In 1995, a small development team named Crack Dot Com released an incredible piece of software, a 2D side scroller named Abuse. I remember the shock of playing that game for the first time in 1999 (Hey, I didn't even have a PC up to 1997) - The idea of controlling the character just like in any other 2D platformer while using the mouse to aim at enemies across the screen was so refreshing, and so different, that I still remember it as vividly to this day as I do Schwarzenegger's traumatizing Terminator 2 smile. I only wish I could get past that damned 14th level.
Abuse. Revolutionary controls
There's something about uniqueness that we love. The thrill of playing something different, something special, is hard to match by something that's completely devoid of anything it can call its own. Yes, this is why acting master Vin Diesel's Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, despite having a few problems with pacing and level design, was much more exciting for me than the action-packed, adrenaline-pumping, never-stopping experience of Sgt. Soap Mactavish's war. Riddick could have done with an English accent, though.
Insert long sigh accompanied by smile.
If only we were to get more of that.
Unfortunately, not all is jolly in the world of original games. Having recently played DICE's hybrid platformer/first-person action game, Mirror's Edge, I came to realize that uniqueness is not to be considered the main attraction of a game. After all, what good is something that you've never seen before if it makes you go bananas with frustration? While it did feel like a breath of fresh air with its stunning visuals and fast parkour concept, this feeling often quickly switched seats with frustration as I missed that jump for the seventh time or met my demise by the hands of that cop for the twelveth. What kind of sick bastard fires at a woman, anyway?
Mirror's Edge. More frustrating than anything, really
Here comes our first question – what is originality to us? Is it a staggering, never-seen-before setting of an underwater city? Is it that twist on co-operative play? Is it the frightning feeling of being chased by Something Terrible, unable to fight back? Is it a story and writing like which we've never seen anything before? Or is it about gameplay and what we actually do within this setting with a friend while running away from Something Terrible, trying to unveil the story?
Playing Dead Space and Mirror's Edge closely together was a bit of an enlightenment for me, in that I realized that anything that revolves around a woman makes a game great.
...in that I realized that one or two original elements (be it story, characters, gameplay, setting, you pick) are enough to make a game stand out in a world of derivation and franchise-milking. But, everything else in the game simply MUST get the same loving treatment for it to become a truly uplifting experience. Take Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell, for example. I remember that as well as I do Abuse. Maybe that's because I played it a few years later. Nevermind. Sam Fisher was so much fun to play because he could do all this stuff and he looked so good doing it, and the game was as balanced as it gets. Everything just dripped with so much love and attention to detail that we only saw the cool gadgets, enemy interrogation and croch-tearing split-jumping rather than the fact that games like Hitman, Deus Ex and No One Lives Forever have done the whole stealth thing before. To cut a long story short, it clicked.
Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell. It clicked.
So the second, BIG question is: is originality more important than refined gameplay?
On one hand, I'm getting mighty tired of playing the same old get-to-cover-to-automatically-replenish-your-health and we'll-lead-you-by-the-hand-so-you-don't-see-invisible-walls gameplay. It feels like treading through increasingly familiar waters, and as those games keep coming, they only serve the purpose of becoming stale. Oh, and selling. The gaming industry, just like any other industry, is driven by money. But BioShock sold as well. Crysis sold nicely considering no computer at the time of release could run it respectably. Portal sold beautifully. There's something those games have in common – apart from introducing new stuff, they were all very well-promoted and reached out to a large audience of people that opened up their wallets and bought them. So we see that polished derivation is only an easy solution that people keep forking money over for.
On the other hand, if our new game-we've-never-seen-before is flawed to the point of becoming merely decent, or even mediocre and less, it's simply not worth it. Developers should find the balance between original game mechanics and what makes a game... click. We all had a lot of fun traversing Far Cry's lush jungle setting, playing cat & mouse with witty mercenaries, but how did it feel when we were killed by a mutant just a second before we reached the end of the last, long checkpoint? That really didn't click with me. I'd rather play a game where everything... ok ok, almost everything (let's be realistic here), is made right, and you're still given the privilege of experiencing something refreshing, like a gravity gun, or stretegic dismemberment, or Lance Henriksen.
I would like to take a moment and salute smaller independent developers, for not fearing to release refreshing games on a regular basis. Trine, The Ball, World of Goo, Gish, Eufloria and Doc Clock: The Toasted Sandwich of Time are just a handful of examples of good games released recently by independent developers that are special enough to stand out above some of the bigger names in the industry as memorable experiences. Could salvation come from them? Maybe. All I know is, as those development teams keep getting more support from Steam and the likes, they have a better chance of keeping their heads above the water and delivering more interesting concepts. Just like mod teams (let us not forget that Portal, Counter-Strike, Day of Defeat and Team Fortress all took their first steps as mods before becoming commercial hits), independent developers hold an incredible amount of potential and I hope big game publishers and developers pull a Valve - look more closely at these dudes and hire them so that more of the big names can deliver more of the special goods.
Trine. A unique experience from an indie developer
I see now that my Abuse example isn't all that great, because that game was so difficult that I've never even beaten it. But in no way does that change my opinion – Even though I don't want to play the same thing time and time again, I also don't want my unique experience to be spoiled by broken gameplay, annoying bugs or poor controls. I want my game to be whole – I want everything about it to be great, and I want it to be better than the sum of its parts, all while being special enough to stand out. It's time for individuality to take over. I call out to game publishers and developers – don't limit creativity. Make original games, and strive to find the right balance between refinement and originality.
I may be naive, but I also decide which games I buy. One can only hope that more gamers grow tired of the same-old, same-old, and that developers would take note of that and start encouraging experimentation. The world would be a better place.
Then, we can smile. Just like Ahnuld.