Yeah, me too. I’m sick to the teeth of the word. So much, in fact, that I almost shudder whenever it leaves my lips: “Innovation”. There, I said it. OK, typed it *hand shudder *. Unfortunately, it’s a word that is increasingly cropping up in the world of gaming, and so I’ve become resigned to the fact that it exists, casting its huge shadow over the realms of creative thinking.
I really respect and am excited by the fact that gaming is being pushed forward more and more, with new ideas and gameplay elements creating both new genres and a broader spectrum, in terms of experience, within already existing ones. It’s just that I wish things felt a little more organic than they are right now. I wish new ideas didn’t have to be labelled so ungraciously, sought out and picked apart in great depth, causing developers to second guess themselves and get stage fright just when they had something good going on.
Of course, “innovation” is not just a buzz word for gaming in the 21st century. Go back to the beginning of videogames and it was everywhere. But this was because it had to be. Things were brand new, ideas were just being dreamt up in the heads of whizzkids and geeks all over the world. Something exciting was clearly happening and the creative juices flowed enough to build the foundations of what we are blessed with today.
But this wasn’t innovation. This was a revolution.
Wolfenstein 3D is a good example of a game that revolutionised gaming. While it admittedly followed in the foundations that Spasim and (more specifically due to the gameplay happening on foot as opposed to in space) Maze War had previously laid, Wolf 3D took their first person template and fired it into orbit. Today’s first person shooters owe hell of a lot to this game, but should be in no rush to stray too far from the solid roots that have grown since its development seventeen years ago. There is plenty of time for that.
This kind of jump in quality and experience will probably never be replicated again. Even so, it has become highly fashionable for gaming press and consumers to demand “new ideas” in titles. This greater pressure on developers to bring something new to the table is, in turn, causing games that have “generic” elements tacked on as a form of safety net. It makes for an uncomfortable amount of mixed messages from games that ought to be able to speak for themselves, while gamers are constantly underestimated.
Mirror’s Edge is a great game. I have no doubt in my mind about that, but what stops it from being a fantastic game are the features that have been the cornerstone of first person gaming since Wolfenstein 3D; ie. the shooting parts. When the first footage of the game was released, the entire gaming community was amazed. This was actually something really new and the buzz around the game was very intense.
But somewhere along the line, long before this video came out, DICE decided that the idea of a game based on first person free running would not be worth our money, that gamers won’t want to buy a first-person experience that doesn’t let you shoot people; the focus on innovation would be so intense that the risk was not worth it. So, similar to Sonic games in recent years, Mirror’s Edge was given a gritty storyline and Faith had some arse-kicking to carry out via some tiresome (you have to love this) bullet time.
Granted, the disarming of guards is a great idea, but once you have to slow yourself down and go through what felt like the chore of taking them out before you could start zooming around again, things started to taste a little sour. The parkour in this game is outstanding, but the gunplay and combat is awkward and annoying, detracting from what could have been a superb experience; one that could have revolutionised gaming.
Before its release, Flower stood out as an experience that was to take gamers out of their ordinarily competitive mindset and transport them to a place that asked of nothing but gave a whole lot back. Like staring into one of Monet’s gorgeous landscape paintings, Flower was a catalyst for a greater sense of relaxation. By the end, however, I found myself yearning for the opening level again. I wanted to float around aimlessly and take my own sweet time without the fear of electrocution, just like I’d first imagined I would be. I wanted That Game Company to have some guts, rather than providing me with a game that relies on the same formula as most others on the market.
One of the reasons for this article was a review for Killzone 2. Calling out the game for “not doing anything new” the reviewer was very critical. This is exactly the kind of attitude that needs to stop. It’s tiresome, boring and not at all constructive. When a game is not afraid to stand on its own two feet, free from forced “innovation” and full of improvements on already sound ideas, it should be taken for what it is rather than what it’s not.
Killzone 2, it turns out, does feel incredibly new. With tweaks and improvements on most of its predecessor’s mechanics – first-person cover system, laboured movement, amazing visuals etc – it has “progressed” the genre in a very natural way. So let’s not panic developers into thinking too far ahead when Guerilla Games have proved that they could do well to push long established boundaries.
The point I am trying to make here is that developers should not feel in any rush to reinvent the wheel. The games industry is still a tiny baby when compared with art, film and music and therefore deserves to be nurtured and eased into a natural growth. Force feeding genres with innovative ideas is holding back the progression of ones that are still undeveloped and incomplete. There is still a long way to go with every genre, so let’s not clog up the system with over-thought, diluted titles.
On the other hand, if new ideas are to be brought forward, developers must be confident that their concepts can hold their own, without the constraints of the past. All I ask is that more developers consider respecting their audience. At the moment it feels as if the majority (there are exceptions in the likes of Noby Noby Boy) of companies assume there needs to be a beginning, middle and end structure with clever pacing, no matter the kind of game.
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