Monday, January 8, 2018

General RPGs' Unusual Good Luck with Sequels 2

Happy New Year, all! As I and so many others have mentioned, last year was a hell of a good year for RPGs, and right now, I feel like the best we could hope for from 2018 for this genre would be a sequel of 2017. And I'm willing to do my part toward this goal: by making a sequel to 1 of my 2017 rants. Specifically, the 1 about RPG sequels. Yes, this is a sequel to my sequel rant. Yo Dawg forever, suckas!

Not long ago, I wrote a rant about the unusually high success rate that RPGs have in terms of sequels, in which I pointed out that the genre is perhaps the most likely of any storytelling venue I’m familiar with to have a continuation of a series be good. Which is all fine and good, but having made this observation, the question then arises:


Is there anything we can attribute to this seemingly miraculous positive tendency? A particular aspect of RPG sequels that helps make them so much more likely than continuations of other genres’ franchises to do decently? Well, possibly. First of all, I’m sure that simple good luck plays its part. More than that, though, I’m sure that RPG sequels must more often have a large amount of genuine effort and care put into them for this to work--my suspicion is that RPG developers probably just take their creations seriously more often than the creators of sequels in Hollywood and so on. Perhaps the gaming industry, or at least this corner of it, is actually just more concerned with its art than other storytelling businesses in general. You certainly don’t get a true classic like Shadow Hearts 2, with its creative and well-paced story and its rich and compelling emotional impact, by half-assing it, while sequels in the cinematic world seem to have a 50-50 chance of being solely a cash-in on their predecessors. Disney’s done it so often with its direct-to-DVD animated sequels that it’s basically the poster child for the concept of lazy cash-grabs.

(I still think that Pocahontas 2 is better than the original, though).*

Beyond the likelihood that RPG developers more often give a shit about their sequels, though, I think that there is a factor that contributes to RPG sequels’ unusually high rate of success. See, it’s like this: I want you to think of Final Fantasy. And Grandia. And Wild Arms. And Star Ocean, Castlevania, Shadowrun, Shining Force, Fallout, Tales of, Breath of Fire, the Nippon Ichi games, and Shin Megami Tensei--to name a few RPG series in which this works. Just how much connection between titles do all the installments in these franchises have?

Some, like Shadowrun, Fallout, and Castlevania all take place in the same world, and have some characters make multiple appearances over various titles (such as Jake Armitage, Harold, and Maria Renard). The events of 1 title frequently affect that world and sequels in various ways (the events of Shadowrun Returns are mentioned in Shadowrun: Dragonfall, the Brotherhood of Steel’s victory in Fallout 3 leads to their faction role in Fallout 4, and Dracula’s unlimited respawns necessitates a family line of vampire slayers to keep taking him out, along with some far more interesting and awesome outsiders on occasion like Alucard and Shanoa). But honestly? These games, while definitely connected, are not nearly as directly tied as we tend to think of when we think of sequels. None of the protagonists for Shadowrun and Fallout are present in any but a single title, and their companions and antagonists are almost all completely new with each game, as well. The same is mostly true of Castlevania, too. The many sequels of these 3 series do build off of their predecessors in many story elements, but each one is ultimately its own story, borrowing lore and a few characters but not being shackled to what came before.

Then there are series like Breath of Fire, Star Ocean, and the Nippon Ichi titles. They’re franchises in which most or all of their titles take place within the same universe as previous ones, but ultimately only use those predecessors for lore-related purposes. Breath of Fire 2 builds on BoF1 in that its antagonist, DeathEvan, came about as a result of the battle against Miria/Tyr in the original game, and it takes place on the same world, but DeathEvan is his own evil who furthers his goals in his own way, and since BoF2 takes place centuries after the first game, the people and society of its world are tied only loosely to those found in the first game--you get cameos of some of the important characters of BoF1 here and there, such as a message Nina 1 leaves for her descendants, and admittedly the immortal Bleu is a secret party member again, but overall, BoF2 has all the space it needs to do its own thing and only take tiny bits of legend and lore from the original. Likewise, Star Ocean’s games all take place in the same universe, but its titles are frequently separated so vastly in terms of time and distance that their only real connection is lore-based, rather than anything hard and fast like recurring major characters. And while Nippon Ichi titles take pleasure in connecting to one another in fun ways, most of the time they’re still decidedly their own entities in a similar fashion.

And then, finally, we have cases like Final Fantasy, Grandia, and Tales of. These are franchises in which the majority of their titles aren’t even connected by taking place in the same universe! There’s nothing to my knowledge that suggests that Final Fantasy 4, 6, 7, and 12 have any connection whatsoever in terms of their worlds, for example. For all intents and purposes, they’re completely different stories taking place in completely different universes that have no overlap whatsoever. Likewise, there’s nothing that connects Grandia 1, 2, and 3 together at all, and while some Tales of games do connect directly to one another, most of them are distinct entities. The only thing that connects titles in franchises like these are aesthetics and style, really--Grandia’s comforting rainbow save points and lovely dinner conversations, Final Fantasy’s recurring systems of magic and summoned monsters, Tales of’s elemental creatures and skits, that sort of thing. Just connections of approaches to gameplay and story elements, rather than of lore or characters.

