One of the games I have the fondest memories with is Kingdom Hearts. It combines my love for Disney and Final Fantasy lore, has an exceptional balance of RPG elements in an action-adventure landscape, and ultimately is just a fun journey. Yet over the years I’ve found my dedication to the franchise waning. The amount of excitement I had for Kingdom Hearts III’s announcement wasn’t as immense as it would have been a few years ago. But it’s not me; the game industry’s model of exhausting a beloved series is responsible for my diminishing enthusiasm, and it needs to stop.
Success in the games medium is difficult. You can spend millions of dollars developing what you believe to be one the best games of the year, only to sell a few thousand copies and barely break even on production costs. Thus, when you do manage to make a smashing success, the logical step is to capitalize with sequels and spin-offs. Yet with this practice comes the harm of drastically diluting a series, slowly erasing what made the original so special.
The Downward Spiral
Kingdom Hearts was released in 2002, and in 2004 it was followed by the Game Boy Advance game Chain of Memories to serve as filler between the original and upcoming Kingdom Hearts II. It wasn’t required to play Chain of Memories to understand the narrative in the second game, but it did provide useful information behind the new enemies that take Ansem’s (the original antagonist’s) place.
Fast-forward the eight years it took to receive confirmation that Kingdom Hearts III is in development, and the playing field has changed: fans won’t be able to understand the complexity of the narrative without having played Birth by Sleep and Dream Drop Distance. Even Kingdom Hearts Coded, a game originally made for the Japanese mobile market now dubbed recoded and available on the DS (soon to be on PlayStation 3), is important to play to understand what’s happening.
A simple enough story in its infancy, Kingdom Hearts is a convoluted mess of clones, backstabbing, and time travel. A web made possible through the relentless development of games loosely related to the canon, to continue benefiting from the success of the KH name.
Square Enix isn’t the only guilty party: the Assassin’s Creed franchise is weaving a tale fans themselves are having trouble understanding. The concept of reliving an ancestor’s life through shared inherited memories was a brilliant way to combine the modern day with history’s greatest eras, and it’s one that Ubisoft Montreal continues to excel at. Yet, despite its engaging stealth mechanics and rich environments, what seems to have fallen by the way side is maintaining a clear story. I’m familiar with the accounts of the First Civilization and their connection to Desmond, but that took an immense amount of research outside just playing the games. Considering how long it can take to finish just one Assassin’s Creed game, it’s getting hard for players to focus on the overall plot. And when that story spans six games, with ten other games loosely linked, the challenge is massive.
When It Goes Beyond Video Game Sequels
Video game incarnations aren’t the only problems with this system. To sell more merchandise, often publishers decide to create comics, mangas, and novels that continue the lore of the game. Sometimes it works, like in the case of Portal and its “Lab Rat” comic.
However, if you look at the mangas created for the .hack franchise—a series that is complicated enough given the seven games it’s made out of—the books only make the narrative of the game more complex. Then there’s the multiple animes that’s attached to the name, which, although not necessary to understand what’s occurring in the games themselves, is still tied to the lore in some fashion.
Fans are the Losers in this Race
The case can be made that these instances don’t matter; only fans that want to dwell deeper into the mythology of the games actually need to invest in all these other iterations of the story. Yet, then you have cases like the one present in Assassin’s Creed, where if you skipped on playing the Assassin’s Creed Revelations: The Lost Archive DLC you don’t know that Lucy, a key character in Desmond’s journey up until Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, was a double agent working for the Templars. It explains why at the end of the game Juno takes control of Desmond’s body and stabs her!
Not playing the DLC, something that studies have found only about 6%-15% of users do, means missing vital information—all for the sake of expanding the series and more revenue. It’s setting a precedent that forces fans to play/read/watch everything related to the series if they want the full account.
Bigger, Badder, Worse
Game designers are also doing a disservice to themselves with sequels that demand to be bigger, badder and more impressive than the last iteration. Spectacle creep, a term related to the concept of power creep made popular by the series Extra Credits, is the practice of making everything more outlandish that the last for the sake of retaining the audience’s interest through shock and awe. It’s a trend we often see in Hollywood—Die Hard series anyone? —that’s slowly beginning to define what game sequels are supposed to look like.
The original God of War matches Kratos against a Hydra at the beginning, setting in place the adrenaline that embodies the rest of the game. By God of War III you start off fighting on the back of a Titan, slaying enemies as Gaia herself is climbing up a mountain to reach the gods. It’s adrenaline that builds up throughout the game, which is great… until you reach God of War: Ascension, a prequel in narrative terms but still the next piece in the GoW series. Ultimately, there’s just nowhere else to go. Now it’s all about battling on top of moving giants to give the illusion things are still bigger and badder, instead of creating challenging battles that embodied what fans loved of the series.
Resident Evil 6, the ninth game in the canon series (with an additional 10+ spinoff games), seems to have fallen victim to the same formula. Within ten minutes into Leon’s campaign there's a plane that narrowly misses crushing him while cars fall from the sky. The developers’ mindset seems to be more high-octane action than the last game equals more entertainment, even though Resident Evil is predominantly esteemed for its survival horror mechanics. In an attempt to stay relevant with modern games and to entice fans to stick with the series, Resident Evil 6 lost its focus, and the community was not pleased.
The Bleak Future
All these are examples of amazing game series that have lost their way, and are destined to continue falling victim to this trend or face a reboot to clean up the mess they’ve made. Fans are loyal, and we’ll see our favorite franchises through to the end, but it’ll likely to be a disheartening journey.
It’s naïve of me to think these sequel decisions are made lightly for the sake of profit, but then prove me wrong developers: Remember why fans love the originals in the first place, and let these franchises rest in peace so you can create other masterpieces we’re all sure to fall in love with too. Before it’s too late.
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