Analysis: Ninja Theory's Devil May Cry, And What Makes A Sequel A Sequel
On the whole, the extended life cycle for the current generation of consoles has been good for innovation. By the looks of things, it will continue to be good for at least a few years more.
More time with platforms naturally gives developers more opportunity to learn how to maximize the hardware. At the same time, new devices like Kinect and Move promise to offer a new world of possibilities on these platforms, not just by bringing in new audiences, but by presenting brand-new design forms to traditional audiences.
However, the extended cycle also presents some challenges. As the traditional console market becomes increasingly hit-driven alongside the rise of digital and mobile models, many publishers are falling back on their core franchises -- there's less risk in what's already successful, goes the thinking.
A new console cycle is normally the frontier for fresh properties, and next-gen-ization often offers enough of a reboot of existing franchises to drive sales. But now as the cycle protracts, some familiar brands are on their fourth and fifth outings with little change.
While story-driven games with massive universes present appealing opportunities for continuation through sequels and offshoots, how many times will players want to return to a single universe in the action genre? Giving developers the time to refine and polish defining game mechanics and nail down the laws of their game worlds is surely a boon for gamers, but it can become a steep challenge for developers. Can Call of Duty's multiplayer really get any better? Can God of War's melee combat feel any more precise?
In franchises with particularly distinctive mechanics, it can be even harder to iterate further. Developers can expand on the gameplay, but those predecessors were hits for a reason: Gamers liked them the way they were. So what else can be done?
One option is to reconsider the game's narrative and universe. Set it somewhere else, as BioShock plans to do with upcoming Infinite. Focus it on someone else, as Metal Gear Solid will do with Rising. Revisit the brand in a far more expanded fashion, as Valve's doing with Portal 2 or as Rockstar did with Red Dead Redemption. Or re-imagine the universe completely, as Ninja Theory looks to be doing with its new stewardship of Capcom's Devil May Cry.
But the way developers are tackling sequels and offshoots during this extended console cycle is raising some interesting questions about what defines a franchise: how much can be changed before a game doesn't feel like part of its predecessors' universe?
Why Infinite Is Still BioShock
The unveiling of Irrational's BioShock Infinite was a bit more controversial than might have been expected for a title with such an appealing visual style and with the promise of Ken Levine's marquee. But the absence of Rapture -- the underwater city that is as much a "character" within the BioShock universe as any other in the canon -- and important elements like Big Daddies, ADAM and Little Sisters led fans to be initially skeptical: How is this BioShock, then?
Infinite very much belongs beneath the same banner as its predecessors, though. Gamers bought into the existence of Rapture hook, line and sinker, to use an undersea pun. Despite the game's eerie, nostalgic, 1960's-era tone, the detail of the world somehow made it easy to believe there had actually been a fully-realized city beneath the sea, rife with the kind of genetic experiments that seem part of a far-flung and nightmarish future even in the present day.
Similarly, Infinite will ask players to believe in a thriving city in the sky at the turn of the 20th century. It seems unlikely that the experience will be any less plausible in its detail, given Irrational's continued stewardship. Both titles appear to share a masterful knitting of historical tone with environment-based decision making, in lockstep with the moral philosophies of their settings.
While Infinite doesn't look anything like BioShock, an intangible, "vibe", a feel unifies them, as if they were songs on the same compilation, stories in the same themed anthology. It's a re-imagining that keeps the franchise's core tone, theme and style intact.
The similarities also extend to the abstractions of Infinite's gameplay, which looks like it will follow the original BioShock in pitting the player against adversaries that live and respond naturalistically in the game world. Even if the old wrench-and-Plasmid combo isn't being reproduced, the overall style and thought process behind the gameplay is.
Perhaps because of these unifying elements, or perhaps because the property's original progenitor is taking its reins once again, fan concern appears to have quickly given way to, at worst, cautious anticipation. On the other hand, Capcom faces what looks to be a much tougher uphill battle in selling Devil May Cry franchise loyalists on Ninja Theory's reimagining of the monster-melee series. Why?
...And DmC Is Not Still Devil May Cry?
DmC Fans have so far only seen one cinematic trailer for the next game in the series, unveiled at the Tokyo Game Show this week. Many core elements of the franchise are immediately recognizable: hero-cum-badass Dante's swagger; the red leather coat he's worn through four successive session of mercenary demon-slaying; and the signature combo of gunplay and swordplay that's defined the brand.
But others aren't. To date, Dante's had the look of a character made in Japan, with the sort of white hair young men only sport in anime and, despite his attitude and heroics, a certain prettiness. Fan art of the character and his twin brother has always rather predictably bordered on the homoerotic, although Devil May Cry 4 presented a swarthier incarnation of the hero as a foil to the smoother, more boyish new character Nero.
Ninja Theory's Dante is different. Less fussily adorned, leaner and more raw, with a regrettable shock of black hair that looks like it's been styled with lawn clippers, he's distinctively un-handsome -- but also much more tangible, more plausible. Although the character still mimics Dante's dual-weapon feats and absurd stunting (enough so that, were this not a Devil May Cry game, fans would surely have cried "ripoff!"), even Ninja Theory must know he's not too recognizable. After all, the trailer ends with the character stating his name before the DmC logo-splash. Y'know, just to make sure you know.
Fan reaction has been instantaneous, with a wide swath of negativity. This YouTube user isn't the only one to have felt so incensed by the trailer's premiere less than 48 hours ago that he took the time to upload a rant against it. The cries of these users are gaining any number of comments from fellows who staunchly declare that they hate the franchise's new direction and that the series didn't need a reboot in the first place.
