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Good Franchise, Bad Story

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The challenge developers face with each new franchise title is balancing fresh content with the tried-and-true material.

If a game is popular, they want to give the gamers more of what they loved, but not more of the same thing. It has to be new, too. The better franchises have some success with this on overall game design, but even the most popular franchises have mediocre stories.

Take BioShock. The first game had a unique and beautifully designed world, eerie and disturbing with entertaining combat. Looking at the third title, it’s easy to say they kept things fresh. The City of Columbia in BioShock Infinite is an entirely different setting from the City of Rapture in the previous games, but it still maintains that unsettling atmosphere, the feeling that things just aren’t quite right. You can also carry only two weapons now, which makes your choice of guns feel more significant. The selection of weapons has nearly doubled, the graphics improved, the art flourished, and downloadable content has kept the franchise exciting in between main releases.

But what about the stories? Without ruining the ending of the first BioShock – though you probably know it by now – the game climaxed with two instances of the same twist: the reveal of the true identity of the main character. While one of the reveals was unusual and unexpected, the other cheapened the playable character by, essentially, making him a two-year-old.

That’s ok; that’s just my opinion. And even if it’s yours too, it’s just the first game, right? An identity twist is hard to pull off. So Irrational Games tried it again. And again. And again. Every single story-based BioShock release ends with an identity revelation about the playable character. The only exception is Burial at Sea 2. It also contains an identity revelation; it just doesn’t come at the end. That’s right, the same type of plot twist in all six narratives.

The bad and/or repetitive storyline is present in many franchises. Assassin’s Creed has nine main titles. One of the best-rated titles in recent years was Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag and IGN praised it for all the things you can do outside of main story missions. For the most part, critics tend to dislike the Assassin’s Creed titles that are heavy on story because the overarching plot has become so repetitive and convoluted.

It’s hard to blame them.

How many times can we seek, find, lose, and re-find a valuable ancient artifact? How many games does it take before we’ve saved the world? In fact, we did save the world at the end of Assassin’s Creed III, but there have been four main titles since then. If you know anything about the series now, you know it has become a video game about playing a video game, in which you’re still chasing down ancient artifacts.

Which might be fine. These are action titles. We don’t watch Jason Statham movies for the story; we watch them because he kicks ass. But here’s the thing: most of us don’t watch Jason Statham movies at all. Whereas probably most of us watched The Dark Knight and saw both good action and a good story. And that was part of an excellent franchise.

What if Ubisoft lets you find the last ancient artifact in Assassin’s Creed? What kind of game would they make next? Forgo the trips into the past entirely, continuing the Assassins’ battles against the evil Templars in the present day? That would change a lot about the stories and about the gameplay. Ubisoft could do that, but they never have. At least, not for the entire length of a game. They know that people like seeing different historical eras. They want to do what they know works.

And there you have it. They want to do what they know works. The root of the problem is that game franchises don’t want to take significant risks. Every Assassin’s Creed game involves free-running and going back into history. Every BioShock game means “surprise” identity reveals and superhuman combat abilities. How many times can you make the same game? Nobody knows, but developers are determined to run titles into the ground to find out, because they’ll make a lot of money in the process.

Certainly, the story is the hardest part.

When people critique gameplay, it’s an easier fix. If gamers hate that all the weapons are short-range, or that the driving mechanics feel stiff, developers can add sniper rifles and looser steering to the sequel. But if BioShock players are tired of a character of mysterious origin exploring a hidden dystopian city, then they’re just plain tired of BioShock. So Irrational Games made sure to change the locale and the guns and the design and the era and pretty much everything else to keep players interested in the same story over and over. That’s how franchises work. But it doesn’t mean BioShock has to have the same identity plot twist over and over again.

Because an engaging story is one of the hardest game elements to create, it’s the one area in which franchises are most likely to play it safe. The whole concept of a franchise is playing it safe, and that’s sort of okay. Gamers play it safe too, by buying games in a franchise. And it’s being too critical to call it playing it safe. If we like something, we want more of it, and that’s okay. And as I said before, with each subsequent game in a franchise the balance between old and new becomes an even greater challenge. I respect that.

But there’s a reason there are so many articles with titles like “Eight Game Franchises That Need To Die.” There’s a reason Bungie handed Halo away to another company in order to make other games. It’s because franchises cease to be exciting when they don’t change enough from title to title. Perhaps that’s why Valve doesn’t want to finish the Half-Life saga. They made Portal and Portal 2, vastly different from Half-Life while still inhabiting the same fictional universe, and it was brilliant. But it was risky. You couldn’t even call them one franchise, really, which means Portal didn’t have the advantage of prequels to give it credibility. I wish more developers would take risks like that.

I like a good franchise. True, there are some that are beating a dead horse at this point. But in general, if I like something, I want more of it. I like BioShock and Assassin’s Creed. I wouldn’t write about them if I didn’t love them. I preordered BioShock Infinite and all its DLC and I don’t regret it. The gameplay is exciting, the concepts unique, the art beautiful. But developers’ habit of putting story in second or third place on the list of priorities – honestly, it’s probably more like sixth or seventh place – has become irritating. If you’re going to keep going with a franchise, if you’re going to be repetitive, do it well. And I know that old/new balance is tough, but I’ll tell you right now, more weight needs to be placed on the story.

Last modified on Wednesday, 07 September 2016 16:12
Lucas Moore

Lucas is a writer living in Los Angeles. He started playing video games in elementary school and grew to love them, particularly as a unique storytelling medium. He is currently working on his first science fiction novel.

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