Gearing Back Up Videogame Sequels Allow For Do-Overs

Gearing Back Up Videogame Sequels Allow For Do-Overs
In film, sequels are generally a low-quality cash-grab. Even when a part two does totally rule — Godfather Part II, Empire Strikes Back, X-Men 2, Spiderman 2 — the third invariably winds up sucking balls. (Lord of the Rings was a nine-hour movie cut in thirds; it doesn’t count.) Similarly, videogame sequels are often blamed for the creative bankruptcy of the industry — and indeed this very column has made the case for the importance of original ideas.

But as Cliff "CliffyB” Bleszinski told me while in Toronto to preview next month’s Xbox-exclusive Gears of War 2, "It took Grand Theft Auto two iterations before the third one, right? Publishers who are smart and in it for the long run will stick with their [intellectual property] and iterate. The first game isn’t always the best one. Sometimes it’s the second or third.” Hell, sometimes it’s the fourth — the most recent Metal Gear Solid, GTA, Call of Duty, Resident Evil and Elder Scrolls: Oblivion were all among the best games in recent memory.

Much of this is due to the nature of the videogame beast. While the basic structure of cinematic storytelling has largely remained the same since the transition to colour, gaming is a medium in constant evolution. New narrative techniques are tried out, more powerful processors are introduced, 3D game engines are tweaked and refined — and because this is the software industry, developers are used to an iterative process of product improvement.

Sure, it can seem depressingly repetitive when most major titles boast a subsequent numeral. But that hasn’t stopped Fallout 3, a sequel to a long-dormant PC cult classic, from being my most anticipated game of the year.

Gears of War, though, is an interesting case study because the original’s very non-sequel status was what sent it soaring past safe-bet blockbuster Halo 3. While the heavily hyped H3 set sales records, GoW dropped jaws with its gorgeously gritty graphics, cool weapons (chainsaw-gun totally trumps Master Chief’s fancy gunnery) and slowed-down, cover-based game play that eschewed the played-out run-and-gun approach. Even its post-apocalyptic TV ad — a city in ruins, a sombre cover of Tears for Fears’ "Mad World” and one giant-ass bug — totally ruled. So Gears became the game 360 owners boasted about to Sony stalwarts and Nintendo nerds.

Bleszinski considers its success a combination of factors. "Not only was it fun, it was beautiful, too. In the single-player campaign there were watercooler moments around every corner. Microsoft spent the marketing money to let the world know about it. Great online mode. It was a perfect storm.”

But without that initial spark of originality, can CliffyB’s quest to make a bigger, better, bad-asser version bring back the thunder?

"The story is more epic this time around so it feels far more like an actual, honest-to-God war,” he says. "But it’s also more intimate — it’s not just Marcus Fenix’s story. It’s also Dominic Santiago’s. At the start of the game, Dom’s looking for his wife who has been missing for quite some time and he actually has a lead on where she might be. So Marcus and Dom show up at this hospital based on a Jane Doe that may or may not be Maria. She keeps slipping through their fingers, slipping through his grasp, and he’s losing it. Is she alive? Is she dead? What happened to her?

"We want to tell this huge epic story about humanity’s last stand but also keep it personal as far as what’s going on with these guys.”

Sounds like a promising start. The main problem with most sequels in both film and gaming is that the desire to up the ante means those smaller, more personal moments get lost amongst the amped-up action.

But when you look at sequels that did work — Dark Knight or God of War — it was because the first was essentially an origin story that allowed the follow-up more room to tell its tale.

This, says Bleszinski, was the situation for Gears 2. "The first game was a set-up. Now you got all that stuff out of the way, let’s really hit the ground running. We can learn what motivates these guys and how they deal with all the horrors they witness.” But regardless of how the new Gears is received, don’t expect Bleszinski to be locked into this franchise forever. Introducing never-before-seen intellectual properties may be hard, "but it’s what I love to do. It’s in my blood,” he says.

"I have lots of ideas and universes in my head — it’s just a matter of when I can find the time and spend the company’s money to get to it.”