Variety is the Spice of Life

I’ve been playing a lot of Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor lately.  Good game.  One of my favorites of the very slim amount of PS4 games I’ve played thus far.  I’m enjoying this game quite a bit.  Of course, that’s to be expected.  I love Rocksteady’s Batman Arkham games, and Shadow of Mordor is exactly that with a new coat of paint.

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People have called Shadows of Mordor ‘similar’ to the Arkham games.  That is being very, very generous.  Shadows of Mordor is an Arkham game, in the same way Bloodborne is still considered a Souls game.  The combat is very much the same, down to the individual moves and the controls.  The open world nature and drastically different setting have changed the way the stealth works, but the engine operating it is still carried over.  This game may have a new property, a new setting, and some new systems to work through, but the core of it all comes right from the Arkham series.  Not ‘inspired by’, not ‘with elements of the previous game’, Shadow of Mordor is basically a sequel to the Arkham games with the license plates swapped out.  Shadow of Mordor is the child Arkham never knew about, its seed from a one-night stand and the mother lost Arkham’s number.

I’m not bothered by this.  I don’t consider it a rip-off or anything like that.  Even going beyond the rumors that Shadow of Mordor started out as an Nolanverse Batman game, the developers of both the Arkham Series and Shadow of Mordor are owned by the same company, working on properties owned and published by that company, and I really don’t have a problem with sister businesses sharing resources when they’re working out.  It doesn’t hurt that the Arkham games are some of the best of last generation, and Shadow of Mordor is one of the few games to carry that engine and really ‘get’ what made it so great.

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It does pose some difficulty for me, however.  See, there’s another PS4 game I’ve been interested in that I just haven’t picked up on yet.  Batman: Arkham Knight.  One of the games I had my eye on when I was picking up the system.  Now that I’ve already scratched that itch with Shadow of Mordor, however, I’m finding it hard to look at that game the same way, at least in the short term.  It’ll be just as good as it always was, but it just doesn’t feel as fresh to me, and the thought of moving from Shadow of Mordor directly to that game already has me worried about burning out on the engine. I still want the game, but I feel like I need a break.

With videogames, we see something similar, where games just jump on whatever genre is du jour at the time, flooding it with whatever titles they can tie to it like an angry god to a sinful earth.  Back when I was growing up, that was platformers.  Then, briefly, a wave of JRPGs hit.  After that, the industry seems to have settled in on shooters.  Doesn’t matter the specifics of it.  Other industries do that as well, one company taking a risk and finding something that works only for everyone to pile on and squeeze it for what it’s worth.  Leads to a lot of repetition.  Leads to a lot of experiences that are largely the same.

And, you know, it probably affects tastes the same way.  Just like my immediate interest in Batman: Arkham Knight has waned because Shadows of Mordor tastes the same, I imagine the endless sea of shooters, superhero movies, quirky fantasy cartoons, or what have you would start to feel a bit less enticing, too.  Once you get one filling your needs, the next, unless it does at least something to mix things up, will start to feel just a little blander.  The one after that even moreso.  The stories are still just as good as if they were taken in a vacunm, but the experience itself doesn’t have the same impact.  Starts to get like eating when you’re already full.

Milking a genre is not good business, for exactly this reason.  That’s why we start to complain when a genre gets too tropey, even if objectively the titles are better than what they used to be.  It’s dangerous for businesses in the long term, as consumers will start to look for the new flavors themselves.  Things are most fun when they’re fresh, when they’re new, when the experience feels bright.  And that’s something that a style we’ve just been seing too much of is going to have a hard time with right out of the gate.

Variety is the spice of life, after all.

