Limited Vs Ongoing Storylines — Videogames Edition
Last week Friday saw the first entry in this two-parter, involving comic books and the greater comparative qualities of limited and ongoing storylines. Friday is our off-topic day so it kinda had to be done this way because I wanted to get comics out of the way first in order to use that to build on certain topics of this, the videogames edition. So if you haven’t already, maybe check that out first and come back here. K?
Back? Awesome. Thanks for the page view. Now, with regards to the comics we saw The Walking Dead which is currently on issue #120 with #121 due out next week. This is a series that has been running for over ten years now, averaging twelve issues per annum with a few extra once-offs here and there. That means that along the course of those ten years you could’ve picked up the series, or you could’ve picked it up brand new when it first launched, and you are now at the current point in the ongoing storyline which has no overall resolution in sight and it’s only taken this long, with no sign of stopping.
- You’ll Be Able To Play (Expensive) PS2 Games On Your PS4 Now | 2 months ago
- Jessica Jones Disempowers Its Male Characters And The Effect Is Refreshing | 2 months ago
- Hell Is 30 000 Deathclaws Tearing Through Boston And It’s Glorious | 2 months ago
- Sony Santa Monica Is Teasing Something Truly Strange | 2 months ago
By contrast we have The Walking Dead by Telltale Games, which is currently in its second season with episode one having recently released, having come off its first season just over a year ago now. The content in it is based around different characters currently attempting to survive the same apocalyptic situation, but the story is one that is just as personal and affecting as that of the comics, or indeed the AMC TV series that is currently on mid-season break in its fourth season. Thing is, with The Walking Dead videogame, Telltale is crafting a smaller and more personal story centred around Clementine, the little girl you saved in the first season and now play, in the second.
And that’s the better option here because when it comes to gaming there are entirely different variables in play.
One of the biggest issues when it comes to gaming is that audiences are erratic; for example, those people who’ve played Crysis are not necessarily the same ones who will be playing Crysis 2. And especially in the case of a game series that shows growth, a lot of people who pick up a sequel have potentially never experienced the series before, a la The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings. This creates massive problems when it comes to creating a seamless narrative that flows across multiple game releases. Let’s use a few examples to illustrate this point.
Dragon Age: Origins seems as good a place as any to start. The first game established a very interesting and fantastical world centred around the Grey Wardens and their battle against the Darkspawn. Part of establishing this world was the act of creating engagement with the player to the point that you became attached to the characters and the locations; for the first time in an RPG we saw starter companions that were charming and intriguing to play with, and this continued throughout the game. We were led to believe that the decisions we made would shape this world, and so we made them with the hope that we would some day see the fruits of our labours, so to speak. Then Dragon Age II came along and it was set in a completely different part of the fictional world, and barely any of your choices showed throughout the game. It didn’t help that many years had since passed, between the games. Hopefully some of this is rectified with Dragon Age: Inquisition, but a huge problem here is that continuity across the two games was lost because each wanted to tell a different story, but the sequel did not allow for the first game to influence it at all.
Let’s stick with BioWare and next use Mass Effect as an example. The series saw three amazing games released, each continuing the story and showing that players choices can and do matter. A story was established from the very first game and even though there were almost definitely some changes along the way, the core elements of the story, no pun intended, remained right until the conclusion, regardless of what that conclusion actually was. The key success factor for the Mass Effect series was always re-establishing key points and then going a step further in creating interactive comics and other ways for new players to get caught up with the story if they had missed prior releases. Even with all of that, however, the series could not escape the inevitable expectation of more choice as built up across the three games, with a lot of players upset at the conclusion as it was originally presented, for not providing enough closure to a series that had since done well to keep continuity and flow intact.
The final example I want to use is that of Assassin’s Creed — come on, you all knew it was coming. With the first game we were promised a trilogy, so we knew that the story wouldn’t be entirely conclusive. Still, Assassin’s Creed managed to present a decently interesting story of betrayal and conspiracy in terms of the ancestor segments, and then one of intrigue with the modern day plot. However, Ubisoft then got greedy after the massive success of Assassin’s Creed II and they decided to extend the games even further, killing off one of the main modern day characters with only partial explanation and creating plot hole after plot hole along the way to the inevitable series low point, Assassin’s Creed III. Now, I really enjoyed the third game’s ancestor segments for reasons I have explained in detail. What I didn’t enjoy was the modern day plotline, once again. It was obvious that by this point, the fifth game in the series, Ubisoft had lost the proverbial plot and were just thumb-sucking their way towards something that looked ostensibly like a smart concluding act. They fucked it up.
