The next generation of consoles has made some weighty promises regarding social and multimedia integration, and all three hardware titans seem to have their heart set on pushing the advantages of these new features. In spite of the emphatic manufacturers, however, gamer response has been far less gung-ho and proven somewhat divided. On one side of the fence, players are all for the diversification of gaming as a medium and have high hopes for social aspects of MMOs like The Division or The Elder Scrolls Online and expect dual-media endeavors like Quantum Break to dazzle them. By contrast, others are entirely unimpressed with these alleged innovations and have passed them off as mere tedium.
This disparity illustrates a key point for the industry, current- and next-gen alike: Innovative new features and cheap gimmicks are often one in the same; it’s our perception that dictates their worth. As such, arbitrarily dismissing new functionality solely because we find it gimmicky is a shortsighted judgment. Similarly, expecting every aspect of a system or every last element of a game to provide something so new that it appears foreign is absolutely ridiculous.
It is this exact way of thinking—demanding unprecedented innovation from every release—that has become far too abundant in the games industry. Not only is it often the catalyst for unfairly skewed and biased reviews from gaming journalists, but it has led to the spread of the antithesis to what video games, as a medium, should work towards.
As an artistic and multifaceted form of media, games are tasked with more than simply tossing one formula aside in place of another entirely. They must refine, improve, and hybridize the current in order to stay relevant; otherwise, genres would cease to exist overnight. Obviously, this way of thinking can be applied counterproductively as well—just look at a few of the dreadfully long and exhausted franchises we have today. However, approaching a first-person shooter or hack-and-slash game as just that—a type of game—denotes the need to refine and implement features in an effort to create an enjoyable game.
Of course, there are plenty of examples that highlight this.
Now-defunct publisher THQ put a welcomed spin on the hack-and-slash genre with the advent of the Darksiders series, a mishmash of various genre elements set to the tune of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse brandishing a variety of weapons. Both the original and its older (and, in this gamer’s opinion, better) brother, Darksiders 2, borrowed heavily from name-brand franchises such as God of War, Portal, The Legend of Zelda, and Devil May Cry. Despite this, the development team was able to successfully engineer an entirely new experience.
This situation presents a series of paradoxical questions, and calls the aforementioned way of approaching innovation into question. How can Darksiders provide something innovative when, ultimately, all it does is combine elements that already exist? It doesn’t “create” anything; it hasn’t redesigned the heavy-and-light hack-and-slash combat formula; puzzles are as straightforward as ever; bosses follow the classically systematic structure. So why is the game worth playing? Why should you care about it if you’ve already played the multitude of games that it draws influence from? Surely, having experienced the pioneers of the root genres firsthand, you already know everything there is to know about what Darksiders 2 has to offer.
Do you see how outlandish this thought process is? Darksiders 2 can’t be cast aside as a mere clone because it combines certain gameplay elements in specific amounts that had never before been attempted. Of course, that’s not where this sort of experimentation stops. In many ways, Borderlands 2 is nothing more than typical FPS controls applied to an open-world, fetch quest-heavy RPG. However, because Gearbox improved those base elements, smoothed and optimized the control scheme, and injected a unique aesthetic and humor to the mix, Borderlands 2 is absolutely brilliant.
Examples like these demonstrate the value of improving the known over blindly making jabs in the dark and praying to hit something sensational. Unfortunately, a sizeable portion of gamers (and, of course, game journalists and critics) expect the evolution of games—of an entire medium and industry—to occur overnight. Consequently, if a game doesn’t have something that is absolutely incomparable to offer, it may simply be branded as a tired reiteration and thrown away.
Evolution does not operate on spontaneity, nor can it be expedited by straw-grasping development or black-and-white criticism. For similar reasons, the definition of “innovation” can’t be left at inarguably new and unique. To do so is to abandon the process of refinement that video games are built on. We can’t expect Assassin’s Creed V to look nothing like the original, nor should it. In this example and every other, the collective innovations that each title contributes will eventually form the new definition of norm--but gradually so. Series, genres, and development studios all grow and adapt over time, and asking them to do otherwise would only hinder the success of all three as well as the industry as a whole.