The Innovation Game (Old)

I know I was going to take today off but I am irked tonight. Accused as I was of being soft on New Super Mario Bros. U for its lack of innovation by saying “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But you see, I’m no fool. I like innovation and new ideas. But sometimes I need the familiarity of old friends as well. Rant incoming!

 

I love innovation. Zombi-U looks innovative and I’m really looking forward to playing it properly.

But I’m not an idiot. Zombi-U is a new IP and property looking to utilise and find creative and mechanical advances in the Nintendo Wii-U control scheme. Its purpose from UbiSoft’s perspective is primarily to see if it can be done, if this new controller and set-up can provide us all with a richer, more interactive tapestry in which we can enjoy and interact with our games. Obviously they want it to be successful, and we all want it to work out for them. It might not. That’s the danger with innovation and new ideas – they don’t always work out as you intend them to. And it isn’t until we are all playing it and have our hands on the finished product that we will know for sure if it is indeed a step forward, a real demonstration of the meaty new rig that Nintendo are pushing into the market.

New Super Mario Bros. U however has none of those worries.

Now, some may mock me here but for all my lauding of new ideas and concepts, I still like some good old ground. It’s the grand adventure of video games, I love to explore and I love to dabble in the new ideas and the strange lands and marketplaces that litter the gaming landscape because it helps to expand your mind and make you appreciate that there is diversity, there is a wonderful world of games out there in which to get lost in. But you still want to, from time to time, revisit your favourite places of old. You want to go home. You need that grounding, that staple that remains in the back for you to fall into when you hit a moment of craving the old, the retro, the familiar and safe and wonderful. You want to know the games and the games series you love are still doing the stuff that you love them for, the stuff you fell in love with them for. You want them to be the same old friends which you met all those years ago, to meet up and do the same stuff you used to do. It’s nice. It’s sometimes even necessary.

For you see, my concern is in recent years some games series have forgotten the reasons we fell in love with them. In order to attract new friends into their worlds, they are changing – although they would rather use the term ‘innovating’, which is quite sad as there is nothing innovative about what they do. For there is only one way to get the attention of the cool kids – and that is to be like the games they like, and do the same things, and there is nothing exciting or fresh in doing that. They change, and their old friends put their heads in their hands and weep a little for the desperation of their old childhood friends effectively trying to be something that they really are not.

This generation has been especially bad for it, after all games have wanted to be other games for years with varying degrees of success. New IPs often tried to copy or clone themselves from a similar mould to the sort of games that were already on the market, and that is no bad thing – remember, this is where we got Grandia, Silent Hill, Tekken and more. They ended up growing from their successes and becoming more than they were but they could change and develop based on the fact they already had a foothold, they had staked their ground in the real-estate market of a genre and could from there blossom. It is why even now I am more than happy to give a first game in a series the benefit of the doubt – the first challenge for any new IP is simply to find a plot of land to build on. There’s no point innovating and trying to create a showy house if there isn’t a foundation on which to build – it doesn’t stand up to a stiff breeze, let alone the might of others driving their massive trucks through the area to their plots. There is nothing inherently wrong in wanting to stake a claim in a genre. You have to start somewhere.

My issue comes that this generation you have started to see older established franchises and names effectively up sticks and move from their land in order to stake their claims elsewhere, in other genres. They do this under the guise of innovation, or by saying that is where the innovation is, but really – we know it is a lie. We know why Castlevania: Lords of Shadow was so much like God of War. In moving itself from a genre that it helped found, it lost something. It was trying to be something big and grand and make a statement, but it was a bit lost on me. I wasn’t sure why it saw the need to move – I love Aria of Sorrow, I love Symphony of the Night – heck, I enjoyed Order of Ecclesia. I, and many others, were really enjoying the 2D Castlevania games. The big console 3D-ones were always a bit of a running joke, something we were sad at but laughed at anyway because there wasn’t much more we could do. We at least had the games we were enjoying. And now – we don’t even have that, as the incoming 3DS one has gone back to a level-based action platform game. Nothing wrong with that genre… but if we don’t like it, what then? What do your old fans have to cling onto? Nothing. We’ve been pushed out for the want of a new audience, and kicking out the old crowd just to appeal to a new one is never going to go down well. You have to get it right. Or you’ve got no-one left. And that is a dangerous way to be.

