Video game sequels and remakes can easily lose fans. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

How do you make the perfect sequel to a successful game?

Much like that difficult second album, the sequels to video games are easy to get wrong, so what's the best formula for a successful remake or sequel?

Games work best in series, both from the point of view of a player who gets to continually enjoy a particular style of game that they like, and as a developer who gets to make money year after year off a single great idea they had. But simply churning out game after game isn’t as easy as it looks, and the history of video games is littered with examples of sequels and remakes gone wrong.

The first job of a sequel is to ensure that it retains enough of what was familiar in order to sustain the original audience. When a sequel gets this wrong there can be hell to pay because you are not just losing the original fan base, you are angering them. We’ve seen this with games like the recent Thief and Devil May Cry remakes and also Hitman: Absolution. When you take a franchise and make from it a sequel that lacks the unique selling points that its original fan base loves, it will respond with outrage, as well it should.

A game is more than just stories told through the medium of colours, shapes and button mashing: it is, well, a game. The mechanics, rules and systems of the game are unique and when you remove elements from them when making a sequel, the fans of that game, who enjoyed those systems, will likely feel that the series has lost them and might move on without them. In the same way as an animal might evolve to lose a certain feature, games can do this too over time. Resident Evil, for example, had the survival horror traits bred out of it for Resident Evil 4, becoming instead a third person action game, and the series never looked back. Over time, games can shed the quirks and oddities of their design and in doing so just become painfully bland.

Another example is Hitman: Absolution, which brought in a couple of changes to its rules. One was that it allowed the main character to conceal weapons like rifles on his person. In the old Hitman games, if you wanted to walk around armed people would react to that, now the main character could hide an assault rifle in his pocket and walk through a crowd with nobody any the wiser. It seems like a small change, but for a game about stealthy assassination it was significant. Players complained and hopefully that will lead to improvements. Without the vocal complaints of the oft-maligned fans of the series, the change might not be reversed. The more distinctive features a game has, the harder it is to sell to the mass market, but, if it loses too many of them, there’s nothing to sell.

That being said you cannot simply keep serving up a slightly rehashed version of the same game that the players already have, even if you keep all the unique elements intact. Single player games in particular can suffer badly from diminishing returns: the scary becomes familiar, the exciting becomes routine and the epic becomes ordinary. The most frustrating example of this is the STALKER series of games. This series debuted with the buggy and slightly awkward STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl, which, for all its flaws, remains an unforgettable game. The setting, the creatures, the atmosphere; it was nothing short of majestic the first time out.

The next two games in the series, Clear Sky and Call of Pripyat, refined the game with improved visuals, animations and mechanics but didn’t add very much. A flawed masterpiece rebuilt with fewer flaws sounds perfect, but in reality neither game had the same atmosphere as the original, nothing had the same impact. There’s nothing inherently wrong with polishing up a good game but there always has to be something substantial added as well.

The best developers tend to be the ones who have the courage to make a big change when they see that it needs to be made. For example, the change from GTA 2 to GTA 3 was huge, swapping the game from top-down 2D to the 3D world while keeping the tone of the games largely intact. When the jump from GTA: San Andreas to GTA 4 happened, the change was more in the tone and style of the game. Meanwhile, the Saints Row series went with a tonal shift between the first and second games, dumping any attempt at seriousness in favour of becoming a full-on parody, and it worked. Changing the formula in a series that is already doing OK for itself is a big gamble, but the payoff can be immense.

The Saints Row series also highlights what can happen when the change is too severe. The difference between Saints Row: The Third and Saints Row 4, becoming a superhero game rather than a GTA-clone, was a step too far. Taking the story to its logical over-the-top conclusion is one thing, and there wasn’t much room to move up in the world after the third game, but a developer should always remember that fans are there for the game – you mess too much with that too much and you will lose them.

The concern for players will always be that games gradually lose their character over time and there is certainly some evidence that this is the case. Even if we take something as commercially and creatively successful as the Elder Scrolls series we can see that Skyrim is a much less idiosyncratic and complex creature than Oblivion, which in turn is very streamlined compared to Morrowind. It is difficult to dislike Skyrim, but it’s pretty clear that if the developers do decide to smooth out the design of the game further, it is basically going to have nothing left. The current trajectory of the series would suggest that The Elder Scrolls 6 might just be a shiny thing that dangles on the end of a piece of elastic.

The hope is that game developers remain true to the fans of their games over the pull of the mass market, or that they at least attempt to reconcile the two. The fact is that if a game succeeds, if it then increases its budget and production values, it will have to sell more. Players always want to see the games they love improve, but the downside here is that improvements cost money, and if a game grows beyond its commercial niche the company that made it is going to fail. As it stands, it seems that fans of video games will have to make do with a system that is happy to give them more of what they like every couple of years or so, on the understanding that they are happy to have it watered down a little more each time.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

IBL/REX
Show Hide image

Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

0800 7318496