March 6, 2003

The Strange Problem of the Unsequel

I was looking forward to the latest sequel to the computer game Master of Orion. It is what gamers call a “4X” game (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate). The first Master of Orion (MOO) is one of the all-time classics of computer gaming, fondly beloved by almost everyone. The second MOO met with a more mixed reception, largely due to significant problems with game balance on release and some frustratingly dull game mechanics in the endgame, when the player’s interstellar empire had expanded to gigantic proportions and the final conquest of one’s enemies involved tedious micromanagement of individual planetary systems. On the whole, it was a well-liked game, and certainly a faithful continuance of some of the key ideas and mechanics of the first Master of Orion.

I am pretty well cured of my desire to purchase Master of Orion 3 by following discussions on the official message board and other gaming-oriented sites. The game has some fanatic devotees but many more equally fanatic detractors, and from where I sit, the critics appear to be scoring some devastating points.

Since I haven’t played the game, I won’t delve deeply into the specifics of the arguments made by either side. However, the discussion is pointing out a peculiar problem that has larger cultural relevance. The developers themselves concede that their design for Master of Orion 3 bears little resemblance to the previous two installments in the series.

The key gameplay elements that distinguished MOO1 and MOO2 are by conscious design missing from MOO3. The first two games emphasized the player’s control over the management of individual planetary economies, with the classic “guns or butter” decision-making that strategy games often privilege. The third game takes virtually all of that management away from players: the developers say that Moo3 is not about “micromanagement” but “macromanagement”. The first two games emphasized the progressive discovery of technologies that made your empire more powerful, with each new technology marking an important and dramatically emphasized branch point in your strategy. M003 by conscious design automates technology discovery and strongly deemphasizes the individual importance of any given technology. It’s comprehensively a different game than its predecessors, not just in game mechanics, but in its fundamental spirit.

This strikes me as perverse. The game’s defenders argue that designing a game that was similar in any respect to M001 or M002 would definitionally be derivative and unoriginal. There is a huge excluded middle, however, between following the threadbare, necrophiliac creative logic of the “Rocky” films and breaking away entirely from prior precedent.

M003 is an unsequel, a strange thing that happens from time to time in popular culture. A franchise exists and falls for whatever reasons into the hands of people determined not to continue the franchise.

Why does this happen?

Sometimes it is because the inheritors of the franchise honestly do not seem to understand why the previous installments were successful. George Lucas doesn’t seem to understand why “Star Wars” and “The Empire Strikes Back” worked, which is especially peculiar, given that he created them. That’s an idiot savant instance of the unsequel, which reveals that the original creator was more lucky than inspired the first time around.

Sometimes it is because the current owners of the franchise legitimately do not want to fall prey to the “Rocky” syndrome and simply remake the previous installment, and in their desperation to break new ground, break instead through thin ice and plunge into the icy depths below. “Aliens 3” is a good example of this pattern: a well-meaning attempt to take the original franchise in new directions, but ultimately leaving behind some of its essential elements. This is an especially good example, because the differences between “Alien” and “Aliens” (or “Terminator” and “Terminator 2”) were substantial but also satisfying and faithful to the stylistic and narrative core elements established in the first film of the series.

Which is M003? Reading the boards, I’d have to say it looks like a case of creators who had absolutely no understanding of why the franchise they had inherited had been successful in the past. Whether that’s because of ineptitude, a willingness but inability to duplicate its appeal, or creative arrogance--thinking that they knew better--I have no idea.