Not really. You’re stuck with me, sorry.
So, I’m not a big fan of Chris Nolan.
Back in 2003, Nolan was tasked with performing what could have politely been called a miracle: he was handed the Batman franchise and basically asked to do something with it that would revitalize its viability as a film franchise. The previous film, Batman and Robin, had been released in 1997 to less than pleasant reviews, and the franchise had essentially been dormant ever since, largely because the film was a massive disappointment in all respects (though George Clooney was a fabulous looking Batman). Joel Schumacher took a franchise known for being dark and strange thanks to Tim Burton’s involvement and turned it into a weird Power Rangers sort of thing, making two films that essentially spit on the prior work to a point where Superman IV: The Quest For Peace came off as a more tasteful representation of its titular hero, and frankly, the odds of anyone being able to resurrect the franchise at that point were, to be polite, low. Nolan looked at the films that had preceded the project before him, and after a presumably long amount of thought, he made a decision with surprising consequences: he shrugged, said, “Fuck that,” and decided to start the whole franchise over and pretend the last four films didn’t happen.
And it worked.
Batman Begins took home a tidy chunk of change at the box office, and The Dark Knight made the man a household name amongst more than just comic book fans. To say that Nolan massively surpassed expectations would be an understatement, and Hollywood took notice. Other filmmakers, having realized what a boon it would be to take on old franchises and just pretend all of the preceding films didn’t exist, followed suit: Bryan Singer directed Superman Returns as if the third and fourth films didn’t exist, the next Spider-Man film is going to be a straight reboot of the franchise now that Sam Raimi has abandoned the series, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer will be seeing a theatrical reboot sometime in the coming years. Filmmakers have realized that rebooting franchises works, regardless of their reasons for doing so, and whether or not the end results are any good hardly matters, since, hey, you can always just reboot again anyway. It’s not even like Nolan invented the concept; he simply made it mainstream on a level that inspired people, as a whole, to follow suit.
But filmmakers weren’t the only people to realize this, as video game developers have jumped on the bandwagon with surprising vigor. By the time this goes to print, two major franchise reboots have already seen the light of day, in Splatterhouse, a reboot of Namco’s defunct action beat-em-up franchise, and Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, a reboot of Konami’s popular franchise about various protagonists fighting Dracula. Further, two more franchises have already been slated for reboots: Devil May Cry, Capcom’s high-impact series about a smart-mouthed half-devil demon hunter/detective, and Tomb Raider, Eidos’ action platforming series about a treasure hunting Indiana Jones inspired woman with more talents than Batman. The idea is simple: if your profitable characters have reached the end of their usefulness or have become too difficult to write stories for, start over with the same character, only completely different, and watch as the sales roll in. You don’t have to worry about coming up with new and different concepts and characters when you can start existing franchises over again, after all, and this essentially means that developers no longer need to worry about things like continuity or character evolution, since you can basically finish up a story and start over if you don’t like the results.
This is not the winning solution one would expect.
Video game fans tend to be very vocal about their opinions, to the point that when fans assumed the modernized Ninja Gaiden series was a reboot, lead developer Tomonobu Itagaki felt the need to make it a point to note that the games he was making transitioned directly into the original games, which were nearly twenty years old at that point, because fans of the old games were less than pleased about the possibility of rebooting the franchise. Some of the companies involved in these reboots are aware of this, of course, as Capcom has gone on the record as stating that they were pretty much aware that this was going to generate some vocal reactions, to a point where some have speculated that this was the point. But the fact is that, contrary to the old adage, not ALL press is good press; a year straight of fans posting negative reactions about character redesigns and the need to jettison old plot points does your product no favors. Nor, for that matter, does it do your franchise any favors when half of the expected fanbase vocally trashes your game for being completely different from the original games to a point where it doesn’t even feel like the developers played the original games, which is exactly what happened when Konami unveiled Castlevania: Lords of Shadow late last year.
Further, while Splatterhouse was a reboot of a franchise that had been dead some fifteen years at this point and at least seemed like a fair attempt at modernizing the series, Tomb Raider: Underworld was only released two years ago, as was Devil May Cry 4, meaning that these reboots are coming out in the wake of successful games in their respective franchises. Further, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow came out a few months after a game based in the prior continuity was released, Castlevania: Harmony of Despair, making the whole situation feel like these reboots are being done not to freshen up the franchises, but to do something else because the people involved simply have no ideas left. They assume that by rebooting their franchises, they will attract new business, even if the franchise itself was still somewhat viable, and that the attention they attract will ultimately be of benefit to them in the long term, no matter how negative it might seem.
They would have done well to study the history of other industries that tried similar “shaking up” tactics, because they might have learned that this doesn’t often work out well in the long term.
