RKD on… 2010: Part 2 – ‘Iteration’ vs. ‘innovation’

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From “meh” to “ooh!”, in part deux of our 2010 retrospective series, RKD dons its pseudo game designer cap in an attempt to quantify and qualify the freshmakers of last year: the games that didn’t feel like “more of the same”.

Warning: It’s only natural if, after reading through our not-at-all biased diatribe below, you feel that VVVVVV and Super Meat Boy are the only noteworthy things to have come out of 2010. Because it’s totally, totally true.

Harry: 2010 was definitely one of those gaming years dominated by sequels: it’s hard to argue differently, with the top guns in most “Best of” lists being Mass Effect 2, Red Dead Redemption and Super Mario Galaxy 2, among others. Of course, then we have to ask: has any videogame year not been dominated by sequels?

This reliance on yearly iteration can understandably be a frustrating thing… but it can also inspire the independent and rebellious.

2010 was the year where I did not simply echo the voice of so many hipsters but actually truly believed that indie games are where the freshest ideas will be found/stolen from for some time to come. It’s certainly an inspiration for budding wannabe game designers like myself!

As such, 2010 is also the year where I realised I should stop placing blind interest and faith in the output of personalities who were once involved in great things over a decade ago. Game designers and their creative intentions change; not to mention their ability to implement fundamental systems. It’s high time for the new blood to receive wider acclaim beyond the predominantly blog-based clique we’ve got going here.

Fraser: Many of the year’s critically successful games were re-visitations of old formulas. VVVVVV, Super Meat Boy and Limbo all went back to the 2D platformer – a genre that most people must have thought had virtually run its creative course – and rebuilt it in unexpected ways. In particular, each of the three took the moment that has historically been the source of the greatest frustration – failure and death – and turned it into a perversely pleasurable experience by minimising undue punishment and turning death into a joyous spectacle. VVVVVV and Super Meat Boy are infamously difficult games, but while they ask you to do things that are punishingly difficult, they never ask you to do things that are boring.

Completing Veni, Vidi, Vici is easily the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do in a videogame, and in almost any other game I wouldn’t have bothered – because almost any other game would have put the save checkpoint at least a tiny bit further away. It’s ironic but true that over the hundreds of lives that I wasted in that small section, a five-second walk from the checkpoint to the start of the challenge would have proved more off-putting than my constant deaths against the walls of spikes.

Harry: Unlocking “The Kid” (himself from an indie game renowned for its masochistic difficulty) in Super Meat Boy takes ‘The most RIDICULOUS thing I’ve ever put myself through in a videogame’ award for me (well, until I try completing VVVVVV without dying once). It doesn’t help that The Kid has the biggest shiteating grin on his face the entire time.

Fraser: Madness.

Harry: Did I mention I achieved this feat in the Steam version, and therefore, via keyboard controls?

Fraser: Mega madness!

Harry: I’ve actually tried revisiting some 90s era platformers after playing through both VVVVVV and Super Meat Boy, and the realisation of just how well designed those two games are is astounding.

There are no traditional “cheap deaths”: no frustratingly needless waste of the player’s time, no “trial and error” surprises; everything that the player needs to know is communicated on-screen in such small, yet varied and tightly constructed spaces, leaving only the player’s capabilities in mastering the controls at the forefront of both game’s requirements.

It also helps that both VVVVVV’s (Pressure Cooker!) and Super Meat Boy’s (Betus Blues!) soundtracks are amazing.

Daniel: Relatedly, and I’m almost certainly the only one on this boat, but I think the whole PETA fiasco with Super Meat Boy made the developers come out looking pretty small-minded and mean. At the time, most people I know were cheering them on for taking on PETA, but I thought they looked pretty churlish and it has actually discouraged me from buying their game. Sure, PETA was dumb and predictable in doing what they did, but by doing so they only reinforced what everyone already knew about them. Team Meat let the world know that they’re willing to be equally stupid, when they need not have.

Fraser: The code to unlock Tofu Boy in the PC version is “petaphile”. Really, Team Meat? Really?

