Opinion – More Spin-Offs, Please

by Javy Gwaltney on Jan 13, 2016 at 12:20 PM

I wished I loved Assassin’s Creed: India. I came to it expecting an entertaining, if not amazing, time thanks to the solid quality of Chronicles: China. Instead I found a game that was dull, oppressive, as well as a bit broken. Worse, it had wasted the solid foundation built by the game before it. And yet oddly enough I eagerly await the last game in Ubisoft’s Mark Of The Ninja-inspired trilogy, Russia, due out next month. I want Climax Studios to work out the kinks the second game had and end on a high note, not because I’m particularly invested in the stories of these characters, but instead because I want more successful and creatively interesting video game franchise offshoots.

In retrospect, 2014 and 2015 had a surprising number of quality games that were spin-offs from established series. Persona Q combined the best parts of Persona 3 and 4 to create a memorable dungeon-crawling experience that felt like a gift to fans of the series while still being strong enough to stand on its own, separate from its legacy. Square Enix continued their parade of intriguing and fun spin-offs, following up Hitman Go with Lara Croft Go. My personal game of the year was also a spin-off, Tales From The Borderlands, a hilarious and somewhat poignant sci-fi adventure through a universe I previously just didn’t care for. I never really enjoyed any of the Borderlands games that much because I never had a reason to care for Pandora or its goofy denizens, who are basically just innuendo and quest dispensers.

Tales From The Borderlands, being a story-focused experience, was able to flesh out fan-favorite characters from the main series while also introducing a new cast who were easy to get attached to because they were such flawed and funny people. Rhys and Fiona’s sibling-like spats and bouts of childish narcissism had me chuckling constantly throughout the five episodes and the occasional heartfelt moments (like a certain scene centered around a briefcase in episode 1) hit hard. Tales From The Borderlands’ most notable achievement is that it strikes a fine balance between tragedy and comedy rarely seen in visual storytelling, not just games, juggling gory yet lighthearted slapstick with the bleak and often fatal realities of an uncaring universe.

And to think I almost missed out on it entirely.

When the game was announced, I (like a lot of people, I imagine) was skeptical. I had loved Telltale’s adaptations of The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us, but really, Borderlands? Not Battlestar Galactica, not Star Wars. Borderlands! Comeeee onnnn.

When the first episode was released, I decided to give it a try. It was five bucks. Reviewers seemed to be digging it, so why not? I booted it up. The credits rolled a couple of hours later and I immediately opened another save file to play the first episode again. Not just because I wanted to see how my choices affected how the episode would play out but because it was so damn funny. After that I waited eagerly for each episode, downloading and blasting through them the moment they hit the online store, and I was never bored or dissatisfied with any of them. It was, for me, the strongest gaming experience I had in 2015. As a unified, cohesive vision, no game I played came close to Tales. Other games dramatically innovated their genre (The Witcher 3, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain), others were more daring or ambitious (Life is Strange), but those all had their ups and downs while Tales was just a constantly rising line of entertainment and emotional investment for me from beginning to end.

Look. It’s fair to say most video game spin-offs are mediocre or even bad (Shadow The Hedgehog and Mortal Kombat: Special Forces, anyone?). Enough so that until recently I’d more or less ignored them altogether. After this past year, however, I eagerly await news of spinoffs from franchises I love, detest, and even those I feel generally apathetic about. I’d love to roam about Arkham’s Gotham as a villain this time around or be Garrus Vakarian’s partner in a buddy flick episodic adventure set on The Citadel. Heck, nothing would make me buy a Wii U faster than another Pokemon Snap. I want the weird and the wacky stuff, titles that demonstrate developers and publishers are looking for ways to move their long-running series in unexpected and exciting directions, offshoots that give me a reason to give a franchise I’ve already checked out on another chance.

Genre experimentation doesn’t always go so smoothly, I know, but I would gladly suffer through a hundred shoddily made, lackluster games to find something as satisfying as Tales From The Borderlands, Metal Gear Acid, Persona Q, or Halo Wars. I’m hoping that 2016 gives way to a bevy of strange spin-offs that turn out to be diamonds in the rough, confounding my expectations and leaving me with exciting and memorable gaming experiences.