Nintendo has stated publicly that they are looking to an “evolution” of the controls for the new Legend of Zelda for the Wii-U. But can games really evolve on a whim like this, or has the industry become obsessed with change for the sake of it, without future-proofing these games when they have the opportunity?
I’d like to start by saying that I am a big Legend of Zelda fan.
The whole series is a delight of masterful storytelling, rich and vibrant landscapes filled with interesting and fascinating people. The background lore, of two souls eternally bound together in their struggles to save and change the world around them, has been a pillar-stone that has tied each game together under a single, unified concept and allowed the characters of Link and Zelda to continue to play a prominent role in the series over and over again – these two people, however close or far apart, are destined to meet each other.
That said, in recent years I have to argue that I’ve also grown weary of the series, not because it isn’t the same fantastic series, but rather that the series itself has become stuck in an identity crisis.
After Wind Waker, the series was criticised for becoming too childish, and so Nintendo responded with the darker, more gritty Twilight Princess – a game that grown ups wouldn’t be ashamed of liking, but also a game in itself that felt like a Greatest Hits of the Zelda series. Twilight Princess did nothing especially new, daring or exciting with the formula – instead sticking to the old, traditional pace, the same dungeon progression structure and an overall feeling that this was a modern reincarnation of Ocarina of Time. Whereas Skyward Sword did traverse new territory – but felt linear, enclosed and more structured, its new motion controlled combat system a distraction from the background that it was a more guided tour, rather than a real adventure.
Nintendo argue that the Skyward Sword controls were an “evolution” of the traditional controls and allowed them to try something new. I even gave Skyward Sword my top spot in the best games of 2011, because for all it does wrong – and it did a lot wrong – it was still an utterly fantastic and amazing game experience in its own right. But now, six months on from that, even I would concede that I’d hate to see the series continue down that road. It was, in essence, an evolutionary dead end.
By this, I mean in changing it, they turned down a road that couldn’t go very far. The motion controlled combat, for all the immersion it gave, also detracted somewhat as the game itself couldn’t quite match it. The emphasis on combat meant that it became tiring after a while, and not suitable to get into for very long sessions. And where would you take those controls now anyway? It would be hard to go back, but impossible to progress onwards with them as well – there is no immediate way to improve upon them, but they are still not perfect in their own right.
Of course, Zelda is not the only games series to suffer in this way – games change and evolve constantly, and the true art in the industry is not in changing, but to make sure that in the process of that change that you don’t end up stuck in a corner, unable to go forwards but similarly, unable to go back. No-where is this more evident than in the Resident Evil franchise.
You see, Resident Evil had, before Resident Evil 4, found itself having a serious problem. It wasn’t evolving, it was only adapting to new technology. At its core, Resident Evil: Code Veronica X was the same kind of game as Resident Evil 1 PSX had been – fixed camera angles, set events and obtuse puzzles. This had led many gamers to get bored with the series, and critics argued that after so many games, it had become apparent that Capcom themselves had got the series stuck in a proverbial rut. You just knew what to expect. The plots, the pacing – all were the same. It was good, but safe – repeating past victories, but never winning new ones. Despite this, Capcom went on to give the traditional, original setup two last hurrahs – the first, was the Remake for the Nintendo Gamecube. A title even a decade on still regarded as one of the prettiest games ever made, the pre-rendered scenery finally came good and allowed more power to transfer to the characters, who looked unbelievably next-generation for its time. It retold the events of the first Resident Evil, adding some new elements but at all times looking achingly beautiful. The second game was indeed its last hurrah – Resident Evil Zero, a prequel to the events of the Remake, focused on Rebecca Chambers and how she came to be tangled up in the mess as well. It would not even now be silly to state that the effects, and backdrops, were an astounding sendoff for the old vanguard – crawling atop a speeding, runaway train and being given that sense of danger, excitement and terror became a defining – and fitting – conclusion for what was capable when adapting to new technology.
