Same Old Or Something Bold?
We’ve all shot our way through waves of copy-and-paste bad guys, bounced block-to-block in the 2D realm and saved the world with our band of brave heroes countless times, but these well worn video games traits can grow dull and repetitive. Of course all games must have a core, a foundation, to build upon, but to create something genuinely new, we must innovate.
Many games play it safe and stick to tried and tested formulars, but breaking the mould can yield some brilliant results. These fresh ideas can take gameplay, story telling, and how we experience games to a whole new place. Create an overly familiar game and consumers will be tired of the same shit they’ve seen before, create something too different and the word “game” may become too loose a term for it, an interactive experience which, though potentially fantastic to some, will likely alienate the majority of consumers. Striking the right balance between familiarity and innovation can be a challenging juggling act.
Here are some of what I consider the most refreshing game mechanics and systems of recent years, both completely original and reinventions of previous innovations, and how they could help sculpt gaming’s future.
Like many, I’ve been enthralled lately by Max’s story in Dontnod’s episodic sci-fi teen drama, Life Is Strange. The game follows a teenage girl who attends high school in a small town, a setup that we’re all familiar with from TV and film, and the game’s decision making and episodic structure are nothing new either, but Life Is Strange’s innovation comes in the power that protagonist Max possesses.
Choice and consequence have been prominent in video game story telling for years, but Life Is Strange twists this ingeniously, by giving you the power to rewind time. Did a conversation turn out quite how you wanted? rewind and retry, even unlock new avenues of discussion with knowledge gained from your initial interaction. Did someone get hurt, upset, even killed? reapproach the situation in hope of a better outcome.
Game’s have experimented with time manipulation before, like indie platformer Braid, Prince of Persia and Dontnod’s previous game, Remember Me, but the way Life Is Strange handles this power is completely new. Life Is Strange’s rewind mechanic allows the game to craft a truly intriguing player directed story, where you can experiment with your decisions and the consequences they breed, because whether short or long term, the choices you make have an impact.
Debuting in 1997, the Grand Theft Auto series now consists of 15 titles, growing ever more complex and detailed with each iteration. GTA V (the fifth core game) offers the richest open world yet, a vast caricature of Los Angeles to explore, and presents a thrilling pulpy crime story centered around the game’s three playable protagonists.
Among the many additions GTA V brings to the series, it’s the trio of Trevor, Micheal and Franklin that lends a whole new way to experience a living, breathing open world. Carrying out side missions, encountering the bizarre inhabitants and causing chaos in the city of Los Santos would be fun solo, but with the ability to switch between three playable characters at any time, allows you to take on different personalities, experience different walks of life and see the same world from all sides.
Source: Rockstar Games
One minute you may be piloting a submarine as Michael, methodically clearing up nuclear waste, but with a press of a button, the camera will zoom out, soaring over the city and coming to settle on Trevor, in his underwear, on a dirt bike, fleeing from meth-heads in the desert. The way each character continues to act and live out their life even when you’re not in control, makes GTA V feel like a world that’s in constant motion, one that exists with or without you.
In missions, the character switching mechanic lends a great deal of strategy or coordination, allowing multiple techniques of approach and utilising each characters unique skills to carry out the task, be it Franklin’s proficiency for driving or Trevor’s brutal firearm prowess. GTA V’s inventive take on story telling and characterisation really elevates it above other open worlds, including it’s predecessors.
Jigsaw Falling Into Place
Another of Rockstar’s masterpieces, L.A. Noire ranks as one of my favourite games of the last generation. Featuring the same high production value as the studio’s other games, L.A. Noire built itself upon the core gameplay of other Rockstar games, whilst adding a huge amount of fresh gameplay mechanics to serve it’s 1940’s noir detective setting.
Whole-heartedly embracing the detective fantasy, L.A. Noire was the perfect sleuth sim, but to accomplish their vision, Team Bondi had to harness new technology. Taking control of war-veteran turned cop, Cole Phelps, you work your way through the departments, Patrol, Traffic, Homicide, Vice and Arson, solving murders, uncovering drug rings and thwarting fraudsters. Each crime scene you’re presented with offers a huge amount to uncover, as you survey the area you discover clues, compile notes and start piecing together the events and circumstances that led to this incident.
