LOL, discussion piece: is “innovation” a good thing?

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Dtoid Forumite Lord Regulus recently posted an interesting editorial detailing the gaming community’s infatuation with “innovative” games. Is it fair to ignore a game just because it brings nothing new to the table? Are “unusual” games necessarily better than ones that adhere to safe rules of game design?

Says Regulus:

Video games, like movies and novels, are based on permutations of the same tropes that are essential to the entire medium as a whole. All video games need conflict, challenge, conditions, evaluation, etc. These are inescapable requirements for something to be considered a game, yet the word “innovation” is often used to refer to the abandonment of these core values.

I thought Gears of War was refreshingly original in its artwork, game flow, and core mechanic (the simple use of cover). But everyone here seems to think it was a hackneyed, been-there-done-that shooter. Is Gears of War a bad game just because somebody already made a game where you shoot aliens with guns? Was Chinatown a bad movie just because there had already been a few detective thrillers 30 years before? 

Hit the jump for Regulus’s full article, my personal reactions and, most importantly, to post your own opinions on the subject.

Says Regulus:

The argument for innovation is certainly a good one, but I sometimes feel that those who express it are in danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. What exactly do you mean when you say “innovation”?

Many of you are looking to the video game industry in the desperate hope that any day now you’re going to have your mind blown by something so unique that you’ve never seen anything remotely like it.

I hate to break it to you, but the event you’re waiting for won’t come from a video game. It’ll come from the creation of a robot that knows its environment. It’ll come from your first trip to space. What you’re asking for is the equivalent of asking an action movie to taste like chicken, or a building to sound like Mozart.

Video games, like movies and novels, are based on permutations of the same tropes that are essential to the entire medium as a whole. All video games need conflict, challenge, conditions, evaluation, etc. These are inescapable requirements for something to be considered a game, yet the word “innovation” is often used to refer to the abandonment of these core values.

I thought Gears of War was refreshingly original in its artwork, game flow, and core mechanic (the simple use of cover). But everyone here seems to think it was a hackneyed, been-there-done-that shooter. Is Gears of War a bad game just because somebody already made a game where you shoot aliens with guns? Was Chinatown a bad movie just because there had already been a few detective thrillers 30 years before?

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Everyone wants Assassin’s Creed to be totally original and new. I have no doubt that it’ll be an incredible game (I’ve preordered and paid in full, thank you), but when you suddenly realize that it shares its design philosophy with Prince of Persia, will you toss it aside and continue hoping that Heavenly Sword does not in any way resemble God of War? What happens when you find out that Mass Effect (also incredible) has its roots in Knights of the Old Republic? Or that BioShock owes its existence to both System Shock 2 and the novel Atlas Shrugged? All of these games are almost guaranteed to be excellent, but I’m afraid they’ll be tossed aside because they might have a familiar component or three. I’ve even heard people call Katamari Damacy trite and unoriginal because “OMG all yuo do is role a ball around! WTF so stoopid”.

I’ve spent the past year of my life working my way up the game industry ladder, in the hope that one day I’ll have the chance to develop a game I’ve worked on since my first year of college. This is something I am genuinely passionate about, and I’m confident that it’s very different from much of the content that’s already out there. That being said, when you find out that my game has an attack button and a defend button, as well as (god forbid) a hero who happens to be a trained warrior, will you ignore everything I have to say because you’ve already seen a game like that? That’s what a genre is. If we didn’t categorize our gaming experiences, we would have no way of knowing if a game was even any good, let alone innovative.

Just as you would judge a movie like Pitch Black by sci-fi standards (well-developed universe, strong chaotic hero) and not by Shakespearean standards (flat supporting cast, total lack of iambic pentameter), you can’t judge a polished and well-crafted experience like, say, Halo against the complete lack of standards that you desire and still expect it to hold up to any sort of criticism. You’re telling me that Jackson Pollock is a better painter than Frederic Church simply because he ignored everything that made Church so great. The paintings of Roger Dean, although fantastical, still adhere to established rules of composition, because they promote clarity of vision. Is he a hack?

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Innovation comes in many flavors, but if we actually got the particular brand of innovation we demand, every game would be either Shadow of the Colossus (breathtakingly different, but damn near broken) or Electroplankton (clever, but not technically a game). Would you really be able to enjoy yourself if we abandoned the Grand Theft Autos of this world and every game was as pretentious as Rod Humble’s The Marriage? Even gems like Beyond Good & Evil wouldn’t exist (“Zelda-clone!”). Innovation is about carving a new experience out of the medium, even if it means using familiar tropes to shape it. Would you fault a sculptor for carving a woman from marble if some other guy already carved a lion from the same stone?

