So, it turns out that blogs left unattended don’t take on a life of their own, unlike the contents of my refrigerator. This is the lesson I learned upon returning from my seclusion in the PulseTense writing chamber, where we’ve been crafting De-Void, which will be coming out in August. I suppose I’ve got to resuscitate Phantomatica myself. So, in the spirit of reviving media of questionable popularity, I’d like to talk about sequels, and particularly why the gaming world seems to be able to consistently pull them off better than Hollywood. This is not to say that the endless installments of Assassins Creed and Far Cry are all solid gold, but let’s take a few choice examples and talk about why they succeed.
Dead Space 2
I remember Dead Space fondly. It was a straightforward action horror piece that tugged my Alien and The Thing heartstrings just right. I was able to shut off the lights late at night and lose myself in Isaac’s journey to find his wife aboard the Ishimura, hacking my way through the squishy flesh of the lovably Lovecraftian Necromorphs. There was something deliciously brutal about it, and even though any seasoned fan of the genre could see the “she’s already dead” train coming from the outset, it was presented viscerally enough to give the thrill of living the twist, not just experiencing it.
Dead Space 2, on the other hand, picked up the bloodstained shards of its predecessor and made of them something truly impressive. It’s not that Dead Space 2 was earth-shatteringly original. It certainly wasn’t, opting instead for the same old-school approach of the original. “Guilt fantasies with zombie babies are always scary,” Dead Space 2 said, and took “if it ain’t broke” as its mighty mantra. No, the effectiveness of Dead Space 2 comes from its ability to incorporate the experience of the first game as the key to its narrative development. If this seems obtuse, allow me to explain.
Dead Space 2 finds Isaac aboard the Sprawl, a massive city in orbit around Titan. He’s in treatment after the events of the first game, suffering from intense PTSD and experiencing visions of his late wife as a terrifying monster. Turns out his troubles are far from over, since just about anyone in any position of authority seems hell-bent on realizing the Necromorph apocalypse, and the secret recipe is locked in Isaac’s brain. When a deranged commander decides to take the info by force and build his own Necromorph artifact, the station descends predictably into a squishy nightmare made of equal bits Tobe Hooper and H.R. Giger.
But the real meat and potatoes of the experience is Isaac’s mental quest as he fights his way across the station. Dead Space 2 doesn’t waste much breath on catch-up exposition, apparently trusting that genre nerds will be able to figure out a relatively cliched plot line. Instead, a great deal of effort is put into nuanced writing meant to place the player in Isaac’s head space. Central to Isaac’s character development over the course of game is the trauma and guilt of his previous experiences.
Isaac is tortured by Having Been There when shit went down, and Nicole plays hard on that guilt. A player who played through the first game, struggling through the brutal onslaught only to find that Nicole had perished, has genuine memories that allow them to truly identify with Isaac. And so, as it’s revealed that maybe Isaac and Nicole’s relationship wasn’t quite so rosy, the player feels the pangs of realization that perhaps Isaac was to blame for pushing Nicole towards her inevitable fate.
This ability to tug at the player’s memories of playing the first game in this way lends a profound psychological depth to Dead Space 2, taking liberally from the book of Silent Hill 2 without losing sight of its own roots. Coupled with a strong sense of lore expansion that offers equal joy for oldheads and newcomers alike, it comes together to make a deliciously satisfying sequel.
Portal 2 builds similarly upon its compact predecessor in the narrative department, relying upon the player’s sense of banter with GlaDOS after the original interdimensional rat race, but its real achievement is something a bit weirder.
Portal was unapologetically a puzzle game. Its narrative aspirations were limited to putting the player against a malicious AI, and it relied on its black wit to charm the player, to great effect. Portal 2 goes a step further, becoming self aware of its mechanics and incorporating them into the narrative experience. GlaDOS is revealed to not simply be psychotic, mindlessly playing out the absurd conclusion of her hardcoded function. Rather, the puzzles provide her with a sense of sadistic enjoyment.
GlaDOS’s identity is shattered when she comes to understand that each puzzle she orchestrates loses some of the enjoyment, until she is relegated to bitterly playing out more and more elaborate and lethal in a desperate attempt to derive any sensation at all from the experience. That this framework s ultimately revealed as the symptom of a systemic flaw within GlaDOS’ coding, namely a human personality hidden within her otherwise perfect AI programming, lends a delectably psychoanalytic tinge to the character and her arc.
By binding its core mechanics so firmly to the development of the series’ infamous antagonist, Portal 2 manages to become a game about games without lapsing into pretense and disappearing up its own ass. It never flaunts its meta qualities, opting instead for the narrative subtlety Valve is famous for. It even goes so far as to artfully obscure these deeper character arcs behind a primary storyline about aperture’s history that is at once hilarious, profound, and deeply satirical.
It’s safe to say that the Hitman series gets better as it goes (with Absolution as a decidedly debatable exception, but more on that in another post). Blood Money is certainly the fan favorite, and for good reason. For me, however, Contracts is special.
Mechanically, the third Hitman game is essentially identical to its immediate predecessor, Silent Assassin. Despite the complaints of a novelty addicted critic community, there’s nothing wrong with this. Silent Assassin’s mechanics were great, and when they weren’t, it was usually the fault of some uninspired level designer deciding that maybe Hitman is more about walking from one end of a mind-numbingly linear, featureless tundra to the other. Contracts does away with this sort of nonsense and opts for the intimacy and intricacy that made for the best levels in the first two Hitman games. Some of the earliest levels reappear, refashioned in a way that should make any fan of Hitman: Codename 47 giddy (I’m looking at you, “Traditions of the Trade,” you classy sonofabitch.)
