We live, for better or worse, in the age of the franchise, when nearly every big, expensive property brought before us is in some way related to something else we’ve enjoyed in the past. Did you like the Doom games? Have another one. Did you like the Divergent books? Have some films! Did you like Ghostbusters? Have some Ghostbusters with more vaginas! Do you dig Neko Case? Well, have we got a supergroup for you!
None of this is bad, per se, and there’s a certain pleasure in going into something knowing what you’ll get. We all have limited time to invest in our entertainment, and when there’s such an enormous array of options vying for our attention, choosing badly, even if it’s only for the length of a movie or for as long as it takes you to throw down a book in irritation, can be frustrating. You start second-guessing yourself about all the amazing things you could have been enjoying during that time you wasted.
This is a stupid problem to attach to our leisure time, and it can almost make you nostalgic for the amusement-starved past. I’m pretty sure no one ever left a Punch and Judy show complaining that they could have been watching the neighborhood boys throw stones at cats instead.
But with this reliance on the familiar comes a great deal of pressure on franchises to deliver more of the same, and because of the huge investment fans have in their games, and the love they bear for them, the pressure can be particularly crippling. Consider the response of World of Warcraft fans to Mists of Pandaria, which, despite bringing in gorgeous new landscapes and aesthetics, angered many fans to defection point.
Even smaller properties—perhaps especially smaller properties, which unlike World of Warcraft’s Blizzard don’t have the option of reinventing themselves with an Overwatch—are subject to these pressures. The 2011 Space Pirates and Zombies from MinMax Games was a deft weaving together of real-time strategy and top-down shooter with RPG elements. Despite its silly name, it had a compelling plot and a cast of characters worth caring about. And so, it met the fate that every game studio must perhaps hope for and fear in equal measure: it became a well-liked property that fans wanted more of.
But as MinMax developed SPAZ2, they did something daring: they decided to make a slightly different game. From the outside, this wasn’t just a basic artistic drive to grow their property, but a necessity: space strategy and simulation, as a genre, has grown tremendously in the intervening five years, and a game that has to compete with heavy-hitters like Paradox’s Stellaris can’t just be a rehash of a five-year-old space sim.
Thus SPAZ2, currently available in early access on Steam, takes the original cast of SPAZ and brings them into the future, but it also introduces new mechanics and a new vibe. In the wake of the epic destruction caused by the first campaign, the known universe now has a very junky, post-apocalyptic vibe—way more Firefly than Star Wars. A lot of the game is about scavenging resources while avoiding the two hundred other AI captains intent on doing exactly the same thing and quite ready to kill you over a small deposit of scrap.
Moreover, early in the game, it becomes clear that the dangers seemingly resolved by the original SPAZ campaign aren’t gone: the infections caused by the Dark Entity who lures technologically-advanced civilizations in with the ultra-powerful element Rez, a kind of “God element” that can seemingly do anything, have returned. The Clockwork crew (now bereft of the actual Clockwork), led by seriously badass Captain Elsa, has to build alliances to monitor the galaxy for infection while trying to solve the mystery of where they’re coming from.
In other words, despite having a name so ridiculous that Rock Paper Shotgun has made a running joke of how bad it is, SPAZ2 is, like its predecessor, a game that pulls together a lot of different elements effectively to create really engaging play, even in early access.
And yet—not everyone is thrilled. While early responses have mostly been positive, those that haven’t have latched on to a single basic point: it’s not SPAZ. The studio has deviated from the basics of the original game to give fans something a bit different.
Fallout 4 has experienced a similar backlash from many of its fans for moving away from its RPG roots to become either more of an action/shooter game, or an open-world sim that’s basically “Minecraft for adults”. Although the game has “Mostly Positive” Steam reviews overall, the top ones are negative and specifically focused on this issue: “I used to be an adventurer like you, but then Bethesda took the RP out of my G” and “Fallout 4 is a great FPS but a terrible RPG.” There have also been many articles written about the game’s evolution (or devolution, depending on your point of view). “I’ve had a lot of fun playing Fallout 4,” writes Particia Hernandez in “Fallout 4 is Not the Fallout Fans Fell in Love With, “….It’s just not the same type of fun I had playing other Fallout games.”
It would be tempting to just roll eyes at the diehards. But while the tension between game devs and fans is so well established there’s even a game about it, it’s also worth asking whether our tendency to, like a dreary little line of Olivers, demand “more” of precisely the same delicious game gruel, can be attributed to the dominance of the franchise itself. If you tell us this is the “more” we’ve demanded, don’t we have a right to expect it will be?
On the other hand, in a recent article appropriately titled “Bethesda Knows Exactly What Fallout 4 is, and it’s Not an RPG,” Matt Purslow acknowledges that while “each new game pulls us further away from Fallout 1 and 2” but believes “that doesn’t make them worse games. They’re just different.”
There’s a simple way to lay aside this whole unpleasantly circular question about rights and obligations, and that’s to suck it up and enjoy new things-really new things-instead of asking for more of the same. A game that sounds like nothing we’ve ever heard of before, a new musician, something we aren’t sure about and might hate. That’s scary—but it’s also the exit gate from the franchise hell that’s so miserable for developers and fans alike. There’s a lot of cool stuff out there, and it’s up to you to be brave enough to try it.
After all, are you really that fond of gruel?