Sequels: Be Careful What You Wish For…

… you might just get it.

Steam Sales always bring the fanatical superstition and conspiracy theory of Half Life 3 to the fore. Even this time around, the conspiracy theorists have found “undeniable” proof that Valve will announce the long-anticipated sequel at the end of the Steam sale later (I personally wouldn’t get my hopes up over it…).

I get that people want the game, probably in much the same way that I personally want Beyond Good and Evil 2 – a game I have a fanatical love of, an irrational adoration that I can explain but I might get a bit overly-gushy about it so I won’t. Needless to say, I am of the opinion that Beyond Good and Evil is one of the markets greatest overlooked titles; a game of staggering quality and depth. Perhaps not the longest game, or the hardest; but definitely one of the easiest to fall in love with. And much like Half Life 3, Beyond Good and Evil 2 has been teased and taunted and flaunted and hinted at and rumoured and everything in between for years now. It’s a game that has been in and out of development as far as I know for some considerable time, and it’s even been rebranded at times; there is still a very strong case that the old demonstration of BG&E2 metamorphosed into Assassin’s Creed.

But I’ve had to come to terms with a reality. One that hurts to admit to, but one that cuts deep to the root of the problem as a fan of Jade and Pey’j.

That problem is simple; my expectations are so high for a sequel now that I happen to think there’s no way that UbiSoft could ever realistically push out a Beyond Good and Evil 2 without disappointing me in a big way. This isn’t to say they would turn out a bad game; on the contrary, I am going along with the idea that they would turn out a game of at least 8 out of 10 quality. But the game I have in my head and in my heart is something grander, more encompassing and enriching than I think would be possible. So much time has passed, and as the years roll on, my love for some games grows ever more fond – Haunting Ground, Grandia, Plok and so on. And it’s this which presents a challenge.

As time has rolled on, and more have become wise to the cult status or popularity of a video game, the market grows. That’s not a surprise; word of mouth in many cases can take some time to kick in, but it’s more effective than tens of millions of dollars of advertising. But as the numbers grow ever larger and the potential sales base grows ever more tempting, there’s also the catch that if you get it wrong, then not only do you irreparably damage that franchise (in much the way Resident Evil has been damaged of late), but you also damage your own reputation as a company. People will take issue with anything that doesn’t measure up to their sometimes quite unrealistic standards, and the target for that hate will obviously be the developers and publishers of the game in question. This applies even if the game is really very good; it may play brilliantly, look great and handle superbly and be a technically polished and great game in its own right, but that’s not what people are expecting from the game. They want that tingly sensation, the fizz in their gut, that shiver of excitement; they want, in effect, to feel exactly the same way – or, in some cases, feel it even more intensely, even though in reality they can never really get that same first impression again. They want to feel like series virgins again, and really, their cherry has already been popped.

As time goes on, and expectation and wishful thinking intensifies, the idea of what a sequel would entail with modern technology becomes fanciful, almost whimsical. Our expectations and what we feel like we want to see in these new games becomes strange, alien and at times at odds with the very games we fell in love with; I’ve seen people who have requested that Jade “turns into a Domz Killing Machine when she’s charged up with blisters”, except Jade was never about the direct confrontation (and really, the times she did end up in that position in the game I will readily admit were the weakest points of the game). There was so much more to it than that, and Jade’s fate at the end is narratively more complex than “doing a Jak” as I’ve been want to call it.

Jak 2 is definitely the place to stop when discussing games drifting from their origins. No doubt the game was very enjoyable; but after Jak and Daxter, the darker, more edgy Jak seemed at odds with the stylings. The more they tried to incorporate some sense of Grand Theft Auto into it, the more it didn’t add up, and a charming – if not especially adventurous – platform adventure became something that I felt was trying too hard. We should remember Jak 2 and how wrong it felt, as fans became outraged.

Half Life 3, really, is another example of this. I’d reel off a list of things people are expecting from a new instalment in Valve’s extremely tardy series, but some of them are just crazy. Talk of learning from Metroid Prime, incorporating RPG elements, puzzles and even crossing it with Portal since the two games are in the same world, and both need a third instalment so why not blend the two together? But Metroid Prime already exists, and any attempt to copy it could be seen as cheap and lazy. RPG elements? You mean, like Borderlands? The game already exists. As for blending Portal and Half Life into one single third instalment, I can see why people can jump to that conclusion after the ending of Portal 2 – but that doesn’t mean I can see it working. Everything people want, or are asking for, tends to have already happened in another game; and arguably, already been done perfectly well and doing quite alright really.

