Recently an article was brought to my attention that I found somewhat questionable: apparently Call of Duty may be getting a Marvel-style cinematic universe (referred to from this point forward as the MCU). Personally, I don’t see that being something that consumers want, but hey, maybe I’m out-of-touch with the CoD fandom, seeing as I’ve never played a single game and have zero intention of ever touching them. I’m not writing today to discuss movies, though, and I’m DEFINITELY not writing to discuss Call of Duty. Rather, I want to flip the script a little and pose this question:
Can the MCU approach work for a series of video games?
To elaborate on this question a little, let’s look at what makes the MCU tick. What you have are a series of initially standalone films that then come together for an ensemble film. Each movie or television show is all part of one canon, and each one contributes to that canon and can reference or crossover with other content within the universe. Individual films are used primarily for the character development of the title character, while also contributing some small part to the greater narrative that will eventually culminate in the ensemble film. Sound about right? Here’s hoping.
Now I personally have seen a sort of mini-version of this approach utilized in a game before. Specifically, I’m talking about Dragon Quest IV: Chapters of the Chosen. Chapters of the Chosen is a pretty old game, originally released in 1990 – I wasn’t even born then! However, the game has enjoyed a DS remake that came out in 2007, and that’s the version of this game I have been able to experience.
If you aren’t familiar with Chapters of the Chosen, here’s how it goes. You play a silent protagonist who travels the world, meets a bunch of supporting characters, and then leads them in glorious battle against a terrible villain bent on world domination. Pretty standard RPG fare, right? There’s one difference here, though – all of that happens in Chapter FIVE of the game. So, uh, what are you doing for the first four chapters?
Those chapters you spend with the game’s supporting characters. Chapter One tells the story of Ragnar McRyan, a brave knight on a mission to save the kidnapped children of his kingdom. Chapter Two, the story of Tsarevna Alena, a princess who wants nothing more than to be a warrior. She’s accompanied by brave Kiryl, who wishes nothing more than to be Alena’s husband, and the old but wise wizard Borya. Chapter Three tells the story of Torneko, who aspires to become the greatest weapon merchant the world has ever seen. And finally, Chapter Four focuses on Meena and Maya, two traveling sister magicians seeking revenge for the death of their parents. Each one of these chapters focuses on the life and backstory of someone who will later be a party member, while also developing the game’s overall narrative by showing bits and pieces of the villain’s grand scheme. Like individual movies leading up to the Avengers, each chapter builds up to the fifth and final chapter where everyone is brought together and all of their stories finally reach its conclusion with the villain’s grand design.
Personally, I found this to be a pretty cool way to tell a story. It’s a sort of inversion of the typical RPG approach, where you meet everyone first and then learn their backstories through the narrative. I wouldn’t want every game to be like this, but right now almost every game is the other approach, so I feel like we could stand for a few more stories to be told this way. The payoff, I think, is when all of the characters come together. You care about them all now, you have an attachment to them, so when you finally meet them again, it’s like coming home.
The MCU approach has also been semi-realized in other games. I’m specifically thinking of the Dynasty Warriors crossovers Hyrule Warriors and Dragon Quest Heroes – to which we are about to add Dragon Quest Heroes II and Fire Emblem Warriors later in the year. These games are “ensemble films” developed by a third party, Koei Tecmo, a love letter to each series that incorporates the characters we know and love from various games throughout that series. Here, a longstanding franchise has already done all the work of creating the standalone stories. Now the Dynasty Warriors crew can come in and throw those characters together into an epic story of slaughtering mindless baddies by the thousands.
While I really want to play Hyrule Warriors, I own neither the Wii U nor a New 3DS so I haven’t been able to enjoy the experience. However, I’ve been deep into Dragon Quest Heroes and in my mind this formula really works well. I’ve played every main-series Dragon Quest game except 3, so I recognized every single character that the game brought to the table. Every time someone appeared I was so happy to see them again. For some of them, it’d been years since I’d seen them on my screen. And getting to play as each of them, to discover their unique fighting style and see what they contributed to the game was really exciting. The less-than-stellar narrative almost didn’t matter compared to the fun of meeting all of these old characters again and seeing them interact with one another.