My point here is that RPG sequels are very frequently only loosely tied to their predecessors, if at all. And I think that helps give them the breathing room to excel. Most of the time with sequels, we expect to see most or all of the same characters returning, in the same settings, building off of the events of the preceding story. And while that can certainly work, I think it must nonetheless be more challenging to return to characters and story elements that you thought you have developed to their conclusion, and have to find something new to do with them. That’s not to say it never happens in RPGs, nor that it can’t be done quite well in them--Shadow Hearts 2 explores Yuri’s character and gives him depth and pathos beyond anything SH1 even attempted, and Knights of the Old Republic 2 finds powerfully philosophical story qualities to explore and expand on from the more basic plot of its predecessor, for example. But overall, RPG sequels tend to be almost entirely new stories, able to tell themselves without the burden of having to use anyone or anything from the previous story that isn’t useful to them. Is it any wonder, then, that they have a higher rate of success, when we do not burden them with the same expectations we have of sequels which more directly tie to their predecessors?

What’s also interesting about this is that it’s one of the only genres where this is even allowed by the audience. You can’t get away with this sort of thing in cinema, for example, at least not often. When we hear of a movie sequel, we expect to see the characters of the first movie return, we expect to see them doing their thing in the same world, and we expect the characters and world to be in a state in accordance with how the last movie ended. Sometimes a movie can trick us by using a bare minimum of its predecessor while still telling its own story--Mad Max: Fury Road, for example, is generally agreed on to be a pretty rad movie, even though the series’s titular character wavers between the roles of secondary character and unconnected observer--but generally, we go into a movie sequel with the expectation that it’s gonna be a direct continuation of its source.

And if you think I’m full of it on this point, well, hell, just look at the movie Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within! Now, I’m not saying it was a great flick by any means, but there’s really not a lot that’s terribly wrong with it; it’s a decent movie to watch once. Yet the thing was a staggering flop, kept Squaresoft on the verge of bankruptcy for years and years--have they, in fact, fully recovered from it even now? I remember reading only a few years back that they were still, amazingly enough, recuperating from their losses from a movie they’d released over a decade before! Real, actual shit movies like the Star Wars prequels, or the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, or the Transformers franchise have managed to make serious bank, while this mildly decent film turned into a financial black hole. Why?

Well, because Square was following its own damn formula and expecting it to work, that’s why. Well, okay, there are lots of reasons FFTSW didn’t connect with audiences, but it’s a fact that one of the most frequent criticisms I’ve heard levied against the film is that it had nothing to do with Final Fantasy. Well, yeah, it has no recurring characters from the games, doesn’t take place on any of the games’ worlds, no chocobos or moogles...all it’s got is a Cid, and his name isn’t even spelled right. But, uh, so fucking what? That’s barely any less than ANY given Final Fantasy has with its fellow titles! Practically every Final Fantasy until that point and since tells its own story with no more than aesthetic connections to its peers! And while The Spirits Within doesn’t exactly stand shoulder to shoulder with the quality of, say, Final Fantasy 10, or Tactics, or especially 9, at least it’s not so generic as FF5, or obscenely confused and boring as 12, or just an outright idiotic fucking mess like FF8! In terms of quality, I don’t think The Spirits Within is even in the lower half of the Final Fantasy series canon! And yet, we all--myself included!--scorned it for having nothing to do with its series, even though, story-wise and character-wise, that’s the standard for Final Fantasy. If anything, FFTSW would have been less true to its franchise if it HAD tried to directly connect to it.**

And why did we make this complaint? I don’t know for sure, but I personally think that maybe it was because we’re just naturally geared to expect direct ties in our sequels outside the realms of RPGs. What was never a problem for the games in Final Fantasy suddenly became a huge obstacle for the series when it made a try at cinema. What might have been given a chance in game format and recognized as a pretty okay story--again, nothing great, but okay--was dead on arrival in movie form.

So anyway, that’s my theory as to 1 of the factors of why RPG sequels have the unusually good fortune I mentioned in my previous rant: the simple fact that our expectations for what an RPG sequel can and should look like are more open than our expectations of sequels in other genres and formats. We wouldn’t want to see a fighting game sequel that had none of the previous title’s characters come back again, we wouldn’t want to see a movie sequel that had virtually none of the story elements as its predecessor, and so on...but for whatever reason, we’re totally fine with this sort of thing in our RPGs. And I think that helps give game developers the space when continuing a series to write something worthwhile, and it helps us to give that writing the chance it deserves.

* Come at me, uh...some Disney fans? Everyone? Only a few people? I actually don’t really know where Pocahontas 1 and 2 lie in terms of the public’s overall feelings.

