Game Trilogies vs. Movie Trilogies

Video games have been creeping up on movies for decades now, but only in recent years have they been able to match the silver screen in narrative quality and substance. Sure, Final Fantasy VI had a great story, but reading text spouted by sprites doesn’t have quite the same effect as watching real actors.

Sometimes a great story can’t be told through a single work. Imagine if Luke had become a Jedi and (spoilers) defeated the Emperor in a single movie, or if Neo had broken free from the Matrix, became Jesus and painted a rainbow across Gotham City in just 90 minutes. Besides, trilogies are a sure way to make bank: Audiences love them, they make studios profitable for longer periods of time than stand-alones, and they’re ripe for a new remastering/director’s cut/special edition every few years.

The greatest film trilogies stick with us: the original three Star Wars films, The Godfather, The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings, Indiana Jones (not counting the Kingdom of Dumb Aliens). Given that games are a much younger medium, can our greatest game trilogies possibly stack up?

Some game trilogies haven’t even been finished yet. Mass Effect immediately springs to mind. Kingdom Hearts does, as well, though with so many spin-offs and prequels it’s easy to see why Square Enix hasn’t bothered to give us the third entry. Then there’s Half-Life 3, which will probably never enter the production stages. Even though the final episodic expansion to Half-Life 2 could easily wrap up the story, Valve seems reluctant to finish what they started.

Wouldn’t it be better if each game in a trilogy could stand alone as a finished narrative experience? Games seem overly susceptible to unfinished stories, especially when trilogies are involved. The gaming industry is more often in flux than the film industry, and with consoles and companies coming and going, the landscape is constantly changing. Years pass between releases, and hype builds and crumbles with the whims of publishers and press.

Game trilogies suffer from the sophomore slump just as often as film trilogies do. Too often the first of three games is complete from beginning to end, while the second acts as a mere bridge to culminate in the third and final entry. Halo 2, Mass Effect 2, Half-Life 2 and Gears of War 2 all suffer from this problem—not that the middle games in those series fall short, but they do little for the narrative besides push us along to the ending.

So what advantage do game trilogies have over film trilogies? What is there to recommend them over standalone games or even the occasional sequel? For one thing, like television series, games are much longer-form works than movies. A great game developer can inject more fleshed-out characters and narrative elements than one could in a movie, similar to how TV shows can allow for a more rich and developed narrative.

Another strength of game trilogies lies in the interactive nature of games. An inherent difference between games and other forms of media provides for another layer of artistry not found in film-making or any other art form: mechanics. They’re often overlooked in the tired “games as art” debate, but they’re crucial to a cohesive experience. Whether it’s jumping or shooting or waving a sword around, a game’s mechanics are what link us to its world. Without solid mechanics, even the most realized narrative game experience will fall flat.

Trilogies allow game developers to essentially revise a game’s mechanics two full times until a story is complete. When done right, the second and third games in a series will be much tighter gameplay experiences, even if the second is a dud narrative-wise. Halo and Mass Effect are great examples of this, as is the Metroid Prime. The third game completely revamped the control scheme while maintaining the understated narrative strength of the series, cementing it as the best entry in the trilogy.

The ever-changing nature of the gaming industry allows for constant evolution, even within a single series. Of course, this isn’t always the case. Devil May Cry 2, for example, was a major step backwards for that series, while the third finally turned it back in the right direction. Some trilogies, like God of War, are simply solid throughout in every way, but that kind of consistency is rare. Game design is an evolutionary and often iterative process.

Therein lies the strength of game trilogies as a narrative form. Unlike movies of a trilogy, which are often shot in the same time frame and released within a few years of one another, game series change and grow from title to title. In other mediums, this might be seen as inconsistency, but gamers are used to it and have even come to expect it. With a few exceptions, no one wanted Halo 3 to look and play exactly like Halo: Combat Evolved.

When it comes to trilogies, we’ve got plenty to look forward to: Mass Effect 3 and Gears of War 3 will certainly wow us, and we’ve still got our fingers crossed for Kingdom Hearts 3 and Half-Life 3. There are even some beginnings on the horizon, like filmmaker Guillermo del Toro’s recently announced inSANE trilogy, the first of which is set to hit in 2013. The following quote from del Toro is heartening for the future of the trilogy: “The relationship between movies and games has been unfortunate because people in Hollywood see games as an ancillary product, but that’s the least of what they can be,” he told the LA Times in December.

Games have great potential, most of which has yet to be realized. Trilogies can be a great way for developers to guide players into a brand new world, but they can also be massive wastes of space and energy. There’s no doubt we’ll see plenty of both in the future from both games and movies, but it’s the successes that will ultimately buoy us to greater heights.