Of course, Resident Evil 4 changed all of that. It was fully 3D, immersive, told from an over-the-shoulder perspective. It focused not on the cameras, not on the set-pieces and not on scaring. It was about action, and initially this was liberating and life-affirming. Resident Evil 4 told its story with tongue firmly in cheek, always there with a pithy remark and self-deprecating one-liners that gave the impression people had fun making it. They enjoyed it. The voice actors were enjoying it, because it was all new and daring and, arguably, no-one was really quite sure if it would work. But somehow, it did and the game went on to span multiple consoles, and enjoy an “HD Remaster” from Capcom recently (although, arguably, the fans on the PC Version did a much superior job!).
For all the fun of Resident Evil 4, however, Resident Evil 5 was where the cracks became evident. This new camera angle allowed more accuracy and immersion, but unfortunately this made the game easier and less terrifying. Unable to evolve from the formula set down in Resident Evil 4, having promised changes, Capcom installed a co-op play system that worked fine when playing with real people; unfortunately, it failed dramatically in single-player. The wit and charm was lost, as the game tried to instead change its story rather than itself; it played it straight as an arrow, and was a lesser being for it. Even now, most of us conclude that Resident Evil 6, due this year, will not be a huge change; it will be the end of this current path. There is no-where new to take it. What started out as an impressive new experience, second time around felt even more conceited and stuck than the old Resident Evil games ever had.
In effect, the changes had cemented the game into one area; and it had no-where else to go. It had no space, no room to grow. It checked all the boxes, but was stuck inside the box. Where they go after Resident Evil 6, we do not know. But we do know that the series in the future will be nothing like what it is now. The current incarnation has just become too much of a liability.
The genius thing about Nintendo and their approach is that they have a series which evolves naturally and gracefully from one era to the next – Mario. He changes and adapts to whatever Nintendo throw at him, and the Super Mario Galaxy games are a testament to this sense of evolution and exploration of the very boundaries of gaming, technology and controls. From the artistic narrative of Yoshi’s Island, through to the groundbreaking (and it was groundbreaking in its time!) Super Mario 64, with it’s total freedom and revolutionary analogue control stick allowing some of the most fluid and immersive adventuring of its type. Galaxy pushed onwards with the Wii Remote, allowing interaction and an even more fluid sense of adventure and excitement. Even in Mario’s downtime, his spin-offs and experiments always capture and encapsulate the very essence of what Nintendo is trying to accomplish – the dual screens, the narrative, the basic premise of the game itself.
With Mario, one can correctly argue that Nintendo themselves may have no need to evolve The Legend of Zelda. That it already has a series, and a mascot, that are known for pushing the envelope. But change is necessary for all games in some form or another – Mario succeeds because it always does something new, something different. It has never really sat on its laurels so to speak. Resident Evil, Zelda and a host of other games arguably haven’t changed or are incapable of natural evolution – so the next step is to really, fundamentally change it in a complete way in the hopes that you end up with something that has a lasting appeal, and an ability to change and adapt with the times and natural march of technological progress.
Mario and his adventures are one of the few examples it must be said of a series that has the kind of freedom and grounding to totally revolutionise itself over and over again. It is part of the appeal of the character, and his myriad of games. It’s a holy grail of game design too – a series that always feels new, exciting, daring. A name that immediately excites you, not knowing what is to come but in a good, positive way. It is Future-Proof. You just know the new main Mario game, when it appears, will adapt to the Wii-U controller without breaking the vaguest hint of a sweat.
But it means that Nintendo themselves have, perhaps, become caught up in this business of “Evolution” thinking it can apply to everything they have, and truth be told there is nothing so awful and embarrassing to me as a gamer than a game trying way too hard to be something it isn’t. I can bring up a raft of games here – Metroid Prime 3, which at times felt too close to Halo. And the upcoming Halo 4, which even by the early teasers has in an ironic sort of way started aping the first Metroid Prime. Resident Evil 5. Assassin’s Creed: Revelations. Dragon Age 2. Mass Effect 3. The Old Republic. All games that want to be different, and were sold on the basis of this “Change is good” theory, but ultimately end up digging the hole so deep there is no escape from it. They have changed – but now, to continue, they must change again. There is no other solution to their continued survival.
And it is in this the industry needs to relax. Changing for the sake of changing never seems to lead to anywhere solid – changing because the technology and market allows you the freedom to change is an altogether much different affair. Adapting and evolving to suit the means available, to the technology on offer, and to the market you have often leads to a much more solid and exciting experience than changing from one genre to another on the grounds of “We want to do something new!”, or worse still, because the cash-cow has dried up – resulting in often desperate and destructive attempts at reinvention.
