“We can’t introduce anything new until we’re fluent in the language of our domain.
- Everything is a Remix
I was watching this quirky little web documentary today, which talks about how everything is an evolution of something (or, usually, numerous things) before it, and it uttered the above line, which got me thinking about games. Most things do.
In this instance, it got me thinking that this phrase both contains truth and falsehood.
At this juncture, if I wanted to make a first-person shooter and have it do something strikingly new, I’m not going to be any good at it at all unless I’ve already got a fairly good handle on first-person shooter ‘literacy’. That means that I’d need to already understand the basics of what will drive a character to do one thing over another, go in one direction over another, what they’ll think is something they can shoot and what isn’t, what a good amount of recoil is etc.
Having a firm understanding of this, I am then able to subvert the genre in cool ways to create something ‘new’.
Unreal created a gun which fired a single straight line that impacted immediately, and decided that its alternate fire would be a slower moving orb, allowing you to fire the slow moving orb then shoot it with the fast firing straight line, creating an impact explosion similar to a small rocket launcher. NONE of these things was a ‘completely new’ innovation. Not one of these ideas came from the ether – they were just combined in such a way to give a new experience.
Bioshock used familiar gameplay mechanics to funnel the player to do certain things, just as almost every single shooter does.
It then, with Irrational Games knowing the fine art of shooter-creating as well as they did, flipped this notion on its head by weaving that blind obedience into the narrative to create one of modern gaming’s most brilliant revelations.
That said, the infancy of games is part of their charm. When people didn’t know you could make a game in the first-person perspective using 3D, the overly simplistic mechanics of the platformer were quickly mastered and a wealth of variety was created. It took significant drive on the part of Ultima Underworld and Wolfenstein 3D’s creators to make the ambitious leap to go first-person at all, and when they did, they were in fundamentally uncharted territory (no pun intended), with no anchors to guide them to principles of what a ‘competent’ game in their genre was.
Imagine the innovative prowess of the guy who first came up with Tennis for Two. He had to first create the notion of an interactive game which had automatic feedback given immediately by these new-fangled computer machines.
I propose a graph which records the flow of each specific genre within gaming. It goes something like this:
Birth – Creativity is at maximum, there are no rules and everything is new
Establishment – Creativity is still rife, but almost all new games are ‘testing’ one hypothesis or another to see what is and isn’t possible. Wild successes and failures happen here.
Adolescence – The few big giants of the Establishment phase have taken their place at the top, imitators have begun to emerge and a lot of the newer ideas are coming only from developers who’ve had a failure or two behind them already.
Normalising – The tropes of the genre are firmly in place and the top games iterate on the best which is out there, but aren’t 100% new. People lament a lack of originality.
Maturity – There comes a counter-culture of games which actively try to go against the norm, while the biggest of the big are innovatively stagnant blockbusters.
Post-Maturity – I’ll also posit a phase I’ll call Post-Maturity, where the current modern-day PSN and XBLA platformer exists. People wield the mechanics of a platformer with magnificent ease. Their comprehension of the players and the tropes is so spot-on that they’re not ‘testing’ anything, aren’t ‘introducing’ new mechanics to see if they’ll work, but are instead in a phase where growing the genre isn’t the point, and they’re free to use all the tools at their disposal to create something unique.
So while genres are growing, people are creating tools. When genres are mature, those tools are being used.
By Leigh Harris