Do Sequels Kill Creativity?

Oh Vaas-y, you came and you told me of insantity and then you just ran away oh Vaas-y...

In a sort of indirect response to David Cage and his recent and quite strong comment that “sequels kill creativity and innovation”, I’m going to take this post today to look at the issue of sequels, creativity and innovation. The end result? Well, I can’t agree, but it may surprise you how much I disagree…

 

David Cage is never one to mince his words.

In this months Official PlayStation Magazine, he claims that “sequels kill creativity and innovation”, before adding; “many people want the same and if that’s what you offer them, they will gladly buy it”.

“If you’re interested in innovation and believe that games could be more than shooters, then you realise that sequels kill creativity and innovation”, he continues.

 

Now, this is a fairly loaded statement by Mr. Cage so let’s first deal with the elephant in the room – Call of Duty. It’s made Activision countless millions of dollars and every year, it sells like hot cakes. Admittedly, as someone who likes fresh angles and new ideas the Call of Duty franchise is hardly compelling gaming, but at the same time I have to acknowledge that millions of people enjoy each new Call of Duty every year and will wilfully defend it, because that’s exactly what they want. And if that is exactly what they want, then Activision and its studios will continue to deliver to them exactly what they want without too many drastic changes in the formula – ultimately, it’s a vicious circle but one that all participants tend to know they are participating in. The market knows this. And it perpetuates itself, endlessly in circles, until eventually the consumer end gets bored. When the sales dip, when the franchise isn’t as successful as it once was, then yes. There is no doubt that you’ll see change – change to recapture its old market share, to bring back those who lapsed by giving them what they want. You can’t just change because you can change – you have to want, even need, to change otherwise you risk repelling the very market you seek to capture. Of course, eventually that market will want change – so you give it to them when they want it. It’s a dependency on both sides, creativity where creativity needs to happen, where it needs to be uncovered. Is it an ideal formula? Perhaps not, but then, is there really a market ideal nowadays that dictates how you design a game?

But when it comes to sequels, I think Cage misses a multitude of examples in the market where these titles do change, innovate and ultimately find themselves innovating and challenging the market and industry because they can, or they want to – or that, perhaps, they need to.

For example, Assassin’s Creed. I will defend the first Assassin’s Creed game to the hilt but only because of Assassin’s Creed 2. The first one sowed the seeds, it laid the groundwork. The gameplay was alright but a little too extensively open and long-winded. The narrative didn’t quite have the correct focus. The game felt like an art-house project, or a technical demonstration, than an actual game you’d want to play. However, from that came the incredibly enjoyable Assassin’s Creed 2, which took what was good about the first game, jettisoned all the bad from the first game and then proceeded to fill in the cracks with things people wanted to do and enjoy. The end result was a game that pushed itself creatively and narratively, redefining the Parkour formula that was getting a little stale from extensive abuse in the previous generation (mostly by UbiSoft themselves!) with a fresh angle, a more open-world angle. The end result was a fun, enjoyable romp through the past with a little dose of soft science-fiction, which was thankfully kept very much on a leash so as not to detract from the enjoyable narrative that Ezio Auditore provided, interrupting it only when the tale needed to jump forward a little as a pause, a comma, not a brick wall.

Then you have Dark Souls. Yes, I count Dark Souls as a sequel, even though it was more of a spin-off from Demons Souls on the PS3. My point on Dark Souls is that it took what Demons Souls had and gave it… something more. Dark Souls inspires rabid devotion and dedication from many gamers today who are hailing it as one of the very best games this generation, because it was softer where it needed to be and harsher where it felt it could get away with that. Couple that with NPC’s that felt like individuals, who had their own tales to tell as well as a multi-layered narrative of its own with hidden strands to find and explore, not to mention the whose-a-good-little-uh-sorry-big-boy Sif the Great Grey Wolf, a character with a story told in precisely zero words but is all the more compelling because of it, and you have a game that defied its predecessor and its niche market, looking outwards to get as many individuals as they could in to punish and reward. Dark Souls has been a resounding success, one of this generations most surprise hits, and it did that by ultimately spring-boarding from its predecessor and doing things a little differently, pushing innovation and creativity where it needed to be found whilst maintaining its wilful core of challenge and unforgiving difficulty in places.

And then we have FarCry 3 – a third instalment, but no less valid for the purposes of example. It’s also the most current, and like Dark Souls, it is hailed as one of this generations masterpieces – a masterclass of open-world gameplay, first-person adventure and truly inspired narrative. FarCry 3 is a tour-de-force of creativity, with every inch of it dripping in style and thought, with a narrative that compels where it has to and disgusts where it needs to, as well as a character in Vaas Montenegro that is at the same time believable and sympathetic, whilst also being dangerous and downright crazy to boot. There is nothing in FarCry 3 where you feel they played it safe and took no risks, because it is so apparent in each inch of the landscape that this was the aim and yet Vaas himself comes in as the biggest creative risk – adding a taunting, teasing villain that maintains a presence throughout the game is always a huge risk but to make them like Vaas shows a pair of kahunas that quite frankly I wish I had on me. It takes an unparalleled level of risk and unified front to pull something like FarCry 3 off, and it succeeded because it just comes together, it works so brilliantly, feels so alive that it is impossible to avert your gaze.