Innovation is something I love but ultimately innovation comes naturally in most quarters, it comes from necessity – not from forcing it. If a game needs to do something in a different way in order to work, then so be it. That’s how innovation works, not because they’re aiming to be innovative but because that’s the only option they end up being left with, to do new stuff and push new ideas. Aiming to be innovative is much like my criticism of Art Games – games that want to be Art, and never attain it. They can point to what is new, arty or innovative but really we’re the judges. It’s our decision at the end of the day if these things really are what they say they are. Innovation is necessary in the world but it’s not always the right thing to do. And it’s not always the right thing to chase either.

Which is why I’m not that against New Super Mario Bros. U or its retro-styling, because the truth is that Nintendo – and more than that, the Mario series – has a place to innovate and that place has generally been found in his bigger offerings, like Super Mario 64, Sunshine and Galaxy. If Nintendo played it safe in the next big-budget 3D offering, I would be appalled. It’s always been the place where Nintendo push and even extol the virtues of their hardware and controllers. These are the games that Nintendo do really well, pushing the limits of their own hardware and controllers to really create something else. It’s a perfectly good, serviceable place to innovate and do new stuff. It’s the BEST place to do it, because we don’t expect the next huge 3D Mario game to be like Galaxy. We expect something different, with new ideas and new controls and new everything. That’s its place. It’s purpose. And its time will come.

New Super Mario Bros. U isn’t the place for innovation.

You see, as other games try to grapple with the new controller and doing fancy stuff there is something so nice about the familiarity of a good 2D Mario game. The safe, wallowy pillow on which to fall as everyone around it is grappling with the new and exciting possibilities that come with new hardware and controllers. Nintendo aren’t stupid and I’d wager they know this more than anyone else, that what they needed to do here was to be a safety net, and do a proper and good and solid game whilst everyone else experiments around them. From most reviews so far, it would seem Nintendo got it pitch-perfect; it’s a game with a total nod to its past, using the new controller and ideas well but not hitting you over the head with them either. It’s a safe game – of course it is, there is no risk involved in a 2D Mario. But there is good logic in it. It’s not just that it is safe, a guaranteed seller and a well-made product.

Indeed, for all the talk of HD in recent years, we might have forgotten the real reasons why HD was being pushed. Can you remember how it was marketed? No? It was marketed on the basis of better picture quality, yes, but also – colour. Oooooh, yeah, now you remember those ads about people advertising an HD television and reminding the viewer they couldn’t actually see the TV being marketed on their old crummy ones. We were sold on it being vibrant, colourful and giving us a picture quality more faithful to as it was, rather than compressing it or diluting the picture/colour quality (something 3DTV does badly – no, bad me, wrong article!). How have we used it in games? Actually – quite badly. Of course we’ve had the incredible vibrancy of lots of games like Bayonetta, but many of the games that have come to define this generation – Gears of War, Call of Duty, Battlefield, Dead Space – actually make very little use of this quality. They are fine, but they haven’t pushed the HD envelope. They’ve simply upscaled to a higher resolution, and even there, in most cases still not true-HD either. New Super Mario Bros. U actually appears to make more use of the basic ideals and virtues of HD than a lot of the games that are more popular. It’s using the tech on offer, and there is a certain hilarity in that. For whilst it does nothing especially new, nor needs to, it perhaps is making better use of the very simple perks of HDTV than most of the titles that have come before it. You can’t really escape that.

Thing is, you need to know who you are and what you are before you try to be something else. A lot of games on the market this year and in the past few years have run aground trying to be things they are not, trying to innovate and push new ideas where they weren’t needed. Even Nintendo themselves are guilty of this with the Wii Remote, pushing it as something that would change the world but really, it didn’t. We all know it didn’t. You can’t sell innovation where none is needed. The market simply isn’t there for it. If there’s an alternative and its already being done, the odds are that it might be sensible to check that out before you engineer an entirely new way of doing it, because sometimes it doesn’t need to be new. Or daring. Or exciting. Because ultimately, it has to work. These are games and we pay £40/$65 a time for them. They HAVE TO WORK! Innovation that doesn’t work is not innovation. And it shouldn’t pretend to be.