** And frankly, going by FF12: Revenant Wings, the FF7 spinoffs, and that unspeakable abomination FF10-2, we didn’t know how good we had it back when Square wasn’t making direct FF sequels. Hell, look at that Final Fantasy 7: Advent Children garbage. I never knew how much I would miss The Spirits Within until I saw what happened when SquareEnix decided to try making a movie that was directly tied to its franchise.


  1. Trigger Warning: Defense of Square-Enix in this post.

    The failure of Spirits Within isn't "muh game references", it's that the story didn't have much to offer on its own merits, with muh game being an easy inarticulate shortcut to whining. Also, worst ending of the franchise.

    Say what you will about the VII spinoffs, X-2, and Revenant Wings, but it should always come with a footnote that these were legitimate creative endeavors that repeatedly made attempts to expand how to approach a setting through tone, scope, and genre. Yes, the Compilation had a fundamental misunderstanding as to why people like VII so much, but lazy cash-ins generally don't involve the amount of work S-E was putting into those games.

    An Ivalice game without Yasumi Matsuno doesn't count, so Revenant Wings was kinda doomed from the outset.

    I recall Pocahontas 2 making a legit character out of John Smith, so I'll vote for the sequel because fuck watching Pocahontas again.

    1. Happy New Year, sir!

      Eh, I dunno, I still think that TSW wasn't all that bad. But even if it was, I'd have to point out that 8, 10-2, and Mystic Quest were all terrible, too, and far more so, yet none are anywhere near as universally spat upon as The Spirits Within was. Even if one does believe that TSW has no merits, that can't account entirely for its failure, because precedent proves that, in the case of Final Fantasy, being worthless garbage is not by itself enough to doom a product.

      The amount of work SquareEnix put into those games? They couldn't be bothered to make a second character model for Lulu and Wakka in FF10-2, while loudly declaring how pregnant the former was and regular-fat the latter. Saying that 12RW or any of the 7 spinoffs were legit creative endeavors is an uphill logical battle, but you can potentially be successful when you make the verbal hike to that point...10-2, though, is just sloppy, facile refuse so repugnant to human values that even its creators seem to have been unable to stomach actually giving it any thought.

      Smith was a lot better in the sequel than his former paper-thin pretense of a character, but I like Pocahontas 2 over the first for the fact that Pocahontas seems to have an actual personality as she struggles with the obstacles before her, and the fact that John Rolf is kind of neat and you can actually see the 2 of them interacting to some degree before the Plot-Necessitated Love switch is flipped.

    2. At least the games had some sense of familiarity thanks to shared tropes and elements between games. Square's biggest mistake was banking on the Final Fantasy brandname to carry a film that didn't even vaguely resemble the series it was named after. To add to your list of examples, Avatar is still the highest grossing movie of all time despite being even shallower and more derivative than TSW, but at least Avatar was its own thing and the marketing didn't have any baggage from trying to cash in on another series' popularity. Not to mention the fact that game-based movies already had a less than stellar rep, which would more than likely further discouraged moviegoers, which coupled with TSW's immensely expensive budget was a recipe for disaster.

  2. I was thinking of replying to the first of these articles you wrote, but you basically answered why RPG sequels work well here: they have basically nothing to do with previous games. Some of the worst are direct continuations (the stories become incredibly bad in many FF sequels, with the FFXIII trilogy possibly being the worst example now, surpassing FFX-2, although X-2 does have the dubious advantage of retroactively worsening a good story). Still, I think I've played a surprising number of good direct sequels in RPGs, like the Legend of Heroes: Trails games.

    Also, although it doesn't really apply to your evaluations, RPG sequels also generally improve gameplay, the same way other video games do, adding features to make the sequels less tedious or less frustrating than previous games (like how Persona 4 gives you full control of the party and makes it more difficult for enemies to one-shot the protagonist). These types of improvements lead to RPG sequels being better received than the earlier games.

    1. Hmmm, well, yes, the sequels do often add to the gameplay of the series, but that's not always a good thing. Absolutely Persona 4's giving you the ability to actually control your characters is the right move (I don't know why SMTP3 decided to just dismiss 2 decades of RPG gameplay common sense on that point), but there are definitely cases where the more is done, the more of a clogged-up mess it becomes. Look at the Tales of series. Early on, the juggling act it played action battle system mixed with menus, Arte combinations, food consumption as a restorative item replacement, and so on, was quite comprehensible and functioned adequately. But the series just kept adding and adding gameplay quirks and features, 1 after another, while refusing to give up almost anything it had had before, more and more over decades...what was straightforward and usable once has, over decades, become a convoluted mess of gameplay features and quirks at war with one another. I played Tales of Zestiria last year, and it's got so much gameplay that it almost seems unplayable. There's so much leftover crap from other Tales of games jammed into it, along with its own new additions to the franchise, that the damn game has an entire sidequest devoted to finding tutorial stones that explain its nuances through the entire game, like, seriously, right up to the very end. I think that if you need so many explanations of gameplay features that players are still puzzling through new information 30 hours into an adventure, it's time to dial the features back a bit.