Narrative Analysis: Advanced Topics
If you’ve seen a movie, read a book, or played a video game recently, chances are good that you’ve encountered a sequel. As the follow-ups to successful stories, sequels allow investors to put money into new productions with minimal risk. All sequels aren’t created equal, however. Sequels that hew too close to the original material can be seen as boring cash grabs, while those that deviate too much can leave audiences wondering how the two titles are connected. The key is to strike a balance between the fresh and the familiar, satisfying fans of the original while ensuring the title stands on its own two feet. To strike this balance, creators look at the elements that made up the original story—the plot, characters, setting, and themes—and determine which are at the core of the franchise and which can be changed. Once they know what defines the series, they can make changes to expand the audience while satisfying the people who were there from the start.
The Elements of a Sequel
Plot and Premise
Game Discussed: Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (Naughty Dog, 2009), Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune (Naughty Dog, 2007), Final Fantasy II (Squaresoft, 1988), Final Fantasy (Squaresoft, 1987)
Very few franchises will use the same plot for multiple titles in a series, but it’s common for sequels to recycle a similar premise. The premise is the core concept that defines the story, while a plot is the sequence of scenes that transforms the concept into a narrative. Since a premise is supposed to be simple, it’s usually something you can pitch in a sentence or two, but a plot often takes a paragraph or more to flesh out. As a result, sequels can easily share the premise of their predecessors while keeping things interesting, as the details of the plot will be different. One popular sequel that takes this approach is Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (Naughty Dog, 2009). Like the first entry in the series, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune (Naughty Dog, 2007), Uncharted 2 follows protagonist Nathan Drake as he traces the footsteps of a famous explorer to find an ancient city forgotten by history. The devil is in the details, however, and the details of Uncharted 2 tell a very different story than its predecessor. The secrets hidden by Marco Polo in Uncharted 2 take Nathan Drake down an unfamiliar path, one that forces him to contend with old partners, new enemies, and strange creatures. These changes keep the story fresh without stretching from the original’s premise, ensuring the sequel is grounded by its roots without being strangled by them.
Leaning on the previous premise for a follow-up is a tried-and-true practice, but not every sequel will tread such familiar territory. Instead, some sequels will push the plot in a new direction while relying on other familiar elements to keep the original fans invested. Square-Enix’s Final Fantasy series is famous for this perpetual reinvention. Each of its main series entries features a different premise than the previous entry, dating all the way back to Final Fantasy II (Squaresoft, 1988). While the original Final Fantasy (Squaresoft, 1987) follows four chosen warriors in their quest to restore the elemental crystals that supported their world, Final Fantasy II pits a group of rebel underdogs against a powerful empire. Future series entries mix and match these concepts while adding new elements, simultaneously calling back to classic titles and keeping things relevant for new generations.
Game Discussed: Super Mario series (Nintendo, 1985), The Legend of Zelda series (Nintendo, 1987), God of War (Santa Monica Studio, 2018), Silent Hill series (Konami, 1999), Resident Evil series(Capcom, 1996), Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (Konami, 2001)
Beloved characters have the power to sustain an otherwise stale franchise long beyond its expiration date, so it’s no wonder creators are so keen to bring out proven characters from previous entries. For example, the Super Mario series (Nintendo, 1985) usually features Mario in some capacity, while the many Links of The Legend of Zelda series (Nintendo, 1987) are functionally identical despite the millennia of reincarnations. Indeed, some characters are so popular on their own that they can support sequels with no other narrative connections to the franchise. This is the case with God of War (Santa Monica Studio, 2018), where the Spartan warrior Kratos supports the franchise through a new plot, setting, and tone. Despite these many changes, Kratos’s characterization is so compelling that fans didn’t just accept the new God of War; they rated it one of the best entries in the series.
As tempting as it is for creators to keep followings their favorite characters, some prefer to start fresh with a new cast rather than retread completed character arcs. Both the Silent Hill (Konami, 1999) and Resident Evil (Capcom, 1996) franchises routinely introduce new player characters from entry to entry, using premise and tone as their connective tissue instead. The Final Fantasy series maintains a similar practice, as discussed above. Such switches won’t work for every series, however, especially when creators toy with the fans’ expectations. Hideo Kojima famously provoked the ire of fans with his character bait-and-switch in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (Konami, 2001), where he gave them control of Solid Snake only to replace him with newcomer Raiden after the opening sequence. While the passage of time has softened fan opinions on this switch, it still serves as a valuable lesson for creators who want to focus on new protagonists. Fans can get deeply attached to characters, so it’s important to take care when subverting tropes and defying expectations.