If you want your sculptures carved from different stone (metaphorically speaking), then try a wingsuit jump or a wreck dive. When you’ve had your fill, come back to gaming, take a deep breath, and enjoy some of our damn fine marble.

Thank you for listening.

End of line.

Says I:

Personally, I think Regulus has written a pretty damn good editorial, even though I disagree with almost everything he’s said. 

Frankly, it does irritate me when we keep seeing the same old genres with slight improvements. While I agree that our definition of “innovation” demands far too much (Assassin’s Creed might be innovative thanks to its nonlinear freerunning gameplay, even though it basically works off a Prince of Persia framework), some of the most interesting gaming experiences I have ever had have come from those games that refuse to adhere to traditional genres and aspire to something more.

Shadow of the Colossus, camera and control issues aside, was (to me, anyway) nowhere near broken: it took puzzle solving, action, and platforming to an entirely new level by combining the genres and focusing the game only on boss battles. Not to mention all the gorgeous art design, or the game’s as-yet-unparalleled method of advancing emotion and a narrative through gameplay alone.

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While it’s true that we shouldn’t outright bash games just because they adhere to specific genres, we should deal harshly with them in today’s gaming environment if they don’t try to generally accomplish anything new. A game like Beyond Good and Evil isn’t really a Zelda clone — it’s an action game with some rpg elements. We simply call it such because it has gameplay that, when taken out of context, reminds us of Zelda. In reality, the game truly innovates, by refusing to pigeonhole itself in an established genre in an effort to further a truly interesting story: within the singular package of BG&E one can find shooter, side scrolling, action, racing, rpg and freeroaming elements in addition to new, somewhat indefinable gameplay elements like the photography and exploration aspects.

To me, this is the problem with forgiving games that make few, if any attempts to innovate: it gives unimaginative games full reign to tackle the same subjects over and over and over again, except in slightly different ways. I absolutely don’t agree that video games all have to have share a similar, action-oriented core, as Regulus seems to suggest in paragraph 4. Japanese gamers have proven themselves willing to accept unconventional games with action-light stories and gameplay, and it’s only a matter of time before American gamers become accepting of this idea as well. All games don’t need to force the player to blast thousands and thousands of bad guys, or collect stars: game developers tend to work in established genres and beat them to death, over and over and over, from different angles. Every once in a while, the 900th “space marines vs aliens” shooter might feel somewhat new and interesting (Gears of War), but for the most part, the industry has a habit of churning out retread after retread after retread.

While Regulus and I seem to agree that innovation comes most frequently from building off other established genres, my main beef comes from cribbing genre elements to achieve the same purpose: trying to build a better shooter by taking aspects of other shooters, for example. The most original, interesting games of the last few years (BG&E, SOTC, Ico, and even Goldeneye for the N64) do indeed combine different gameplay elements from different genres, but they do so in an attempt to create something completely epic and new. When games like Gears of War or Heavenly Sword make small changes and take things from the shooter genre, in some effort to “improve” or “refine” the shooter formula, I get tired: haven’t we had enough games where nondescript marines shoot at nondescript aliens? Tackling a familiar subject from a slightly different angle (this time, you need to use cover/this time, you have magical demon powers/this time, you can make stuff go slow-motion) may provide for a slightly different shooting experience, but games like these aren’t going to be the ones that improve gaming as a medium. They’re fun, they’re light, and they’re useful for escapism, but games whose aspirations go no further than simply being a “better” title in an established genre, without bringing anything significantly new to the table, get old pretty quickly.

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While it may be asking too much, I have no problem with game developers starting from scratch and trying something entirely new — without attitudes like this, we’d never have Katamari Damacy, Phoenix Wright, or Trauma Center. You can say that these titles have similar characteristics of other games, but they simply weren’t developed with the intention of adhering to, or “refining” a particular type of game. These games are unclassifiable, cross-genre titles that, frankly, show a desire for something new in video gaming. Regulus holds up the Grand Theft Auto games as the “real” type of genre entertainment we shouldn’t let go of, but the GTA games were innovating with nonlinear gameplay and a respect system before they had any other nonlinear games to build off — the games that we now consider worthy of cribbing were, in fact, doing completely new and innovative things long ago. Why stop total genre innovation now? It’s not too much to ask for more out of your games, and I’d personally take a flawed but completely innovative game over a well-composed redundant one.

But this is coming from a guy who hates Halo, so draw what conclusions you will.

What about you, dear readers? How do you define “innovation?” Is it necessarily a good thing? Have your favorite games been the “innovative” kind? Hit the comments, seriously. If you’ve managed to read this far, congratulations — you’re much more willing to deal with text than the majority of the unwashed masses.


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