Leaving Well Enough Alone

Opinion by Mark Delaney,
This story will include spoilers for the following games: The Last of Us, the Mass Effect trilogy, and the Assassin's Creed franchise.
"Swear to me. Swear to me that everything you said about the Fireflies is true."

"I swear."


The ending to Naughty Dog's The Last of Us is one of my favorites in video games because it does something rarely attempted in the medium: it leaves with ambiguity. If you haven't played it and didn't mind the spoiler warning, what you can't see in the above quote are the excellent animations for which Naughty Dog is known. In the faces of story leads Ellie and Joel lies more than their words can reveal on their own. Ellie looks into Joel's eyes, demands the truth, and he stares back and boldly lies to her. She hesitates, accepts it either as a surprising truth or, more likely, a lie she has chosen to live with, and agrees to go on with him in the collapsed and frightening world in which they now reside.

We never got to see if Ellie revisits that lie. We don't know if she called him out for it, if he continued to deny or if Joel did succumb to her interrogation and he eventually told the truth. The Last of Us is a game about their unique relationship and for it to culminate in this way, full of questions regarding their future both together and their survival in general, is immensely powerful. I loved everything about it and I was thrilled to read for years that the studio was less than sure they'd revisit the characters at any point. Disappointingly, and as interested gamers now know, a sequel is on the way.

It's a long way off with many suggesting it won't arrive until fall of 2019. For me, though, even two and a half years from now is much too soon for a sequel to The Last of Us. Truth be told, even though I'll surely own it on day one — I can't resist — I'd like it best if it never came to fruition at all.

This issue is one I find myself dwelling on a lot with video games. As someone who plays first and foremost for the storytelling offered in the medium, it seems to me that if money were no object, a lot of games wouldn't get the sequels they do. Sequels are a known commodity, a head start on marketing and selling your game to the masses. "Remember that game you loved a few years ago? Well, here's another one of those!" The problem that's inherent in that proposal is some games don't need another one of those — some games were never designed to have another one of those.

The Last of Us is my favorite game, but I never wanted another one.The Last of Us is my favorite game, but I never wanted another one.

I wrote previously about the knack publishers have for reassigning IP to satellite studios to get more games in a series on the shelves faster. The conclusions drawn there can again be applied in this similar instance, but the differences are important. When those other studio handoffs unfold, the secondary studio usually goes on to tell a prequel or some sort of side story, related to but separate from the main events. If the quality of those games is a concern, at least they rarely dismantle the quality of the lore. With direct sequels, there's a necessity missing that does in fact hurt the central narrative. A great story that didn't have its sights set on a sequel but then receives one anyway, dampens not just the franchise but casts the industry in a bad light.

I find it most admirable for a well told story to bow out when it's over, recognizing that a good story that's given more story can sometimes lead to a bad story. If you care about storytelling in this medium it seems prudent to also care about preserving the shining examples of high quality storytelling.

The Mass Effect trilogy comes to mind as another example of this. The games were envisioned as a trilogy. However you feel about the ending, that set of three always felt well paced and well developed. We knew what we were getting into and depending on which fans you ask, it was either all great or mostly great. Now Mass Effect: Andromeda is on the horizon and with it comes my doubt for its necessity. It employs the tried — and tired — move of saying "and while that was going on, here's what you missed elsewhere." In this way it even feels like those ancillary stories we get from outside studios. Now, I'm still cautiously excited for Andromeda. I simply worry that even if its gameplay is excellent, did we really need more story?

Stories need to know where their natural ends are or else they risk losing their status as something memorable. Mass Effect 3 closes the door on a narrative that told us the baddest, most unstoppable force there could ever be was dealt with by you, the hero, one way or another. Now we're asked to care about a distant exploration mission that seeks more adventure and finds more villains. Surely we'll find them and then what? Are they worse than the Reapers? Well now the Reapers seem weak. Are they not as villainous as the Reapers? Well then it sounds like it'll be tough for me to care. It seems the best course would've been if they left well enough alone. That way, Mass Effect could've forever lived as a memorable, if not spectacular milestone in video games.

