In the earliest days of video games, it was very easy to understand how sequels to a game would work. You had a title, then you had a number after that title. Maybe a subtitle if you were feeling fancy. Once you loaded up that sequel, you were starting back from the same position as someone who had never played the predecessor, because of course you were. That was just how it worked. There’s a reason why early series either had stories that were only loosely connected by theme (Final Fantasy or Ultima, for example), protagonists who had reason not to carry things over from prior titles (Metal Gear), or were produced by companies that don’t care about your stupid continuity (Every Capcom Game Ever).
We are no longer in those earliest days now, though. In order to properly play Dragon Age: Inquisition, I had to log into an external website and recount all of the things I had done during my playthroughs of Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age II to ensure that the world was still one I recognized. And that’s worth discussing, because if you think about it that’s both kind of strange and kind of brilliant.
The .hack series was one of the first ones to really support the idea that each new game was a direct continuation of the previous game. Rather than being four distinct titles, the games were meant to be played in order, and thus your goal was to acquire the best possible equipment in the prior title to make the next one that much easier. Which obviously ran into trouble with the idea that some people might not be picking up all of the titles in order, hence why starting a new game in the sequels awarded you with decent gear, albeit worse than you’d have if you played through properly.
Of course, that also shows off one of the major issues that the idea of a direct mechanical sequel has. If you’re expecting your characters to start game 2 with all the powerups of game 1, game 2 should be balanced around that. But if you can start game 2 without having played game 1, you don’t want to throw up a brick wall wherein players have to go out and buy another game just to enjoy this one.
That’s part of the reason why most games offer save file bonuses rather than a direct continuation. Clear Xenosaga and you can nab yourself some bonuses in Xenosaga II from the start, but the characters start at the same levels they would otherwise. Have data from another Mega Man game on your memory card, get a little bonus fight in Mega Man X8. The logistics issue of why these characters are starting back from zero is addressed by never actually addressing it.
Where it becomes really crucial is, again, games like Dragon Age: Inquisition. One of the points of playing the game is the fact that you can shape the story through your decisions. Does the player character survive? Do the companions? Who rules the nation when the Blight is defeated? Who did Hawke side with in the end?
The fact that there’s a separate web application based entirely around answering these questions is, on the one hand, really keen. It’s an attempt to address two lingering problems at once, removing any save file import bugs while also freeing players from the bonds of a given platform. If you want to continue playing on your same wold state with a different platform, well, here you go, no need to worry about it.
But on the flip side, it’s also an extra step of mucking around before you can just play the game, reducing the impact of the previous games to a set of mechanical choices. I like the idea that I can play with a different world state without having to play through another 30 hours of Origins, but it means that the choices listed there are the ones that matter. Everything else is just window dressing.
And yet when you’re dealing with a shared world, this is something that people want. People were hoping for a similar implementation for Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3, allowing you to play around with the dials that we all know exist behind the scenes, producing different states depending on choices we never made. In these games, the state of the world you play in is far more highly valued than anything as simple as mechanical advantages. We want the sequel to show off the same place that we finished adventuring in, no matter how severely it may have changed, ignoring the fact that the very nature of a game requires some of those possibilities to be narrowed down to a single point.
Some games deal with this by being utterly resistant to continuity anyway. Saints Row has continuity between games, yes, but the second game has your home city completely rebuilt while the main character was lying in a coma. The third game has you in a completely new city. The fourth throws you into virtual reality. Each one features voices and characterization that doesn’t exist before or after, thus neatly preventing any sort of firm continuity from being established. The Boss changes with each installment.
Let’s also be real here: as neat as the whole .hack thing was, from a cynical standpoint it was a way to get players to buy four games instead of just one. It’s an experiment in episodic gameplay before we had terms like “episodic gameplay.” Were it to be released now, unless each title were released at budget prices in an installment format, players would be kind of ticked.
But at this point, games have the technology so that we don’t need to keep doing purely thematic sequels. What keeps those as the default has more to do with balance issues and planning than necessity.
Balance issues are obvious. Mechanically, you’d expect the character going from game 1 to game 2 to retain all of their abilities, especially since they retain all the memories. But if you balance for a satisfying upgrade curve or whatever in 1, you wind up either balancing the start of game 2 as the next step from game 1’s ending points (at which point game 2 is functionally an expansion pack), or you have to deal with players who did play game 1 running roughshod over the majority of the game. There are lots of attempts to work around this, and none of them ever quite work aside from accepting that mechanical changes need to happen.
Planing is a bigger issue. The vast majority of studios are one bad game away from folding, and sometimes even a great game won’t save the studio. Spending a whole bunch of time while developing the first game ensuring that the second ties in properly sounds like a good idea… until you realize that the existence of game 2 is not a foregone conclusion by any means. It’s something the studio wants, sure, but it might not actually happen. Assuming the studio doesn’t just fold after game 1, there’s also no assurance that everyone will still be working there, or even that game 2 is going to come out on schedule and on the same platform.
I’m not sure if there are any perfect solutions. The Dragon Age Keep is a pretty elegant solution for the future, and it should be able to sustain further titles in the series if used properly. But it itself is a quickly hammered-together solution for importing saved games on different platforms. Still, it’s something that games increasingly have to consider. As time goes by, players expect for sequels to tie into their predecessors, and failing to do so starts looking like laziness. Even if it’s tricky to do.