It’s a question that gets asked almost immediately after any popular game released, “Are they making a sequel?”. If it was successful enough the answer is inevitably a yes. The problem is that the game in question doesn’t always lend itself to having a sequel pushed into the already established story, with perhaps some of the characters from the first game getting killed off or otherwise having their personal story nicely wrapped up. So what’s to happen then? Just make up a bunch of new important characters that nobody had ever felt fit to mention beforehand? The example that jumps to mind here is BioShock 2, which is already an interesting case as the series was itself a spiritual successor to the System Shock series. Not really surprising considering that System Shock 2 and the first BioShock were made by the same team, but I’ll get to that later.
The problem with BioShock 2 is that the entire cast from the original BioShock, minus 1 or 2, were all wrapped up in such a way that there was little to no way they could be put into the second game. So what happened? A number of new characters appeared out of nowhere that were apparently around the entire time, but were never mentioned by anyone else despite their supposed importance. The one character who does make a return only appears in one scene then is never heard from again. The end result is a game that’s somewhat ok, but ultimately falls flat on its face as it fails to hit any of the same spots that the original BioShock managed to. What would have been better would be to take what made the original game so great and make an entirely new game out of it, which is what Irrational Games are doing with their next game, Bioshock Infinite, which borrows some of the ideas from the original and build a completely different setting and story with them.
Then there’s series like Deus Ex which, before the recent release of Human Revolution, consisted of one great game and one horribly mediocre game. What exactly made the first game do great is still hard to narrow down, with even the developers not being entirely sure themselves. Somehow though the recently released prequel, Human Revolution, managed to far exceed the previous attempt to continue the series and resulted in a game that’s on par with the original. How did it accomplish this? By NOT trying to cram as many characters and other plot elements from the first game as possible, but by simply taking the essence of what made the first game great and making something entirely new with it. It in the end I’d argue that it doesn’t even need the Deus Ex name attached to it, but I guess that without it there wouldn’t have been much incentive to make such a game on the first place and if they had it wouldn’t have sold nearly as well. That’s marketing for you I guess.
In a similar vein there’s spiritual sequels, which try to take what made the game that inspired it good and make an entirely new game from it, with perhaps just a few subtle references to the original material. While in principle this sounds like a much better idea it can lead to games where there’s no incentive to play beyond “it’s just like that other really great game that I really liked” and often get labels like “Halo-killers” slapped on them. Usually this is the case when there’s no connection between either the setting or the development team, but this can vary pretty heavily. The UFO series for example was heavily reported as trying to be the spiritual successor to the then dead X-COM series and while it managed to succeed to a certain degree it just didn’t feel enough (not for me anyway). Arx Fatalis tried the same thing with Ultima Underworld too, achieving similar results. The problem here though is that they managed to imitate the aging series a little too well, making it somewhat unwieldy for gamers nowadays. I have a great fondness for that game, but I couldn’t happily recommend it to anyone who isn’t already a diehard Underworld fan.
It occurs to me that I’m starting to make all spiritual sequels sound bad so let’s talk about one of the best ones, BioShock. BioShock was developed by a group known as Irrational Games and was released back in 2007. This same team were the ones responsible for bringing us the phenomenal System Shock 2 and was essentially a spiritual sequel. Rather than take place aboard a space station infested by a variety of alien beasties it was instead set in a massive underwater city called Rapture filled with crazies. Instead of being a trained soldier stationed aboard said space station you were instead a rather unlucky passenger who’s plane crashed in the ocean, not too far from Rapture’s entrance. You get the idea. Most of the aspects that were System Shock were changed completely, but the important ones, the atmosphere, the solitude, the simultaneous feelings of claustrophobia from being trapped within such a deadly place with no escape and agoraphobia from feeling so small compared to the sheer vastness of your environment densely populated with foes around every corner. It was almost perfect. Like many games though, it had its flaws, the final stages of the game especially, but then so did System Shock 2. Regardless its still in my mind three best example of how a spiritual sequel should be done. Which is why I’m looking forward to Bioshock Infinite, the sequel that’s closer to a spiritual sequel to a game that was the spiritual sequel of another sequel. Considering the team and their past work, I’m expecting great things.