Three Things About Making Good Sequels That I Learnt From A Terrible Computer Game

2016 Artwork Three Things About Sequels article sketch

Although this is an article about writing fiction and making comics, I’m going to have to start by talking about old computer games (yet again). In fact, the beginning of this article will actually be a partial review of a computer game. As usual, there’s a good reason for this that I hope becomes obvious a bit later.

As regular readers of this site probably know, I played and reviewed the first “Alone In The Dark” game a while back after buying the first three games in this series earlier this year when they were on special offer on GoG. So, I should probably explain why there won’t be a full review of the second game (and what this can tell us about sequels).

After thoroughly enjoying the first game, I was eager to start playing the second one. However, after no more than an hour or two, I abandoned the second game out of sheer frustration and disappointment. It was the perfect example of how not to make a sequel!

In case you’ve never played these games before, the first “Alone In The Dark” game is a survival horror game from the early 1990s. It is, quite simply, amazing. There’s a lot of brilliant (unintentional) dark humour and at least half of the puzzles can be solved without a walkthrough guide (in other words, the game is fairly logical).

Not only that, you also get the experience of exploring a creepy old mansion, there are multiple main characters to choose from and, like in all good survival horror games, the combat is surprisingly challenging (and best avoided wherever possible). The clunky combat system in the first game works because it forces the player to only fight when there is no other option. This is because survival horror games are not action games.

The second game, or what I’ve played of it, has none of this. It’s an action game (using the same clunky combat system), with just one main character and some ridiculously illogical elements (eg: the main character can’t even walk up the steps to the door of a house that is right in front of him). It’s the perfect example of how not to make a sequel.

Even so, it can teach us a lot about how to make good sequels:

1) Write it yourself (or do your research): One of the first reasons why the second “Alone In The Dark” game is so different to the first one is because it was made by a different designer. The first game was designed by Frédérick Raynal and it was inspired by many of the horror movies that he’d seen. The second game was designed by someone else, who obviously didn’t really know that much about the first game.

Whilst the sequel retains many of the superficial trappings of the original game, the underlying substance of the game is completely different. It was clear that whoever made the second game didn’t do much background research. So, if you’re making a sequel to something by someone else, do your research!

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t make changes when making a sequel, but you should put a lot more effort into seeing whether those changes are still in line with the principles of the original thing. For example, the first “Alone In The Dark” uses a clunky combat system because it’s explicitly designed not to be an action game. Merely adding more monsters and weapons, whilst keeping the combat system, is a recipe for disaster. Likewise, turning a non-action game into an action game is also a bit of a stupid move.

So, if you’re making a sequel to something by someone else, do your research and work out what made the original so good. Or, better still, make sure that you’re the one who makes the sequel to anything that you make.

2) The surface doesn’t matter: On the surface, the second “Alone In The Dark” game looks like a better game. The introductory cinematic looks really dramatic, there’s lots of awesome pixel art and even the in-game menus look significantly cooler. Likewise, the character animations have been improved slightly too.

Yet, everything else about what I played of it is terrible. The first game wasn’t enjoyable because of the graphics (I liked them, but they look very dated). It was enjoyable because of everything else.

So, if you’re working in a visual medium (such as comics), it’s important to remember that merely making visual improvements won’t make your sequel better. If you want to make a better sequel, then you need to focus on everything below the surface – like characterisation, storytelling etc…

3) Even a better story won’t help you (if it’s handled badly): On paper, the second “Alone In The Dark” game has a more dramatic story.

Whilst the first game contained an intriguing and slow-paced H.P.Lovecraft-inspired horror story, the second game goes down the thriller route. Basically, in the second game, you are a private investigator who has to rescue a kidnapped child from a mysterious group of villains.

The story of the second game is instantly more dramatic and compelling. And, yet, the first game is a lot more interesting to actually play. Why? because everything surrounding the story is handled a lot better in the first game.

Although the story in the first game is revealed slowly, it is told to the player in a lot more depth. From the beginning of the game onwards, you find documents that reveal hints about the game’s backstory. Likewise, although you only see one living character in the game, you get the sense that you’re visiting a location that lots of other people have visited before – since the location of the game looks like it has been lived in for centuries.

However, apart from an introductory movie and a small amount of text, you don’t get to see much of the story at the beginning of “Alone In The Dark 2”. You’re just a guy who wanders around a garden and fights zombies. All of the dramatic potential of the story is instantly dissipated, since the game just turns into a generic action game.

So, even if the sequel to your comic or novel has a much more interesting concept than the original had, this won’t automatically make your sequel better. If you’re going to include a better story, then you need to make sure that it is told in a good way.

In other words, you still need to focus on things like characterisation, pacing, well-written dialogue and all of that stuff. A good story alone won’t make your sequel better than the original.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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