The expectation is for Half Life 3 to basically incorporate every good idea in FPS games in the past nine years, in much the same way I probably expect Beyond Good and Evil 2 to cover all the good ideas from Prince of Persia, Assassin’s Creed and a bunch of other games like Anarchy Reigns. But it fundamentally clouds our judgement; we forget in a sense the game we fell in love with, and instead fall head over heals in love with the game we want, which is nothing more than a fanciful notion in our heads. We think that by wanting all this garnish added in that it will make it better; and I’m not sure that’s how it works any more.

We’ve been conditioned to think more is…. well, more in terms of video games. Being the “same” as an already winning formula isn’t really enough, you have to have a “Unique Selling Point”, you have to be “Innovative” and use a combination of buzz words designed to instil awe and fear into the hearts of fans the world over. With new technology and games getting ever more complex, the temptation is of course there to somehow make something more from a classic game, to utilise modern techniques and breathe new life into an old design. But at some stage, we have to ask when the original game has ceased to be; when the design has drifted too far from its core origins, and become an entirely different entity. At some point, we’re going to have to accept that the games we’ve fallen in love with have changed.

And they can change either because technology wills it, or the finances demand it. The former is understandable; we are on the cusp of a new generation and a casual glance around at the games right now will show how far we’ve come in the last decade or so. Expecting Half Life 3, or even Beyond Good and Evil 2, to somehow be the same is unrealistic – they won’t be. But the latter relies on changing for a particular market, and that’s never a situation that ends up working out for the best. People aren’t stupid, and they can see through the cynicism of that perfectly well.

But it’s difficult. Between the advances in technology and the almost mythical sensibilities that now surround some of these classic games, it is sometimes difficult to imagine how any new instalment could meet expectations. I don’t think for a moment that they won’t (eventually) make a Half Life 3, or a Beyond Good and Evil 2 or heck, even a Final Fantasy 7 HD.  They will, because the monetary gain from them will eventually become too tempting to resist.

But the danger is that you are tampering with legend. And even if you created the legend, it can still bring you down should you do anything untoward to it.

That’s a huge problem and yes, it’s partly their own fault for letting it go this far. Valve could have done a Half Life 3 by now, I can’t really deny that. UbiSoft could have finished Beyond Good and Evil 2, but they just can’t decide if the market is right for it. Square-Enix could have announced Final Fantasy VII HD already. But we’re so far on from them now that it feels like any tampering with them is tantamount to sacrilege; that you are interfering with the natural order of things. Change after so long will feel alien and wrong; change will have to happen however because of how different things are now, compared to how they used to be. No doubt that these changes four or five years ago would have been easier to bear and we would have been more tolerant of them.

We need to be careful about what we expect though. Change may happen, but really, if you want a heady RPG system in your FPS, then Borderlands already exists. We’ve got to a point now where we are like five year olds, drawing cars in a maths book. We’re drawing lasers and jet-packs and cannons and machine guns and all manner of additions onto our dream cars, but the reality is they won’t fit onto the car and they would compromise the handling, styling and feel of the car as well. At the end of the day, what we want is the car. Our imaginations can run riot with what it entails or comes with, an unlimited supply of cola in the boot or Sienna Miller in the glove box (Oh wait, that’s already been done), but the root of it all is that we want the car.

And we want these games. And our imaginations, in the absence of real practical demonstrations, have been allowed to run rampant all over expectation. This is where we need to start thinking more realistically about what we want from a Half Life 3. Or any sequel. Because we may be setting ourselves up for disappointment in the long-term if we’re not careful.

Perhaps the best way to start this is to sit down and ask yourself this; what is it you liked about Half Life 2? Write it out if it helps. Then think – can any of your expectations be bolted onto any of the things you liked about it? If the answer is no, then cross them out. They are unlikely to fit into the game and would only muddy the waters. Evolution of concepts is acceptable; adding things into the mix because “hey, why not?” isn’t acceptable. Sometimes you’ll find that many of the things you want simply wouldn’t fit into the game. And that’s a good thing – because it will remind you that just because it could be done, doesn’t mean it should be done or that it would work in context.

Whether Half Life 3 happens or not, the greatest threat to it is a userbase that is expecting far, far too much. I’ve no doubt the end result would be absolutely cracking. But then, I’m not steeped in Half Life 2. As I said, my love is Beyond Good and Evil. No doubt that sequel will be cracking too when it eventually arrives.

But will it be what I, as a long-time fan, have been dreaming of? Or will it be a rude awakening? I’m not sure. I just feel that right now, none of these games will ever be as good as the image we have in our heads.

And that’s quite frightening.

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