And while these games aren’t narrative-driven, titles like Super Smash Bros and Playstation All-Stars Battle Royale also utilize this whole idea of bringing multiple stories together and placing them into one canon. These titles don’t sell themselves – they survive on the love of the characters who make appearances in the game.
In short, the MCU approach is something we’ve seen in video games before. It isn’t as if Marvel invented a whole new form of storytelling with their approach. I mean, comic books were doing this long before the movies started, right? But we haven’t quite gotten where I was trying to lead us yet. I’m not talking about having a single video game that either gives us a bite-sized MCU experience, or strategically making a game that capitalizes on a pre-existing franchise.
I’m talking about, from start to finish, having a series that specifically creates multiple standalone titles that then culminate in a game that puts them all together.
I think it could be really cool to have a series that operates this way. From a narrative perspective, this allows you to really flesh out every character in detail and build towards a conclusion slowly over a series of titles. From a gameplay perspective, each individual game in the series could represent that particular character’s style, before finally culminating in a game that brings all of the features together. Maybe the first entry in the series features a secret agent type character, and so incorporates a lot of stealth elements. Then the next game’s main character is an inventor, so you have puzzle segments focused around things like hacking or jury-rigging devices. Yet another game prominently features a vehicle expert, and you have special combat mechanics for car chases, boat chases, motorcycle fights, whatever. Finally, in the game that brings them all together, you can feature all of these game elements, maybe even swapping between characters mid-scenario to get things done. Have your driver smash a huge truck through the wall of a warehouse to create a distraction so the agent can move stealthily past a group of guards. Meanwhile, your inventor is hacking the security system so no alarms will sound. Jumping between different gameplay styles and seeing all three characters work together to accomplish scenarios none could do alone would be a pretty interesting mechanic.
Of course, I definitely see flaws in this approach. Some people don’t LIKE stealth games, or vehicular action, or puzzle elements. So while one title in the franchise might appeal to one demographic, the next game may not appeal to everyone in that group, and they’ll either skip out on the game entirely, or begrudgingly play it only because they know they have to in order to appreciate the full experience (I’m looking at you, Ant Man).
For this reason, it might be better to try this approach all within one genre, and differentiate between the characters and game mechanics in a different way. I could see this approach possibly working for an RPG series. You could use the same basic game mechanics throughout each game in the series, but the different main characters could have different fighting styles – one a warrior type, another a magician, yet another relying on items. Bringing them together in the final game allows you to form a balanced party that’s well-equipped for taking on a variety of more difficult scenarios, making the final game build upon the foundation set by the earlier games in the series. Narratively, you’re still getting to see the payoff of all these characters you have grown to love coming together for a great story.
I personally am not aware of any series that work this way, but this is where you come in, adventurers! You have played different games than me, most likely, and I may be sitting here describing something that already exists. What games have you played that capture a feeling like that of the MCU? Or what approach would you like to see taken in a game that attempts to? Do you have any specific series in mind that you think could benefit from the MCU treatment? Let me know in the comments below!
(NOT SO) WEEKLY UPDATE
TUESDAY’S POST: Details about the setting and villains for my card-based RPG
FRIDAY’S POST: Maybe a sort-of review of Human Resource Machine
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT: A Gamer’s Guide to Child Abuse Prevention
A fun anecdote: I was gonna add a thing to my weekly updates where I link to a post selected totally at random by a number generator. I am not going to incorporate this permanently because my posts are not labeled numerically and, as a result, I have to scroll all the way down to my first post and manually count them, which is a serious pain. But I was like “alright, well, I’ll still do it this one time, I’m already committed,” so I pulled up a random number generator and it chose my 97th post. So I scroll to the bottom of my archives, start working my way up, and what is my 97th post? Video games I wish were movies. You can’t script this kind of nonsense. So now at the end of this post about movies inspiring video game mechanics, I give you a post about video games inspiring movies.