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Originality in video games is certainly not a very original
topic. Tons have tackled the subject of originality - from seasoned video game
journalists who do this sort of thing for a living, to regular Average Joe
gamers like me who enjoy writing about video games as much as we like playing
them. It's a topic I've written about a time or two and will almost certainly address
again in the future, whenever an event so inspires me to do so. My previous
blog on the matter that I recall the most vividly was one that talked about who
cares about originality as long as we're getting games we enjoy playing; a
point some agreed with and some did not.
Well, with a few of the recent video game announcements, the
topic of originality seems to be edging its way back to the forefront of what
everybody is talking about. Heck, who knows...maybe you've noticed this...maybe
not. Many games that have reached their final episode miraculously have a
follow on title in the works now; while others may feature characters that were
once thought dead, only to return in prequels, spinoffs or some other form of
clever sleight of hand magic trick...anything to keep the series alive and the
cash flowing. The examples are there, but to save space I'll just rattle off
two fairly recent events that I thought we had seen the last of, but obviously
is not the case.
of War: Judgement - Whoa...I thought this series was done and over?
(Mark Hamill Returns To Joker Role After Claiming Retirement) - Something tells
me DC Universe Online isn't the only place we'll see him springing up.
Notice I didn't even mention the Call of Duty / Modern
Warfare series which despite its impressive ability to break sales records with
each new release, is also starting to get more and more negative feedback with
its dependence on "more of the same" game play. Oh wait...maybe I did mention it.
Some blame lack of creativity and originality, but is that
really the problem?
I'm not so sure.
Clearly I'm not employed by a video game
developer/publisher, but from what I've read and been exposed to, most
publishers aren't big risk takers. The developer might present a "really cool
idea for a video game" but the publishers refuse to pony up the money and sign
the check on an unproven idea; there are too many unknowns that result in
enough hesitancy they don't want to assume the risk. They would much rather
squeeze every last cent out of a proven title and then when the sales numbers
start to plummet, they can retire the series with little to no regard for the
battered reputation the game has earned.
Video games aren't unoriginal because the developers aren't
creative enough to come up with something new, they are unoriginal because
that's what the publishers want...in order to compete with the rivals and still
turn a profit.
As a fan of the First Person Shooter (FPS) genre, I really
enjoy pretty much all of the shooters and don't have an allegiance to Modern
Warfare or Battlefield...I like them both. But even I am getting a little bored
with the core fundamentals resident in nearly every shooter of late. I think I
can summarize most recent shooters in six letters...yes, in only six letters.
Clearly the trophy for "Most Popular Setting" goes to the
Big Apple's cityscape and high rise skyscrapers. Even if the action didn't take
place in New York City, the same overall theme of "skyscraper" seemed to
resonate through the various level editors creating our games. I don't know how
many games incorporated this as a setting, but it seemed like all of them did
to some degree.
And right along with that award, the trophy for the "Most
Commonly Used Plot Line" was a close battle with "Military Coup overthrows the
President of Country X" losing out to "Terrorists targeting Country X with a WMD".
Good for a game or two or even three...but when companies
start recycling their own ideas more than a few times, the copycat syndrome is
all the more obvious. I love Ghost Recon, you know I do...but in Ghost Recon
alone I have saved the Mexican President and the Russian President now...not to
mention the number of times I've had to go to Russia and prevent all out war.
I'm ready for a different theater.
So, what are we to do then?
Gamers want originality (and presumably so do the
developers) and publishers want money (that comes along with a tried and true -
and tired title).
We do what we always do when two parties both feel strongly
about something that doesn't match...
No, we don't hire Agent 47 and take out the competition...
We compromise. At least that's what I think we should do.
The solution doesn't seem all that difficult to me, and I'm just some random
guy who likes to play video games, and has an Internet connection and MS Word
running on my laptop, who chose to write about this issue. Certainly not an
expert on the matter.
In terms of originality, I think there are three core areas
that are lacking, or at least could use a little diversity. It can be
overwhelming to try and think of a completely original entity that fits into
these categories - I know, I've tried. But remember, we're not looking for
completely original because the publishers aren't going to support it. Unique,
but within the confines of an existing label.
