The “Among Thieves” Effect – On Sequels and Franchises in Gaming and Movies

Posted on 10/02/2011


By far not the gaming franchise with the most installments on the market, Final Fantasy's rather recent trend to put out proper sequels to it's games comes across as a bit over the top, adding arabic numbers to the regular roman ones.

Sequels are a phenomenon of popular culture. It’s something everybody loves to hate. They’re unnecessary–just another piece of proof that capitalism is destroying art in all its forms, turning it into derivative, unimaginative, uncreative, food for the masses. Carbon copies of the so-called “tried and true” ideas which a studio or publisher believes it can still get more golden eggs out of.

In spite of the abundant hatred towards sequels and “franchisation,” the angry customer often forgets that for almost every bad sequel there is also a good one. Almost. It might be true that a lot of sequels are inherently unnecessary, but even among the supposedly unnecessary ones there are some gems to be found.

There are different types of sequels.

The first kind–the most common–simply offers more of the same. This isn’t necessarily bad, but it is a bit unimaginative. Ideally, those more-of-the-same sequels manage to polish up the experience that made the original good. But that’s the ideal. Most of the time it just isn’t achieved–with the sequel attempting to pull the same tricks the original did, but failing to recreate the magic that made the original special.

The other kind–the superior–is the kind that expands on the ideas of the original and takes them in new, different directions.

Video game sequels are different from their film-based counterparts.

Uncharted 2 is regarded by many as a perfect sequel, offering just the right balance of old ideas and new innovations as well as more polished made possible by a bigger budget.

The most prominent example of this would be the “Uncharted” series, which began with a flawed, but enjoyable game which then went on to an incredibly refined and polished sequel that earned its creator Naughty Dog a bunch of Game of the Year awards in 2009.

This necessary refinement of a game concept is something that can be seen a lot in games, especially when a developer makes a game that’s outside of his comfort zone. The examples for this effect are numerous: “Mass Effect”, “Dead Space”, “Grand Theft Auto” and “Thief”. Each of these games were blessed with sequels which took their basic concepts and refined them, edging out flaws and adding levels of polish without necessarily reinventing the franchise in question from the ground up or going in entirely new directions.

The closest thing that movies have in common to games in this regard is no doubt the “X-Men” series. It’s quite visible in that the first installment didn’t have the necessary budget to go all the way to be a special effects laden movie like it should have been. Effects were skimpy and the movie looked unpolished at parts, but it was by no means a bad movie. Needless to say, with a bigger budget, it would’ve been better–as evidenced by the (direct, mind you) sequel.

And then there are other franchise installments – ones that don’t walk down the well-trodden path of the originals, but take central ideas, concepts and characters and spin them in a new direction. Sometimes this goes as far as radical re-imagining a show–“Battlestar Galactica” only had the basic concepts and names in common with the 1970s show, much to the disappointment of a lot of people including Dirk “Starbuck” Benedict. The rest was different.

The third Die Hard movie saw the return of the original's director John McTiernan, as well as a fresh take on the misadventures of John McClane.

Other times, a sequel abandons the fundamental concept of the original and go somewhere else entirely. Take “Die Hard with a Vengeance” for example. It’s a much better “Die Hard” sequel than the second movie, and that is because it abandons the core concept of having John McLane trapped in a building for something else entirely. It expands McLane as a character who lives in a world outside of the confined spaces of the first two films. “Die Hard with a Vengeance” still carries the trademark dry humor and still features the main character getting more and more bruised throughout the course of the movie. But other than that, there are few structural parallels between the first two movies. “Die Hard” movies don’t have to take place on Christmas, or feature John McLane being isolated in a building filled with armed terrorists.

The gaming parallel is a bit more obscure with this one, since gaming franchise sequels rarely leave the comfort zone of an established concept. “Far Cry 2” fits the pattern, since it’s a sequel in name only–taking only the huge, open landscapes from the first game but nothing else. A possible future title to do this would be “Bioshock Infinite”, which only retains some of the gameplay concepts of the original while abandoning the iconic underwater city for a whole new setting and a whole new cast of characters.

Developer Irrational Games decided to stick with the "Bioshock" name for their next game, despite the game being "only" a spiritual successor, abandoning the most obvious tropes of the "Bioshock" series so far.

This hope for a “Die Hard 3-like sequel” is what causes me to welcome larger thematic changes to existing franchises. “Max Payne 3” doesn’t have to take place in New York City to be a great new entry to the series; and a new “System Shock” doesn’t have to take place aboard a starship or space station, as long as some central aspects remain in place.

A good franchise is worth more than its constituent parts. With that being said, there are certain parts which can be singled out, separated from the whole and then put into a whole different context and still work as well as they did in the original product. “Bioshock” doesn’t need Rapture as it’s setting for a sequel; and Fallout works just as well with first person shooter mechanics as it did with isometric turn based strategy.

There is no reason why a new installment to a preexisting series will be lesser to its predecessors simply because it plans to leave some of its established tropes behind.

It goes without saying that hardcore fans of any series–especially that of an established franchise will be the most vocal among the crowd, raising issues where none exist. Fans will be displeased by any significant changes to the original product, especially changes to its perceived “vision”.

Ultimately, both of the ways a sequel can go will only be as good as their execution. In the right hands, any weird idea might just work. David Fincher pulled off a movie about Facebook. Christopher Nolan managed to elevate the Batman movies to a higher echelon of acclaimed Hollywood grandeur. 2K Marin did the impossible and developed a worthy and in some ways even better game with its sequel to “Bioshock”.

It’s sad to say that countless other sequels fall short of expectations, and are what most people think of “sequels”: cheap cash-ins with little to no artistic value.

In the end, it’s not the concept that matters, or how faithful a sequel stays to the original. Although those things are not unimportant, it eventually comes down to the people behind the project, and the faith of the publishers who back it.

Big thanks to Ian M. “Stillgray” Cheong for the editing job on this one.