Mass Effect was designed as a trilogy, so why are we getting a fourth game?Mass Effect was designed as a trilogy, so why are we getting a fourth game?

Sure, many others did want more Mass Effect. Some saw a great trilogy and hoped we could return to that story universe some day. Wish granted, but what about the currently up in the air sequel for Andromeda? BioWare has stated that a sequel to March's big release may or may not ever happen, seemingly hinting at the game's critical and commercial response as being key to a sequel being made. How can you write a good story not knowing if the sequel will ever exist? It's fundamental to a narrative, a hero's journey, that you have a figurative map of what's to come. It seems the potential Andromeda sequel is the Schrodinger's cat of video games. It somehow does and doesn't exist; we won't know until we open the box on March 21st and beyond, and the story will possibly suffer because of that.

There's no shortage of examples in this medium. Do you recall when Assassin's Creed told a mysterious yet coherent historical fiction tale? You'd be forgiven if you don't as it's been over half a decade since that was the case. Assassin's Creed III was meant to close the Desmond Miles story and set up for what's to come next. It even ends with a huge cliffhanger. What we've gotten since then is a run of time-hopping to one-off conflicts simply because the story's foundation allows for it, yet the same story beats teased in the earlier games have been totally abandoned or made so inconsistent that it's a wonder why they even put the work into the cutscenes anymore. The game's debut introduced a world with deep rabbit holes and the first sequel followed that up with the series' best story moments. From then it's been a downward spiral for the Creed narrative to a point so disinteresting that I'm foolishly hoping the next one can save it, something I've been thinking since AC3.

Don't get me wrong; I don't think video game sequels should never get made. I think the Batman Arkham saga is some of the character's best stuff ever. I'm anxious over the future of Alan Wake just as much as anybody and recent games like Dishonored 2 and Watch_Dogs 2, regardless of whether they're telling good stories, at least exist in worlds where a story was both planned for and treated with a crucial level of coherence and respect. Rarely a game may even exist as a sequel to something that didn't need it and miraculously find a way to make the story better. This almost never happens, though; the cost-benefit analysis would conclude that many sequels just don't need to exist if it was measured in story merits.

Assassin's Creed sold its story's soul to the devil in exchange for profits many years ago.Assassin's Creed sold its story's soul to the devil in exchange for profits many years ago.

When I look at a lot of my favorite one-off games with great stories, I think of things like Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, Spec Ops: The Line, and Brothers - A Tale of Two Sons. These games told exceptional stories, sometimes they even left threads dangling. That ambiguity again is something I love even though I understand some loathe it. I want to commend these games for knowing when to call it a day, but cynically I don't think they truly made those decisions. None of those aforementioned games, among many other such examples one might name, sold particularly well. It's this reason why I think we never got Enslaved 2, for example. If Monkey and Trip were icons of the industry after that first game, there's little doubt we'd have gotten another go-around with the pair. I guess that's what is so hard to swallow. I love games and I do think they're art, but they're so often corrupted by dollar signs.

Sequels will sell. They have a head start thanks to brand recognition. It's always cheaper to retain customers you have than find new customers, right? But if you believe in games as art then you should also understand that there's nothing artful in taking something extraordinary and making it ordinary. Stories are art and art loses its distinction if it loses its message. When a series wants to set up a world with opportunities for great storytelling across many sequels, I'm all for it. I just wish the opposite happened more often in this medium, too. A brilliant one-off story should be allowed to exist as is. A story that starts, continues, and ends exceptionally in one go doesn't need another try at being great. It already is great and may be best left alone so it can remain that way forever.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He has written for GameSkinny, Gamesradar and the Official Xbox Magazine. He runs the family-oriented gaming site Game Together.