I’ve come to help you with your problems, so we can be free.
Just how much room for improvement is there? When I look at a game, what gets me interested can vary greatly. Mechanics, story, perceptual shifts and so on are all aspects where the medium of gaming is leaps and bounds over the immersion of other media, but when going through the list of games month after month, there are very few examples that I can point to that “this is what gaming should exemplify and aspire to be, and the rest of you lot are the uninspired novelists hunting for words in a coffeeshop for hours a day.” I guess that’s a bit hypocritical because I’m in the middle of writing this at a coffeeshop-esqure environment, and have written at length in such an environment for quite some time because it is important to know where you work best and this environment is one of them for me. And I’d like to think that my level of output is greater than what some put out, especially after seeing how much time of others is spent on FB or random YouTube searches, but I digress.
The point is, most games that people tend to jump on the hype-train don’t have much to set themselves apart from predecessors and contemporaries, especially when there is so much more that can be done within the various genres that it makes it a chore to find a game that doesn’t “borrows heavily” from another which came out all of a few months prior.
A lot of this seems to come from incestual idea-sharing, where there are only so many new ideas that come out and once an idea is created, it gets passed around like an answer sheet throughout a class of overachievers. Only a few people create new ideas every development team tries to figure out how they can use that idea in order to make the game seem current and ingenious.
Then that idea gets warn to a nub and no matter how many times you try to sharpen the idea to cut through our jadedness, or promote it as new idea and generate excitement over it by masking the idea’s overuse in the market, when it gets into the gamer’s hands its all-too-familiar concepts turtle out and the game leaves a mildly pungent sensation in our olfactory.
Maybe it feels like I’m shitting on developers quite a bit, but I completely understand it’s about what can get funding and what will sell. That’s why when a game achieves wide acclaim, it gets pushed for yearly or near-yearly release and other games try to one-up or directly copy what possible in-order to piggy back off of the success of others. That being said, there are some developers and games that can still make a genre feel new and give us a unique experience.
For this post I’m going to primarily focus on 2-d platformers because the genre is one of the oldest for the history of console gaming, but also because there are a wide variety of other games in other genres that don’t make fair comparisons to one another.
When I say 2-D platformers, you say Mario. 2D -> Mario. 2D -> Mario. Now that we got that out of the way, even Mario started evolving itself in its series. With vast differences between Mario Bros and Mario Bros 2, both the US version of Doki Doki and the JP version with the much more difficult level design, the games were a change in philosophy and a shift in how we can design games to be successful. We can trick the player, create some frustration, create some difficulty beyond tropes of anything that moves is a “must kill now” and anything that spawns in a “must-grab”. But Mario is somewhat antiquated compared to today’s standards, right? But many platformers 2-d and 3-d still follow many similar standards that Mario introduced back in the day. And the more platformers that you play, the more you see elements of game’s past in them. Megaman, Castlevania and Metroid are probably the only other real past archetypes that you see bombarding the genre. Shooting, fisticuffs, labyrinth crawling with little variation, makes for a stale genre pretty quickly.
Taking back my independence
Luckily some contemporaries decided to try their hands at the platforming genre and created some very unique pieces which make them exceptionally memorable considering there’s over 500 pure-platformers to consider plus hundreds of hybrids. Super Meat Boy, VVVVVV, Braid and Limbo are ones that come to mind for novelty without any googling.
Super Meat Boy goes against all of the tropes that platformers tended to follow. Make the levels extremely small and fast-paced, but extremely difficult and sometimes overly frustrating. The reason why it could get away with the level of controller-breaking frustration is because of the developer’s ability to create intuitive levels; Intuitive to understand, not necessarily to execute. The level of precision and skill required to beat each level ramps up quickly, but it is never cryptic to the player on how to complete each stage. And though the player would die a couple dozen/hundred times in trying to beat the level, they knew exactly how they would need to beat the level but lacked the precision as of yet while they practiced and honed their abilities to maneuver the meat boy around the stage. What makes this game extraordinary is its ability to give the player a complete conquer-high. The level of difficulty of the level, requirement of skill and finesse of the player and the anticipatory-rush from making it to the goal after spending a few dozen lives prior dying to the most mundane yet frustratingly placed obstacles leads to an adrenaline rush that has only been recently in games like Dark Souls or the harder end-game bosses of MMOs.