The man in the video loudly begs to know what prompted this new vision of Devil May Cry. He may not know his question has a fairly plain answer. The widespread perception appears to be that Japanese design and aesthetics are no longer fashionable and have limited reach in Western markets. Major Japanese software publishers (with the exception, as always, of Nintendo) have been almost universally posting significant sales declines and losses in recent fiscal quarters as they fail again and again to achieve much global appeal.
Amid this struggle to Westernize, Capcom itself has been especially hard-hit, with profits down 73 percent at the close of 2009, and down another 90 percent year-over-year in the first fiscal quarter of 2010 -- certainly, a few title quality issues and a strong Japanese yen aren't helping, to say the least.
Almost to the last, the stalwarts of the East have been looking to Western studios to revitalize their brands and help them appeal to a wider audience. Square Enix looks to be on a strong track since its acquisition of Eidos, Sega is busy reorganizing its Western operations for maximum efficiency, and Konami has the next editions of two of its flagship properties -- Castlevania and Silent Hill -- being developed in Europe.
Meanwhile, Konami's biggest franchise, embodied in Metal Gear Rising, remains in Japan under director Hideo Kojima's studio -- but even that title, an Xbox 360 release with more action-oriented gameplay, looks to be making concessions to the needs of the Western market.
Among its peer organizations, Capcom has been the most vocal about its need to Westernize, clearly stating that bringing its key properties to developers outside Japan is a pillar of its strategy for returning to success. Unfortunately for the publisher, however, Devil May Cry is one of those franchises at high risk of losing something in the translation.
It's true that the physicality and combat style of Devil May Cry's characters are key identifiers of the property -- it's why Sega and Platinum Games' Bayonetta, which took a similar approach, seemed a spiritual sister to the property (that, and having the same "father" in Hideki Kamiya). In a franchise known for its distinctive combat, anchoring to that element seems a perfectly logical approach.
But as BioShock Infinite shows, moment-to-moment gameplay does not a property make. Infinite belongs in its franchise's universe because of its tone and style, and Devil May Cry has remained distinctive for its own style, just as much as its gameplay.
It's That Je Ne Sais Quoi
It's a franchise that never wanted to be grounded. In Devil May Cry 4, a lothario Dante destroys a large gate structure by reciting a suggestive poem and assaulting it with weaponized roses flung into a heart shape. In Devil May Cry 3, which presents a young-punk incarnation of the hero, Dante destroys monsters who have taken over his humble office by skateboarding around on a pizza box (and continuing to eat the pizza). He faces off against his love-hate twin Vergil while the two fling casual trash-talk banter back and forth and effortlessly perform impossible acrobatic feats.
It's camp, so absurd as to be almost horrible, but plenty of fans clearly liked it -- even if that absurdity probably helps explain why other audiences might have felt alienated from the brand. And, despite its more realistic palette, Ninja Theory's DmC doesn't look to have abandoned it: The studio's new trailer features Dante casually smirking as he plummets backward off a high building, and finishes with him effortlessly enjoying a cigarette while draped across a high structure against a full moon. Ninja Theory's Dante seems, in short, to act like Dante, even if reflexive response to the way he looks might make that hard for some to pick up on.
Although he only worked directly on the founding installment of the franchise, Kamiya established its tone. The very first Devil May Cry, an early PlayStation 2 title, had subtle undertones of another brand Kamiya established: Resident Evil, with its haunting elements of creepy environmental exploration and effectively vague, almost eloquent allusions to the undead. Although the Devil May Cry franchise moved away from environmental play and more toward in-your-face action in the following years -- another trend generally associated with Japanese design bidding for Western appeal -- it retained that grunge-gothic vibe.
Despite its hyper-stylized absurdity, Devil May Cry continued to hold on to its undertone of subtle grace; Devil May Cry 4 was indisputably beautiful, with luminous, lacy stained glass, glittering bronze patinas and degenerating stone monoliths. Although Dante's base of demon-hunting operations, with which the franchise shares its title, has always been housed in the same sort of sulfur-tinged neo-urban wasteland depicted in Ninja Theory's trailer, the game was about looking elegant, not looking "gritty," a term frequently used as a defining descriptor of what's considered the Western aesthetic.
Look what's happened to the Resident Evil franchise. It continues to delight fans, but it no longer scares them the way it once did. Obscure puzzles in a haunted mansion once made players fear the unseen; now, in Resident Evil 5, Chris Redfield and his newly-upsized biceps are mowing down fast-moving herds of zombies in an action shooter that clings to its third-person perspective as if to a last bastion of its old definition.
Fans love the new Resident Evil and the fourth installment's stellar numbers attest to a new audience for the much more accessible game (that the fifth installment's numbers are less impressive is likely attributable to poor co-op AI and not to a tonal change). But just as many old-school fans feel a loss as that series' tone has shifted. Eastern horror prizes the slow build, the unknown and the unaddressed, which for many holds more intriguing narrative prospects than the Western format, which prefers to exhilarate with in-your-face adrenaline challenges.
Of course, neither Resident Evil nor Devil May Cry are reputed for their spectacular storytelling, to say the least. So while Ninja Theory's trailer does lack Devil May Cry's eerie grace, what it's most notably missing is that intangible, hard-to-pin Japanese tone, which companies like Capcom appear eager to divest themselves of their hurry to attain global audiences.
If it's tone and theme that make Infinite a true BioShock, is it this shift in tone and theme what makes DmC seem not to be a true Devil May Cry to its franchise's devotees? Is that a sacrifice those fans need to make to assure the continued survival of Dante's beloved, distinctive melee gameplay?
Of course, with no details regarding the gameplay for the franchise's upcoming reimagining, it's far too early to make a determination to that end. The more interesting question is this: For Japanese developers, does Western appeal mean sacrificing their unique and long-standing creative identity?