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Expanded Universes: Games That Expand Themselves


It's easy to read 'expanded universe' and only see 'marketing opportunity.' The perfectly decent non-cynical reason for an expanded universe, though, is simply that it provides extra material for fans of a game to absorb if and when they want to. On that basis it seems like it's a good idea. If you're a big fan of, say, Halo indeed why wouldn't you want to read novels delving into the back-story? Why wouldn't you like to see a TV spinoff series as long as it's done right?

There are certainly good reasons to want expanded universe stuff and it would be silly to suggest that it can only ever be harmful. However, I'm going to argue that if there's any medium that can get along just fine without such products, it's games.

With a film or television series, the director is always trying to catch the viewer's attention in a specific way. That's not to say that there isn't any subtelty in the design or any subtext or background - but by their nature, films only have a set amount of time to tell their story. In other words, they can't afford to spend too much of it on peripheral matters. On the other hand, games can take as long as they want and the player gets handed at least some of the editorial control. This means that you can have an expanded universe living right within the background of the game without ever needing to create spinoffs or side-projects. There are a good few ways this can be and indeed has been accomplished.

1) Optional Reading Material

One of the best examples of this in recent memory is Mass Effect which provides a huge database of information about everything and anything to do with the game in quite some detail. If it's in the game, you can probably find out more about it by bringing up the menu and reading at any time. I hardly looked at any of the database but I'm glad that it's there if people wanted it. If Mass Effect were a film or TV series then someone probably would have brought out a book like the Star Trek ones going into technical detail, but this renders that sort of thing unnecessary.

2) Letting the environment tell the back-story

In a modern game, the player can generally wander around the environment at will and so why not use that to the game's advantage and provide more information about what is happening to those who want to look for it? One excellent recent example of this is Left 4 Dead's wall writing. Sure, Valve could have gone the Dead Space route and made Anime films, comics and Wii-based prequels but they understood that it is just as (if not more) effective simply to have a number of confused and sometimes contradictory scratchings on the wall to hint at the world beyond the game. It is a decidedly mature approach that pays full respect to the imagination of the gamer.

3) Bonus Content

Often, as a reward for performing certain tasks, bonus content will be unlocked which goes into greater but optional detail about certain aspects of the game. For example, in Valkyria Chronicles, you have an opportunity to fund a reporter's stories, which then gives you more cutscenes and deeper insight into what is happening. Other games handle it differently, but the premise is the same - provide more content by simply making it optional and unlockable. Of course DVD special editions and such mean that film has the opportunity to have similar content nowadays but nowhere does it seem more fitting than in games.

4) Downloadable content

Why release a book or TV series, when you can just make more game and either give it away or sell it as an expansion? That seems to be the philosophy behind GTA IV's The Lost and the Damned and the Fallout 3 expansions. While downloadable content is of variable quality, remember that it is still in its infancy. As it becomes more and more sophisticated in the future I think we can expect to see a lot more interesting things in our DLC, and it is yet another way that a game can expand its own universe.

So there you have it, just four ways that games don't need accompanying books, animated TV series and all that other crap and that's hardly an exhaustive list.

Don't get me wrong, though, I'm not trying to argue against that stuff existing and I'm aware that some of the games I listed above have expanded universe content in addition to the things I mentioned. After all, gamers aren't just gamers - many of us read books, watch TV and indulge in all sorts of other things. It can be nice to see a game universe cross over successfully from one medium to the other.

My point is merely that game developers now have a unique opportunity to build a far more detail-rich world than is possible in other media. That is a gift and should not be squandered as often as it is by offering an expanded universe as compensation for a lack of in-game attention to detail.
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About KestrelPione of us since 4:37 AM on 07.16.2008

Age: 30
Location: S.E. London, UK
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