Forbidden West and the Challenge of Sequels

Financially, making a sequel to a well-liked game is pretty safe. There’s a proven audience that payed for and enjoyed the type of product you’re putting out. This is part of why there are so many sequels. Artistically though, making a sequel is hard. The best games are often the ones that show us something new about gaming, or maybe ourselves. When making a sequel, the devs have already shown their hand. Even if the sequel is more polished with more ideas and fixes things that didn’t work in the original (and I would say most sequels fit this description), can you recapture that feeling of discovery while hewing close enough to the original vision to satisfy your proven audience? It’s both constraining and a balancing act. Perhaps this is what led From Software to make Dark Souls 3 not so subtly about how they didn’t want to keep making Dark Souls games.

I see this reflected in my experience playing game series. If I pick up a series later, I might start with the latest sequel. At that point, it’s hard to go back, even if I liked the game I started with. The sequel captures all the polish and improvements of the original plus the sense of newness, and so the previous entries can simply seem inferior. The first Assassin’s Creed game I played was Black Flag, and trying to go back to the original Assassin’s Creed after that felt like playing an early concept minus almost all the things I thought were fun about Black Flag.

Going the other direction is more nuanced. In long-running series, I’ll often play an entry, enjoy it, get the next entry and become bored pretty quickly, and then a while later pick up a third entry and enjoy it again. After long enough, some of that newness returns, perhaps because the memory has faded or because new ideas work their way in and produce transformative alchemy. Breath of the Wild feels so refreshing because it’s a departure from much of what defined the previous two decades of Zelda.

I’ve been thinking about all this as I play Horizon: Forbidden West. Horizon: Zero Dawn was a game that grabbed me. Sure, it falls into the formula established by the open-world Assassin’s Creed games, one which often emphasizes quantity over quality, but it offered an exciting new world to explore. The storytelling in particular stood out. Important characters and events exist as echos far removed in time. Aloy is the sole link between Zero Dawn’s post-apocalyptic future and a distant past meant as a fictional offshoot of my world. Aloy’s journey is lonely; it’s something only she can do, and her companions are often holograms and audio logs. But this also allowed me to establish a connection to Aloy in a way that I haven’t with other game protagonists in far-off worlds.

Horizon: Forbidden West does exactly the things a sequel should do. It ups the stakes and expands the story and world in new directions with new themes. It builds on the systems of the original too. You genuinely pick up where you left off. Aloy is a famous hero and retains many of the abilities she gained in Zero Dawn. Forbidden West even challenges Aloy in new and different ways. The knowledge and power she gained in Zero Dawn will be vital to her journey but also not enough. She’ll have to push herself further physically and mentally, and in particular, learn to rely on others and share what was once a solitary journey. I applaud Forbidden West for legitimately building on Zero Dawn rather than offering a reset with more of the same or a rehash of old ideas.

Still, while I’ve enjoyed Forbidden West so far, it hasn’t grabbed me like Zero Dawn did. While the Forbidden West may be a new land to Aloy, it’s still part of Zero Dawn’s same world–one Aloy and I mastered together in Zero Dawn–and thus familiar. The sense of discovery through Aloy’s eyes is diminished, reduced to the finer details or points of interest. Similarly, while Aloy is still the central character, I find my connection to her less intimate in the bigger story filled with subplots and a larger cast given more screentime devoted to character arcs immediately connected to the central events. Forbidden West is more about Aloy’s relationships with her comrades and less about her unique role as a connection between her present and my past.

Is Forbidden West an inferior game to Zero Dawn? It’s hard to say so when there are so many improvements, most notably the vastly superior acting, dialogue, and motion capture. Still, I doubt Forbidden West will be special for me the way Zero Dawn was. Maybe it’s more a problem with me and I’m giving Guerilla Games a hard time. But who said making sequels was easy?

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