Rebooting a video game series is a tricky business. Do you wipe the slate clean and risk upsetting the most hardcore fans, or do you try to iron out continuity and plot holes big enough to park a Death Star in? As video games advance as a medium, it’s this question that continues to hang over various series as they churn out yet more and more sequels. Is it worth the risk to reboot, or should some video game series be allowed to expire naturally?
Ultimately no gaming series is beyond a good old wipe in continuity. It’s how series like Mario have managed to survive for long, Nintendo’s wild abandon for continuity creating the perfect stage for those series to just work on appeasing fans. Yet for more story focussed games (Or games where a shift in direction is truly desired) the decision to reboot can carry some heavy penalties. Upsetting fans and creating the need to retread old ground isn’t an easy sell – so developers and publishers have to get it right out the gate.
The concept of rebooting in video games isn’t new. For as long as video game franchises have existed, the notion that you can turn the clock back and relive a series heyday has also existed. Early examples of this tend to lean more towards games that shifted between developers – such as id Software’s Wolfenstein 3D, a reboot of 1981’s Castle Wolfenstein.
In these examples very little reference is made to the established canon – in Wolfenstein’s case because there was no reason too. Castle Wolfenstein itself is a largely unremarkable game, as was its 1984 sequel Return to Castle Wolfenstein, so ID Software had no reason to indulge that. It’s a practice that would continue for the series as it would again be retooled and rebooted for 2003’s Return to Castle Wolfenstein – which serves as a bizarre starting point for the current (if exceptionally messy) continuity.
Looking at that decision, it kind of made sense because the original games weren’t seen as a franchise, instead framed as single experiences. The problem for games with more ambitious storytelling ideas is that one terrible game can poison the entire well – forcing the hand of everyone involved. Square Enix’s Tomb Raider is probably the best example of this – the series has enduring two hard resets in its history.
The first came in the shadow of the series-killing Angel of Darkness in 2003, a game so tragically poor that it almost killed the series outright. Such was the critical scorn and negative reception to this title that Core Design, the games original developers, were liquidated outright. Development was handed over to Crystal Dynamics, a team that were told to get things back on track. It took until 2006 for them to craft that game; Tomb Raider Legends. This title was more accessible than previous Tomb Raiders, introduced many concepts from the Angelina Jolie movies such as talking assistants and an arsenal of gadgets for Lara to play with. The reception was positive and the future seemed bright.
Yet despite this, it didn’t take long for the wheels to come off the series again. Crystal Dynamics tried to throw too many new mechanics into the mix – creating an unbalanced mess that threatened to sink the franchise in the form of Tomb Raider: Underworld. It wasn’t a disaster, but the creative cul-de-sac that the series found itself in was enough for Crystal Dynamics to be concerned. They made a bold decision, they wanted to reboot the franchise again – this time in the shape of Naughty Dog’s hugely popular Uncharted series. Ultimately the critical plaudits rained down on 2013’s Tomb Raider and validated their decision – but only time will tell how long the series has before it’s forced into another reboot. How long can fans honestly tolerate being forced to wipe their memories of Lara and her adventures?
For all this creative upheaval, sometimes series just get rebooted because its easier to sell. A good recent example of this was 2012’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown reboot – which has stuck very closely to the framework set by the original games. Fireaxis picked up the franchise – deciding to wipe the table and start again as the original series passed through numerous developers and became a meandering mess of threads. Yet the reboot leans heavily on its 1994 counterpart for inspiration; feeling more akin to a loving tribute than a complete dismantling. This attempt to bridge the gap between old and new is arguably what led to that games critical and commercial success – XCOM wasn’t ignoring what came before but instead embracing it.
Shame the same couldn’t be said for 2014’s Thief reboot, which might as well have been a different series entirely. One of the bigger dangers of rebooting your video game series comes from the threat that you end up changing too much, putting fans off and turning your new and shiny game into a bizarre non-entity. Gone were the labyrinth levels, replaced by awkward linear experiences that felt out-of-place and tried too hard to press a narrative no one cared about. It also went too heavy on the themes of the original game, feeling like a pale imitation. Fans hated the title and plans to expand the reboot further has since gone quiet. But it’s not alone in botching the landing.
The decision to reboot can also come thanks to developers getting greedy and choosing to leverage their series against a Hollywood name. 2008’s Prince of Persia lacked all the charm that made the 2003 title so enjoyable, a vapid and dull affair that was thrown together to capitalize on the name value of the movie. It’s no surprise that the movies failure and the games failure to connect ultimately killed all the momentum the franchise had built. But again – it wasn’t alone in trying to achieve this. EA made the decision to reboot the much-loved Star Wars Battlefront series to tie in with the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. While the game looked nice, it critically bombed hard as the games apparent rush to meet the release date squeezed out any hope for a full package.
Ultimately why do video game developers insist on recycling franchises? Why not create whole new IP’s that rise up an become just as adored by gamers as those that came before? The answer is simple – reputation. Reboots afford a way for developers to retell an old story with less drive to change the creative narrative. Gamers love series that tie together, even if it’s just by the loosest of threads. It’s why fans speculated so heavily over the Legend of Zelda timeline. It’s why people were looking for references to Grand Theft Auto’s San Andreas inside GTAV. Gamers love familiarity and when the returns can be oh so glorious, why not milk it?
It’s just a shame that increasingly, a number of these reboots seem like awkward attempts to milk nostalgia. Rather than build intricate and complex stories across multiple games, the fear now is that a series will be chopped if it doesn’t meet certain sales figures. That the threads we invest in as gamers will be severed long before we get to see them tie up.
There’s nothing wrong with reboots, it’s just a shame that increasingly, the industry seems to be using reboots as a method of cash-grabbing rather than adding to the narrative. Instead of returning to expand and make the origin stories better, most just feel like beat-for-beat remakes.