The band Barcelona enthralled me with their first album, Absolutes, with its soaring melancholic piano-driven sound paired with some soulful songwriting. It was a shock to the system when their sophomore album, Not Quite Yours, instead featured a more rhythm-focused sound and the piano relegated to support in many songs. Their third, Basic Man, sounds even less alt-rock; it’s an album full of mellow synthy grooves. Each of their albums sounds wildly different, which is a bit of a bummer if you’re looking for, say, a follow-up to Absolutes.
I once heard it said that if you wished a band sounded more like their older albums, then you should go listen to their older albums. I was resistant to that idea at first; part of why I get into any musical artist is because I like what I’ve heard; why can’t they keep to what works? Over time, though, I’ve come to appreciate this sort of sonic shifting. Five Score and Seven Years Ago is a radically different album from Relient K’s prior Mmhmm, but it was instrumental in the band’s growth that brought them to Forget and Not Slow Down, their best album. Change, as it happens, is a necessity for an act to evolve. Run River North has dispensed with the violins that helped make their debut album so singular, but their DNA is still all over their latest Monsters Calling Home, Vol. 1 and there’s little doubt their music is still outstanding. Plus, moving away from the violins has led to new renditions of old songs performed live on tour that are at once wholly unlike from and utterly recognizable as the studio recorded songs.
Consider this ethos in the context of video games. Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune is a fantastic game that Uncharted 2: Among Thieves improves on which is ultimately perfected in Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. Fundamentally, all three games are very similar to each other, though there are naturally the differences that come with any sequel. Consider this not unlike U2’s Boy, October, and War; three albums that feature very similar sounds. If you liked War you will probably also really like Boy; if you liked Among Thieves, then A Thief’s End will be right up your alley.
But then some game series like to really shake things up. Though Metal Gear Solid 2 features much of the same features of Metal Gear Solid, the sequel exchanges Solid Snake for Raiden, already a marked difference. Where the first game is something of a power trip, the second is not at all shy about critiquing that power fantasy. Mechanically, it is the next step from the original, but the game makes you question it all and so the game feels quite different. MGS 3 takes away the industrial settings of the prior games and throws you in the Soviet jungle. Gone too is your Soliton Radar: it’s the Cold War and you have to rely on a rudimentary sonar and your wiles to stay hidden. The fourth game upends the weapon system; no longer do you rummage guns from the battlefield; now you can order them through a mobile store. Also, you’re playing as an old man who gets episodes of PTSD if he kills too many people.
All of these variations make some pretty major changes to how you play the game. The focus on camouflage in the third game forces the player to adopt a slower pace throughout the game: without your soliton you really need to keep an eye on where enemy soldiers are rather than hiding in a box and checking your minimap. The new weapon system in 4 gives you more options for engagements: I used a silenced sniper rifle to carve a stealthy, deadly path behind enemy lines.
The next game, Peace Walker, has bite-size missions befitting its publishing on Sony’s portable PSP. Choosing limited loadouts for each mission is a different flavor of strategizing from what’s come before; maybe this mission you’ll shoot your way through, maybe on this one you’ll be sneaky. I was very hesitant about Metal Gear Solid V and its open-world. Up to now, the MGS games have been very linear experiences — all the better to weave its crazy stories. An open world would change all that, right? Turned out that yes, it was wildly different, but it was also a ridiculous amount of fun applying the game’s stealth mechanics to a different setting. It felt like a totally different game, and yet unquestioningly Metal Gear, like how U2’s War, Joshua Tree, and Achtung Baby are all very different albums, yet still the same band. Sure, I was disappointed that I didn’t get to play as Solid Snake anymore after the first Metal Gear Solid (Old Snake in 4 is very different); but I can go back to MGS1 for that if I want that, just as I can always put on “Like A Song” if I need a change of pace after listening to Joshua Tree.
What defines an artistic work, be it a game series or musical artist, is an intriguing question. There are some cases where wildly different projects aren’t really seen as an issue (think directors, actors, writers), but others where it is a big deal (Revenge of the Sith, A New Hope, and The Last Jedi are very different Star Wars movies and some folk ain’t happy about that). While more of the same isn’t often a bad thing — I love how Uncharted 4 perfected the series, there’s always something exciting about seeing a work redefine itself, as in Metal Gear Solid V, The Last Jedi, or Run River’s North latest EP.
And besides, if I have a hankering for the older stuff, it’s all still there if I want it.