The derivative nature of games and art

Sometimes gamers just need someone to give it to us straight. It helps if it comes from a fellow fan, as is the case with Pete Haas’s editorial over at the games section of Cinema Blend, instead of some blowhard like Roger Ebert.

Haas begins by explaining that although RPG’s are his favorite genre, there are some conventions that need addressing. These are the things that pop up in almost every RPG. Everyone knows they’re outdated methods for moving the story along, but everyone just accepts them as a standard of the genre and there’s nothing to be done about them.

In reality, this is something that plagues the electronic entertainment industry as a whole – most everything is derivative, at least to some extent.

The worst offenders, of course, are EA’s annual sports titles, but they’re an easy target. Every Japanese-style RPG is using methods that are over two decades old. Western-style RPGs have their roots in Dungeons & Dragons, a game that’s been around since the birth of Jesus. Now D&D’s new rule-set is pulling in aspects of the MMO’s that it originally inspired. Yeesh.

I’m not saying that being derivative is always a bad thing. The derivative nature of games allows gamers to pick up a brand new title and play it with reasonable ability if you’ve played a game in the same genre before. You may have noticed this puzzles non-gamers. When I first popped Dark Sector in (I only rented it, don’t worry) to play, my girlfriend happened to be sitting in the living room with me. When I started running around and shooting without any prior instruction, she said, “How do you know to do that?”

Also, take a look at Braid. It is an absolutely wonderful and inspired game. The art direction is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The puzzles are great, the story is mature and left open to individual players’ interpretations, etc. But, when you get down into the nitty-gritty, the game mechanics, there are clear roots to the game. The platforming comes straight from Mario, the time shifting mechanic arguably from the recent Prince of Persia games. The key here is he takes those two elements and twists them together into something completely original. Spore, which essentially compiles stripped down versions of 5 different games also comes to mind.

We find that the derivative nature of games extends across most mediums – film, music, painting, architecture, sculpture, etc. When is the last time you heard a rock song on commercial radio that didn’t involve guitars with a lot of distortion and a Intro-Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Bridge-Chorus construction? Or the last time you saw a movie that wasn’t based on a (graphic) novel or comic book?

We are all building upon the creations of the greats who came before: Garriot and Carmack, Picasso and DaVinci, Hemingway and Dickens, BB King and Van Halen. The way that a medium evolves, though, is to recognize the things that just aren’t working anymore. These RPG conventions no longer capture audiences’ imaginations. There must be better ways to show the story and portray the action in this genre and in all video games. Hybridization/genre-mixing has been a recent popular means of creating fresh experiences for gamers. But soon we’ll all be tired of RPG-FPSes (Fallout 3) and Puzzle-Platformers (Braid) and Puzzle-RPGs (Puzzle Quest).

Makes me wonder what the next big splash is going to be.


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September 2008
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