Fast forward a bit and they’re still trying to shoehorn in a modern day plot with Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag and nobody wants anything to do with it; they just want to sail their pirate ship in that glorious open world. Meanwhile nobody’s playing the arguably most interesting game in the series, Assassin’s Creed: Liberation HD. It’s with Liberation HD that Ubisoft has struck gold, crafting just the right sort of experience for the series moving forward.
And it’s from there that I’ll stop using examples of series for a bit and start talking about limited and ongoing storylines themselves. When you look at ongoing storylines in games, they are equally as exhausting to play through as they are with comics, although I’ll grant that there’s a lot less content to cover and at least you get to interact through all of it with games. Of course, it is in a developer and publisher’s best interests to prolong a successful series of games for as long as possible and a cheap way to do that is to continue a storyline that players have deep investment in; something that was once a very attractive feature of Blizzard’s games, and now is just a mechanism to push more World of Warcraft subscriptions. Which, at the very least tells us that there is a place for ongoing storylines even if it’s not necessarily the most ideal thing in gaming. The key difference comes in how the story wants to present itself. Will it establish a world and then present smaller stories within that world, or will it establish a world with a single plotline that continues across multiple iterations? In other words, will it be anything from Valve or will it be anything from Capcom?
Why Valve and Capcom? Well, consider Valve’s titles. Portal is based in the Half-Life universe, is it not? These games are interesting enough on their own but together, they form part of a single continuity; an established fiction. And we already know that in terms of ongoing storylines, nothing is more ongoing than the wait for Half-Life 3. Yes, I had to go there. On the contrary, we see Capcom release Resident Evil title after Resident Evil title all trying to fit into a single overarching storyline and it just doesn’t work. People are introduced, die, come back later as if secretly resurrected when actually they were alive the entire time but just had amnesia; it was the same with the Devil May Cry games once, until they thankfully shook up that formula.
So how do you play it in an effective manner, such that you can establish a universe while keeping your story limited in order to avoid convolution and the very real prospect of having millions of gamers not even knowing what happened before, nor even caring in some cases. Surely there is some fine line between something that is overdone and not worth investing any more time into, and something that has limitless storytelling potential.
The Assassin’s Creed series has begun to walk this fine line with recent titles. What’s needed here is to simply ditch the modern day premise and craft each Assassin’s Creed title as a new ancestral take on some or the other historical setting. There’s plenty of history to pull from and they’re not short on powerful eras and historical figures to use. Likewise other series the likes of Mass Effect and Gears of War have established their fictional universes such that there is rich content to pull from; with Mass Effect, BioWare could explore the First Contact War or the Rachni Wars, or even just go for a risky but potentially rewarding ‘some years later’ scenario; with Gears of War the new developers could opt to portray the Pendulum Wars.
Or they could just take every title along the series as its own entirely separate identity, with only the name and some common expected elements, the way the Far Cry series has done. Neither game is related to the other, all have many redeeming qualities (even that disgustingly boring Far Cry 2) and yet they’re all a part of the same series of games. Limited storylines done right, once again.
Personally, I’m far more preferable to the idea of establishing a universe first and then using that universe to flesh out further stories, which is why I’m really hoping that Dragon Age: Inquisition will knock it out of the park when it’s out. After all, establishing a universe presents a lot of opportunities for cross-continuity — consider if you will, Isaac Clarke meeting Commander Shepard and then working with him to solve some mystery or battle some new alien foe. The licensing is there, because they’re both EA titles. Maybe the chronology is slightly off. It can be worked on. Time travel or something. But the idea is quite simple, really: Do you like a certain series? What about that series do you like? What if additions or modifications were made to the formula and we changed up the setting or characters every now and then to keep things fresh?
Worst case scenario, you get more Call of Duty titles and another World of Warcraft expansion. Best case scenario, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag and Grand Theft Auto V.