because once things change, we realize we can’t get that same feeling back. And our point of comparison for the sequel isn’t some objective baseline, but that very particular excitement we felt when we finished the first game. So the sequel is necessarily held up in that light, and measured by how well it allows us to feel the same way. Do its narrative twists surprise us in the same way? Does the combat feel just as good as it did before? Does exploring still feel rewarding? And so on, and so on. Once you start adding in new elements, you mess up the calculations.

The second thing people want is something different. Something that adds on to the game. A bigger world. More options. Longer playtime. A wider array of weapons and spells. And so on and so on. Because with prior experience comes familiarity. We already know what to expect, and that gets factored into our perception. We don’t start out fresh, and so the game can’t treat us like this is our first game. And when the game starts to throw ideas and encounters and items and levels at us that feel familiar, we don’t get excited in the same way. We’ve seen that before. What else do you have to show us?

Hopefully it is clear that these two demands are paradoxical in their nature. You can see the same formulation across other discussions about what makes a good sequel. Often you see the rule that you need to lean in to new stuff – not simply repeat what was done before – but at the same time you can also see how much emphasis is placed on working within the rules established by what came before. Even when making something new, the old work casts its shadow over the product.

So what does this paradox mean?

When we play a sequel, especially if we are disappointed by it, we can come up with any number of criticisms. But many of those criticisms are going to boil down to how the sequel is not what we expected.

Which raises an important question: what is it that we really expect?

It seems like such a simple question. Surely we know what we personally expect from a game, right? But here the problem is that a lot of what we say when we talk about a game may not be what’s going on in our heads. For example, we may be experiencing a visceral dislike of a sequel because it doesn’t astound us in the way the original did. And yet, if we reflected on that fact, we’d realize that it would be just about impossible for the sequel to accomplish that task. After all, we can’t be surprised by something that we’re expecting – and surprise is one of the key factors that contributes to our enjoyment of a new game. But this visceral dislike may not feel “objective,” or it may not even be something we are conscious of. But we don’t like the game, and we need to say something, so we criticize aspects of the sequel and explain how they “aren’t as good” as their counterparts in the preceding game.

I bring this all up because it can often feel like a lot of dissatisfaction with sequels boils down not to actual problems with the sequel as a game, but with the sequel as a follow-up to its predecessor. And even then, not because it’s a bad sequel in its own right, but because the player has concocted some utterly fantastic and impossible dream game that could never exist.

And managing that expectation is our responsibility.[1]

So when analyzing a sequel, it is important for us to ask ourselves “what is it that I was expecting?” Was I expecting a game that would give me the same feeling of surprise and excitement that the first game did – that shocked me because of its uniqueness and ingenuity? If so…I have basically set the sequel up to fail. It cannot meet that expectation, because the sequel can never shock me in the way its predecessor did. Because its predecessor exists. I have a new awareness and context in which I examine the sequel, and the sequel necessarily suffers from that.

Am I expecting the sequel to simply be a repetition of the previous game in a new setting with a new narrative? If so, then I set up the sequel for failure, but from a different direction. Because then I demand that the game become dull. With no opportunity for innovation, not only do I likely drive away others who might help a franchise grow and thrive, but I likely create the seed for my own disappointment.

Ultimately, sequels can still be bad. They can be bad in a variety of ways. Sequels are still deserving of scrutiny and criticism like any other piece of media.

But before in engaging with criticism, we need to stop and process our own ideas carefully. This rule is true in all circumstances. But when it comes to sequels, we are adding another layer of complexity. And so it is necessary to peel back that layer and examine what lies underneath.

Concluding Remarks

I’ve always been interested in criticism because it is a tool we use for taking an initially emotional reaction and turning it into a more rational reaction. We transform our visceral dislike for a game or story or mechanic into a broader principle that might be used as a guide for the future.

But the trouble with this tool – like any tool – is that it can be misused. And misuse is easy, because the root of criticism is emotional. As much as we may try to make our criticisms feel true and objective, we don’t always get to escape the biases that plague us. Sometimes the things we end up saying aren’t rational critiques, but rationalizations.

And when it comes to sequels, the pitfalls seem to only multiply. Because I believe criticism has value both on a personal level and a social level, I want there to be good criticism. I want everyone to build the muscles for being a good critic. But being a good critic requires being aware of our limitations and working to overcome them.

[1] There are some exceptions to this rule. Sometimes a developer can overhype a sequel just like it can any other game. It can promise things it couldn’t possibly deliver. In these cases the developer bears the majority share of the blame.

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