Game Discussed: Portal 2 (Valve, 2011), Pokemon Gold and Silver (Nintendo/Gamefreak, 2000), BioShock Infinite (2K Games, 2013)
Settings play a uniquely important role in video game narratives, as the player interacts with them in a way they can’t with novels or films. One side effect of this interactivity is that reusing a setting means repeating gameplay, and even fans who are only in it for the story get frustrated by repetitive gameplay. As a result, video game sequels rarely use the exact setting from the previous entries. Those that do will usually use the original setting as a smaller element in a longer game, either beginning the story there for familiarity or ending it there as a callback. Portal 2 (Valve, 2011) takes the former approach, starting players in a familiar testing chamber before dropping them into unfamiliar territory. Pokemon Gold and Silver (Nintendo/Gamefreak, 2000) chooses the latter, starting players in a new region only to unlock the previous setting later. This fusion of old and new ensures that players have exciting experiences while enjoying familiar places.
It’s common for new games to return to old territory, but some sequels start in unfamiliar places and never look back. Such is the case with BioShock Infinite (2K Games, 2013). Unlike previous entries in the series, which take place in the underwater city of Rapture, BioShock Infinite is set in the floating city of Columbia. The sky-bound city takes the design and the gameplay in a new direction, as Columbia’s open skies and sprawling spaces directly contrast Rapture’s shadowy corners and tight corridors. As a result, BioShock Infinite offers a unique and memorable experience that moves the series in a new direction while staying true to its roots.
Theme and Tone
Game Discussed: Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door (Nintendo, 2002), The Legend of Zelda series (Nintendo, 1987), the Resident Evil series (Capcom, 1998)
Compared to plot, characters, and setting, theme and tone are more subtle concepts, making them easier to disguise and reuse throughout a series. Universal themes like ‘good will always triumph over evil,’ ‘any obstacle can be overcome with courage,’ and ‘we can always rely on our friends’ are at the heart of thousands of games across eras and genres, and there are always new ways to make them feel fresh. One way stories with shared themes differentiate themselves is through tone: the emotional expression of theme. (To learn more about tone, see our essay on Tone in Video Games.) If the developers of a series maintain the tone from one entry to the next, they give themselves more flexibility with other narrative elements. For example, Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door (Nintendo, 2002) introduces Mario to new enemies, new settings, and new side characters, but keeps the same lighthearted, comedic tone of the original. This tonal consistency is reinforced by the art direction and sound design, both of which maintain the first entry’s playful quality. As a result, the second game feels like a natural continuation of the first, even if it’s a completely different adventure.
Maintaining the right tone from one story to the next is more complicated than it sounds, but a tonal switch comes with its own challenges. Fans of a dark, gritty story may be turned off if the sequel is too cheerful, while players who loved one game for its fast-paced adventuring may not flock towards a slow and contemplative sequel. Fortunately, tonal shifts aren’t automatic death sentences for a series, and some franchises have pulled it off. Resident Evil and The Legend of Zelda have both survived several tonal shifts, swinging between cartoonish, surreal, grim, and back again. The reason they’ve been able to survive such wild shifts is because they’ve relied on other narrative elements to define the series, including plots, characters, and settings. Taken together, they keep the franchises moving forward while maintaining the features that appealed to their earliest fans.
Sequels have a reputation for being low-risk and high-reward compared to original stories, but that reputation is misleading. To make a sequel that can stand beside the original, or perhaps even surpass it, creators must determine which narrative elements are at the heart of the franchises and which can be changed in future iterations. Writers who are considering sequels for their stories should figure out what elements are most important to their audience—plot, characters, setting, and theme—and shape their sequel to both satisfy and defy their expectations.
Adapting a story from one form to another requires respect for both the medium and the audience.
Narrative Analysis: Pitches
A pitch is a brief summary that invites the audience into the world of a story.
StoryScan: Mother 3 and Pacing
Although Mother 3 is a much-loved cult classic, its irregular structure, perspective switches, and time skips result in an inconsistent pace.
* Reference Footage (Uncharted 2): Gamer’s Little Playground. “UNCHARTED 2: Among Thieves All Cutscenes (Nathan Drake Collection) Game Movie 1080p 60FPS.” YouTube, 2015.
** Reference Footage (God of War 3): Izuniy. “GOD OF WAR 3 Remastered Full Movie (60FPS) All Cutscenes Story.” YouTube, 2015.
*** Reference Footage (BioShock Infinite): Gamer’s Little Playground. “Bioshock Infinite All Cutscenes (Remastered Collection) Game Movie 1080p 60FPS PC Ultra.” YouTube, 2016.
**** Reference Footage (Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door): SullyPwnz. “Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door – Part 42: Who Stole the Jar!” YouTube, 2017.