Series work differently in video games than they do in, say, books. In books, a sequel continues the story of the previous book in the series. And, to be sure, there are a lot of video game series that follow that same pattern: I just finished playing Jak 3, and it did continue the story from the previous two games in the series. At least I assume so: there’s a lot of what looks like backstory, though I haven’t actually played the first two games in the series. (Which, come to think of it, is another difference between series in books and series in video games: I almost never read a later book in a series without reading the earlier books first, whereas I feel fewer qualms about ignoring earlier video games in a series; more on that below.)
There are also many video game series that follow another pattern that is also familiar from books, though it shows up in nonfiction. Every year, EA Sports releases another football game, just like, every year, tax guide companies print a new edition of their tax guide.
But not all video game series follow these pattern. (Do most? I’m not sure.) Take Zelda, for example. The events of one game don’t follow the events of another game: you have a new Link saving the kingdom from a new Ganondorf, with Princess Zelda implicated somehow. Sometimes they make a pretense of tying the events in one game to those in another, but it’s clearly a sham. So instead of having events in one game follow events in another game, you have later games repeating archetypes from earlier games: there’s an archetypal Link, and archetypal Zelda, and so forth.
This repetition shows up in all sorts of ways: the species repeat themselves as well (Zoras, Gorons, etc.), settings frequently recur (e.g. the Lost Woods), the key items recur, etc. And sometimes this can be quite emotionally powerful. For me, the most surprising instance of the latter is the effects of repeating musical themes from one game to the next: I turned on the recent GBA Zelda game, heard a familiar theme, and immediately felt happy. (On a completely different note, I wonder if video games could take a lesson from Wagner and consciously use leitmotivs in their music? They could even have the music change in response to your actions: if you use some item, say, then the leitmotiv for that item could work its way into the background music. Hmm…)
To be sure, the Zelda games aren’t as similar as I’ve made them seem here: Link is in all of them, but Zelda and Ganon aren’t. Sometimes they’ll alternate more canonical games with less canonical games, for example. But in every game, you’ll see many concepts familiar from earlier games in the series.
At first, I wondered if maybe Zelda was unusual in this regard, but I think it’s a fairly general phenomenon. Take the Final Fantasy games, for example: there’s no pretense of continuing a plot from one game to the next. In fact, the differences between games are so extreme that it can be hard to say why the games deserve to all have the same name at all. To be honest, I’m not sure what they all do have in common: I’m aware of some repetitions (chocobos, the airship guy), but if you plunked me in front of a random Japanese RPG, I’m not sure if I could reliably tell whether or not it was a Final Fantasy game. I suspect that’s more my ignorance showing, though, and that real RPG fans would have no difficulty explaining what makes an FF game different from other Square RPGs or Japanese RPGs from other companies.
So why are video games different this way? One reason probably has a lot to do with the pace of technological change. The difference between different the capabilities of different generations of consoles are enough that I suspect that, if you continued the story of a game from one console onto another console 5 or 10 years later, the contrast would be quite jarring. Modern consoles, for example, allow much richer stories than earlier consoles, with much higher levels of detail in every aspect of the game. So that probably encourages reinforcing concepts at a certain level of abstraction, instead of continuing the details of a story.
We might also look into reasons why people jump into video game series in the middle, because that encourages a focus on archetypes rather than continuing stories. If you’re only now curious about, say, Harry Potter, it’s easy enough to buy the earlier volumes, or just borrow them from the library. If you’re curious about the latest Final Fantasy game, though, it may be next to impossible to get your hands on, say, Final Fantasy III. (At least legally.) Even games from earlier in this generation of consoles may be out of print; games from earlier generations are likely to be both long out print and for hardware you don’t even own. (Fortunately, console makers have started to make their hardware backward-compatible, an idea I whole-heartedly support. Admittedly, companies do reissue older games for newer consoles, which raises a whole host of questions, but not ones for this post.)
Also, if you want to read an earlier Harry Potter novel, it only takes a few hours. But if you want to replay an earlier video game, it will take up ten to forty hours of your life. I only have so much time to play video games; a series has to be pretty good to convince me to spend lots of that time on earlier games in that series. (Especially since I’m not one of the people who waxes nostalgic about earlier generations: I think there have been a lot of important advances in video game design over the years, and in general I far prefer games from recent generations to those from older generations.)
The age demographic may make a difference too, but maybe not; video game players are getting older on average, and it’s much more socially acceptable for people to continue to play video games as they age.
I wonder if books could profit from this same idea? Some books do play with this idea: for example, in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Three Californias trilogy, you see similar groups of characters in different settings in the different volumes. And, of course, mythology uses this idea all the time (e.g. the Coyote stories). Still, there’s probably more that could be done there.
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