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A Sequel by Another Name [Gamer by Design]

I was out playing Super Contra on an arcade machine last week, and a non-gamer friend commented on how cool is it was that this game was side-scrolling, unlike that “other Contra” game he’d played on the Playstation, which just “didn’t feel like a Contra game.” After some investigation, I realized that he was talking about Neo Contra.

I’ve written a few columns about the difference between video games and movies, and this conversation brought me back to that line of thinking…”What is a sequel in a movie, and what is it in a game? How do they differ?”

In my mind, a movie sequel is theme and subject driven. For example, in the second Back to the Future, Marty goes to a totally different time zone, with some new tricks (flying cars and hover boards). In the fourth Star Wars, the much maligned Episode 1, we visit characters from the previous trilogy in a different time, but the through-line is the common fiction and character lineage.

Would you do this for a 3d Contra game? I thought not.

Those are both good ideas for a sequel (well yeah, maybe if the Star Wars ones had been executed well). They delve further into the subject matter of those worlds. For a video game, I think part of the issue is that video games always tend to follow movie models. And the issue with that, is that games have special needs that are unique to games, and nonexistent in movies. In the years before games, movies, TV, and radio were the main media of technological form. So it made sense in the early years of games to take a little of what movies do, a little of what software does, mix them in a bowl, and out comes a video game. However, I think time has shown that video games are an entirely different animal. They are set apart mostly by the fact that they are interactive. Gameplay defines games. Gameplay defines them more than fiction. And in the best games, the gameplay and the fiction help each other, rather than being at odds.

Back to our Contra example. What is Contra?  Is it the story of special forces who fight the aliens? Or is it a sidescrolling shooter game based on powerups, aiming, and platform play. When it comes down to it, the gameplay defines Contra more than the story. Halo is basically the same story idea with a little more depth(chalk this up to more modern storytelling technology) but the two have never been compared. Why? Halo is a first person shooter and its gameplay is totally different. The only common element is shooting.

What’s the litmus test? If I made a game that played exactly like Contra, but it was about bunnies and foxes, a true gamer would be able to discern it, just from the gameplay.

By that rationale. it’s important to think about what gives your game its identity. Burnout is about crashing cars instead of avoiding crashes. They could put out a Mad Max version and it would ring true with the same gameplay. This would invoke the identity of Burnout more strongly than something with the exact same subject matter, but set as for example, a 2d Excitebike-style game.

On the contrary, remember the disappointment of Zelda II? They took a perfect 3/4 view adventure game, and made it into this weird beast with 2d platform gameplay. That’s just not what the game was to people. Eventually, the Zelda games broke out of the 3/4 view and became true 3d games, but it took a lot of technology, and a few generations of consoles. In fact, for the SNES, they went back to the 3/4 view.

Link, why are you sideways??

I think in some examples of game sequels, designers fail to recognize that a game’s sequel should be a successor in gameplay as well as story. Did you just release on a previous generation system, and the new console is coming out? What does that allow us to do differently in gameplay? How can we add to the gameplay while staying true to its core, just like a movie adds to its fiction while staying true to the original story?

The answer lies in the lineage of your gameplay, more than it does in the subject matter.

Image Credits: Justin Snow, spunky_d_99