Harry: At the risk of coming across as a heartless prick (that’d be a first), I can’t help but make the subjective comparison: some people may find Team Meat’s harmless bickering with the ever petty PETA a turn off; but others may feel that the alarmingly poor working conditions and subsequent layoffs at Rockstar San Diego holds a bit more weight against the purchase of a certain widely-acclaimed Western game. I guess for all the harping about vague concepts like ‘innovation’, we should be mindful of the utter crap (PETA-related or not) developers experience to bring these (innovative, iterative, or otherwise) games to our cynical laps.

Anyway. Back to the non-bleeding heart topic at hand.

Fraser: The bigger-budget successes of the year were in most cases polished iterations on a successful formula. Consider StarCraft II, BioShock 2, Super Mario Galaxy 2, Halo: Reach, Call of Duty: Black Ops, Rock Band 3, Dragon Quest IX, Mass Effect 2, Fallout: New Vegas. The typical assessment I heard about all of these games was: “It’s pretty much the same as the last one, but they’ve improved some things” – spoken without much enthusiasm. All of those games are made to a high standard, and yet I can’t shake the feeling (and perhaps this applies just as much to the indie platformers) that none of them will be considered noteworthy in a few years’ time, because they didn’t show us much that was new.

Harry: Fair point, but I think it’s one that could be muddled by genre distinctions and cross-comparisons.

Personally, the elements of noteworthy games I look fondly back on usually involve the designer(s) having tried (and succeeded!) in implementing something relatively different with how their games play (simultaneously pushing their respective genres) than with how the games look or what story they’re trying to tell. If the games manage to hit on all three of these points, it’s a bonus.

As such, I don’t think there’s any risk of VVVVVV or Super Meat Boy being disregarded in 2020′s ‘Best of the Decade’ lists. They each offer something distinct (VVVVVV’s no jumping), or specialise their design to seem like they’re providing a ‘why didn’t anyone do this sooner’ service (Super Meat Boy’s unbelievably precise controls), on top of their (respectively) charming presentations. In contrast, in 10 months time, the next Call of Duty will have players saying last year’s was the best one… until next year’s, ad infinitum.

From what I understand (because hey, I personally don’t play/can’t stand BioWare games), Mass Effect 2 tried some very different things with its approach to combat and what generally can be constituted as a ‘role-playing game’, and is probably one of the few games you’ve listed that will be looked back upon as truly noteworthy (favourably or otherwise).

In any case, there are relatively few ‘evolutionary dead ends’ in game design, which is both a blessing for the lazy (poor, poor Canabalt) and a curse when expecting something truly fresh with every game release. Deranged message board arguments take note: Halo sequels are what they are.

Daniel: Like Harry, I disagree about your inclusion of Mass Effect 2 in that list, Fraser. It did plenty of things differently from its predecessor – to the point where I think I’d struggle going back to the first game. It might look the same, but it plays very differently.

Fraser: It’s a great game, but I maintain that nearly everything it did well was an iteration on the solid design of its predecessor. The combat and role-play aspects were tweaked, refined and streamlined, but not substantially reinvented. When it came to completely new features, there was… mining.

The most noteworthy upgrade, for me, was the story and quest structure at the macro level. The array of short, character-driven missions was effective both to control the rhythm of the game and to allow the player to explore the history and motivations of one character at a time, in a way that felt natural and purposeful.

ME2 also mitigated the incongruity of Bioware’s trademark ethical quandaries by tying the biggest tests of judgement into the stories of the ensemble cast, who had a reason to trust your decision. There were still plenty of NPC strangers wanting you to resolve their problems for them, but this time those quests tended to be more active and less dependent on Shepard’s messianic moral authority: ‘prove the Quarian’s innocence’ rather than ‘give parenting advice on a sensitive medical matter’.

Harry: I have no idea what you’re talking about. Please to be returning to discussing VVVVVV and/or Super Meat Boy.

The RKD 2010 retrospective train keeps on chugging tomorrow, with an examination of everybody’s favourite excavation simulator: Infiniminer. If time permits, there might also be a quick look at some game called “Minecraft”. It’s surprisingly not a Blizzard-developed title.


Related posts:

  1. RKD on… 2010: Part 5 – Dealing with death
  2. RKD on… 2010: Part 1 – The “meh” year that was?
  3. RKD on… 2010: Part 4 – Portable preferences

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Harry Milonas

A writer from Melbourne, Harry prefers you follow him on Twitter rather than home.

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  1. [...] both the highs and lows of last year already (somewhat) covered, the next instalment of RKD’s 2010 [...]

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