Videogames are designed to keep players engaged for a long time, maybe even forever. This isn’t anything new—since arcades game producers have iterated on new ways of squeezing money from each new title. In contemporary games, the methods have become more fluid than single works. As games move away from single purchase models to subscription services, they come to rely on extensive engagement. Battle passes, cosmetics, expansion packs, game events, and season passes have made it so players never have to stop playing. And where free-to-play, online multiplayer and games as service fail to hold an audience’s attention, narratives must pick up the slack. Where narratives don’t sell, they must become something bigger.
Earlier this month, Remedy Interactive announced that Control would receive new DLC on the 27th. They also announced this DLC would debut the “Remedy Connected Universe.” On Remedy’s website Creative Director Sam Lake writes, “What took place in 2010 in Alan Wake is one of the cases that the Federal Bureau of Control has been investigating. The AWE expansion is the first official Remedy Connected Universe crossover event, bringing more Alan Wake lore into Control.”
Whatever lies within the future content of the game, it will reveal new details that connect Alan Wake, Control and a future Remedy title. The worlds of these games are opening up to become entangled with one another. The announcement asks our minds to imagine just how large the world of these games really is. Do the characters of these games have pre-existing relationships? Just how many of Remedy’s games are connected? How far-reaching are the consequences of the events in each of these stories? The reveal of a connection expands not only the game world, but the audience’s imagination of possibilities. What was once a complex story floods with ideas that lie in an ocean shaped by the publisher. The confines of a single product are demolished to create an infinite field of commodified narratives. As Alan Wake says, “It’s not a lake. It’s an ocean.”
For many fans, an expanding universe can be exciting. It means more stories and time in a world they already love. Characters return and develop in ways that weren’t given enough time previously. Eventually the accumulation of capital creates absurdity as new ideas clash with the old—reminder that Goofy dies in Kingdom Hearts. However, expanded universes are designed with the understanding that each element is lucrative on its own. More content opens a desire that can be designed for and played with. If fans want more, then just the right amount of hints can be revealed to satisfy them while also garnering excitement for another product.
There is no beginning, middle, and end for the expanded universe because there is always potential money to be made. It’s all middle. The universe is a map that endlessly grows with each new product release. A $15 DLC can reveal an entirely new series of details for future plot points. Books and comics expand the canon of the world with marginal identities and stories that never affect the actual games themselves. Details about a universe event may hook players, who dive months long into a free to play mobile game and eventually become paying members of the microtransaction community.
The map keeps growing until it stops making money, resulting in a system that requires all works to reach a financial justification for their existence. If a game doesn’t succeed financially, it must be erased in order to maintain a sense of franchise prestige. This can occur on a scale of cancelling a game to rebooting the entire series. In many cases, those who loved these works despite their flaws end up being left out to try. The universe is never completed. It’s left as an incomplete world for forgotten fans to continue to put their labor towards.
If fans are excited enough for their series to continue, they use their own labor to expand the universe themselves. Paid opinions in features and reviews are outgrown by unpaid Reddit or Twitter threads working to dissect lore together through thousands of hours and words. The community begins to form a language surrounding the universe that the company can eventually co-opt for its own use.
As for someone too busy with the stressors of life, who may not have the money or time to dedicate themselves to universes, they can be overwhelming. Storylines become convoluted, details become lost, and fans squabble about the canon. A game stops being something to purchase and play. Now being a player means being a researcher. They must search for articles detailing timelines and videos labeled “Everything You Need to Know Before Playing.” What was entertainment transforms into a project. Some fans with the hardware and time will even end up making money dissecting and translating this for a mass audience. The expanding universe grows to envelope the players as commodified inhabitants themselves. Anyone without interest has no value and cannot enter.
We can name these universes many things—cinematic, connected, extended—but the primary function of their design is expansion. Expanded universes aren’t unique to videogames, but they are well suited to their design. After all, expansion is one of the primary ideological functions of videogames. Expand the hardware utilized to play games in order to sell more boxes and expand the carbon footprint. Expand Western ideologies through the dominance of the globalized videogame market. Not to mention the implicit acceptance of game design surrounding expansion—from 4X to conquest, games teach players to eradicate all existing life for their own expansion.
For many who love these games, expansion will not be a problem. Games have engendered the idea that expansion is an inherent part of the medium. However, as another expanding universe begins with Remedy, I wonder if in the future all games will eventually become just one part of a larger universe—a universe where we are lost in an endless stream of interdependency with infallible exploitation.
Waverly is a trans game artist and freelance writer. She has written at Uppercut, Into The Spine, and Fanbyte. You can find her on Twitter @hotelbones.