It’s happened to any devoted follower of a fictional universe: you’re watching the latest movie, reading the newest book, or checking out a developer interview for the forthcoming video game. And then you realize: something’s wrong. “Everyone knows that they didn’t have those weapons when this game takes place,” one fan cries out. “How come we’ve never seen these aliens before, let alone heard a mention of them?” another asks on forums.
Authors of fictional works often take pains to make a self-consistent universe, but invariably there are mistakes or slip-ups. A character appears where they shouldn’t be, or another mentions something they couldn’t possibly know, or the dates for a key event are given two different ways in the span of a page or a book. Generally, the more creatives involved in developing a universe, the more likely that these sorts of inconsistencies and errors are going to crop up. Every type of media can suffer from these issues, and often the solution is something called retroactive continuity.
Retroactive continuity or “retcons”, as Wikipedia defines it, is “the deliberate changing of previously established facts in a work of serial fiction”. Basically, this means that for whatever reason, the creators or handlers of a work decide to change what was established or assumed for a variety of reasons and using a variety of methods. For example, one form of retcon is simple addition, in that previous gaps in stories are filled in with new information, often to aid the current story.
An excellent example of this is the (non-canonical) Star Trek novels penned by Greg Cox that detail the backstory to the 20th century dictator and superman Khan Noonien Singh. On the Star Trek episode “Space Seed” in which Khan appears, background information is scant, but the Cox novels offer an explanation of the character’s rise to (and fall from) power.
Other form of retcon is alteration; for example, many comic book villains would die or be exiled, only to return some number of issues later; in this case the very facts were clear but altered, generally relying on some heretofore unrevealed knowledge (for example, the Marvel Comics character Green Goblin had a healing factor that allowed him to survive his apparent impalement, and he resurfaced years later.) A final, radical form of retcon is simply removing facts entirely; this is often used in the sense of reboots of comics or movie series (like the recent Star Trek film).
While retcons are very frequent, video games bring their own issues with dealing with continuity. The majority of video games, especially successful franchises, are the result of dozens, if not hundreds of development staff, and often several writers and directors crafting the game’s story. During the development of a game sequel, new staff might arrive and old ones leave, leading to a desire for alteration to a story. Because games are such a graphic and evolving medium, canon discrepancies can arise due to technological updates as well. For example, a character wears a different costume due in part to increases in graphic fidelity; he or she might have only worn the blocky suit in the previous game because there wasn’t the horsepower available to make something slimmer.
Perhaps the best case example of an enormously successful story-driven video game franchise is that of the Halo series. The franchise began with a single first-person shooter and “killer app” for the Xbox console, Halo: Combat Evolved (for more information, see “Video Game History: Halo: Combat Evolved”). The success of Combat Evolved paved the way for fives sequels and spinoffs with a sixth on the way, as well as bestselling novels, graphic novels, limited comic series (and all that associated merchandise). Considering the franchise’s relative youth (Combat Evolved was released in 2001), it’s already amassed a staggering backstory and rich fiction deeply explored. Whereas Star Trek novels and anything not in films or episodes is not canon, however, in the Halo series every expanded universe book is officially part of Halo lore. This creates major problems.
Take, for example, the Brutes. In Halo’s story, 26th century humanity comes under attack by a hostile collective of alien species known as the Covenant. In Combat Evolved, there are several types, designated by monikers such as “Elites”, “Jackals” and “Grunts”. In the 2003 novel Halo: First Strike, however, the human protagonists come across a new and dangerous opponent in the Covenant Brutes. They make their first video game appearance in Halo 2 (2004), and thereafter become the main enemies players face after the Elites leave the Covenant in Halo 3 (2007). Simple enough, correct? Unfortunately things are more complicated. As the novel Halo: Contact Harvest (2007) explains, humanity’s first contact with the Covenant in 2525 (almost 30 years before the events of Combat Evolved, Halo 2 and Halo 3) was actually with the Brutes (yet all material before this suggests that they were unknown). Furthermore, the visual appearance of the Brutes changes; in Contact Harvest they were ornate armor, but in Halo 2 they are more like half-naked gorillas, while Halo 3’s depiction is essentially what is described in Contact Harvest, but the media products chronologically take place in that order. Why did the Brutes undergo such changes and essentially “devolve” then return to their previous state?
This is an example of where canon takes a back seat to gameplay. In Halo 2, the developers faced severe time constraints, and a more covered Brute concept was stripped down to a bandolier-bedecked ape. In Halo 3, the Brutes became principal enemies, meaning that they had to be more interesting and tougher to fight. The more ornate and slightly more civilized Brutes were essentially retconned to become the de facto representation of the race by Contact Harvest. Fans are left to somehow reconcile the strange appearance of the creatures in Halo 2 (and the fact that they didn’t have any of the weaponry that appeared in Halo 3 just months later, and once again featured in Contact Harvest.)
Rather surprisingly, the issue of retcons in games isn’t well-covered. One example of other pitfalls of retcons, put forth by Matt Keller at Games.on.net, concerns the Metal Gear series, known for its cinematic approach and dense backstory. Keller writes that bowing to pressure following the release of Metal Gear Solid 2, maestro Hideo Kojima and his team decided to shed some light on the antagonistic Big Boss. It was a big success, and the developers followed it up with Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops. Much like the headaches created by the introduction of the Brutes in Halo or the Star Wars prequels, Keller writes, “…the story had far reaching consequences on the Metal Gear fiction, far more than you’d expect for a handheld spinoff. In a number of ways, I feel the series would have been better off if Portable Ops had never happened.” Much like how Star Wars I-III turned Anakin Skywalker into a whiny complainer, Portable Ops weakened the presentation of the Big Boss character and added too many poor plot explanations to tie together the disparate story threads.
The moral of the story is that while players are accepting of certain changes (a shiny coat of paint on that old character model, and perhaps the introduction of a new weapon or two,) video game creators, by the nature of the medium, have additional responsibilities in crafting a story that retains its sensibilities and logic. And the less retcons, the better.