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The Promise of Yesterday: The Prequel-Sequel Paradox

by on November 5, 2013

By Terry Randolph

*Warning: Mild spoilers below for several games below.

One of the finest examples of a successful prequel.

Whenever a prequel is announced for a series that recently ended, I cringe. Mostly it’s because these games come towards the tail-end of the franchise or at its conclusion, and feels unnecessary in the scope of things. I get it, the promises and potential prequels can bring are alluring to any developer; it’s a chance to give players a fresh take on an iconic characters gamers have grown to admire. This is a chance to tell their backstory and give insight into the trials and tribulations the characters faced to shape them into whom we know. This can be explored in any way because a prequel is a clean slate writers can work with. There’s plenty of creative freedom on exploring the backstory of any video game character.  On paper, the potential is seductively enticing because it could be the very breathe of life for a franchise on its last legs. These games are meant to be driven by the story and characters, not necessarily gameplay.

As a writer, the idea and potential intrigues me because I love seeing how studios have developed their characters. It’s always interesting to see the mythos expanded and worlds fleshed out that not only connect the dots between other stories, but provide a unique solid entry too. It’s also fun to watch a character grow into who they were. Most of all, I am a sucker for games that are more focused on providing an excellent story with contextually-based gameplay than a game all about gameplay.

However, we also have to be honest about the underlying reason behind prequels. The creation of a prequel is a great way to make a short term profit for studios; developers can exploit the equity a title has established to sell the games. Through extensive marketing, hype-inducing previews and word-of-mouth, these games might be bought more because of the title than the actual product.  The other flipside of this is that prequels offer games that studios bought believing it would sell before can give it a second chance to prove it was a valuable investment. Overall, it’s a brilliant strategy to make a quick profit while also trying to keep gamers’ “happily content” until the next iteration.

Another prequel that, from what I’ve read, is a solid entry into its franchise

Yet, oftentimes they tend to fall short of the promises they make because it seems to be more about quantity over quality; making more games = more money = more fans. It’s the cruelty of the double-edged sword of these creative endeavors; oftentimes they’re either rushed out or don’t utilize the chance to its fullest potential. Combat often feels like a carbon copy of its previous iterations even though it’s supposed to be different. Or, the story itself may very well explain the events that lead into the previous iterations, but does nothing to develop the character more. The stories become heavily saturated with major antagonists, or rely too much on various forms of source material to make a convoluted plot. Overall, it’s the execution of the presentation that keeps prequels from delivering on the promises they make.

The other problem is something that will always remain a constant that developers have to learn to overcome; if sequels are meant to push forward, how do you justify taking a step back into the past?  If gameplay is meant to improve with each sequel, how do you do so while jumping back into a time where the character is meant to be inexperienced?

Over the last few years, gaming has seen its fair share of prequels to some of the more iconic video game characters; The Legend of Zelda, God of War, Deus Ex, Halo, and recently Batman. All of these games have made the promises many others have made as a prequel; give us a character and story driven experience to flesh out the world and main character of the franchise. They promise to provide an experience that is both familiar and new that can be a jumping point for newcomers and not alienate long-time fans.  It’s a delicate line that studios have to learn how to balance on.

Oftentimes, the results are a mixed bag; dialogue, exposition and physical features make sure to emphasize that you really are in the past, but the gameplay, aesthetic and character development fall flat.  Essentially, the games fail to execute justifying the need to jump back in time to tell a story that serves nothing for the characters involved.  The main example for me, and because it is the most recent too, is Batman: Arkham Origins. Batman: Arkham Origins tries to tell a story of Bruce Wayne coming to grips with his identity as Batman, establish the relationship between Gordon and Batman, and provide reason why all of the infamous villains want his head. The story is an interesting set up; a lesser-known villain named Black Mask has put a bounty of $50,000,000 for one night only on Batman’s head. The player, as Batman, must take down the Black Mask and the 12 assassins before Gotham gets destroyed.  This is the night that will shape Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, while also having Batman coming to grips with his own humanity.

