Traditional Is Not A Dirty Word
Excuse me, I forgot. It's not innovation unless it involves another texture pass. - Tycho from Penny Arcade
Tycho's trenchant comment from 2005 about what was then dubbed the Nintendo Revolution has a truth that is still ringing through the industry. Last year, Lost Odyssey and Blue Dragon hit our shores. They were billed as classic or traditional Japanese RPGs.
To someone who knows the genre, that says a lot. It means you're dealing with some variant of moving through a world, running into ugly things which you then have to fight as a group. On your journey, your androgynous Rogue's Gallery of characters are shuffled through a turgid story; angst and cut scenes will be involved. As you progress, the string of ugly things is punctuated with the occasional bigger ugly thing. This pattern builds up to a culminating fight with the biggest ugly thing of all. Estimated playing time starts at 20 hours but can go up into triple digits if you are one of those people who have to earn everything so you crawl through the whole place again to chase down the Iridescent Spaghetti-Strainer of Smiting that causes the bad guy to actually wet himself when you equip it in battle before going off to face that biggest ugly.
Fans of the genre saw the keyword "classic" in the marketing materials for these games, gave a cautious "w00t!" and then made the solemn decision whether or not they wanted to play them based on their taste for that sort of thing. The gaming press had another viewpoint. Even with solid review scores across the board, over and over the text of the reviews complained that the gameplay was too traditional. Gamespot called Lost Odyssey a relic.
Ouch. We've all seen this before, though. If a game isn't considered new and different enough by the reviewer it counts as a downcheck. But I, like many other gamers, don't necessarily classify traditional gameplay as a bad thing. Sometimes, you want something that plays just like something else.
It's impossible to get a definition of the term "innovation" as it applies to games. No one seems to use it in a consistent fashion. I had gathered a bunch more quotes and facts and figures to back me up, but I decided not to go there. For one thing, trying to derive real meaning and go all revisionist on one of those breathless hardcore reviews is a pointless exercise. But if you read through the text, I do see a few general patterns consistently.
The numbers seem to be irrelevant. They do this to games with extremely high scores as well as those in the lower ranks. It is endemic across all genres and all age ratings. It's one of the standard whipping points in many kids and licensed game reviews. Sometimes it seems to count heavily; sometimes it doesn't seem to affect the numbers at all.
If a feature isn't right there on the surface doesn't seem to count as new. Halo 3 got dinged by many reviewers because they didn't have the great epiphanic moment they had with Halo. They got to finish the fight, but it wasn't that much different than it's predecessor as far as they were concerned. If you look under the hood, though, great strides were made. Online and local 4-man Cooperative Mode, and the ability to have local and online multiplayer in the same game gave gamers a whole new level of options for playing together. Add in the ability to build your own levels and gametypes in a console game and share those levels, custom gametypes, and saved gameplay videos between players seamlessly both on XboxLive and on the PC and you had something that knocked down one more wall between the console experience and the PC's features.
On the other hand, a game with one small but obvious change can get heralded as the latest and greatest. Gears of War and it's gun-mounted chainsaw tops up a solid but rather plebian FPS story. I love the chainsaw, don't get me wrong, and I can't wait for the next installment. Grinding alien scum into messy read smears is one of my favorite things to do. But duct taping the saw to the gun and giving players the ability to duck don't constitute a smashing move forward. Especially considering that the ability to do melee attacks with a chainsaw has been around since we were all Knee-Deep in the Dead back in the first Doom episode and Solid Snake has been crouching behind all manner of cover since 1998.
If you read the text, it becomes clear that reviewers often don't know what's actually new. The reviewer at Gametrailers discusses Lost Odyssey's waypoint map system as if it was a shiny new replacement for a seamless over-world that allows you to move between areas as if you were walking straight through them. However, it's not new. It's a return to the sort of system used in many traditional adventure and RPG games since we started kicking turtle shells in Super Mario Brothers. Kaim and the gang aren't the only ones kicking it old school. Super Mario Galaxy and several other games have gone back in this direction in the past year.
In defense of the journalists, I can say it's hard to know everything that's ever been released. Some of these guys were in elementary school when Doom came out and I was still in high school when Mario arrived. Design features seem to fluctuate sort of like hemlines in skirts. Dame Fashion says this year we have a lot of waypoints and maps. Next year all the mavens will be going on and on about being able to seamlessly move between game areas like it's never been done before and gamers will be walking down a lot of long hallways with a weird sort of skipping feeling in the middle again.
