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Prequels so often promise to revisit our favorite universes in a different and better light than the original, yet it’s no secret that more fans are left shaking their heads than applauding. As so many filmmakers and game developers alike march to the beat of the entertainment industry’s hottest storytelling device, more fans are asking the same questions about their most beloved series: How do you move a series forward while moving it backward?
If there’s anything that can define the video game narratives we’ve seen with this year, it’s the prequel story. From God of War to Batman’s Arkham games, darn near every franchise this generation has seen itself reincarnated in a different skin all too familiar to fans. Uncharted: Golden Abyss’s plot was near-indistinguishable from any Uncharted you’ve played before and even Black Flag’s Edward Kenway can’t hide behind his wilder, buccaneering ways to disguise his game’s titular Assassin’s Creed formula. It’s easy to say that this generation and the last’s are getting tired and, inevitable or not, prequels are just another way of refurbishing them. Still, that alone can’t sway fans away from a series’ biggest problems. Frankly, there are times when a prequel needs the extra mile.
The idea of the prequel is nothing new. One can trace the idea of simple introductions back to Homeric times in ancient Greece to the writings of the Holy Grail. It’s something that’s not inherently bad in itself; rather, it can be as much a proper introduction to a universe as it can be a supplement to an already terrific story. What’s irksome is that a prequel can only be so after the fact, and that can bring us to the most polarizing prequel stories in a galaxy far, far away.
As a child of the nineties and early 2000s, I grew up in George Lucas’s prequel trilogy era. Though I can say that my love affair with Star Wars begins and ends with Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, and Princess Leia’s original adventures, I was young and starry eyed enough about the Star Wars universe itself that I didn’t care at all about the changes older fans griped about. I adored every Clone Wars action figure I could lay my grubby hands on and read every Jedi Apprentice and Jedi Quest novel my mom could buy for me, though granted, more for Obi-wan than Anakin. It’s only in retrospect that I found the prequels at fault, and I can admit that half of my enjoyment of them is thanks to undying loyalty to the brand name. Maybe that’s what shapes my love and hate for prequels they depend too much on what we’ve already seen and loved about a series and reiterating them in a cheap new coat of paint. It’s arguably what’ll get me in the door of a theater or a video-game store, but all the while it’s not something that leaves me nearly as satisfied as the magic of its predecessors.
For every series that has them, prequels are an extension as much as they are a threat to the crowning achievement of continuity. Age-old series like Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy, or Kingdom Hearts, and The Legend of Zelda grow into an impossibly complex web of fictitious timelines, story arcs, and dimensions that all intersect and weave around each other more with each continuation. If making a sequel to complement them is like sliding in a Jenga block into an already whobbling tower, then taking out a block and starting a new pile of them in the form of prequels is even more painfully challenging. It’s an understatement to say that the so-called “canon” of the Star Wars universe gets crazier and crazier with each new James Luceno novel.
The same goes for every prequelization in gaming. Half of every Metal Gear or Assassin’s Creed is spent bobbing around the particular Snake history involved or the eternal Templar/Assassin war. Don’t get me wrong, I love and read more Metal Gear and Assassin’s Creed Wikis than I’d likely admit. Respecting series history is brilliant when it’s done as well as every Zelda and Professor Layton is, but nods are different than obsessive inside references or blatant nonsense. I puzzle over why Samus chose to shut up for the rest of her career after Other M (okay, I don’t), but I swear there’s no reason that Batman would’ve ditched those awesome electric gauntlets by the time he drove up to Arkham Asylum. Continuity can be our friend as easily as it can be our enemy, but prequels make them more unnecessarily harder to swallow.
More than my nerdy musings on who had what colored lightsaber or why this person has a different (and much better) past costume, prequels do us a disservice when the remove a part of our suspense for the unexpected. If you’ve read the Assassin’s Creed III tie-in novels last year, you’ll already know why Edward Kenway isn’t showing up to slip a few dabloons in little Haytham’s pocket anymore, or whether Kratos finally achieves his vengeance. Prequel stories are often too attached to their successors to matter when their guided by a firm, steady hand called story. We know that Batman’s going to survive Arkham Origins (oh, darn, spoiler!) or that Yoshi’s probably not going to be raising Mario through puberty.
The best prequels that have ever conquered predictability are arguably the ones that are most detached from their canon. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater was a prequel that unusually set itself roughly thirty years from its franchise’s first entry with virtually none but a few worthwhile references and old faces in a radically different disguise. Akin to films like Prometheus, it so far removed itself from the series’ focal point that it was allowed to become its own, standalone story as much as an addition to the preexisting continuity as something unique, relevant, and surprising all at once to its other games.
Knights of the Old Republic can be seen as a similar, if not more extreme case. Thousands of years separate it from George Lucas’s stories and the only real connections it has are a few familiar planets, spaceships, and the Force itself. Nonetheless, it explores it builds the universe rather than old characters and shows us a side of the Star Wars galaxy we didn’t know existed before the Skywalkers, but what events shaped their coming.
Rather than simply offending us, how can we care about prequels at all? Even for the prequels that take place a spittoon away from the originals, they’re still worth it if they can at all teach us something new about the people in it rather than just their surroundings. Final Fantasy: Crysis Core gave us an unprecedented look into Cloud’s turbulent past and expanded on Zak, a face we never had the change to get acquainted with. By contrast, every one of Batman and his villains in Origins are almost exactly the way you’ve already met them in Arkham Asylum and City no matter what month the calendar happened to say and GoW: Ascension told us nothing other than the fact that Kratos impaled one more cyclops then we thought before GoW 1. The best prequels are a balancing act. They go far enough to give us unprecedented insight into a character or story we’ve never met all the while maintaining the self-restraint not to rant about it.
In the never-ending universes that franchises like The Legend of Zelda or The Lord of the Rings are, everything’s seemingly a prequel to something else. Sometimes prequels are impossible to avoid when you have to continue a series devoted and fairly limited to the specific books penned by J.R.R. Tolkein. Apart from a complete reboot or remake, prequels are the only way to further a story that’s essentially concluded with the climax of Frodo’s journey with the ring or Link’s final smack-down with Ganon. In a sense, don’t make it a prequel at all. Instead, make it a pure prologue duty bound to do nothing but set up the stage of the original. A new Link or a new Ranger raises the stakes with a new character we can care about without trampling on series history, but rather introducing it for the future. We can use their successors’ (or predecessors) playgrounds to tell their stories and simply lend it back, no strings or canon attached other than the emotional ones that mattered the most in those stories by themselves.
It’s all of these reasons and more that I’m both as doubtful and hopeful for Monolith Production’s Shadow of Mordor as I can expect myself to be. I can’t say if the next walk into Mordor will be a hollow repackaging of Tolkein’s golden oldies or an exciting new chapter all its own, but Lord of the Rings has gone far too long deserving a shot at greatness on our tv screens as much as the silver screen.
So, how do YOU think prequels are best done? Love ‘em, hate ‘em, do away with them entirely? One does not simply walk away from this blog without a comment. Write them down below and thanks for reading.