Derivative Games, And Why They're Awesome

  As the industry of gaming progresses and grows, it's only natural that certain ideas and themes begin to repeat themselves. I'm not talking about story points or characterisation necessarily; in fact I'll be focusing mainly on gameplay conventions here. As much as I'd love to take an axe to some of the lazy, uninspired crap that developers trot out when it comes to writing a plot, that's a rant for another day. Like I said, I'm talking about gameplay conventions, but before I do we'll need a bit of background.

I began playing Dead Space earlier today. I picked it up as a present for my brother, who hadn't really gotten around to playing it yet. Bored, and fresh from the Dead Space 2 launch event last Wednesday, I decided to give it a shot. The gameplay mechanics of Dead Space are hardly original, as many reviewers were quick to point out when the game released in 2008. The game's core dynamics as a whole can ultimately be boiled down to a mix of Resident Evil 4, Gears of War, System Shock and a lot of Doom 3. It's a third-person action horror title that, on paper, does not merit playing. Think about it: why play a game that has essentially stolen the good ideas of other developers in a lazy attempt to appeal to the masses? Surely such games are boring, derivative, uninventive and entirely old-hat. Right?

Nope. Wrong, in fact. Because from the moment I started playing Dead Space, I knew I was on to something special. Dead Space succeeds not through some huge degree of originality or innovation, but through the masterful combination of the best gameplay mechanics of the genre. It's all instantly familiar, but it all works. Beautifully. The control scheme is a joy to use, and the feel of everything you do is natural, intuitive and smooth. You're picking up audiologs that could be straight out of System Shock, shooting zombies as they slowly approach like its Resident Evil all over again, firing off third-person headshots like Marcus Fenix in the Gears of War series. Ultimately, none of this familiarity mattters, because Dead Space really is more than the sum of its parts. It didn't borrow those gameplay mechanics: it went one better.

So we have a bit of a dilemma. On one hand, we can cry foul and condemn the half-assed rip-offs we're being sold with increasing regularity. On the other, we can laud the achievements of Visceral Games and the dozens like them, as they take what's gone before and create something that comes ever closer to perfection. It's a tough one to call, and no matter which side you come down on initially it's easy to be swayed either way.

A prime example of this occurred earlier today. I played the newly released multiplayer demo of Crysis 2. From the very moment you take control of your character, you know the drill. With classes and killstreaks, leveling up and gaining exp, it's impossible to deny the influence of the Modern Warfare series. Combine this with floaty jumps, armour abilities and instant melee kills from behind, and you've got a big genetically enhanced finger pointing straight at the Halo franchise. There's something else here too though; a sense of gritty realism that's furthered by stunning visuals and excuisite sound design. Battlefield 2, take a bow.

It wasn't long (at all) before I had written off Crysis 2 completely. "If I wanted to play Modern Warfare", I mused with exceptional hubris, "I'd play Modern Warfare". I left the demo feeling short-changed and slightly annoyed.

After a while, though, it came back. Niggling away in the back of my mind as I slogged away at Super Meat Boy, a thought began to form that I could hardly bring myself to acknowledge. "That demo was actually... kind of... good?"

Surely not! That pathetic copycat of a game? PAH! As if!

And back I went to play it again. And yes, sure enough, it really was very good. I got the impression that the developers had taken a long hard look at each of their "inspirations", and had worked exceptionally hard to remove the worst parts of each. It's well balanced; the classes are varied but always fair. It's interesting; there's a great selection of abilities and customisation available (and that's just the demo). And, above all, it's fun. At the end of the day, that's why were here and that's all we want. And despite everything, it's clear that Crysis 2's multiplayer succeeds in this.

This isn't like other entertainment media. When a film director rehashes some tired cliché, we lose interest and become removed from the experience. When I hear yet another auto-tuned, ticking-the-boxes, four-chord formula song that's just rocketed to number one, I can't stop myself from visibly seething. But let's face it: when we play games, we're not on a search for self-discovery. We're not even all that interested in what, if anything, the game is trying to "say". We're just having fun; through tests of skill, wit and patience we challenge ourselves and eachother. That's all.

So let's not freak out if a game is "derivative" or "samey". Gameplay conventions catch on and become the standard for a reason: they work. Just as Mario showed us just how enjoyable jumping form one platform to another can be, so too can Infinity Ward point us in the right direction in creating a multiplayer experience that's as rewarding as it is utterly playable. Next time your health regenerates; don't breath a sigh of disdain: thank Bungie for reinventing how shooters work.

There are countless other examples, and my time would be wasted in naming any more. This whole thing got heavier than I expected it to, and I'm sorry for that, but I think my point is clear nonetheless. Play games, have fun, and don't worry if you think you've seen some of it somewhere before. It may be derivative, but if it lives up to or betters the source material, then I can't see why anyone should care.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to camp in a corner for a seven-kill streak.