Narrative Analysis: Advanced Topics
In a world where mass-market storytelling takes substantial amounts of both time and money, sure-fire bets like sequels will always be popular among producers. Audiences can grow tired of sequels, however, and crave variety even within the confines of a familiar universe. One popular solution to the sequel fatigue problem is the prequel: a story that explores an intellectual property’s past, rather than its future. Unlike sequels, which are traditionally set after the original story, prequels occur earlier in the series continuity. Some are set directly prior to the events of the original, reusing the first entry’s characters and settings, while others link the distant past to the present through familiar lineages and themes. While prequels have a surprising degree of latitude in how far they can stretch from the source material, the best prequels all have a few things in common: they expand on the past, shape the future, and tell a story that stands on its own in the present.
The Art of the Prequel
Expanding on the Past
Game Discussed: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (Nintendo, 2011), The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap (Nintendo, 2004), Red Dead Redemption 2 (Rockstar, 2018), Red Dead Redemption (Rockstar, 2010)
Every story leaves some amount of unanswered questions, whether big or small. When these questions relate to events in the past, prequels can help fill in the blanks in an audience’s mind. Video game narratives often lend themselves well to prequels, as adventurous characters tend to have interesting origin stories. Broad questions like “How did the protagonist get started in his career?” or “How did the villain become so evil?” are popular choices, depending upon the genre, but sometimes even little questions can be fodder for great prequels. Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda series has explored this concept on multiple occasions, basing entire games on questions as small as “Where did Link’s famous Master Sword come from?” (The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword) and “Why does every Link wear a green hat?” (The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap). In the hands of the right writers, even the simplest background details from an original story can form the basis of a prequel that stands toe-to-toe with the source material.
One recent video game prequel inspired by an unanswered question is Red Dead Redemption 2 (Rockstar, 2018). In the original Red Dead Redemption (Rockstar, 2010), players control John Marston, an outlaw living in a fictionalized version of the American southwest in 1911. As John Marston, players must track down his former gang members, including the leader, Dutch van der Linde. Throughout the story, Marston touches on the rise and fall of Dutch’s gang, but the player is left with questions about how things went sideways until the very end. Many of those questions are answered in Red Dead Redemption 2, which chronicles the breakdown of Dutch’s gang some twelve years earlier. As fellow gang member Arthur Morgan, players bear witness to the changing relationship between Dutch and his fellow gang members—including a younger John Marston. It’s an interesting perspective switch because it helps players see the past in a new light, allowing them to draw different conclusions about a past they thought they understood.
Shaping the Future
Game Discussed: Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening (Capcom, 2005), Street Fighter Alpha (Capcom, 1995), Metroid Prime (Nintendo, 2002), Metroid II: Return of Samus (Nintendo, 1991), Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (Konami, 2004)
Great prequels don’t just explore the past; they also shape the future. Events that occur in prequels become established canon that can inform the rest of a series as it progresses. Prequel characters can also grow into their own in later games, further tying them to the series continuity. The Devil May Cry series has repeatedly added to the stories of characters from its popular prequel, Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening (Capcom, 2005), while the Street Fighter series still features characters introduced in the prequel Street Fighter Alpha (Capcom, 1995). Some game companies have taken this concept even further by expanding prequels into full-blown subseries of their own. This is the case with Metroid Prime (Nintendo, 2002), which began as a prequel to Metroid II: Return of Samus (Nintendo, 1991) and went on to spawn a trilogy and a forthcoming fourth entry. The success of the Metroid Prime series, along with the enduring strength of prequel characters and canon, shows how prequels can impact the future of a series as easily as they define the past.
One popular prequel that’s had a significant impact on a franchise is Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (Konami, 2004). In previous Metal Gear Solid titles, players either controlled or followed the mercenary Solid Snake, but Snake Eater puts players in the shoes of the man he was cloned from: a United States CIA agent code-named Naked Snake. While fans of the series knew from the start that Naked Snake would go on to become Solid Snake’s arch-enemy, Big Boss, his origins were only briefly alluded to in previous entries. Snake Eater tells the story of Naked Snake’s mission to bring down his former mentor, The Boss, and how he grows disillusioned with world governments in the process. The journey brings him into contact with many future allies, some series mainstays and some original characters, and their struggles become an integral part of the series canon in future games. The events that occur in Snake Eater don’t just expand on the past; they also shape the future, defining the trajectory of the franchise’s future.
Entertaining the Present
Game Discussed: Final Fantasy VII (Square-Enix, 1997), Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII (Square-Enix, 2007)
Good prequels can illuminate a story’s past and define a franchise’s future, but neither of those traits is worth anything if the prequel doesn’t hold up on its own. A prequel should tell a good story that audiences can enjoy regardless of how much they know or remember about the source material. In this respect, prequels have a distinct advantage over sequels, as the events of the original story take place after the prequel by definition. Prequels still need to tell their own stories, however, and those stories should be written with the same care as the source material. Fans don’t just appreciate Red Dead Redemption 2 and Metal Gear Solid 3 because they’re prequels to beloved originals; they appreciate the stories because their stories hold up on their own, so much so that they may even surpass the originals. They have exciting plotlines and relatable characters, and they use detailed settings to explore complex themes. They’re both masterpieces in their own right, and their parent franchises are stronger for their existence.
Square-Enix’s smash-hit Final Fantasy VII (1997) has spawned an entire collection of sequels, side-quels, and spin-offs, including the 2007 Playstation Portable prequel Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII. In Crisis Core, players learn the backstory of Zack Fair, a Shinra SOLDIER whose untimely death informed the backstory of multiple characters in Final Fantasy VII. While Crisis Core rewards long-time FF7 fans by exploring some unanswered questions from the original, it also tells a self-contained story that resolves its conflicts and completes its character arcs. These conflicts and arcs provide sources of tension for players who might otherwise be bored by the story, knowing that Zack will inevitably die at the end. By giving Zack obstacles of his own, the dramatic question shifts from the dull “What events led up to Zack’s death?” to the exciting “Will Zack accomplish his goals before he dies?” This is the kind of question that the audience can get invested in, as it has concrete goals, defined stakes, and built-in urgency. In other words, it’s got everything a plot needs to succeed without the support of the source material.
Prequels, like sequels, are popular with creators who want to make the most out of pre-existing franchises. Good prequels don’t just rehash the source material, however; they expand on the past, shape the future, and tell a compelling story in the present. Writers who are interested in developing prequels for their own works can look to games like Red Dead Redemption 2, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, and Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII to learn how to write prequels that deserve to stand alongside the source material.
Sequels are supposed to be low-risk and high-reward, but they still have to capture the elements that made the originals great.
Narrative Analysis: Themes
Tying stories to meaningful questions through repeated ideas and imagery.
StoryScan: Final Fantasy VII and Openings
Final Fantasy VII’s memorable opening succeeds by weaving in character, setting, theme, and conflict.
* Reference Footage (Red Dead Redemption 2): Gamer’s Little Playground. “RED DEAD REDEMPTION 2 All Cutscenes (XBOX ONE X ENHANCED) Game Movie 1080p HD.” YouTube, 2018.
** Reference Footage (Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater): ALEX. Metal Gear Solid 3 (MGS3) Movie HD 60fps PS3 All Cutscenes with Secrets. YouTube, 2015.
*** Reference Footage (Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII): Gamer’s Little Playground. “Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII All Cutscenes (Game Movie) 1080p HD.” YouTube, 2016.