The word “innovation” is one that gets thrown around a lot in this industry, especially in a generation that brought us motion-controlled gaming, 3D gimmickry, and the rising influence of mobile games. In my opinion, the word has been used so much that it carries very little weight these days, but nevertheless, developers and gamers insist upon pulling it out of the hat at any given opportunity. Innovation appears to be what we’re all striving for — studios push towards it, critics look for it, and gamers sometimes demand it. Do we really need it, though? More to the point, do we need it at the expense of a game that’s actually good?
My biggest problem with the “I” word is how it informs one’s opinion of a game to the exclusion of other factors. Mirror’s Edge is a fine example of this. DICE’s first-person parkour game had some very notable problems that certain reviewers were less willing to forgive than others. I personally found the game a frustrating experience that only worked 50% of the time, due to the painful amount of precision the game demanded and the fact that you sometimes just had to guess where you were jumping and hope for the best. In short — I didn’t think the game was all that fun, and I wasn’t the only one.
The Guardian wrote an article in 2008 that lamented the criticism Mirror’s Edge faced. Now, I am an admirer of the Guardian’s game coverage and I quite like the article’s writer, Keith Stuart. However, his lamentation that Mirror’s Edge deserved better because it was an innovative title smacks of the attitude I feel a significant portion of gamers carry — the belief that innovation is more important than quality.
“… No-one complains that, say, Pan’s Labyrinth or Eraser Head lack the formal, easily recognisable narrative structure of a conventional movie,” argues Stuart. “Their aspirations exempt them from that requirement. So should we really be marking Mirror’s Edge down for control issues — a game that aspires to re-interpret the very interface between player, screen and character? Yes, I know, it’s a clumsy comparison, but the underlying point is – should reviewers just accept that sometimes incredibly new experiences will lack some of the formal substance we expect from traditional games? That’s what innovation is, it’s leaping out into the unknown.”
Stuart’s argument is that certain important aspects of a videogame — controls, intuitive interfaces, and an appreciable sense of structure — could perhaps be overlooked due to a game’s ambition. At its most extreme, this argument makes the case that games ought not to be reviewed based upon what they are, but upon what they tried to be. Most certainly, if Mirror’s Edge was judged based on its aspirations alone, it would have been a 10/10 from everybody, including yours truly. I have a bottomless well of respect for what Mirror’s Edge wanted to be, and I would never dare begrudge DICE its ambitious goals. The straight fact of the matter, however, is that Mirror’s Edge was not what it wanted to be. It was a great idea, with significant issues holding it back.
I can’t help but feel some games deliberately go out of their way to be different in the disingenuous hope that some critics will give it a free pass. This attitude seems especially prevalent in the art game world, where titles are praised for subverting expectations and making vague, obtuse commentaries on the “human condition” by people who are competing with each other to look like the smartest games journalist. My most beloved example of this is The Path, a game that tells you to walk along a straight route to your destination, but punishes you for doing so. The actual goal is to wander off of the path — something the game tells you NOT to do — and explore the forest that surrounds it. What waits in the forest is little more than a collection of metaphors and nebulous scenarios that may or may not have something to do with sexual assault. It’s all fairly boring, and smacks of a developer that’s trying too hard to look deep and meaningful through desperately indistinct symbolism.
There are some that applaud the game for being so innovative and subversive, when it’s really just a dreary, pointless exercise in pompous showboating. Some even try to argue that The Path is “not a game” — despite being available on game services such as Steam and commanding coverage from videogame media. Sounds like a game to me … a bad game, that attempts to cover up for its lack of quality by pretending to not be a game. INNOVATION!
Perhaps worse than undue praise for innovation, however, is undue criticism for a lack of it. Nothing exemplifies this problem more than Lost Odyssey. Mistwalker’s Xbox 360 RPG is the last truly great Japanese role-playing-game I’ve played on a console, in a genre that’s rapidly become more miserable. Unfortunately, it was written off by quite a few gamers at the time for lacking innovation. The biggest complaint people had about the game was that it refused to “break the mold” of turn-based RPGs. Personally, I found that was Lost Odyssey’s biggest strength. Rather than attempting to re-invent the wheel, Mistwalker concentrated on what was important — a deep storyline, terrific characters, and a combat system that worked for what it was. The game enjoyed fairly decent critical reception, but even some of the more positive reviews noted the lack of innovation as some sort of flaw — as if it is every game’s job to completely different from the last.
Singularity is another game that suffered from this criticism. There’s no doubt that the game is derivative — it takes elements from BioShock, Half-Life, and F.E.A.R to create a game that will feel very familiar to any first-person-shooter fan. What mattered to me, however, was that Raven Software took these tried-and-tested elements, and implemented them perfectly into a game that felt like a “greatest hits” collection of cool FPS gameplay. No, it wasn’t the most original title in the world, but it did a superb job of being fun and telling a decent story. That wasn’t enough for a lot of critics, though, who instead chose to focus on how “bland” it was, all because it didn’t toss in some brand new gimmick at the expense of sticking to what works.
To me, it doesn’t matter how derivative a game is, provided it’s fun. Darksiders is one of my favorite games of all time, and that title is a shamelessly “inspired” piece of software that pulls elements from The Legend of Zelda, Devil May Cry and even Portal. Does it “break the mold”? Absolutely not. Is it polished and fun? Undoubtedly so. I’d rather have something fun and derivative than something new and borderline unplayable.
This is not to say, of course, that innovation on its own is a bad thing. It’s just that it isn’t a good thing either. Innovation, like most things we’ve created, can only boast a value relative to the people using it. Games that merge innovation and fun together — titles like Portal, Braid, Flower and any other predictable example you can think of — are to be nurtured and encouraged. Developers should always feel welcome to try new things and adopt fresh approaches. What they should not do, however, is expect praise based on their aspirations as opposed to the final product. Likewise, a derivative game that lacks polish or an exciting implementation of its borrowed attributes — Medal of Honor, Dark Sector, Scourge Project — can’t expect to get away with positive reviews just because it copied something else.
Whether you’re innovative or derivative, it should always be about the final experience. Were you fun? Then you win.
I mean … videogames are still allowed to be about fun, right?