Source: Cruel Troop of Doom TV
Finding leads is essential to the development of the case, these can be gained from piecing together physical clues, but also from witnesses. L.A. Noire’s revolutionary facial motion-capture allowed actors performances to be captured in immense detail, with every eye movement and facial twitch translating in-game. As you interrogate witnesses and suspects you must read their tone of voice and body language and decide whether you believe them, doubt them or think they’re lying.
Every case is a new challenge, full of twists and turns, each culminating with you making a verdict as to who you think is guilty. You may have compiled all the right clues and followed all the right leads, resulting in you having sufficient evidence to convict the right suspect, but your instincts may have failed you and you may end up locking up an innocent person. The games uncertainty and ambiguity keeps you constantly questioning yourself and reviewing the case, so when you do tackle a case perfectly, it’s immensely satisfying.
These are three fantastic games, all hugely engrossing and original in their own ways, games who’s influence I can’t help but wish to see in others. Life Is Strange is almost over, L.A. Noire isn’t going to get a sequel, and the next GTA is likely a few years off, so how could their mechanics be implemented elsewhere? Crime procedurals have been a staple of television since the 50’s, and as L.A. Noire proved, they translate perfectly to interactive entertainment. True Detective, The Wire, The Shield, would all lend themselves to video game adaptions, and both CIS and NCIS have had several (admittedly bad) game’s based on them.
Let’s take True Detective, who’s second season has recently concluded, for example. Be it a game directly linked to the True Detective canon or one heavily influenced by it’s gritty narrative, the story would follow two troubled detectives as they investigate a series of bizarre, ritualistic murders. Making use of the case structuring, clue finding, interrogation, decision making and moral ambiguity seen in L.A. Noire, this dark detective story would be a visceral study of human nature.
Adopting the character swapping of GTA V, the player would be able to swap between their two detectives at will, both in the open world and during cases. This character swapping allows you a voyeuristic insight into the lives of your detectives, one may be visiting their kid at school, whilst the other gets drunk at a bar. In a more direct way this mechanic gives you a tactical advantage during cases, be it in interrogations, (bad cop, good cop), in shoot-outs and car chases, or by consulting one another regarding evidence at a scene.
As a big fan of shows like Twin Peaks, The X-Files and Fringe, I’d like to see a similar tackling of their worlds, and a supernatural or sci-fi detective game would have the potential to use another mechanic I covered earlier, namely, Life Is Strange’s time reversal. In a supernatural/sci-fi setting, a detective with the power of time manipulation would make sense, and allow a great deal of experimentation during cases, like rewinding dialogue during interrogations, or replaying crimes, much like Batman’s crime scene analysis technique.
Gods and Monsters
Last year’s surprise hit, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, was a fantastic open-world action-adventure set in Tolkien’s rich fantasy world, which weaved a fascinating tale of revenge and identity. You took on the role of Talion, a ranger who becomes intertwined with the wraith of Elf lord Celebrimbor, the two go on a symbiotic quest to reap revenge for the death of Talion’s family and uncover Celebrimbor’s idenitity.
Shadow of Mordor draws from the mobility and stealth of Assassin’s Creed and the combat of the Arkham series, but also brings something very fresh to the table. Developer Monolith came up with the ingenious Nemesis System, which made every Orc and Uruk you fought a fleshed out character, not just another nameless goon, and worked perfectly with Talion’s tale of vengeance.
The Sauron’s Army grid visually displays the hierarchy of Soldiers, Captains and Warchiefs, each with a unique set of skills and a suitably gnarly name. Talion can manipulate and deconstruct this network in a multitude of ways, from simply killing off a captain or weeding out intel from a grunt, to using his wraith brand to cause a betrayal or invoke a dual between rival captains.
Succeed in your attempt, and you’ll weaken the ranks and gain an advantage, get struck down by a foe, and they’ll be promoted, becoming more powerful, ready to face you again. It’s a wonderfully inventive system that creates tense rivalries and adds a whole tactical layer to how you approach combat.
