No, this post isn’t specifically about discussing ‘bad sequels’ in the traditional sense. I thought I’d better say that right off-the-bat before a legion of Kingdom Hearts fans come knocking at my door…
I read a rather passioned comment this week in response to someone who had accused Kingdom Hearts 3 of being a bad sequel if it required playing the previous two games to understand the narrative. Admittedly, it was a fairly shallow, and some might say ‘trollesque’ viewpoint but it touched on a topic that I’d had been thinking about.
In the buildup to the release of KH3, the hype was reaching fever-pitch. I’ve never played any of the Kingdom Hearts games. If I’m honest, the weird JRPG / Disney crossover just never appealed, but even I couldn’t deny the air of expectation. It was impossible to ignore. After all, the fans “had been waiting for ten years” (as I’ve read numerous times).
It could be argued that our online antagonist (let’s call them Boris, after the friendly troll found in The Witcher 3), who bravely threw his controversial opinion into this firepit of fandom, was simply venting a little discontent. Boris may well have found himself swept along by the Kingdom Hearts hype-train and wanted to be onboard, but was instead told that their ticket was for the less direct route which unfortunately was much longer, less scenic,and involved a couple of changes.
We need to remember that in most cases games, unlike movies, are a huge commitment in terms of time. To add some context, the third John Wick movie is scheduled for release later this year. I’d quite like to watch it, despite the fact I haven’t yet seen the first two movies. The reason being, I know I can be up to speed in less than four hours. Boris thinks that Kingdom Hearts 3 is a bad sequel because he has been told to commit 60+ hours in order to complete the first two games, before being able to enjoy the bells & whistles of the third. I can kinda see his point.
Of course, older games can be given an HD makeover making them relevant again not only on the current generation of consoles, but to the current generation of gamers. It’s a neat idea that gifts us the opportunity to catch up and be part of the conversation. They give someone like myself the option of experiencing classics like Shadow of the Colossus, that I may have missed. However, video game franchises tend to improve in many other areas aside from visuals. If I want to jump onboard a franchise, do I really need to endure the aged gameplay mechanics of previous titles to ‘have the right’ to be part of the current conversation?
A friend recently lent me his copies of Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor and Middle-Earth: Shadow of War. A Tolkien-inspired gaming twosome that I had heard many great things about. I could recall positive reviews of both games, but also knew that there was a couple of years separating them. As I glanced over both titles I knew I was probably looking at 40-60 hours’ worth of play-through, but I took the advice. The same advice that Boris had been given… “start at the beginning”.
There were aspects of the game that I loved, and they were the same positives that I remembered reading about when the game was released. But the game was showing its age and after several hours it was difficult to maintain enthusiasm. In the years since Mordor‘s 2014 release, it had obviously been bettered by other games in every area. I lost interest and moved on, and not to the Shadow of War sequel.
There have been instances where I’ve jumped into the latest game in a franchise without experiencing its predecessors, and felt my experience was completely unaffected. Persona 5 and The Witcher 3 are two great examples. In both cases, I felt the games explained enough about the world, characters and tone of the game early on that I didn’t feel like I’d started reading a book from the halfway point. I don’t think sequels should ever make you feel like this, but it’s understandably a difficult tightrope to walk; to strengthen and progress the narrative for your existing fanbase, whilst initiating a ‘soft reset’ to welcome new gamers into the fold.
There are other examples however, where I’ve felt as though my experience has been worsened, sometimes significantly, by not being ‘part of it from Day One’. Mass Effect 2 on the PS4 was the the first game of the trilogy to be released on the Playstation platform, with ME1 being bound by exclusivity agreements. The Mass Effect franchise is famous for having story arcs based on your decisions that could continue from one game to the next. As such, Bioware implemented an ‘intro sequence’ as part of the PS4 version of ME2, that essentially gave us a short-hand summary of the first game whilst inviting us to make the few key decisions that would affect our experience going forward. A commendable addition but how am I supposed to make such important decisions that would define the major keystones of my future story based on such little information? For me, it was an understandable, but flawed mechanic that only succeeded in highlighting how much I’d missed.
I remember diving into the complex themes of the Metal Gear franchise with MGS4 on my (at the time) recently-bought PS3. I’d never owned a console pre-‘generation seven’ and was excited to finally jump onboard the bandwagon. Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots was largely described as a perfect game. In fact, there was so much critical acclaim piled onto this release, it was downright impossible to ignore. I must have enjoyed the game – I completed it, but all I can really remember today is the RIDICULOUSLY long cutscenes… that for the most part, I didn’t understand.
I’ve recently posted concerns about the future of the gaming industry due to its over-reliance on existing IP. Realistically, I don’t really believe we are heading to a dystopian future where all that exists in our gaming libraries are hundreds of iterations of the same few franchises. A future where creativity, originality and freedom of expression is strictly filtered through a combination of corporate shareholder meetings and government legislation. A future where the gaming public has been indoctrinated to want only what it is familiar with, or perhaps only what the highest paid influencer is ‘familiar with’.
Nope. I don’t really believe that. But I digress…
I do believe that games should remain inclusive. Should it really be necessary to play every title in a franchise before experiencing the latest release? Well, I guess we’ve firmly established that ‘it depends’, but I think it makes most sense for gamers new to a franchise to be ‘welcomed’, both by developers and the existing fanbase. The most successful, the ones that have stood the test of time, are the ones that don’t necessarily rely on a continuing narrative thread across releases. The Elder Scrolls, Final Fantasy, GTA… some of the most successful gaming franchises of all time are heavily dependent on story-telling and yet tend to reset with every major release. Fans know exactly what to expect, and yet at the same time, every new release is a surprise.
So let’s cut Boris some slack, as I would argue that he was asking a legitimate question. Every franchise is different, and it’s almost impossible to really know without asking if we can jump onboard with the latest release or otherwise, where the ideal ‘starting point is’. I would make this argument; marketing, social media and hype play a massive part in the ongoing sustainability of a franchise due to a large portion of sales figures coming from gamers buying due to the ‘Fear Of Missing Out’.
Stop being scared. Don’t invest your time into a franchise that you aren’t invested in, and don’t think you have to catch up to be part of the conversation. If you aren’t, and haven’t been part of a franchise… don’t worry! You don’t need to be! Specifically to our friend Boris; firstly thank you for being the inspiration for this post. More importantly, it’s 2019 and we are still in the fortunate position of being able to enjoy a huge range of brand new and varied IP that you can be part of from it’s inception. Original games that don’t require a 60+ hour down-payment to enjoy, and can offer a unique experience.,
It may not always be that way.