Franchising is both a miraculous gift and huge crutch when it comes to media. Without it, we wouldn’t have the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the continuation of Star Wars. Which is great, but not everything was born to be a franchise, sometimes a single movie/video game is all you need. One that sets out to tell a story and spread its message, then it’s done all tied up in a neat little bow as this self contained gem.
Then that story becomes popular, makes a lot of money and people start asking when the story is going to continue. Missing the entire point that the story was only so good because it existed in its own little bubble.
The genesis of this article comes from a couple of places. First comes from a few of my friends telling me that I need to go and play The Last of Us 2. A game I don’t actually have much of an interest playing for a number of reasons, but I’ll get to that. The other was the announcement from Sony that they were making Horizon Forbidden West, a sequel to Horizon Zero Dawn. An announcement that as inevitable as the sun rising in the morning, and yet one that still felt utterly unnecessary to me.
I’m kind of late to the party with this one, considering the discourse around Last of Us 2 has already dried up. I’ll justify my avoidance of the game anyway though. The first game was an incredibly compelling story, one I felt ended on a perfectly ambiguously depressing note. One that would inevitably be soured by any kind of continuation that would end up defining it.
On top of that, during this big old time of global pandemic, the last thing I want to invest a whole lot of hours into is an oppressively depressing game about the end of the world and how humans are the real monsters. Yeah, I know that well enough already.
In the time since drafting this post though, nobody seems remotely interested in the game anymore. It came, it made some waves, and then left. Which kind of goes to the point I’m making here, the sequel has not had anywhere near the staying power the first one did.
Curiosity has gotten the better of me, and I have since gone and read transcriptions and listened to podcasts detailing the events of the game, and for the life of me, I could not see this story as being one worth telling. For the most part, it seems like people cannot decide on the message the Last of Us 2 was trying to put forward. It was about revenge, sure. But it dragged on too long and seemed like it was about to end several times before it actually did. Which really doesn’t seem like a sign of a story written with a solid goal in mind.
It seems like a game born of obligation rather a genuine passion from a creator to get this narrative experience out there. Which isn’t to say there weren’t hard working, passionate people involved in the making of the game. But you know the genesis of this video game was borne in a conference room with a bunch of suits and ties talking about brand and capitalising on a franchise. Which is rarely the first step in making a narrative experience that’s going to be lauded as highly as the original was.
It almost feels like it’s just going to justify my incessant cynicism and validating my questioning of the need for a sequel to Horizon: Zero Dawn. Even back in 2017 during my Game of the Year discussions I stated my hollow hopes that this game would be a “one and done” story. Specifically this game and the story it told, because any continuation of it would almost certainly be one of diminishing returns thanks to the very nature of the story told in the first game.
By it’s very nature, a massive part of Horizon’s story was the mystery of what happened in this post-post apocalyptic world, and what Aloy’s place was within it. Unraveling that mystery was one of the major drives behind me loving the game as much as I did, it was an absurdly compelling story. One that, once it had been pulled out and bared all for everyone to see was done. Mystery over and the most intriguing part of the world had spent its chit. Which works perfectly for a stand-alone story, but not so much when you want to follow it up.
Based on post credits scenes in the first game, there was never any doubt in the minds of Sony and Guerrilla Games that they would make a followup. Call me small minded, but I have no idea how a direct followup in Horizon Forbidden West can even hope to meet the same level of intrigue when both the world and Aloy’s past are now out in the open.
Some stories are created with a franchise in mind, written with the future as a factor from the very beginning. Being able to tell a compelling story while also laying tracks for what could come in the future is an impressive feat in itself. These two games I’ve mentioned, they never felt like that. To me, they seemed like stories written where the entire focus was to be played out and completed within the same piece.
While the temptation to leave dangling threads for sequel bait is always going to be there, there were no moments within these stories where I could look at it and realise that they were going to be come a factor some future story. Those stories seemed like ones the writer had a passion to tell, with a message or theme they wanted to immortalise in a game. Their great success would inevitably cause both the share holders and the fans to demand more.
A “more” that would inevitably lack the drive and passion of that original idea. Coupled with the fact that the sequel would be hampered by iterative nature of it being a video game sequel and the expectation that they return to many of the same mechanics and gameplay loops of the first game. Coupled with characters whose character arcs had been concluded, which would in turn be ripped open and done again.
It’s why it’s so rare for a sequel in any media to hit the highs of the original. Plus, the more successful these sequels become, the more likely they become fully franchised, at which point it becomes a game of diminishing returns and mindless iteration. As much as I love the Pokemon franchise, those mainline games are super obviously being constrained by the very limited timeframe they need to release in due to the massive multimedia franchise that has come to dictate them.
When it comes to very cinematic, narrative driven games. No matter how much you iterate and improve on the gameplay and mechanics, continuing a story that never seemed like it needed another chapter is always going to be a deflating experience for those of us who value the narrative. Like John McClane said “How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice”. At which point I’m totally out of the story and simply playing a video game.
I’m not trying to say a game like Horizon Forbidden West can’t be a technically impressive, visually beautiful and intriguing game. All I am saying is that it’s next to impossible for it to have the narrative staying power that the original had, being able to stay in our minds for years afterwards.