David Cage (image from Wikipedia)

Good evening Mr. Cage, let’s ‘talk’. Don’t mind the laser, I used it on Mr. Bond earlier…

 

In each of those examples, there is clear intent to challenge, innovate and create something new and wonderful. And they are sequels. So why is it that Mr. Cage is so willing to discard a number of perfectly brilliant, inspired masterpieces that take place inside a pre-set franchise in his criticism of sequels?

Thing is, new IP – for the want we have for new IP, and the love we have for the new IP coming in the next year – isn’t by itself very valuable. Each game needs a budget, a team and a pre-fabricated world built to specification, with research and development costs as well as the need to get an engine running underneath it all. The long and the sort of it is that really, new IP is rarely meant to be that valuable. It’s rare to see a brand-new IP nowadays make back its costs in its entirety, because the cost for getting and grooming a new idea and story and characters is very high. Instead, the whole point of a new IP like Dishonored, or The Last of Us is simply to lay a foundation, to demonstrate a statement of intent. Will these games be perfect? Maybe – but if they are not, but have a moderate success (and there is nothing to state they won’t be a moderate success) then the foundation, and the market presence, is already there. Building from already-set foundations is cheaper in the long run, and allows a more clever way of creative building and financial return than simply relying on a title to pay back what it makes immediately.

And what of games which arguably did become critical or financial hits, and the sequels never came? Beyond Good and Evil has grown in popularity over the years and good job too, as it’s a brilliant game. A creative, intelligent, witty and clever take which blended a few different genres together for the purposes of its story, it’s a game that inspires an almost religious devotion in its followers – followers who have been teased for years at the prospect of a new instalment, a new version with Jade and Pey’j and uncovering more mysteries about the Domz and their influence and dominance – but it’s been nearly a decade now, and nothing. We’re still waiting. We’re told they’re still working on it, but equally when you’ve created something so amazing, something that can inspire such ferocious loyalty – where do you go, creatively speaking? There’s no room to manoeuvre when you have something of that weight and size, something that people don’t want to see changed or undermined, just continued. That can restrict and kill any sense of innovation and creativity by itself, no? How can you carry on anything when something is already perceived to be perfect as it is?

Beyond Good and Evil HD

… oh Jade, I am lost in your gorgeous green eyes…

 

Ultimately we can discuss over things that might be killing the creative and innovative intend in the industry from a business perspective – rushed design and development to coincide with a franchise or a goodwill that it doesn’t deserve to be a part of is one of them, see the upcoming The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct for more evidence of this kind of thing compromising the creative and innovative ends of the industry by demanding and rushing through something to capitalise on the goodwill and success of another studios success story. Restrictive, restrained development that doesn’t feed the creative needs of its workers or its audience because it’s so busy trying to be “real” or “accurate” – see Medal of Honor: Warfighter for this one. The destructive and expendable nature of the industry, where studios are bought and destroyed by publishers and companies in the hope of wringing out every penny they can – see EA for this one. Not cultivating talent, not looking for those sparks of genius and imagination that could one day develop into the next Shigeru Miyamoto, or Hideo Kojima, or Tim Schafer. All of these could have their parts to play within the medium, by stifling creative intent and innovative ideas because there’s a schedule damnit, you shall not be a greater part in the machine no matter how much you want to be!

But even here, there are exceptions. Telltale Games showed us what you can do in a limited time with their take on The Walking Dead. Some games, like LA Noire, spring forth from tormented teams. Clover Studios notably gave us Okami before their demise, not to mention the cult hit God Hand. And sometimes, gems are found in the studios and cultivated and grown and built up, believing in them. We can’t just say that it’s all terrible and nothing good happens in any of this stuff because it varies from person to person, from studio to studio, from publisher to publisher (Nintendo is still one of the worlds most respected publishers, after all). It’s never quite as simple as saying it’s all bad.

Dark Souls 2

Dark Souls 2 looks different and creative enough. What’s the problem Mr. Cage?

 

Which is partly my problem with what Mr. Cage has said. It’s an absolute, a statement by which you can only ever really attempt to argue the opposite side of, because it’s so direct and succinct. But is he right? Clearly not. There are ready examples of great sequels cultivating and encouraging creativity, innovation and imagination across the board and this is something we can’t just ignore because we want new IP. New IP should come in at every stage of a generational cycle, it is necessary and wonderful but it’s not always able to recover its costs on the first round, sometimes it needs a second or even a third to truly hit its stride, to really get comfortable in its own skin. It varies from game to game, title to title, character to character. There is no black and white, no yes and no, no Yin and Yang. It has to depend on the game and where there is no creativity, no innovation, we should perhaps take the time to look at it from a business point of view, understanding in some cases the success of something can inhibit change and adaptation because the market is demanding more of the same. And some games won’t hold up to that scrutiny, and we should point it out – Sonic the Hedgehog, for example, because Sonic is a fantastic example of just about everything wrong with the games industry these days.

And for his absolute, David Cage misses something important; by always wanting to do new things, you can discard and destroy things that otherwise could bloom into wonderful tales, amazing franchises and brilliant, innovative experiences. Pulling up the flower bed every year just to put new plants in isn’t always a good idea, it can take time to settle and blossom. By not being open to the idea of carrying on a tale, developing a sequel, exploring the limitations of a title and trying to find new things to do, you can be just as destructive in killing creativity and innovation as churning out endless cut and paste sequels. Because you are killing things in their infancy, rather than allowing them the time and freedom to grow up and mature.

Sorry Mr. Cage. But from this angle, you look awfully like a hypocrite…

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