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7 responses to “Variety is the Spice of Life

  1. A lot of fans are quick to say that games these days are overly derivative, but the truth of the matter is that there has always been a “follow the leader” mentality in this medium. Even in the supposed golden age that was the nineties, there was a ton of completely awful platforming and early FPS games that would have gained more infamy had the internet been just as advanced as it was in the late 2000s. If it was, I’m sure games such as Metal Morph or Isle of the Dead would have been just as widely mocked as Ride to Hell: Retribution or Aliens: Colonial Marines. An advantage the nineties has from a historical standpoint is that games that poor in quality were a little more likely to fade into obscurity than widely shared. These days, it’s largely the other way around, as there is no shortage of comedic review shows bashing awful games, thus ensuring that their infamy would transcend generations.

    Anyway, considering the cost of making a game with the current AAA model, it’s of little wonder that they’re so risk-averse. I know we’ve made this point before, but it’s definitely not a sustainable strategy, is it? It’s yet another reason the indie scene has been so appealing lately; they practically have a monopoly on innovation.

  2. Derivative. That’s the word. Bloody hell, I had been searching for that word all post, but it kept escaping me.

    Yeah, by default, when you’re dropping so much money on building a game, you’re going to play things as safe as possible. Not that that really prevents it from flopping, but it at least gets the developers feeling more comfortable about their chances. Unfortunately, you’re not often going to have any huge successes by playing it safe later, at least in a vacumn. That’s where developers start spending more than the game’s budget on marketing, then you end up with games selling three million copies and still not breaking even.

    The leading companies in the old school days were a little more free to try new things, but just as you said, the me-tooisms were just as rampant, if not more so, back in the NES/SNES eras. The more limited tools required more creativity to really make something unique, and too many companies wanted to make games but didn’t have that. So you ended up with so many platformers or platform shooters that had absolutely nothing fresh to deliver.

    Of course, as teams get larger, it gets harder and harder to really innovate. The lower risk and smaller teams just makes it so much easier to find that in the indies.

    • That’s the problem with playing it safe. Even if you get a ton of critical acclaim, future generations are likely to pass your work up, as they can’t distinguish it from other, similar experiences, and what may have made it unique then has since been surpassed, making it difficult to appreciate it in its original context.

      It’s interesting how the limitations these days are different than the ones from yesteryear. While companies from back then had technical limitations which made it difficult to conceive certain gameplay styles, developers these days have to deal with limitations ironically imposed by projects becoming gigantic in scale (both in terms of aesthetics and the number of people working on a single project). To showcase this, I can’t help but notice an interesting dichotomy between Hideo Kojima and Peter Molyneux. Mr. Kojima used the rapidly improving technology to polish many of his earlier ideas that were decidedly too ahead of their time. Indeed, Metal Gear is a shining example of a series that was improved in every way once it made the 3D leap. Mr. Molyneux, on the other hand, was ultimately hindered when his limitations were removed, as his ideas, though creative, lack focus. As a result, he crashed and burned as the technology improved.

      • That is a good point. Molyneux certainly plans things like there’s no limitation, like his team is omniscient, like all his ideas translate perfectly into digital form, like everything he spits out can be put down in the code. He seems all thought, with no regard for what the craft can complete.

        Kojima on the other hand, whatever else you can say about him, has explored the medium of video games. He has tried so many things, and has actually learned from it all, which Molyneux can’t claim. You get the sense that he’s very much aware of the brush with which he paints. He’s definitely put a lot of work into understanding the medium, has devoted a lot of thought to filmmaking through videogames, and he throws so much creativity into what he does. Not just thinking up the ideas, but actually being creative in making them work.

        Kojima’s games tend to be a little love it or hate it, but at least they get far stronger reactions than does Molyneux’s games, which run the gamut from all right to meh.

  3. From what I have read Mordor is similar to Assassin’s Creed. The addition of a cool nemesis system is what made it popular whilst AC’s churn of releases has made that series go stale.

    • Haven’t played Assassin’s Creed. Shadows of Mordor does have tons of parkour. No stupid weenie memory-laden MC, though, so I guess it’s only half like Assassin’s Creed.

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