September 24, 2021

Bustin’ Da Canon (Game Stories / Retcons)

Kotaku raised an interesting discussion on the Kingdom Hearts spin-offs. They sucked, sure, but they told large parts of an ever-expanding story and if you wanted the full picture, you bought it.

The question I wonder is – why do we get suckered into these stories when they are all too often ignored? Lara Croft used to be a sassy, witty fun-loving British Aristocrat whose parents despaired at her wild, tomboyish streak. In the Legend Saga, they rewrote her to be a whiny, bitchy woman with some serious daddy and mommy issues. It didn’t really work, hence the new Tomb Raider next year is ANOTHER retcon of the original backstory.

Let’s also remember that there are games out there that tell a segment of a storyline and are never referred to again – the best example of this is Resident Evil Gaiden. As a Game Boy Color game, it was never going to set the gameplay world alight, but it was servicable. It even had two of the series stalwarts in it, Leon S. Kennedy (who went on to star in Resident Evil 4) and Barry Burton (Who desperately needs MORE exposure in the series!). And yet, despite the care and attention they took to slot the game into the set canon at the time – they scrapped it, and started again. It’s never officially been deemed “not canon”. But the implications if it were would be enormous – the Leon that escapes is… well. Not Leon. I’m assuming enough time and care has passed that I don’t really need to apologise for that spoiler.

And then you have games which simply have some crappy-ass writing. Dead Island forgets the first three acts and all the people you met along the journey just to rush the final act through a linear set of corridors to a very anti-climactic ending. Gears of War… you know, aside from the massive amounts of Americana that gets ejaculated into your face in it, I don’t get the story. There is no real depth to it. Maybe you can argue it doesn’t need to – but for such a successful saga, it’s a pity that the story in it is so dreadfully written, and that the scripts for each game seem to be an endless stream of “I’m So Witty, Oh So Witty… I feel witty, so witty, and GAAAAAAAY!” one-liners.

And then you have Alan Wake, another game where in the space of a few hours, you’re just left with the impression they forgot the story they had written and rushed some half-baked conclusion that is both depressing and a let-down.

There are dozens of other examples in my own collection that suffer this – Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands (An idea to try and retcon the second game, Warrior Within, from our memories). Ninja Blade just doesn’t even bother with an actual ending to the story, which is a pity for a game that was all about the style. And Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood is often just as bad. Then you have examples like Metroid, which see fit to always rob you of the awesome gear you start with so you can get new stuff that applies to that game – forget the old one, here’s the new stuff. Like it or shove it.

It’s amusing that this very week, that we discover that the Writers Guild of Great Britain has been taking submissions for “Best Storytelling In A Video Game” this year – and that the shortlist includes Brink, who seem hotly tipped to win it despite being against Enslaved: Odyssey To The West, a game which did have a very strong story (but it was hardly original).

And for all the excellent examples in the last 12 months – LA Noire (regardless of the nastiness going on in that studio), heck, even Catherine – the new kid on the block about a guy haunted by his own infidelity, and the guilt as he tries in vain to work out which one he wants to spend his life with – whilst trying to survive pretty horrifying nightmares. There are SUPERB examples of video game writing out there, and games that remember everything – from the first hour to the closing seconds, and make everything come together – be it the first game in the series or the fourth or fifth.

Breaking canon and forcing a retcon are examples of failsafes designed as an emergency measure should you paint yourself into some sort of corner – a la Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness (admittedly, a very VALID reason to retcon the series). But that they need to do it again after two games and a reimagining of the original? Seriously? Somethings not quite right in those offices at Crystal Dynamics. That shouldn’t have been necessary.

Which is why it’s unlikely the next console version of Kingdom Hearts will alude to its handheld spin-offs, why Tomb Raider will completely forget all that has come before it, why Resident Evil WILL find a way for Wesker to return (because they’ve already done it before – Code Veronica became Code: Veronica X just to get Wesker back into the series) and why any visit back to Prince of Persia now would only serve to sully a good series.

These people are paid to write a script – and in the next game, if the writing was sloppy, the new writers (or old ones) just have to get around it… and if you can’t get around the bad writing, just wipe the slate clean and start all over again.

It’s been happening for years in comic books and TV shows. Video games are no different – when the going gets tough, just hit the reset button.

And yes, it IS a copout. But it must be said… the alternatives are probably less appealing as well. Necessary evil? Yes. But don’t abuse retcons and resets and ignoring your own storylines.

Because you just end up looking lazy.


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