Evolution has to be natural. Change has to be at its heart. But evolution doesn’t guarantee success – and evolving for the sake of it, sadly, often means the game sits awkwardly in the market. Sometimes these games are fantastic though and way ahead of their time – Beyond Good and Evil and Ico took many years before people “got” them. But the sad reality is these were not commercial hits, and when they first turned up – no-one really understood why they existed. They knew they were good. But their fundamental changes were incapable of ensuring their survival – instead, it is at a later date when the world has changed we think, “Why did that not work?”
They didn’t work because the world wasn’t ready for them and they couldn’t survive in the world. And this, this is the fundamental concept of evolution – survival of the fittest. Natural mutations. And not all of them will be destined to work at every opportunity. We can look back, even enjoy them, even be tempted by the indications of their return. But they died for a reason. We as gamers often, in our hubris and with our excessively rose-tinted glasses, forget this very simple and important fact. Games fail for a reason. Sometimes because they are bad, because they changed too much – and sometimes, just sometimes, because the world isn’t ready for them. And we can bitterly resent it, but ultimately we have to let it go at some stage. You can’t change the world if the world itself doesn’t want to be changed.
Games need to change – but they should never be forced to change. Truth is, we can see the difference in the final product. It’s always immediately obvious when a series is changing for reasons that are not conceptually innocent – the upcoming Metal Gear: Revengeance a case in point, so far it just looks… too clunky. And DmC – another case of changing on the whims of designers and artists, and not because the market wants it. These games aren’t even out of the doors yet, and the fans who they are aimed at are already not interested. They know. They can feel it. They’re simply not interested. Sure, these games may indeed be good. Likelihood is, they’ll be very good and be rated very highly. But forever tinged with that resentment, the market they are aimed at seemingly already turning their backs, the natural and obvious conclusion is they will play out and disappear again, only for the likes of me in five or six years to drag them out and ask, “Why didn’t this work out?”
Because people didn’t want the change, the evolution. If people don’t want it – they won’t buy it. You can’t force them to.
In all of this, I hope you’ll take away a slightly new attitude to the games industry. It is a creative and inspired world where change and evolution is constant alongside the march and evolution of the technology that powers it, and games today are very different to those ten years ago. But equally, that we shouldn’t excessively mourn those games that fail to make their mark, or feel obliged to buy into series that are stuck in their own creative hole. There will be many, many more games out there that will succeed – they will do better, do more, be more.
Those that don’t survive were never meant to. The worst excesses will be learned from, and those shining stars that came too soon will shine ever brighter, knowing that they were there first and way before anyone else. It is such a fast-paced and ever changing world that what we love today may be all but forgotten in five years time, and those that are remembered may end up the template for the future, rather than being the future themselves.
None of this helps the industry at its core, but then, these are easy lessons to learn. You can’t force someone or something to change. You can’t force people to like it either.
A lot of this is on sheer faith, faith that the good will out in the end. That evolution works, but won’t always follow our strict preconceptions of it being a straight line. That we as consumers can sort the wheat from the chaff, and that the industry – at its heart – means well, even if it seems at times they are more interested in their bank balance. We, also, continue to change. Remember not twenty years ago, Mortal Kombat was effectively censored and even banned in a lot of places – now, not only is it accepted but it’s even more visceral, more explicitly violent and more sadistically cruel. Society, and its tolerance levels to violence, have changed considerably.
Some games will always have the freedom to explore the wide open spaces of the industry. Some games will be forced to change to explore this area. And some will naturally change whilst exploring it.
What games fall into what category, well, that’s the real question, isn’t it? And it’s one I am not even going to try and answer. I have faith that things will always happen for a reason – I may not understand it immediately, I may even hate it initially, but eventually I may grow to understand and accept – maybe even love. Who knows? That’s the real kicker about the games industry – you just don’t know what you’re in for until you are playing the game itself.
By that time, it can already be too late. But such is life. If everything was so straight-forward, there would be no surprises and we’d be very bored.