Heya Space Cadets,
Been a while since an entry, but LG’s been busy at work, so I’m going to reboot these Dev Diaries by talking about a bunch of Delve Deeper 2 stuff. I’ll also be making a post on Wednesday and a double-feature on Friday and Saturday, which is a format I’m hoping to continue forwards. For this one, I really want to talk about sequels.
Right now, we’re back at work on the Delve Deeper 2 sequel, a little slowly while we finish up other projects we signed onto, but ramping up as I firm up elements of design. Throughout this process one of the questions I asked myself was “Why are we making a sequel?” and another was “What about Delve Deeper was important and what was forgettable?” Immediately after DD1 we considered a sequel with a few new Dwarf classes, monsters, and environments but the exact same art style and code. After a bit of discussion we scrapped that idea. I think players deserve a higher standard of authorship than shipping out a sequel just because you can. And I mean that in more than one sense.
One big difference between films, books, and games when it comes to sequels is that very rarely are games designed with sequels in mind. Usually its hard enough getting one game done and out the door, so each game is designed as a complete narrative, not as part of a story or gameplay arc. Metroid and Megaman titles show this off, with an unexplained off-screen loss of the previous game’s Gizmos every time a new one rolls around. There’s nothing wrong with that, since each iteration in the series tended to bring out better graphics, cooler enemies, and tighter gameplay. Good reasons to release a sequel are to explore new gameplay possibilities, update a great game to existing hardware, and to extend, or amend, the story of the original.
That last bit is something I think games really forget to do a lot. While developers often treat narratives like scenery for a linear mission structure, they’re missing out. Narratives are hugely important to getting a player’s investment, since humans are social creatures and invent stories to comprehend their world. We’re storytellers around a stone-age fire, to the point that players invent their own complex narratives for games like–the original X-COM joins Metroid and Megaman in that group. It’s the idea of the silent protagonist you write your own character onto. Warren Spector said back in 2004 that an emergent narrative lacks the punch of a scripted one, but I think he’s focusing too much on the relatively pathetic “choose your own path” narratives that developers intentionally design and not considering the detailed stories that players write themselves in an open, “narrative sandbox” situation.
So when you make a sequel, and you slap a story onto it, you’re not just adding a story to a previously story-less structure, you’re retconning someone’s favorite moments in a beloved adventure. Metroid: Other M is an example of building a designer’s narrative onto a player one, and in a lot of cases turning out pretty awful. This is another reason for the failure of video game movies–the game’s plot points have less emotional context for a narrative than the player’s first-hand experience. When you’re making a good sequel, you need to think about how you’re keeping that emotional experience going from one to the next. It would behoove Developers thinking about setting up a franchise IP to plan a structure for the story of that playing.
Game narratives are dependent on the gestalt play-and-feel elements of the previous versions, less so on specific settings and characters, and going too far from that feeling makes it seem like a spinoff. The first-person “XCOM” was a particularly egregious example, but it could have been marketed very successfully if it had been just a spinoff. Spinoffs are usually bad, but they allow for the value of one IP to bleed over into another without causing narrative confusion. The popular re-imagining has somewhat displaced spinoff products, but to the detriment of designers, since you can’t reimagine a sci-fi turn-based strategy game as a first person grease-gun shooter without ape-like howling from anyone who knows what you’re up to. And anyone who doesn’t won’t understand where the IP came from in the first place, so it’s always a wonder to me why people bother. If you reimagine Batman the way the Nolan films did, you’re rebooting the character for a new generation. If you reimagine him as an alien man-bat agent of justice who feeds off human fear, well, you’re going to get some backlash. It’s not that you can’t tell these stories, you should just avoid calling that guy Batman, you know?
Developers of media struggle with this, and a lot of the time blame fans for being inflexible or feeling entitled, when in reality it’s the developers who are feeling exceptionally and irrationally entitled to dictate the story of a character of the player. Nintendo may own Samus but they weren’t there when I killed Kraid, or how I felt Samus felt. They can guess, and they can install a story on top to tell me how I should feel, but they can’t really own that moment. When you say players don’t have a right to feel entitled to their own story, you’ve really gotten things backwards.
Authorship, that concept I had up there, is not just about players deserving a better job from developers of treating continuing franchises like a planned-out series, but about giving players more authorship over their own experience. It’s the greatest way in the world to make a player invested, bar none. You let them twiddle some hair and face options, change some names around, and all of a sudden your barren, story-less game takes on the dimensions of a infinite horizon of deeply personal moments. It’s that easy. So when you make a sequel, tread softly and reverently, for you’re walking among a thousand thousand personal stories of the people who bought your original.
Spacelab Signing Out
What’s this mean for DD2? Well, not a ton, but I’ve spent a lot of time agonizing over what I wanted to have in the next versus what I want to leave behind. I’m sure nobody really cares yet where our Dragons come from or what the physiology of a Slime is, but if I’m planning on making a bunch more of these it may eventually come up. Here at Lunar Giant, we go that extra distance. Oh, and stay tuned for a more grounded, mechanical discussion on Wednesday, and then a mix of Concept and Mechanic on Friday+Saturday.
Neil Wickman is an accredited Hollow Earth Cartographer.
He has been working for Lunar Giant studios since its inception, one of the lead designers and the Creative Director. Listen to his arty nonsense @LunarNeil on Twitter.