I've been bit by this myself. The RPG genre in particular is full of complicated systems and it can be hard to keep track. At one point I opined that the closest thing to a grand-scale innovation I'd seen in the RPG space in the last several years was the Gambit system in Final Fantasy XII. I thought it was awesome. Those brain-dead sock puppet characters suddenly had enough sense of themselves to be able to notice that they had been hurt and not just stand there and bleed. If you set it up properly, they could take intelligent actions based on their own status, the state of allies or enemies, or other battlefield conditions. I felt like it took them one step toward being true comrades in arms rather than just the mask over a bunch of math. Ironically, others considered it tearing away that mask and they felt like they were watching the game play itself. It didn't matter to me; by the end of the game I was ready for a new version with compound clauses and looping structures. I would hold all of Ivalice in my rusty but still iron fist. Hence my over-the-top comment.
But a few months after I'd opened my yap I was reminded that this wasn't the first time we'd had a similar ability. I was replaying the original Kingdom Hearts with my daughters and was configuring Donald and Goofy before a boss fight and had a big "D'oh!" moment. You can go in and specify their combat actions based on priority ratings in several categories. It wasn't as detailed as the Gambit system, but you could make them more or less likely to throw potions or spells or do physical attacks or supporting maneuvers in a combat situation. The realization was all the more embarrassing when I read back and discovered I'd gone all organ-grinder's monkey over that very feature in my review of the game.
Is Innovation what we really want?
That's the multi-million-dollar question. If you go by the sales figures rather than what the industry PR machine talks about, it's sometimes yes and sometimes no. It doesn't appear to be everyone's goal all the time.
I'm not here to suggest that all we want are retreads and sequels. But I've played hundreds of games of chess in my life. I assure you they all have the same type of board, the pieces all start in the same configuration, and we play by the same rules (unless you want to talk about my son's Interpretive Dance version of castling).
It's not just the classics or board games. Be honest. Has Madden really changed all that much in the last few years? Now go look at it's sales figures for 2008. According to NPD, it was the 7th largest selling game last year. People thought Devil May Cry had over-stayed it's welcome with four installments in the series. 2008 is the 19th version in the Madden NFL series.
Quality gameplay is often the telling factor between traditional and tired. There wasn't much we hadn't seen before in Lost Odyssey beyond the way they incorporated the concepts of immortality into the combat and the recovered memories. Even the accuracy rings have a close sibling in the game Shadow Hearts and a red-headed cousin in Magna Carta: Tears of Blood. But each piece of the game was blueprinted, balanced, polished to a high sheen and presented to the player on a piece of black velvet to show it off just right. Thanks to Mistwalker's faithful interpretation of the genre, everyone who bought it knew exactly what they were getting into and they bought it because that was what they like. On the tired side, Perfect Dark Zero showed us just how bored we could get with even 32 players running around the same old concrete plant.
There's no rhyme or reason to it. Adding in a new color of orbs or fancier dresses is enough to "innovate" in a Final Fantasy title, but renovating the definition of multiplayer from the ground up in Halo wasn't enough to mention. Gamers have a different set of priorities, and have been voting with their hard drive space and YouTube. Bungie has listened. Due to the community's embrace of these features, they included a bunch of new camera filters in the Legendary Map pack that are helping gamers generate some awesome footage. I'm one of the few people who even liked Final Fantasy X-2.
This isn't some aberration that only affects the game industry. There's a reason people have watched four seasons of House. I love that show, but you start to see a pattern REAL fast. People eat it up for the characters. Or, to take a more egregious example, Matlock and Murder She Wrote are still two of the biggest syndicated shows on television despite the fact that they've both been out of production for over 10 years. They're not even being re-released with some new gimmicks like the original Star Trek series. People aren't waiting breathlessly for new episodes; they're watching the same ones over and over.
New bells and whistles can be great. But sometimes when I play a game, I don't want the Cirque de Soleil. I want Cheers. I want to walk in the door and have the same three guys who have been sitting at the end of the bar for as long as anyone can remember give me a nonchalant wave as I walk past them. Then I'll settle on my usual stool just as the bartender slaps my usual drink on the coaster in front of me. I'll sip my beer and he'll tell me what's new. It probably won't be much, but I'm good with that.
There is a large audience out there for the tried and true. Innovation is hard to define, and even harder to spot in the wild. It's often not much liked when it is found. So stop using it's supposed lack as a cudgel on a perfectly good game.