Gaming’s Mutations and New Sensations

Posted on May 27, 2010

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Most of games today play off of ideas from gen 1 video games. Dubbed game “mutations” by yours truly, these games may look pretty, but look behind the HD exterior and you’ll probably find an 8-bit game at the nucleus of it all.

There’s a fine line between building an original gaming experience and making permutations of old experiences. We see new features added to games every day. For instance, RPG games are flying off the shelves, so non-RPG games are implementing RPG elements. How else can you explain Halo: Reach’s armor upgrades for multiplayer? You can’t get any more FPS than Halo, but even that franschise has adopted an RPG system. How about allowing players to purchase weapons, clothes, and even build a city in Assassin’s Creed 2? I love me some RPG, but I am still waiting for bigtime games to start busting out new mechanics.

With its Forge feature, Halo has tried to branch outside of the normal FPS routine. Forge allowed gamers to create levels, which is great for gamers that are interested. But, it does little to enhance the core game experience. Little Big Planet, too, does not totally diverge from classic game mechanics as it is still a 2D platformer at the end of the day. But, it’s ludicrously popular level building platform gives gamers new reasons to turn on their PS3s after beating storymode.

Fallout 3, like LBP, goes along with some conventional game elements, but its scope has pushed the envelope of what RPGs should be. By rule, RPGs include leveling-up stats. But, Fallout’s Perks system revitalizes the experience and allows players to put their own stamp on their character. Bethesda created a dark-toned game with a lighter feel via level-ups–not an easy thing to do. Oh, and their ridonculously large open-world map isn’t too shabby either.

Long gone should be the days of playing AAA titles that have empty plots. Much of today’s games still put story in the backseat to mechanics, but Mass Effect values both, which is critically important to advancing the gaming experience and creating new experiences for gamers. ME’s fighting is fun, but saying that steering the storyline and molding the universe with your decisions is empowering would be an understatement. Flat out, I find myself celebrating more victories in Mass Effect because of the value behind the story. Who doesn’t like fist-pumping after every mission?

Now, all we need to see is a publisher willing to let gamers create their own levels for a spy/espionage game with amazingly fun level ups, and an Oprah-bookclub worthy story. And let’s not forget killing enemies by jumping on their noggins for ol’ times sake.

New Blood
It would be too hard to recite all of the games that follow suit after the likes of Super Mario or Zelda, and as fun as that would be, I’m not writing a book about it (yet). Still, comparing games from the 1990s and 2000s , it’s difficult to find original titles other than the innovative titles mentioned above. But, a few things do come to mind.

From an angle of gameplay, many FPS titles can technically be considered as original, simply because the player’s point of view is different–which really does change the way a game is played.

According to the Free Info Society, the first FPS game  was created by id studios in 1992. So, Wolfenstein 3D can make claim to that title, but true-to-form FPS games are pretty much a one-trick-pony. As enjoyable as they are, most FPS games are copy and pasted games consisting of a military force fighting against either zombies, nazis, aliens, or military opponents. Halo and Call of Duty made the genre unbelievably popular, but gameplay for all intents and purposes, is basically the same.

Some nice departures from standard FPS games include hits such as Mirror’s Edge, The Darkness, Portal, and Aliens vs. Predator. Darkness and AvP add monstrous abilities to the typical gun blasting fare, while Mirror’s Edge challenges players to conquer the rooftops with quickness and agility. Portal is a puzzle-based game that has created a lot of buzz as a cult hit. However, despite popularity and even success, these games are the exception, not the rule. Still waiting for a new FPS game to break the mold and create a new species of games of the FPS lineage.

Splinter Cell interweaves novel-quality storylines (a la Tom Clancy) with intense, precise gameplay. Most games require players to spray bullets everywhere or bash an enemies brains out. But, Sam Fisher showed the world that a tactical takedown can be more rewarding than button mashing and flailing about like a rabid Schwarzenegger. Spy/espionage games like Thief or Splinter Cell have a nice mix of non-linear level approaches to missions on set stages, unique gameplay, and a mix of action, strategy, and platforming. Though running around enemies was commonplace in the original Zelda game, I don’t recall Link ever sneaking around a dungeon or castle. However, like the FPS games mentioned above, stealth games are few and far between despite their popularity.

Point of Diminishing Return
It’s no coincidence that there are a bazillion post-apocalyptic games out there. It’s a simple formula that gamers recognize, and it sells. The 0nly conceivable explanation for this redundancy is that video game publishers don’t want the industry to change yet. Afterall, why mess with an industry that has quantified its profits so much over the past 30 years? When will we see a change? Probably when the bucks stop rolling in.

There has to be a tipping point where gamers become bored with the same game themes and mechanics. The beauty of video games is that the gaming experience is limited only by the boundaries of the studios making games, and the fences built by the industry’s publishers. As history shows, the first to explore new ideas are the first to reap the benefits. All gamers can do is hope that new ideas will eventually filter through the publisher firewall and a new genre or two will be born!

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Posted in: Op-Ed, Trends