Many critics predicted this mechanic would be the most copied of the year, yet we’ve seen no other game draw from it. So how could this be implemented elsewhere? Having recently completed Batman: Arkham Knight, watched Ant-Man, and read several Justice League comics, superheros are fresh in my mind, and their potential for video games is immense.
Both GTA V’s character swapping and Shadow of Mordor’s nemesis system would compliment superhero games perfectly. A Justice League or Avengers game would be incredible fan service, but with a cast of characters that vast, difficult to balance to allow everyone their time to shine. Again using the on-the-fly character swapping of GTA V, this issue could be addressed, and would constantly keep the gameplay fresh by allowing you to experience the full spectrum of powers.
The rivalries between heroes and villains are some of the fiercest in fiction, and if the Arkham games lacked one thing, it was spectacular boss battles. Adopting Shadow of Mordor’s nemesis system would make every encounter rife with risk, lose in a face-off with Doomsday, and he’d grow more powerful, upping the challenge for your next confrontation, defeat him, and the villainous ranks would be weakened. Using this system would bring a tactical and more dynamic approach to boss battles and the on-going feuds between heroes and villains.
Mafia 3 was recently announced at Gamescom, and continues to expand upon the open world crime fantasy of previous games. Taking place in 1968 New Orleans, it follows Vietnam veteran and orphan, Lincoln Clay, as he returns from the war to rebuild his life. He soon joins a gang and begins to build a crime empire, warring with other factions, (the Haitians, the Irish and the Italians), in a power struggle to control The Big Easy.
Mafia’s gang warfare would be the ideal candidate for the nemesis system, making every mobster more than just a disposable gun-for-hire. Each gang would have a hierarchy, from basic thugs, to bodyguards, and ultimately the mob boss. The game already apparently features the ability to ally with rival gang leaders, if you play your cards right, but an entire system that allows you to take down key gang members, even convince them to join your gang or plant a rat to pick them apart from the inside, would result in an even more immersive roleplay of what it is to be a crime lord.
Indie games hold some of gaming’s most original ideas, the independent, usually low budget games, can afford to be bold and take risks, risks that big budget, triple A titles cannot. Commonly taking the form of 2D platformers, they have to mix up this now classic formular in inventive ways, to keep this decades old genre fresh.
2012’s FEZ seems on the surface like a cute, 8-bit platformer, but once you discover that your little character’s fez grants him the ability to change between 2D planes, the game becomes a deviously challenging puzzle adventure. It’s a simple but ingenious mechanic that forces you to think of the world from all angles.
Other indie games that broke the mould, include Braid, with it’s time reversal puzzles, Tearaway, which allows a great deal of interaction via voice, motion and touch controls, and Limbo, which didn’t as much introduce new mechanics, but stood out with it’s distinct art style and minimalist approach to story telling.
Again returning to Arkham Knight, the game featured, an at times subtle, but ever effective mechanic, in which the scenery behind the camera changes dynamically. This is due to Scarecrow’s fear toxin, which Batman inhale’s, resulting in him seeing, the now dead Joker, apparate in random places, be it in a vent or on a billboard, Batman’s ultimate foe haunts and harasses him even in death.
At one point you control Joker in a bizarre first person hallucination sequence (above), exploring a creepy catacomb, the layout changes as you move through the claustrophobic tunnels, and stone statues of Batman appear out of nowhere. This dynamic changing of the game world has been used in some horror games, but it’s a very effective device for jump scares and instilling unease in the player, a device which should be capitalised on.
Breaking Retrodden Ground
Going forward, this generation, lots of people are talking about truly “next-gen” games, and as much as games can get bigger and prettier, and technically more complex, I believe the true future of games lies within offering new approaches to gameplay and story telling.
There’s nothing wrong with creating familiar and comfortable experiences, the Call of Duty’s and Assassin’s Creed’s are necessary to the industry, and enjoyable to play, but while we are retreading the same ground, let’s also try to continue breaking some too.
With games like Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst, Cuphead, For Honor and Quantum Break coming in the near future, I am instilled with hope that games will always innovate, and offer the richest and most varied form of entertainment there is.