The trilogy is an extremely popular way of telling a story, whether it’s in movies, books, video games, or any other media out there. The structure of a trilogy allows for a defined goal by the end of each installment and is extremely familiar to audiences.
But why have many gaming trilogies struggled with the final installment in a trilogy recently? Why have games like Modern Warfare 3, Mass Effect 3, and Gears of War 3 (to name a few) been seen as underwhelming additions to their franchises?
Some of the biggest trilogy-ending installments in recent years have suffered from a variety of issues that range from a mismanagement of expectations to simply trying to do too much with the game. Here are my personal thoughts on why certain games had some trouble satisfying the gaming audience and what can be done to fix this in the future.
How many times have you seen the words “epic conclusion” plastered to the advertisements of the final installment in a series? The expectation that the third entry will keep building on the previous two and deliver a knockout punch that settles all story arcs is one that is incredibly difficult to keep up with. In the scramble to create a bigger and better story, developers tend to up the ante way too much and dig themselves into a hole.
A prime example of this is the Mass Effect trilogy. In the first Mass Effect game, the player learns of the Reapers: a sentient race of machines that are programmed to wipe out all advanced organic life in the Milky Way every 50,000 years. Near the end of the game, one Reaper nearly takes out the entirety of a united galactic defense force by itself.
Mass Effect 2 focused on a new Reaper plot that Shepard had to stop but it didn’t involve any direct conflicts with the Reapers in dark space. Instead, Shepard battled the Collectors, a mysterious race of aliens who served as pawns of the Reapers.
Mass Effect 3 finally showed the Reapers invading in full and right off the bat the characters were completely positive that the war could not be won conventionally. The Reaper threat had been built up so large over the course of the games that the writers needed something to even the odds and let the good guys win.
The problem with this is that it leads to the Deus Ex Machina, which everyone seems to hate, and an underwhelming conclusion to the main threat. Instead of uniting the various races of the Galaxy and being able to defeat the Reapers in conventional warfare (or even allowing for some new kind of prototype weapon that helps them out), we get a multicolored explosion that instantly reprograms and/or destroys the Reapers.
Just about anyone could come up with the idea that a button press reprograms the Reapers, it isn’t “epic” and therefore it is underwhelming for many people. When expectations are built up high, the storytelling and the conclusion need to be that much more satisfying and that presents a big problem for many trilogies.
Doing Too Much
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was one of the most popular games of the 7th generation and spawned a trilogy of Modern Warfare games that all delivered great gameplay and fun multiplayer. However, the final installment in the series suffered from a bit of globetrotting that disjointed the main story and lead to a not-so-great ending.
Call of Duty games have always been about showing multiple sides of conflicts and allowing players to jump from one character to another but Modern Warfare 3 did this at the cost of developing each of the individual stories. The invasion of New York by the Russians at the beginning of the game was given two levels but once they were done, the Russians were totally pushed back from the U.S.
The game then took players to tons of locations around Europe, never staying in one place for more than two levels. While it was cool to fight in France, England, and Germany, the story became fragmented and you never got a real “feel” for any of the locations. The game would have done well to stay in the U.S for a bit longer and see some other invasion fronts on the east coast before moving overseas.
Giving the game an “international” feel was a point of emphasis for the developers and while, in theory, it was a good idea, the execution wasn’t there. There was too much globetrotting and not enough development in individual areas. Sometimes trying to deliver that “epic conclusion” which is promised can lead to too much clutter in the final installment.
The final installment in a game series is supposed to clarify everything that was brought into question over the course of the series and wrap it all up in a nice bow. While that rarely happens, some games do a better job than others. Gears of War 3 is a good example of this.
The Gears of War series told the story of Marcus Fenix, a soldier who deserted his post to try and save his father and who is sprung from jail years later to help humanity fight a war with the Locust, a species of humanoids who live underground. The first game sets the stage and tone for the franchise but there are many questions left unanswered, namely “Where did the Locust Come from?”
It is eventually explained that the Locust lived underground but “how long had they been down there?” and “how did humanity not know?” are two questions that still remain unanswered. Gears of War 2 brought even more questions as a Locust queen entered the story and a sub-species of the Locust (the lambent) became more prominent.
By Gears of War 3, there were a ton of questions left to be answered. The origin of the Locust and the relationship between the Locust and Adam Fenix (Marcus Fenix’s father) were two of the most important story questions that gamers had and Gears of War 3 barely touched on either. Worse even, they began to explain a little bit and then stopped.
When Marcus and company finally reach Adam Fenix in Azura he begins to explain to them that he knew the Locust were trying to flee the lambent and told them to stay underground while he found a way to deal with the infection. They eventually stopped waiting and attacked humanity but that is basically all that we are given. How long had the Locust been down there? Did anyone else know they were down there or was the COG keeping it hidden? Why does the Locust queen look human?
All of those questions were left unanswered as the mad dash to turn on the Deux Ex Machina began. The game finishes and then never references those questions again, leading many gamers to become frustrated with the conclusion that they were given.
Those are some of the common problems with trilogy-ending games but what can be learned from those mistakes and how can developers look at successful third entries to improve future installments in franchises? The fixes from the problems I listed seem pretty easy to understand on the surface but simply “eliminating ambiguity” or “managing expectations” is not an easy task.
Take the Uncharted series for example; each game in the series has its own storyline and can be played independently of the others without losing any of its meaning. While you may think that this makes the story very disjointed, it actually helps to build the characters and lets the gamers in on the relationships these characters have from one situation to the next.
Many trilogies can learn a lot from Uncharted (the value of self-contained stories) but not every series can (or should) be like that. Mass Effect, for example, couldn’t really work without a highly connected storyline. So let’s take a look at a series that had an overarching story that still managed to wrap it up well.
The Halo series is regarded as one of the best first-person shooters in recent memory and the story of the first three Halo games actually ended up being a fairly well done trilogy. The final game even includes a Deux Ex Machina (gasp) but it works and here is why: Instead of this “god machine” being brought up in the final game out of left field, it was actually the main threat in the first game. The Halo ring (not the Covenant) was the real threat to humanity in Halo: Combat Evolved so its presence as the final solution in Halo 3 wasn’t perceived as “lazy writing.”
The stakes were also upped by shifting allegiances of the main villains and helping humanity grow stronger as the series went on so none of the battles were unbelievable. The uneasy alliance between the Covenant and the humans helped to sell the idea that humanity was able to stay in the fight long enough to see it through to the end.
Halo 3 might not have a the most concise or cohesive storyline, but it does have a solid ending that wraps up the story nicely and doesn’t rely too much on technology/backstory that wasn’t referenced in previous games.
Trilogies will most likely continue to be the preferred way of telling a story and while the structure of the trilogy does make certain aspects of storytelling easier, it can also make wrapping everything up nicely a difficult prospect. Video game trilogies can work well as long as they shy away from explanations that were never referenced in previous games and make sure to clear up the major questions that players have.
Even with disappointing endings, most of the games I referenced were still solid video games and did very well from a sales point of view. Even if a trilogy does not end in a way that gamers had hoped for, the final installment can still be a lot of fun and should not be overlooked just for the ending.