Other platforms like VVVVVV and Braid take a methodical “puzzle platformer” approach to their games, but still offer their own novelty. VVVVVV minimizes the active controls to left/right movement and flipping gravity as your means to “jump” and design all of their environmental changes to this mechanic. Braid, on the other hand, gives you left/right/jump plus the ability to shift time either by rewinding time or rewinding your past movements while keeping you and the items around in place. Both games lead the player to try and think about their movements before acting, being “puzzle platformers” and all, but work towards keeping the momentum of the game slow-paced, which tends towards the opposite of what platformers tend to be. Mario and Sonic, move right as fast as possible to win. As long as you make your jump, you will always be safe when making your next movements. But games like VVVVVV and Braid require more patients. All of your movements aren’t one-and-done, but requires a bit of trial-and-error but mainly an analytic approach. This differs from Meat Boy quite a bit because the route tends to be fairly obvious once you start moving, but in VVVVVVV and Braid you have to play around a bit with the gamespace before the “damn why was I so blind” moment hits and you figure out what you need to do.
Rayman – Independent at heart.
Going away from independent platformers, there are still some games that come out that bring a fresh perspective to the genre. Rayman Origins/Legends is a reboot that comes to mind. Unlike the other games that we talked about (well I talked, you read in frustration), Rayman is closer in concept to a traditional platformer but integrates many of the ideas that the indie-market developed while also createing their own that make for a different take on platforming all-together. It borrows heavily from games like Mario in that you move right/up to win, Fancy Pants Adventures where you keep the momentum of running so you can run along walls that curve upward and around (actually from Super Mario World/Sonic originally but not a game built around this mechanic), and Super Meat Boy-like games where you will die often, but momentum is kept because you can get back into the game quickly after each death.
But what the Rayman development team designed was a game that brought higher level set-pieces into a 2-d cartoon-land by erasing the feeling of confinement from things like on-rail/elevator stages, where the camera pans at a certain pace and the player was required to “keep-up with the camera” or risk dying because you weren’t in the world that only the player can create with his power of observant-life-bringing.
It gets away with this by hiding the fact that on-rail sequences are hidden as chase sequences, things collapsing around the player, platforms of happenstance appear because the environment changed just enough and an opening appears just-in-time similar to how set-pieces in Uncharted or Call of Duty work. If you get too far behind the camera/enemy, you miss your opportunity to use the environment to catch-up causing a death. But chase-sequences become games of intricate Rube-Goldberg contraptions. Ropes swing around at just the right time for you to jump and grab leading to a pipe spinning around at the right speed to jump onto and run up but need to start wall hopping because obstacles start showing up leading to more swinging and such and such. It hides the complexity that Meat Boy presented its levels by having each obstacle/solution presented one at a time rather than having the stage presented as it is and expecting you figure out by rapid intuition what is going to happen in the stage. Yes, you only have one chance per life but the skill required to make it past each new obstacle gives renewed vigor compared to Meat Boy due to obstacles only being presented one-at-a-time instead of all-at-once. All-at-once makes us think “I should’ve seen that coming”. One-at-a-time makes us think “something new = checkpoint of progress”.
Rayman also hides its vertical stages more masterfully than other games by comparison. In Rayman Legends, several instance of vertical levels had you avoid obstacles while you encounter them from above, but instead of having you move around them or jump from side to side to avoid them, the whole building is falling down from above you. Similar Rube-Goldberg situations present themselves as the moments arise, but the idea of things coming down around you that need avoiding while you’re essentially at ground level the whole time is a completely different feeling from the idea of you moving upward and other similar hazards are presented.
Novel is well and good, but these mechanics do need to be fun, that comes as a necessity. It’s difficult to promote an idea as good and interesting if you don’t have a good example of the idea in the first place. That being said, games that feel original and unique shouldn’t feel like the Second Coming. Originality and novelty should feel be more abundant, giving the medium enough reason to argue its need for growth. These are the games that get me excited. The ones that change the way I think about level design, change my understanding of how a game is played and how it should feel. It’s not necessarily something that makes the game mind-blowing, but novelties that at least illicit some thought in why this game feels new and different rather than a rehash.