Arkham City or Arkham Origins? Take a guess

While the story sounds promising, it actually exacerbates the roadblocks prequels face along the way. The story feels bloated in its delivery because of how short the campaign for the game is. Also, logistically speaking it how can Batman face off against 12 assassins in twelve hours? Hardly any of the characters are given an active role in affecting Batman and instead serve more as plot fillers to push the story forward. Even the most notable of antagonists who seem to have the potential for the most impact are often relegated to being side quests or one-fight wonders. Only two characters seem to have any impact on him, and even they create little to no development.  This is not even looking at the many loose ends and questions left behind; how did this one night’s events affect Gotham city? Why would so many minions and goons be sprawled across the city waiting around?

The combat in the game is also problematic because it improves on its predecessors while also taking a step back. New enemy variants are introduced in order to keep the gameplay fresh, but don’t make sense because of having never appeared in the other iterations that take place after the game. The minions I talked about? They’re always around to beat up and to gain points to upgrade Batman. They do little-to-nothing else to justify their existence in the game. Combat feels faster and fluid, but is less accurate and receptive to the button commands being pressed. Not to mention, the combat feels exactly like Arkham City’s and feels like a shortcut in development. It’s even funnier when you realize that have of the world is copy+pasted from Arkham City.

Chiefly, the problem is that the execution fails to do what marketing promised; this was not a story to expand on Batman and his origin (as promised) but really a way to justify the events of the last two games. With the bugs and freezing the game occasionally suffers, it screams out that the game was rushed to make a quick buck while gamers wait for Rocksteady’s next iteration of the Caped Crusader. In the end, all I saw was the same Batman, the same world and more of the same villains with a shiny, younger coat to make it seem “new”. Had this game probably been given more time to develop the story, tighten the pacing and improve the quality of the experience, the game could have been a great example of how prequels can be effective. Instead, it comes off as an example of how not to do a prequel.

That’s not to say there aren’t any prequels that aren’t good; in fact that are quite a few standouts. God of War: Chains of Olympus and God of War: Ghost of Sparta serve as great unique stories that delve into the horrifying experiences Kratos has faced to shape him into the angry, vengeance-ridden bastard we’ve come to grow and love. Each story was centralized about developing Kratos as a character. Sure the gameplay was just about identical to previous iterations, but it did tweak it enough to improve the feel of combat while giving a sense of it being in the past. Contextually speaking, story and gameplay meshed well together and created some compelling stories well worth the experience of playing.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution is another great example of being a “reboot”; it takes the tone/context of its predecessors and builds a story to flesh out how the world came to be for the original Deus Ex game. The story for Human Revolution uses similar elements that the first Deus Ex uses too; an open world to explore, collectibles that expand the mythos in various places and a conspiracy your character has to uncover in regards to augmentation. The world is divided at the thought of whether or not augmentation takes away a person’s humanity. Every character is fleshed out, and over time is affected by the actions taking place in the game. Most notably, the story builds up in a great, deliberate pace that ultimately leaves you questioning your morals concerning the issues it raises. Essentially, the game borrows the elements needed to craft a unique, standalone entry to expand the world of the series. Definitely a game I would recommend anyone playing.

 In the end, prequels are going to be the  “great” go-to idea for franchises trying to maintain relevance when their franchise’s main story has ended and earn a few dollars. The alluring promise and potential of having a clean slate to flesh out iconic character is tantalizing enough to make it happen. Also, it’s a lucrative, safe bet that gamers will buy the game more because of the brand than the product. The problem is that developers have to find a way to work against the paradox that a prequel-as-a-sequel provides; logistically speaking it seems counter-intuitive. The main part that developers have to understand is that the execution and delivery has to be met, that they are walking a fine line that is a challenge to face. Prequels can be great, as evidenced by games like Deus Ex: Human Revolution, God of War: Ghost of Sparta, and Chains of Olympus, but it comes through understanding the obstacles that must be overcome.

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