You don't need me to list popular video game characters like
Master Chief, Gordon Freeman, Kratos, Marcus Fenix or Nathan Drake and explain
the similarities. It's apparent. This is the easiest and most obvious area to
fix. Video game developers and publishers need to realize that nearly half of
all gamers are female (last statistic I saw said 43%) and start taking
advantage of this mostly unused character type. It's ironic, because so many
games have a supporting character that is a female, so what I am suggesting is
promote them up to the lead role and give us a game starring them. Uncharted
has a proven track record - give us a sequel that stars Elena Fisher or Chloe Frazer
and how they ended up with Nathan Drake. Make him the supporting non-player
character, and you can still market off the success of that game. There were
quite a few female Spartans (Halo - Naomi, Daisy, Linda, Maria) and Gears
(Gears of War - Anya, Samantha, Bernadette Mataki ) - don't make these
"playable characters", let me play a full game as one of them. I thought it would
be neat to play as Alyx Vance since she and Gordon Freeman get separated on a
number of occasions. Here's a crazy idea for you...how about playing as Nicole
stranded on the USG Ishimura in the next Dead Space title, prior to Isaac's
arrival. I'm new to the God of War series, so maybe this has been done...but what
about a God of War where you play as Athena? I suppose it wouldn't be called God of War then...but hopefully you get the point.
All of these titles are proven and popular. They've all
spawned multiple spinoffs and sequels, yet in nearly every instance you play
the same character doing the same thing. Breathe some life into the series by
changing up the lead character, and everybody wins.
This component is a bit more challenging to create something
original but still not impossible to accomplish. Besides, it benefits from having
a pre-defined set of characters and a universe to reside in; all you have to do
is come up with an original story. As a fan of the shooters, I'm tired of the
missions to save the world from atomic war. The sensationalism isn't so
sensational anymore. How about a group of domestic terrorists operating within
our borders targeting malls or schools? I've also said before I think missions
focusing on counter drug ops have a lot of potential and align with real world
operations. We've seen the story - "the world is going to end unless you
succeed" story so often that now if we're not faced with a mission of that
magnitude, it seems insignificant. How about instead of a post apocalyptic
story, a game that focuses more on the events that leads up the actual event. I
doubt everybody was sitting around and a cataclysmic event just occurred...I'm
sure there was warning which led to mass chaos and rioting. Instead of an alien
game where we know they are friend or foe, give me a game like District 9 where
we have no idea how to handle them. I'm not huge on the world of fantasy, but I
know a little bit about it. Seems like there are always orcs, dragons or
wizards trying to rule the world, but seldom do we see the different families
of dwarves or elves warring with one another. I've read plenty of books from
the past that includes this theme, and I suppose some games like Skyrim might
include this story line, but it's not one I've heard done a lot. Or hey...what
about the slightly overdone zombie games that always has you fighting off
hordes of the undead - how about take a cue from The Walking Dead and make the
human survivors just as big of a threat. Kind of a bold idea that no one would
like to see in real life, but certainly an event from our past - modern day Civil
There are too many games where the story is so convoluted, I get to the
end and have no clue what the game was about, nor do I care. Crysis 2, I'm
looking at you. I don't have to save the world for it to mean something, but I
do have to understand what I'm supposed to be doing for it to mean something.
Hmm. No doubt the hardest element of a video game to evoke
some degree of originality is setting. Why? We've travelled the world over,
real and make believe. Coming up with an idea that hasn't saturated the market
is difficult. From an environmental perspective, we've seen arctic to desert
and everything in between. We've seen caves and water as much as we've seen
space and other planets. We've seen the Wild West to city streets filled with
illicit gang activity. Urban, Industrial, Residential...been there, done that.
We've boarded ships, robbed trains, stormed planes, cleared bank vaults,
plundered and pillaged in Azeroth and trekked across the starry night where no
man has gone before. We've done it all, or so it would seem. We've toured
Heaven and Hell and soldiered on through a tour or two in 'Nam. I'll concede we
might not have visited rural America and towns like Lost Springs, Wyoming;
Hibberts Gore, Maine; Erving's Location, New Hampshire and New Amsterdam,
Indiana...all population 1 (yes one, or so that's what Yahoo says). But we've
been a lot of places.
How do we fix originality in video game setting?
I have no idea.
But I will say games that exist in the science fiction
and/or fantasy realm - it's a lot more forgiving because you can create your
own worlds and no one can really tell you what's right or wrong. Its games that
exist in the real world that suffers from unoriginality. And one thing that
could fix that...
