Déjà Vu, I Choose You!
Hey, that’s not just a nice rhyming title, most of the fundamental aspects of games released today have been around since kids sat in caves playing crank powered log consoles like Fred Flintstone. Atari in the 1970′s, Yabadabadoo. This wide range of weird ever present aspects are familiar yet unnoticeable to most players. Signature tropes embedded so deeply and consistently in our gamer psyches that despite how peculiar they may actually be, they don’t even see how strange they appear anymore, often they never did. These quirks are almost like DNA running through so many game genres, getting passed down like genes, and getting all worn out like er, …jeans.
For example; If it’s a platformer, gamers go right and get the items suspended in mid air (coins,rings,e-tanks tc). A formula that applies to an impossibly long list of games that will forever be in the making. If someone is playing a fighting game; they choose the coolest looking dude. He’ll always be the most balanced and will always be Japanese. He’s an easy character to start with. If anyone don’t know what character I mean then just look at the cover box art, there he is. That’s him. Also, mash punch and kick (when close enough to an opponent), it’ll do a throw thingy.
Is it a shooter? Supplies of ammo will conveniently be littered all over the place. Oh, and if gamers shoot a barrel it will explode, so remember to do that, but only when enough zombies/terrorists are near it. Game designers have been reworking the same basic recipes over and over again. Like infinite pizza toppings. What I’m trying to say is Games = Pizza. The familiar physical actions of the player, actions not grounded in reality. These have stuck around too. Games have used these to lie to the gaming public.
When people jump a cute ‘blwoop’ sound won’t happen. Don’t even think about trying to do a double jump, people look stupid enough doing a ‘single jump’. Although those clunky ankles will make a satisfying crunch sound if you do, so I guess jumping does make some sort of noise. A promotion to weekend supervisor at the call centre probably won’t evoke the leveling-up excitement of finally ascending from the ‘warrior’ class to the soaring majesty of ‘paladin knight’. Bosses don’t pay people in gold. Lucky folks might get a gold watch when management retires their old worthless backside. Now, make those calls to those confused retirees. Sell that mobile phone insurance!
Beyond the Limits.
Many of the reoccurring features in games initially occurred due to crafty use of the limiting technology at the time. From the revolutionary Wizardry (1981) came a novelized style on first-person battle where everything is described rather than visualized Less sprites and animations enabled room to vacuum pack in a worthwhile sprawling adventure game that could last for hours upon hours. Wizardry is the Dungeons and Dragons (1974) board game experience translated into a video game form.
Wizardry lead to Dragon Quest, which gave gamers everything from Phantasy Star, Shin Megami Tensei, Mother and Earthbound to Pokemon and beyond. This first-person static layout is still featured within Atlus‘ Etrian Odyssey and Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor series.
Some old school familiar gaming aspects were born out of a necessity to be practical in a very different way. Those bleep bloop jumping sounds mentioned earlier? Mario’s synthetic rubber squelch foot taps in Donkey Kong aren’t just fun cartoony noises, the noises in the game had to drown out the signature spiraling plink-plonk theme of the Xevious cabinet next door or the buzzing flaps of Joust. The sounds as well as the sights in arcades helped suck gamers in and well, some things just stick.
Keeping those nostalgic quirks helps evoke a response unique to games and sentimental to gamers. It’s commonly exploited in every genre. These RPG quirks can still be seen in the pull of nostalgic familiarity in everything from the 3DS‘s charming StreetPass Quest pastiche to more cynical cash grab releases as recent as Square-Enix‘s Final Fantasy: All The Bravest which came out on iOS this week…and sucks.
No, I don’t mean those Darth Vader dudes out of KillZone or those irritating ghost that are always dicking around throwing furniture about the place and pissing off dogs. Just like any creative culture there is at times a growing fashion for similar trends within games, a popular flavor.
The trend is usually a knee jerk reaction to (a) breakthrough game(s) or related media. Hence all the cyborg games as a reaction to the Terminator 2 and Robocop movies in the 90s like, er, RoboCop Versus the Terminator. These same trends still happen in today’s games. On the one hand there are games like the forthcoming Disney Infinity that draws an obvious influence from the Skylanders series, just as PlayStation All-Stars did with Smash Bros Brawl. On the other hand there are games that are similar to others by coincidence rather than mimicry of established creative models. Products of a current popular mood.
A good example would be the mood in question explored in games like Asura’s Wrath and the God of War series. Both games explore an epic mythical fantasy world of punchy vengeful shouting deities and frantic reactionary button commands. Both games differ enough in their execution though. Prototype and Infamous are another example, super powered moody urbanites sprawling through a treacherous cityscape. Similar things happen in films like Volcano and Dante’s Peak. Armageddon and Deep Impact. Antz and a Bug’s life. It’s namely how we have so many games starring pensive shaved future marines blasting through brown and grey urban wastelands these days that is an obvious example of a popular mood.
There are other games that both fulfill the mood and follow the leader. Tomb Raider reinvented the adventure game in the PlayStation’s early days. As more and more games adopted the Tomb Raider approach and borrowed from its gameplay, it was only a matter of time before Lara Croft’s relevance fell behind her followers. Enter Nathan Drake. Uncharted and its sequels arguably took the Tomb Raider experience to a new level, the Video Game take on Indiana Jones was now mastered by Naughty Dog. Now Tomb Raider is set for a reboot with a stylistic approach greatly attributed to, yep you guessed it, Uncharted Which is only fair when you think about it. The video game industry is like a snake (not that Snake) eating its own tail sometimes, shedding its skin and feeding off itself.
Changing to Keep Things the Same.
The Games landscape is undeniably littered with sequels, re-hashes and ‘me-too’ emulative efforts of more established or original ideas. The elements that make up and appear in these games may be too cozy and familiar to us. Nostalgia and repetition play a part. But, in reality that’s how we know we’ll probably like a certain game in the first place when shopping around, and after playing it, the reason we enjoy it. The base stays the same and the toppings change. Games are Pizza, and Pizza is (almost) always good.