You know that phenomenon about how original movie ideas always come in pairs? For every "Sixth Sense" you get a "Stir of Echoes". Now this weird, weird force has apparently come to the world of gaming. How else might we explain the forthcoming games Army of Two, Kane & Lynch: Dead Mean, and Crossfire, each of which will be offering the very unique, one-of-a-kind concept that will have you playing as a pair of characters with complementary skills?
Also, did I miss any? Of these, I'm most looking forward to Kane & Lynch. Hitman developer Io Interactive has always had a great sense of style, and the idea of a game about a medicated psycho and a washed-up mercenary having to work together sounds great. Oddly enough, Crossfire is coming from the same publisher as Kane & Lynch, and from the initial announcement sounds much less distinctive. Army of Two made a fairly impressive first showing back at E3, but the oddly referential title and over-the-top character designs put me off at first glance.
At any rate, let's hope all three of these games are fantastic, because since each one seems to share the same basic hook, each one is going to seem less original in turn. Kane & Lynch at least has more to its premise than two guys having to work together to kill stuff. Most of all, though, I think games like this illustrate the fact that new games these days need to have some sort of simple, compelling hook to stand out from everything else. What's your average first-person shooter going to do? It can't do anything. Some games can still get by on name recognition: Call of Duty. Others need some sort of blatant twist: In Prey, you can walk on the ceiling!!!
With the exception of sports games, I think conventional game genres are just about dead. Think about your favorite games; I'll bet you that you like all kinds of different games, not just one or two types of games like first-person shooters or fighting games or strategy games. You just like good games. Like, maybe you love Oblivion or KOTOR but you don't consider yourself to be big into RPGs. But think back--maybe your gaming interests were more clearly defined in the past. That's because the games themselves were more clearly defined, too. You didn't have first-person shooters with role-playing elements. You didn't have racing games with story modes. Games have also become somewhat easier to get into now than before. What's the last game you played where you felt like you absolutely needed the manual? All these things are conspiring to make gaming such a hit-driven business. Why settle for just another racing game when a game like Saints Row offers some great car racing and so much more on top of that?
So I think games are coming to a point where the concept and the execution, and an original hook and the art direction, are going to be a lot more important than the genre, the controls, things like that. Nobody wants to play another shooter. But they'll line up to check out Gears of War, just because it stands out. As for me, I'll gladly play a sports game that's not tied down trying to copy real-world leagues. How come there are so many great fictionalized sports movies but so few great fictionalized sports games? Hardly anyone's even trying, but there are plenty of guys like me out there who like the sports themselves, but simply don't follow, can't follow, all the real-world wheelings and dealings that serve as the frame of reference.
Originality is hard to come by, and it can be a subtle thing. When we think of original games, we often think of the wildly original ones like Psychonauts or Katamari Damacy. But a simple twist can go a long way, often much farther than a totally out-there concept. Today's games need to feel relevant more than they used to, and relevance need only be a breath of fresh air, not a gulp. How else to explain why Microsoft's recent X06 event, despite having many fewer games to show, handily trumped the preeminent Tokyo Game Show? In what little hindsight we already have, this TGS seemed kind of like the same old thing, even in spite of high-profile games like Metal Gear Solid 4 and Devil May Cry 4. But X06 gave us stuff like Alan Wake and BioShock, that's in some ways even more intriguing. And there were the announcements. Peter Jackson's working on a game. Halo's spinning off in a new direction. Who knows how this stuff will pan out, but the prospects are exciting.
It's a pivotal moment for gaming right now, with two new consoles about to hit the market. Despite everything that's been said, it's just way too early for anyone to be able to accurately predict what's going to happen--look no further than the short histories of the PSP, the DS, and the Xbox 360 for evidence that, if anything, the opposite of what's expected is the most likely thing to come to pass. This much I'm sure of: Game developers are trying new things. The differences may not be readily obvious--Dead Rising could be brushed off as "just another zombie game"--but a few key differences can really add up. We'll have to see how those three co-op games turn out.