Base it on real world locations. No, I don't mean more White
House or NYC levels. I mean, pick places where lots of people live and are
familiar with, and recreate places people have been...so when they see it in
game, they're like..."OMG! The St. Louis Arch...I've been there." With the
functionality of tools like Google Earth and Google maps, it's fairly easy to
model a location based on the real world inspiration. Places like Grand Central
Station, the Hoover Damn (ah, just like the old Rainbow Six did) or even the
Game Informer building. Whenever I see a place in a game that I've visited
before, it's kind of cool and I'm not thinking about whether it's original or
not. Yes, there are games that have done this. Two that come to mind are the
Microsoft Flight Simulator games and Test Drive Unlimited. I was stationed in
Hawaii for a number of years and in case you didn't know...it's an island...so
there are a number of landmarks and roads that are fairly easy to remember because you're isolated to a rather small geographical area...like Diamond Head
(an easily recognizable mountain/volcano) and Kamehameha highway. Flying around
Diamond Head in a little Cessna or cruising down Kam highway in a Ferrari are
memorable experiences, largely due to the fact I've been there in real life.
Developers might not be able to do original in video games anymore, but they
can still make it interesting enough people forget about it not being original.
Well, I better button this up. What started out as a quick
little blog has quickly escalated to much more. These were just a few random
thoughts on the subject of originality. In the end, I don't really care how
original the characters, story and setting are as long as I'm having fun, but I
find the more we are inundated with more and more unoriginal games, that's getting harder to achieve.
Brilliant blog. I completely agree and it quite frankly annoys me that there is a lack of originality in gaming. Your example of the FPS genre is all together too true. Personally, the most original game I've seen in a while was Journey and that was a excellent game. Publishers, and sometimes developers, need to learn to exit their comfort zone more often because ultimately the game is for the enjoyment of the gamer not for the money.
I just wanted to say..... Destroy All Humans was set in a rural country area. other then that, this was a good read, it was interesting to hear your opinion on a subject that is mentioned all too often, I agree with a lot of what I read.
When you said you wanted a shooter whose story revolved around domestic terrorism, Rainbow 6: Patriots immediately popped into my head.
I agree. The lack of originality is starting to bother me. I wish companies would at least try to get out of their comfort zones and try something new.
I agree that we need more Originality, but here's the thing: Innovation/Originality is risky. It's not that Developers aren't looking for Original Work, is that they prefer to work with something that already works. Similar stories, similar gameplay, etc.
Don't fix what's not broken, they say. And I agree to a certain point.
Developers have to consider that it can go for so long, and that they need to move towards a new direction, hence Originality & Innovation. But it's a blurry line to cross. Innovation is hard and time consuming, which means it needs more money. Originality is close, but with so many things already made, it's hard to be unique now.
Unless you make a random game.
Well, I would like to say that as a whole we want originality, but you are absolutely right, according to our behavior, we do not, unless it costs .99 or in that ballpark.
This is one area where I feel Sony at least makes a strong effort, and for all that effort, at least here in America, they continue to be outsold. Though, it isn't so much originality as it is just new IP's. Sure, many of the games are pretty unique, such as Little Big Planet, but games like Uncharted, which of course I love, offer a lot of entertainment, but I cannot say that none of it had been done before.
Heavy Rain and the upcoming Beyond appear to be fairly original, and people liked it or hated it, not sure that too many people(aside from me and indie) loved Heavy Rain, of course I am likely wrong.
Alan Wake is a great example as well. Fabulous game that could probably support another disc release if given the chance.
In my opinion, the drive to be original should be second at best. First should be to make a great/fun game we can enjoy. I love original stuff (Dragon's Dogma is shaping up to be one of my GOTY titles), but an original game that is utter crap or unplayable is just a waste of space. I do hope developers keep striving to make more original titles, but I also hope that is not what is at the very top of their to do list.
It's more like mainstream games have no originality. Most of my favorite games are fairly obscure and I consider them highly unique, Little King's Story anyone. So the real problem is "The highly popular games aren't original."
You want originality? Talk to PonstoryGames, lol.
As much as I enjoy shooters, they do get tiring after awhile. I remember the first time I played Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. It blew me away. So many amazing moments in that game. Now, it seems every shooter feels similar to that.
I think this is one reason I get into The Elder Scrolls games so much. They just feel so different, and have these awesome worlds you can just get lost in.
As always, awesome blog!
I have an old saying that relates to this topic: Money makes the world go round, but innovation keeps it from slowing.
You have some interesting points here, certainly some of which would make a greedy publisher drool. :) I particularly like your ideas of showing a classic apocalypse or war from a different angle, that's actually something both Naughty Dog and Robotoki are doing with The Last of Us and Human Element, respectively, and that theory has great potential to explore.