Back in the 90′s, the comic book industry was in a solid, if unremarkable, state, and the two major companies, DC and Marvel, were making a respectable amount of money between their actual comic sales and all of the licensing agreements the companies were involved in. Both companies noticed, however, that they saw greater sales numbers when “special” events occurred, such as when Superman died, when Batman’s back was broken by Bane, when Spider-Man’s clone came back from the dead, and when they used special covers with reflective foil patterns that indicated a “big event” of some sort. Realizing how profitable such events were, the comic companies simply went about manufacturing newer and bigger events, attempting to draw the interest of comic speculators and fans, until the comic market became over-saturated with first issues, reflective foil covers, and shocking revelations that were undone within a year, and the market essentially collapsed under its own excess. Shaking up the status quo was financially viable in the short term, because it generated lots of interest when a superhero was killed or turned evil or whatever else the writers could come up with, but once all of the good ideas were gone and everyone realized what was going on, the bottom fell out and both companies ended up losing a large portion of their fanbases to general apathy and distrust.
People tend to place value in their favorite characters. They become attached to these fictional beings and their exploits and come to love and admire the characters for a number of reasons, and as a result, become critical when those characters and franchises aren’t handled in the way they want. Rebooting a franchise can come as a slap in the face to those fans, not just because the fans don’t want to see a developer throw away all of that great stuff their favorite characters have done, but because it tosses out all of the things that character might do, in favor of a new version of that same character who simply isn’t the character we know and love. The new Dante in the upcoming Devil May Cry reboot has been updated visually to look more “modern”, in that he has a more emo sensibility to his style, but he isn’t the arrogant, self-assured demon slayer fans love, he’s a guy in a coat who may or may not kill demons and may or may not be locked in an insane asylum. By all indications, the new Lara Croft will wear pants and have marginally smaller boobs, but aside from that cosmetic change, what, if anything, about the character is expected to make her interesting? That she’s vulnerable and learning to overcome trials and tribulations with her own wits? The original Lara was nearly super human, and giving her human vulnerabilities and stripping her down to the basics doesn’t make her more compelling, it makes her like every other female protagonist of the past several years at best, and an uninteresting lead character in a game that sparks immediate comparisons to the Uncharted series at worst. Castlevania has always been about Dracula or some other massive evil force rising up, only to be defeated by a single warrior or a small group, and turning that into God of War and completely removing anything to do with Dracula from the equation basically leaves you with a name that’s attached to a game that has nothing to do with said name.
Another major problem with this sort of thing is that, surprise, a lot of people don’t want to see their favorite characters expanded on or developed because these developments tend to suck out loud. Take, for example, the recently released Metroid: Other M. While most players will debate whether or not the mechanics of the game are any good, many are not being so charitable towards the plot, and more specifically, the conversion of Samus Aran from a silent badass bounty hunter into a cowed woman with emotional issues. It’s not that any development of a character is a bad thing, mind you, but adding elements that “humanize” a character often means adding elements that turn the character into a mental case or a wuss. Our most successful heroes are often the ones who come across as larger than life or the ones we can empathize with; Kratos, Master Chief and Sam Fischer are badasses who exude menace and coolness, Bayonetta and Dante are smart-mouthed ass-kickers who are impressive and quick-witted, and Nathan Drake and Chuck Greene are normal folks in abnormal situations who we can root for because they overcome the odds and pull out the win despite everything being against them. “Humanizing” such characters often involves cutting out the parts of the characters that people actually like, and replacing them with ANGST ANGST ANGST to the point where the characters spend more time whining than they do, well, anything else, and while that might work for Twilight, most people have no tolerance for that sort of thing.
Perhaps the most damaging thing about this sort of behavior isn’t the immediate fan complaining, but the long term lack of interest people are likely to develop when they realize that there’s no point in becoming attached to a character who might be rebooted away tomorrow. Imagine rebooting Metal Gear Solid and starting over with a brand new Solid Snake, thus negating the past several games and all of the events within. Consider the possibility of a new God of War with a new, different Kratos fighting new, different enemies through the same events his original version had taken on what seems like a lifetime ago. Think about the idea of a new Master Chief fighting new enemies on a new world with the same Halo name attached to it. Their previous actions and events no longer matter, because these are new versions of the characters with new stories, new lives and new adventures, and all of the events the original fans loved… don’t seem to matter anymore.
It’s possible that this is all much ado about nothing, and that these expected reboots, along with the possibility of other reboots further down the line, will do perfectly fine in the long run. It’s possible that the sales of Splatterhouse, which are at less than one hundred and fifty thousand units between the PS3 and 360 versions as of this point, are an anomaly, as are the less than seven hundred thousand units sold between the PS3 and 360 versions of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. Maybe everything will work out in the end and the other upcoming reboots will manage to spark fan interest and move millions of copies, as their publishers are likely hoping. Maybe fans will take to these new reboots and the market will actually be stronger as a result. History, however, has a way of repeating itself, and those who forget the lessons of history are often doomed to repeat them, and while the video game industry as a whole is unlikely to suffer the fates of Marvel and DC, if things end up going in the same direction, we might not be seeing the adventures of any of these characters ever again, or at least, not from the companies who own them now.
Just a thought.
Tags: playing the lame