Innovatively Irksome

This article was published on 01/07/2008.

Is innovation dead? A lot of self-proclaimed video game connoisseurs like to think so. It's true that developers often stick to what traditionally makes money over trying new things, but some gamers who talk of innovation can hardly distinguish it themselves. What many of these imbeciles don't realize is that a game's innovation can be divided in two parts; aesthetics and game play. Aesthetics include a game's story, characters, dialogue, situations, settings, graphics, music, etc. Then there's the game play, which consists of the game's mechanics. Innovation can exist either in a game's aesthetics or game mechanics, and it can sometimes exist in both. For some reason, people have trouble distinguishing between the shallow innovation of a game's aesthetics and the true innovation that comes from the game play. Sometimes these people will even reject innovative game play, despite claiming to want innovation in their games. This is about innovative aesthetics versus innovative game play, and why innovative game play trumps creative aesthetics any day of the week.

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Psychonauts was heralded as something profoundly innovative by jaded gamers everywhere. While Psychonauts featured some decidedly innovative and entertaining aesthetics, it was still nothing more than a mundane 3-D platform game that doesn't even measure up to other mundane 3-D platform games from the past. I'm sure a lot of you will hold a grudge against me for saying this, but I hardly feel that the game deserves all of this recognition. Do you want to talk about a 3-D platform game that achieves similar goals to Psychonauts, but surpasses it in the game play department as well? The Sly Cooper series, starring a devious raccoon thief, has innovative aesthetics as well as innovative, quality game play. Sly Cooper blends stealth game play with the mechanics of 3-D platform games. Not too many people mention Sly Cooper, though. Games like Sly Cooper go relatively ignored by the public while a game like Psychonauts gets a free ride because it tries to be different, despite not being very different at all.

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People praise innovative games, sometimes even if they aren't very good. At what price must we, the gamers, pay for innovation? Should we accept a terrible game simply because it introduces new ideas and ventures into unexplored territories? Games can be: A fun, B innovative or C both. I'm simply proposing that for a game to win in my book, it needs to be either A or C. I won't accept B, even if it might in fact be a step in the right direction. I do admire game companies that experiment with new concepts, but when the quality of the game is adversely affected, I can't give it a free pass simply because it's innovative. If a game stinks, it stinks. Some games can stink in a new and unique way, but it hardly changes the fact that it stinks and should be put out of its misery, like a neighbor's dog that performed its business on your lawn. Games need to be high quality over all else. Innovation is icing on the cake, but you can't enjoy icing without the rest of the cake. It's not proper etiquette.

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Some jaded gamers like to flaunt the fact that they waste most of their time playing horrible freeware PC games, touting that these games provide the innovation that they so desperately crave. Desperate is the accurate term here, as they're willing to tolerate bad games in the name of innovation. Sure, Cave Story is a wonderful indie game, but then that's Cave Story. A large chunk of indie games flat out suck, for obvious reasons. Again, people will take offense at me saying this, parroting such typical lines as "But! It's a small team of a single person with absolutely no money and who has other life obligations! We should be thankful that they were able to make a game at all, so let's not mention any glaring flaws!" Sorry, I don't go by those rules. If a game is terrible, I call it. I won't conveniently go into denial about a game's quality simply due to the circumstances behind its development. A man lost his wife in a dramatic car accident, his house was demolished by a meteor, and he was reduced to programming his beloved freeware game on whatever local telephone booths he could find? I'm sorry to hear that, and that man's game may be impressive considering what took place, but in the grand scheme of things, it still sucks.

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On occasions in which I'm struck with a case of boredom and am finding unproductive ways to set my mental gears in motion, I attempt to brain storm innovative game play concepts. Following this, I would try and figure out how to make such concepts work. A lot of people don't understand that a good idea isn't enough. There are plenty of ideas that sound impressive on paper, but when it comes time to actually implement those ideas, things quickly fall apart. Good ideas are nothing without a valid method of implementation, in other words. Other times, the idea is good and the method of implementation is valid, yet when the player goes through with it, they quickly realize that it just isn't fun. If all it took were brilliant ideas to craft a wonderfully innovative game, then we'd be seeing a whole lot more of those and far more people like me would be compared to ethereal sages such as Shigeru Miyamoto. Obviously, people like Shigeru Miyamoto are valued because they can come up with good ideas that are fun in practice, and think up of valid ways to implement them. This is the true art of game design. Not so easy now, huh?

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The point to all this is, innovative aesthetics means nothing if the game play is still the same old thing. Game reviewers keep criticizing companies like Nintendo for not coming up with new IPs, but what is a new IP if it uses the same game play? Meanwhile, other companies routinely come up with new IPs and are rewarded by critics, despite the game play being a rehash of something that came before. I guess people don't want innovative game play; they just want different characters and backgrounds. I'm not necessarily saying that's a bad thing, but it does make these people seem a bit hypocritical when they bash companies like Nintendo for not being creative enough. If anything, Nintendo is one of the more innovative companies out there. Sometimes their innovation shoots them in the foot, but they are innovative nonetheless. Coming up with a new IP isn't innovative in itself. It's the game play that counts.

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