For lots of us as gamers, I was playing Mario back in the NES days. And the Super Nintendo days. There is a comforting feeling in playing an old Mario game, and yes, not all Mario games have pushed the boundaries. But others – Yoshi’s Island, Mario 64, Super Mario Galaxy – have done so with extraordinary effectiveness. Mario in particular is the best example of the divide between the familiar and the innovative because whilst Mario is the constant in these games, there are two concurrent parallel lines running either side of him. One is very much tied to nostalgia, the past, the familiar and the safe. The other dares to try new things, new ideas, new concepts. It’s a great place to see the two ideas running side by side of one character. You can’t have one without the other. Mario is nothing without his past – and he is nothing without an eye on the future as well. And they don’t need to be in the same game. They inhabit two different spaces within the same market, but rarely do they meet. The one time they collided with each other gave us the troubling and worryingly divisive Super Mario Sunshine; a game that did try to marry the old and the new into one cohesive whole, but never felt particularly tied to any one idea. Was it an adventure? A concept? A retro-throwback with the touch platforming challenges? Some liked it. Others – myself included here – didn’t. It doesn’t always come together in one unit. I liked parts of Sunshine but derided others, especially the pit-laden platforming sections. I thought it was bad design to latch us and make us rely and even learn to play with a water-based jetpack to explore and do puzzles and then yank it away for the sake of a bit of retrograde action. It couldn’t be both for me. The two ideas never married, never joined together, each segment where FLUDD was ripped from me was an audible and visual reminder that these two parts of the game were completely separate within the same game. Not the same market, but the same game. Immersion is lost when you can see the seams.

Games that try to push the boundaries and genres they sit in are fantastic and I love them and applaud them and wish them all the best and I will continue to support them in their endeavours. Where they dare to tread, I will walk with them. I will continue to explore these strange, fascinating new worlds with the same kind of curiosity and wonderment that I get whenever someone creates a world I can truly lose myself into. I need that. We all do. We need to be stimulated with new experiences, because that keeps our minds active. We are less bored when we have new worlds to see and new challenges to overcome, we are actively participating.

However, on the flipside, you can have too much innovation and get “Innovation Fatigue”.

This is a notable sensation whereby with the world changing so fast, we stop noticing all the good things about it and treat innovation as somehow a normal part of everyday life. This comes in two distinct flavours; the first is that we expect innovation in everything, whereby we are disappointed in anything that isn’t innovative or pushing the boundaries. In effect, the sensation becomes one of expectation, entitlement and disappointment. The other end is that we actually stop noticing it at all, whereby innovation therefore is no longer an important aspect in our lives and what we do and play and read and see. We stop seeing it, because everything is changing so fast that we end up just considering it as normal, rather than the fantastic thing that it really is.

These are terrible places to be in a creative industry because in one case, you can never meet expectation. In the other, no-one cares. Both scenarios are detrimental to progress. And this is actually why sometimes a bit of old-fashioned fun is quite good; because we can see how far we have come, and we can enjoy it, and consume it and savour it. We are reminded where we have been, where we are going to, and the gulf that lays between them. Old-fashioned doesn’t mean boring. Boring is boring. Fun is fun. You can’t always mix the two and you shouldn’t try to do so to appease a small minority of people demanding it. Classic relies on the old connections we feel. New, innovative gameplay mechanics are there to expand our horizons and show us new ways of doing things. And yes, yes you can enjoy both. You have permission to enjoy, love and indeed extol the virtues of both. For they are each unique, but each essential for the industry and indeed, for us as gamers.

Games that try to push the boundaries and genres they sit in are fantastic and I love them and applaud them and wish them all the best and I will continue to support them in their endeavours. Where they dare to tread, I will walk with them. But don’t mock or underestimate the appeal in the traditional, safe, cozy blanket of an old friend. Where everyone is going mad, it can be nice to escape the chaos into a familiar world, of familiar faces and familiar controls. It is why some of us go back to older games. Not always because they have aged well, but because of the emotional connections we have with them. They make us happy. 2D Mario makes a lot of people happy. They don’t feel cheated at an HD, full-priced 2D Mario platformer adventure. And you shouldn’t make out that they should feel cheated. They’re perfectly happy. It’s when people aren’t that change will happen – because change and innovation at that point will be necessary for its continued survival. Not because people expect or demand it – rather, because it will need to happen. And it is up to the consumer to decide when that point will be.

Just as there is a market for Heston Blumenthal and his incredibly edgy food ideas, his innovation and imagination, so too is there a market for new games and new ideas. But equally, some days I want a big Cornish Pasty, and I want to go home and get on a pair of big fluffy slippers and curl up in my big leather chair and slowly savour each mouthful of that. I want to sink into the warmth of familiarity. I need a Mario, or a Zelda, or an old Sonic or heck I need stuff like Dynamite Headdy and Dragon Crystal.

We do need both worlds. We need both extremes.

But I don’t want them to be combined. I don’t want Heston’s Egg and Bacon Ice Cream in a Cornish Pasty. Because they’re just two different notions to me. And I don’t need them being forced to exist in one package, because I didn’t want, need or ask for it to happen.

Balance. That’s the goal of The Innovation Game. And it’s getting it right that continues to excite, perplex, annoy and enthral us all.

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