Ben ponders the long-term ramifications of series reboots.
Posted on Tuesday, July 31st, 2012 by Ben Keil
Fads by very definition are temporary. They come, have a large impact for a small period of time, and then fade away to be forgotten or perhaps even laughed about in the future. They affect music, fashion, film, and nearly every other modicum of pop culture. The video game industry is no exception. You could look around the gaming landscape now and probably point out several (HD remakes come to mind). Most fads are harmless, and have no lasting affect, positive or negative, on gaming at-large. But sometimes a fad can have a lasting affect on a smaller scale. And when it comes to gaming, the one that stands as the most concerning to me is series reboots.
Reboots, as we typically view them, are a fairly new phenomenon. This is mostly due to the fact that a series must have at least a few entries in order for it to have a complete make-over. So it’s really only been in the past decade or so that this has started to become common-place. Generally, reboots are considered a positive thing, and with good reason. A game company rarely reboots a staple series unless something’s wrong with it. And when there’s a lot wrong with it, sometimes a fresh (sort of) start is the easiest solution.
Yet something is lost when a game series is “rebooted.” That something is story; more specifically, story continuity. I suppose the reality is that not all game series particularly care about storyline, and therefore if the lore is changed then it isn’t a big deal to most gamers. But to me, story will always be a big deal. The fact that video games can provide engaging narrative that allows me to participate in its unfolding is what drives me back to a controller time and again. Gaming series allow the narrative to be told in sequences over an extended period of time, just like a book series. So if after five installment over ten years, a company decides to scrap everything and re-imagine the series, it can be upsetting (imagine the outrage if George R.R. Martin decided that after five books, A Song of Ice and Fire needed a reboot).
For some reason, this seems perfectly acceptable in video games in our current place in gaming history (it’s been done in movies, but mostly in series that don’t have a strong sense of continuity between installments to begin with [like Batman]; I suppose a video game equivalent would be Super Mario Bros. or The Legend of Zelda). People are applauding the reboot of Tomb Raider due out in March 2013, and it does look amazing. But this is the second time in six years the entire series has been rebooted. Sure, it desperately needed it the first time, but the last three games were solid. Couldn’t a couple of years off and some re-vamped game mechanics be all that’s needed? Apparently not. Yet again, we’re expected to forget everything we know about Lara Croft’s history and previous adventures.
Even worse, rumors have come out that a Legacy of Kain reboot is in the works. That is my favorite semi-under-the-radar series of all time and may have the greatest continual narrative of any gaming series yet created. And now it’s going to be rebooted. Not a sequel, not a prequel, not a something in between-quel, but a reboot. True, these are just rumors at this point, but it still makes my skin crawl.
Perhaps some of my anxiety could be resolved through a more defined use of the term “reboot.” Maybe it just gets thrown around too often. I’ve seen it in gaming media used to merely describe a major change in a series’ gameplay or style. If that’s all that’s meant by “reboot”, then let’s just be more specific and call it a gameplay reboot. Just using the term “reboot” implies a complete restart: gameplay, style, graphics, story, the works. If that’s not what’s meant, then let’s be careful what we say. But to be honest, the cynic in me thinks that some true reboots are just a company’s way to make a different game and slap a well-known name to it (think 2008′s Turok reboot). I hope that in most cases, that’s untrue. Yet as I look forward to the new Tomb Raider, I can’t help but think it looks like a completely different game in all aspects. If you change the name of the heroine, you might never know the game you’re playing is Tomb Raider. I suppose it could turn out all right if Square Enix releases sequels in which Lara develops into an archaeologist/purveyor of ancient powerful artifacts as a result of her experience…but otherwise it’s just a completely different series with familiar names. And if that’s what reboots are leading to, then perhaps it’s time we rethink the positive reinforcement we give them.