Great things have come in three. Three Amigos. Three Musketeers. Three goddesses in Zelda. The art of the trilogy is nothing new; from books to film to TV to games, trilogies have since become the go-to cultural representation of some of the most legendary of properties. Lord of the Rings, The Godfather, and in games, series like Uncharted and Metroid Prime. These game series, like many movies and TV shows before them, show a narrative that’s strong and contained, a planned endeavor that encourages the idea of long-term ambition to making a series tightly locked. It’s a way for a series to end the way the creators intended. But very rarely does it: many game series, like other media, have had that hanging edge that just happens to grow and grow into a series without any distinctive ending destination. Trilogies, despite their sense of perfection, rarely stay that way, and video game trilogies are no different. They’re not just narratively flawed, but they also lose every bit of unique creativity that was originally planned from the start.
It’s very simple as to why series don’t end: to sell games from popular franchises. Why else would we have Halo 4, even when the ending to Halo 3 was so perfectly packed with closure and finesse that there was absolutely no possible way that we’d even think of playing as Master Chief again? Because Halo is a popular franchise. It’s a name that people instantly envision when they think of successful first-person shooters. Microsoft knew that, so instead of creating a new franchise (or even a new character in the Halo universe), they ripped off the door to Master Chief’s apartment, knocked him unconscious, and drove him back to their house. Despite its quality, Halo 4 should’ve never been made, or at the very least, it shouldn’t have had Master Chief in it. Gears of War: Judgment, for a game completely outside of its ideal trilogy, at least focused on someone other than Marcus Fenix. But the desire to keep a series going even after it has reached storyline closure is something that many publishers and developers have been guilty of. It’s a way to keep something alive when it was destined to stay dead.
That “fourth” game is usually the tipping point. You know the one, that installment that’s such an irritating outlier that it doesn’t even deserve a number. Gears of War: Judgment was one, Jak and Daxter: The Lost Frontier was another. They break that godly balance of threes (it is a magic number, you know). These games are built on the fundamental idea of continuing the franchise and nothing more. Naughty Dog didn’t make Jak and Daxter: The Lost Frontier, so the continuity seems all the more false. Ratchet: Deadlocked on PS2 was supposedly the “fourth” game, one that changed its design up to focus on combat entirely in addition to leaving the formerly titular Clank out. It appeared to be much less integral to the series in that regard, being so different and so extraneous from the world developed between Ratchet and Clank and Up Your Arsenal. Devil May Cry 4 dropped Dante entirely for its first half, focusing on a brand new protagonist, one that very few people liked. The “fourth” remains that crippling moment where exploitation starts to seep from the walls. It becomes apparent that an idea of encompassing whole isn’t in the cards once the “fourth” is released. The focus isn’t the story; it’s just keeping the universe alive.
And this becomes even more of a problem when you’re trying to structure a narrative continuity. Look at God of War: Ascension, a game that’s actually a prequel to both the God of War trilogy and the Chains of Olympus game on PSP. The narrative lacks a flow (as many prequels tend to lack) as it tries to develop its own story, but also has to abide by the continuity rules and regulations set by the first game in the series. This all happens after an amazingly evolutionary trilogy for God of War, a series of events that have enough ups and downs to be interesting, but ultimately settle into contentment. Ideal formation. Completion.
But some series have been going on for decades, long after the ideal three. Final Fantasy, despite being originally intended to be a “final” game in the 80’s, became one of the longest running RPG franchises of all time. Fourteen main games (with a fifteenth in the works) and a boatload of spin-offs show that the series is anything but “final.” Square Enix is an easy target here, but despite the steadily growing number of roman numerals in the games’ names, Square has been reinventing their universe consistently over the past decade or so. Very few of the Final Fantasy games are directly linked to each other and even those that are serially linked possess enough changes to be worthwhile. It’s hard to consider Final Fantasy a “series” when the games in the series are so loosely connected. In that regard, Square can get away with keeping a series going so long, since it’s just the name that’s still going, not necessarily the series. And that’s why Final Fantasy, Mario, Zelda, Sonic and even Persona are able to stay standing without feeling drained: their mythology doesn’t have to abide by serial precision. The focus is very loosely tied across the timeline. Except in rare occurrences, series like these are able to create new content that can stand alone. The stories may be tied to an over-arching universe, but not in the sense of chronological resilience. There’s no “first” game, at least not in the same way as, say, Gears of War. There’s no explanation that confirms that Super Mario Bros. was (narratively) the first game and that Super Mario Bros. 2 came second, and 3 came third. There’s a very playful nature to series like that, series with games that can exist within their own world, without having to follow the rules of reality.
All in all, there’s nothing wrong with narratives being used across games, but they require a very careful hand in developing a coherent context that doesn’t seem confusing, padded or just plain wrong. In fact, narrative across games can be a very good thing. Trilogies have proven time and again that, from the beginning of the first game to the end of the third, games achieve that golden ratio and feel complete. But that “fourth,” that extra game that tries to extend, insert or expand new content is usually the point where storyline precision is abandoned and the corporate vibe begins to take control. It’s so incredibly disorienting and it’s never subtle. The games that come in threes usually display a sense of steady evolution and storyline completion by the credits of the last, but series are very difficult to kill off, at least voluntarily, and with rumored games like Uncharted 4 and Mass Effect 4 on the way, it’s only going to grow.
Companies that have achieved that completion and have moved on to bigger and brighter things? High-five to you for reaching your goal of a powerful, strong-standing story that is tuned and primed to its utmost potential. To those who continue a game beyond that moment? Keep a good eye on opening up that can of worms again. You might not know what to do with them all.