December 14th, 2011 | By Richard Glenn
Riddle me this, ladies and gentlemen. Why is it that Whitesnake battled for years with the mantra of ostensibly being a poor man’s Led Zeppelin whilst Lady Gaga, a blatant Annie Lennox rip-off if ever there was one, is revered as the voice of a new generation?
The answer? It’s all simply a matter of how each form of imitation is executed. Imitation may very well be the sincerest form of flattery, but it takes that little spice of invention to separate a shameful copy-and-paste job from a respectful homage.
I’ll get to the segway without any further dilly-dallying, even if only to move on from the subject of Lady Gaga, that insipid she-beast. The reason that the theme of replication relates to the indie gaming world is inspired in no small part by two games that I reviewed during the last month, Lightfish and SkyDrift.
You can take a look at the full bananas if you want to take a look at my more in-depth analyses and if you feel like supporting a poor, downtrodden young reviewer, but, in case you missed them, here’s a quick rundown. Lightfish, though hypnotic and mesmeric in its sound design and despite sporting a set of tried-and-true gameplay mechanics that are far from offensive, really didn’t do enough to distinguish itself from its forerunner, Qix, to present it with the kind of appeal that an indie game needs to satiate the hungers of a populace yearning for modernity and innovation. SkyDrift, on the other hand, borrowed heavily from the likes of WipeOut and Mario Kart, yet its smooth, rapid-fire balance of high-speed racing action and tactical dogfighting gave it that all-important edge that highlighted how a developer ought to go about expanding on a set of pre-existing gaming ideas.
Listen to a successful indie developer explain their design philosophies and they’ll probably mention something about the importance of forging a unique creative identity. In a nutshell, that’s effectively Rule 101 of successful marketing in the underground games industry, but SkyDrift demonstrates that it’s possible to simply offer an original slant on a successful formula, rather than going all-out in an attempt to revolutionise the gaming medium as we know it, and still enjoy a considerable degree of critical success. In SkyDrift’s case, the simple dynamic of high-speed aerial racing warfare has been implemented in a manner as solid and well-rounded as almost any of its inspirations, but it’s the little extras, such as the upgradeable weapons, the strategic preservation of one’s speed boost function and the multi-tasking furore involved in the dodging, handling and manoeuvring that give it its own readily identifiable identity. And that’s why it works.
Even when you think about the most eminent examples of industry-shaking innovation in the indie world, most prominently the likes of Braid, Limbo and Bastion, it’s almost always a case of one impactful gaming function building upon a steady set of blueprints laid out in years gone by. Braid, for example, was essentially a bare-bones 2D platformer at first glance, but its mixture of time-manipulation and puzzle elements made it stand out as one of the most highly-regarded titles on any platform in 2008. You can almost echo the previous statement for Limbo, a standard action platformer whose dark, minimal artistic style and macabre attitude to the themes of death, sorrow and suffering made it a bona fide stand-out. Then there’s Bastion, arguably this year’s shining example of a successful new twist on an old wives’ tale. It’s rather difficult to argue that it’s ultimately much more than a standard fare action-adventure RPG with a simple hack-and-slash combat system, but its touted dynamic narrative feature shifts much of the player’s focus away from the safe confines of déjà vu and into the coveted sweet spot of balance between interactive gameplay and seamless story integration.
It’s this creative mindset that I feel should be ingrained in the minds of budding games designers, even if only as a caveat to the whole “be unique” doctrine. Cultivating a completely novel product is a lofty goal that’s generally reserved for the paramount creative minds out there, and it’s easy to argue that even the greatest geniuses in level design couldn’t possibly have succeeded without garnering at least some form of inspiration from that which came before. For the rest of us, an overriding ambition to achieve that which has never been achieved before can so easily lead to overambition and disillusionment at one’s failure to reinvent the wheel. Perhaps, then, it’s worth taking a leaf out of one of your favourite books and thinking of just one way in which you can adapt a respected convention in your own loving style.
Over to you, Mr. and Mrs. Readers. Can you think of a successful adaptation of a working gaming formula that gave you that special feeling of refreshment and excitement? I’d like to read about some of your experiences, along with your thoughts on how small fragments of innovation can impact on your enjoyment of a video game. All being well, I’ll return next Wednesday. Until then, feel free to leave a comment and enjoy a week of ongoing commercial debauchery in the lead-up to the festive season.