But what makes Hitman: Contracts such an effective sequel is the way it plays off the fundamentals of the franchise’s concept. Where the first two games were sweeping, epic thrillers, Contracts turns inward. After a job gone wrong leaves him perforated with bullets, 47 withers away in a Paris hotel room, living out his past assignments as dingy, filthy fever dreams. Having played through two tours of duty as Agent 47, the player is now confronted with his interior experience: the life of a contract assassin flashing before his own eyes.
Both the exhilarating intimacy and psycho-noir aesthetic of the level design reflects this framework. Symbolism-laden environments such as a a masquerade rave in an abattoir or the mansion of a wealthy with a taste for the proverbial Most Dangerous Game, serve as a backdrop for hits against some of the seediest characters the franchise had seen to that point.
All of this serves to put the player in the darkest part of 47’s psyche without relying on a bunch of meandering exposition about how 47 is really just a fundamentally nice guy tortured by his past, blah, blah, blah. Instead, Hitman keeps it cooler than ever, adopting psychological thriller and horror elements to present a strikingly original exploration of the enigmatic protagonist. Hitman: Contracts genuinely feels like a glimpse at the very soul of the series.
Silent Hill 2
Well, no putting it off any longer. It was between this and System Shock 2, but once you’ve said “System Shock 2 takes literally everything that was cool about the original and does it better, also SHODAN,” there’s not much left to talk about. At the core, it’s more of a deluxe remake than a sequel. Silent Hill 2, on the other hand, takes a bit more unpacking to understand what makes it so good.
I suppose I could’ve coyly opted to ramble needlessly about System Shock 2’s vampy goodness by saying “Silent Hill 2 takes everything that’s great about the original and does it for grown-ups,” but that would be unfair on a number of levels. Silent Hill 2 is distinct from its predecessor in almost every way. It opts to abandon the story of the first game in favor of exploring the haunted town’s deeper themes. In a way, it blends the effective qualities of all the sequels I’ve talked about so far.
Like Dead Space 2, Silent Hill 2 benefits from prior experience with the series, which provides a frame of reference that is both complementary to and overturned by the sequel’s structure. The approach is subtler than Dead Space 2, however, more concerned with putting you in the right mood. James comments on the environment of the town, how he doesn’t recognize it since he last saw it. For a player who played the first game, this provides the eerie familiarity without any pesky metagame knowledge of level layout or the like.
Silent Hill 2 also makes its core gameplay significant to the protagonist’s development, similarly to Portal 2. In the first game, Harry Mason is certainly walking through a nightmare, but aside from the glaring crisis of his missing daughter, it never feels particularly like his nightmare. He’s wandering through the town’s id, whereas James’ Silent Hill traps him in his own superego. The town’s beasts and interdimensional slippage is all explicitly related to James’ psychological state as he grapples with the guilt of euthanizing his wife with a pillow. Nowhere is this better personified than in the notorious Pyramid Heads, James’ personal executioners. Embodying the carnal rage and sexual frustration that drove James to murder, Pyramid Heads aren’t just scary, they’re weird and rapey and seem to be constantly in pain. It’s a masterful example of really binding design to character development.
Like Hitman: Contracts, Silent Hill 2 cuts to the very core of the mythology. This is Silent Hill at its most elemental, the town as a reflection of pure misery on a deeply personal and individual. For James, unlike Harry, there is no victory or redemption. At the end, it was he that did the deed. He, and he alone.
The Game Factor
There are many other examples of game effective game sequels that could be added to this list with varying degrees of controversy. Baldur’s Gate 2, for instance, with it’s graceful expansion on the player’s identity as a godchild, could be mentioned without much kerfuffle. Mentioning Fear 2, however, would likely blow some circuits even after ample adulation over how it thrusts the player into a unwitting courtship with resident ghoul Alma. Far Cry 2 would likely lead to a rousing debate, whereas my guilty but heartfelt defense of Bioshock 2 would probably lead to the immediate cessation of my already limited readership followed by a well-deserved death by a firing squad led by Yahtzee Croshaw.
But what is it that makes games apparently more successful than films at presenting satisfying follow-ups? We have narrative expansion and aesthetic shifts, subtlety of theme and artful self-reference. In theory, films could pull off any of these with effective writing, direction, and production design. So what’s missing?
Interactivity. It seems painfully obvious, and certainly credit should be given to the more adventurous writing and conceptualization in the games industry versus the cynical formula-fetishism and spectacle-pornography of Hollywood. But in each instance of a solid game sequel, I find that synchronicity between the game mechanics and the narrative growth between original and sequel is key.
The brutal memories of the ordeal of Dead Space puts you right in Isaac’s jaded, guilt-ridden headspace for the sequel. As a player in the Portals, the player has an unmediated point of identification with GlaDOS’ enjoyment of the puzzles. You’ve played through these puzzles with her, and now you are present as she grapples with the implications of being essentially a game mechanic dispenser. In Hitman: Contracts, the player brings two games worth of experience to 47’s flashbacks, allowing you the 20/20 of hindsight that a seasoned assassin would assuredly feel in his dying moments. Silent Hill 2 takes the structure of its predecessor and brings it unnervingly close to home.
All of these games embrace the medium of gaming and use it to inform the narrative context. In a post-Hollywood film industry, such techniques in movies are considered pretentious or art-housey, and those filmmakers who do make attempts are frequently too under-resourced to pull them off effectively. I would point to no-budget horror entries like Blair Witch 2 or Grave Encounters 2 as examples of concepts that were too big for their britches. Both attempt a maneuver toward metanarrativism, but both are brought down by low production values, poor performances, and rushed conceptualization.
Perhaps games have not yet sold out to mainstream formulae as completely, or that game executives are more concerned with mechanics than narrative, leaving writers more freedom to go into the deep end.