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Prequels have a tendency to weird me out. Most of the time, they come after a trilogy when developers have exhausted any sort of narrative within their own fictional universe.
Gears of War: Judgment released today (March 19) in the US. It stars the fan favorite meatheads Damon Baird and Augustus “Cole Train” Cole 15 years ago prior to Emergence Day – the day the Locusts decided to take a field day on Earth. The game focuses on Baird and the rest of the Kilo squad as they face judgment after being accused of treason. Unless you’ve been living under an imulsion covered rock or completely oblivious to the macho-man world of the Gears franchise, then you’ll know that Baird and Cole Train are doing just fine – well only if you think an entire trilogy of blowing apart all kinds of Locusts and Lambent as “just fine.”
And that’s the problem with prequels. There’s little to no plot that feels significant. When you know the outcome and ending to the game even before it is released, it feels anti-climactic. We all know that Darth Vader is young little Anakin Skywalker. It’s predictable, and it’s the predictability that makes the narrative feel like the developers are just flipping a coin – it’s either hit or miss. Sure it’s nice seeing how Baird gets out of his little predicament, but let’s face it, we all know what happens in the end.
It’s also strange to me when prequels refine their gameplay. I’m talking in terms of lore, and not in terms of “z0mg they haf to make the game better idiot.” Take Halo: Reach for example. Halo: Reach was notorious for shaking up the formula by adding armor abilities to the sci-fi shooter. It doesn’t make sense to me. If Halo: Reach is the prequel to the entire trilogy, then why do these Spartans have technology that outclasses the sitting franchise as a whole? Why couldn’t Master Chief bust out his armor-lock earlier? I understand that these are concepts that were obviously developed at a later time, but when a developer insinuates refined gameplay and fictional technology, it takes out the immersion of the universe.
Considering both Gears of War and Halo rely heavily on multiplayer, I can see how a developer might want to improve on mechanics and gameplay for a prequel. Innovation is innovation no matter what it tastes like to you. Developers almost have to shake up the formula to generate interest within the customer base – that’s just business.
But I’m not saying that prequels should be blacklisted. It’s more of the disillusionment from a franchise prequel that worries me. Prequels add a lot in concept – it creates a backdrop for an already well-known IP, but at the same time there’s a right and wrong way to do a prequel.
And then there are games like Zelda. Zelda is unique in that Nintendo can mix up the franchise as much as they want. The art-style in each iteration changes frequently without sacrificing too much. There are staple items like the Master Sword and bombs that have appeared in each game to one extent or the other. Sure, the Zelda timeline might be as convoluted and mixed up like a bag of trail mix, but the way it’s executed just works. The Zelda universe relies on its own established archetypes to build each iteration from the ground-up. Nothing ever really feels like you’re doing the same exact thing. The puzzles may be similar and the mechanics in each game may feel the same (place bomb in front of crumbled wall X, shoot switch Y with your bow) but Zelda has gone through enough makeovers to establish an undying love for the lore.
There’s another franchise that comes to mind when we’re talking about convolution of plot. Devil May Cry, released in 2001 follows the fated son of a demon – that well, hunts demons. According to Capcom, the general timeline goes: Devil May Cry 3, 1, 4, and then 2 (not counting the reboot) When a game franchise tries to fill in plot wherever they want, it almost betrays the universe it strives to create. Instead of potentially taking the opportunity to give Dante a proper bildungsroman/coming-of-age story, we’re left with blips of his life. The characterization is then obscured to the point where I have no idea who Dante is anymore. The Dante in Devil May Cry 2 is the polar opposite to Devil May Cry 3 Dante. He’s mute, hardened, and has apparently lost all sense of humor left in his funny bone. It’s almost like releasing Harry Potter: Prisoner of Azkaban before Sorcerer’s Stone, and then placing Half-Blood Prince in between the two. It just doesn’t work from a plot standpoint.
There’s something about trying to tell a backstory to established plots – it can help the lore of the universe, but it can also harm it as well. Technicalities aside, prequels are something that will always be around. Many times prequels are bashed on for feeling like cheap cash-ins to take advantage of loyal fan bases. Prequels are a lot like old forgotten snack cakes in the pantry – you’re not sure if it’s still good to eat, but you’re hungry for a familiar experience. Instead, it just leaves a weird aftertaste in your mouth.