The sad truth is that even the most frivolous games are Big Business. Long gone are the days when rogue coders would mould small masterpieces on clockwork PCs. Now dev teams run into the hundreds, and budgets run to Hollywood figures. Can games retain their charm and inventiveness in the face of The Man? Ludo strokes his man-beard and postulates…
The boomerang arcs between the three targets and sails faithfully back to my hand. The bats hang in midair for a moment, startled, and then drop to the floor and explode, leaving a collection of gently floating hearts and treasure in their wake.
I’m getting ready to put my Gamecube to bed for good, and The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess seems like ideal send off. Things are progressing nicely, and I’m negotiating the rocky mountain passes, dodging flaming snails and irate rock monsters when a niggling thought disturbs me. I try to overcome it by skewering a fire breathing crocodile but it just won’t go away.
‘So it’s off to the fire temple again, is it?’
Of course! It’s Zelda, there’s a fire temple up here and I’m damn well going to conquer it!
‘And I suppose along the way you’ll pick up another piece of equipment that will solve all of the temple’s puzzles, and then you’ll beat the boss and gain a heart container and another piece of whatever it is you have to assemble to move the quest forwards.’
Half an hour later I have the hero’s bow and am using it to shoot down drawbridges.
Another hour and the bow proves to be especially useful against the boss and his giant glowing shoot-me-here weak spot. He dies, explodes, gives up his heart container and another fused shadow artifact. Now that niggling thought is a dry and cynical chuckle scratching away in the back of my head. I save my game and switch the console off.
This is the first time I’ve played Twilight Princess, but it isn’t really the first time at all.
Sure the characters were chunky and the textures were nonexistent, but in gameplay terms Ocarina of Time was the same game through and through. Windwaker looked different, it looked spectacular in fact, and there was sailing, but when it really came down to it, there was a fire temple which I beat using exactly the same control scheme, wielding identical items.
So why am I playing the same game again?
Put simply: familiarity. There are trends in these games that I wait for with fanboyish anticipation. I’m just waiting to get that next item and hear that familiar fanfare like a sweaty crack addict waits shivering for his next fix. The item gathering and fishing side quests are yet more tropes, as satisfying as seeing a femme fatale turn on the hero in a film noir, or predicting who did it in a whodunit an hour before the reveal. Familiarity is soft and comfortable and easy, for both players and developers.
“I’m just waiting to get that item and
hear that familiar fanfare like a sweaty
crack addict waits shivering for his
Not that Twilight Princess was an easy game to make, it’s vast and pretty, well paced and genuinely quite excellent, it’s just the same as that quite excellent game I played nine years ago and I realise that the pleasure I’m getting from it is based entirely on nostalgia. What’s more, I look to the future and only see Ocarina of Time, copied and pasted into infinity. Twilight Princess, like Windwaker before it, is aesthetically brilliant, but creatively lazy.
A light world and a dark world? Look no further than some of Nintendo’s other series. Metroid Prime: Echoes and Super Paper Mario have both utilised the same concept. It’s impossible to claim that Nintendo have run out of ideas after releasing some of the most innovative gaming hardware in living memory over the past few years, but it’s apparent that they’re not focusing their creative energy on their big games because in truth they simply don’t have to. This is because these are not merely games, they are, I’m going to say it: franchises.
Yes, franchises, the very word itself a plain admittance that these games I have so much affection for are nothing more than endlessly replicated money printing machines, each iteration guaranteeing first week sales in the hundreds of thousands worldwide. It’s not just Nintendo of course; every developer wants their own pet IP that they can turn out every few years to keep the balance sheets favourable. The worst offenders are often sports games, every annual release bringing a new gimmick or layer of graphical polish and updated roster sheets that could’ve been delivered with a patch. The biggest franchises trade almost entirely on a name. Many gamers bought Final Fantasy XII based entirely on a sense consumer loyalty, but were surprised and even enraged to find the traditional forms of their game altered. Gamers can be famously passionate about their favourite series, which is no bad thing, but certain vehement and vocal groups often try their best to enslave developers to a certain formula, and are famously resistant to ideas of change or development in the series they are attached to.
This kind of fanaticism has the money men rubbing their hands with glee. It’s a matter of ‘brand awareness’, or ‘mindshare’, expressions that turn to ash in my mouth as I speak them, but terms that serve to explain why hideously bad movie games will sell by the truckload while Psychonauts or Beyond Good and Evil lie weeping on the sidelines. Meanwhile the franchises grow larger and larger, making predictable remakes and raking in the cash. Swollen with profit they stalk the industry like colossi, crushing smaller games underfoot. New releases are fleeing to the furthest corners of the Q2 release schedule as GTA IV prepares to land, there has even been talk of movies feeling the effect of Rockstar’s next release.
“It’s a matter of ‘brand awareness’,
or ‘mindshare’,expressions that turn
to ash in my mouth as I speak them…”
But it’s not all doom and gloom for innovation. A modern trend has seen franchises becoming more fluid and changeable entities, capable of evolving against consumer boredom in spite of rampant forumites. Resident Evil 4, a superb game in its own right, completely redefined the Resident Evil format just as it was becoming stale. More recently Rainbow Six has released its more accessible Vegas incarnations, Call of Duty’s move to Modern Warfare has earned it unbounded critical acclaim, and for Nintendo Mario has moved in so many directions it’s impossible to keep track, even Zelda has its wonderful DS counterpart Phantom Hourglass. In the same way that the industry is coagulating into one colossal corporate Pangaea, the great franchises will become fewer and larger, with many forms spanning multiple genres. The Halo RTS is already in production and a Command and Conquer FPS has also been announced. If these new iterations sell well then we can expect sequels to those games too.
Consider also that large franchises give developers the money to fund the projects that they really want to make. The enormous and deserved success of the Dawn of War franchise has allowed Relic to make Company of Heroes, one of the greatest RTS experiences ever forged. Bioware’s leveraging of the Star Wars universe with Knights of the Old Republic has given it the freedom to create a brand new IP with Mass Effect. At the end of the day, creative developers with an interesting idea for a game can use the success of a franchise to justify their riskier projects. It’s business, and it works.
As publishers become larger and more successful, they can afford to devote more of their profits to developing new talent in the industry. Just as Fox Searchlight or Paramount Vantage would take an indie movie under its wing and make it big, Valve hired a pair of fresh faced graduates and gave them the resources and expertise to realise their ideas in the form of the inimitable Portal. Xbox Live Arcade and the Playstation Network also act as forums for smaller games to shine, ushering the next generation of developers.
The smiling orange light of my Gamecube is dark now. I can’t bring myself to turn it back on. I can’t help but feel that the modern gaming world has more to offer now than familiar and repetitive action, more than just another clone. Maybe now is the time to dip into Bioshock, or slot in my old copy of Deus Ex once again. Perhaps I will revisit Zelda one day, in a future time far from now. Maybe then it will be completely different, maybe then it’ll blow my mind all over again, like Ocarina did all those years ago.
Well, a man can dream.
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