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An Argument for Innovation

20th December 2011; By KnucklesSonic8

Games that break the mold or truly immerse players aren't just a breath of fresh air. And they don't just show up the competition either. When developers craft unconventional, unexpected or even revolutionary experiences, the result is often a game that is to be remembered for years to come. With this in mind, I thought it would be good to draw attention to a couple games that were released this year that really testify to the fact that even despite the proliferation of mediocre or copycat game concepts nowadays, there's still some innovation going on that's well worth praising.

Often overlooked and have conflicting opinions associated with them, games that are very geared towards a niche audience have a valid place in the world of gaming. The fact is, everyone's tastes differ, and while I may enjoy an engrossing strategy game, another may find that dreadfully boring. Having games developed with specific people in mind ensures that no one is left in the lurch inasmuch as what they long for in a game will be adequately satisfied at the very least. Experience has shown that these sorts of games take time to grow on you, and so people who have way too many games to get to or are bombarded with other stuff will always find it difficult to get into these kinds of games. And yet, despite how narrowly-positioned these are, niche games still manage to build their own fanbases -- one that can be as strong as a pillar in terms of dedication and developer support.

As if niche games weren’t enough of a risky move, to launch a brand new simulation-based IP as a launch title for the 3DS is just asking for trouble. You guessed it, I’m referring to Steel Diver. Before you say anything, yes I know the game is overpriced. That’s exactly why I’m grateful I got it for much less than the MSRP. But this isn’t a discussion about pricing. From the moment I picked up Steel Diver for the first time, I felt immersed in what was going on. I haven’t had all the time in the world to get very far in the game, but I have yet to hit a point where I’m bored with it. In fact, it’s quite fun. Sure, to some the game may seem slow, but for someone like me who enjoys a wide variety of games, this formula still appealed to me greatly. I was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt (especially given who was behind the project), but as a whole, that’s something most just aren’t prepared to do.

Another game I can think of is Dream Trigger 3D. I honestly feel that people didn’t give this game enough of a chance -- something that likely contributed to its quicker price drop. I may not have loved the game immensely, but I felt the innovation and the deep mechanics were commendable. Yes, there were flaws that worked against you, but if you were patient, some of them could be overlooked. Again, this goes back to what I was saying before. The attention spans of people nowadays and the severely-limited schedules some have to work with are both deterrents to any sort of manifestation of patience. Particularly, when trying to get yourself involved in games that may start off by rubbing you the wrong way. I can understand the validity of this, as I partially fall under the latter category, but it does mean that games that may be a little rough around the edges to begin are quickly written off when there’s another level behind the fractured exterior that people will just never see. It’s a shame so many games like this are often misunderstood by the general public.

Playing on our emotions, past experiences and fears is a very risky approach, no doubt. You can either make someone feel empowered at the end of it or make them feel offended. Yet, any game that gets us to look at our own worlds in a different way is worth its salt to me. Truthfully,
games that connect with you on a personal level are some of the most unforgettable experiences this industry has to offer. Provided they’re done well, of course.

Crafting a game or a message within a game to be expressive and discernible can be tough. As any author will testify to, you need to have things clear in mind whilst also making sure not to make things so complicated that only one out of 100 people will actually get what you’re trying to say. With this in mind, the use of symbolism in games is often a rare sight, and when it is used subtly, messages tend to go over people’s heads and the value is, therefore, lost. It’s one thing to have convoluted storylines or a shallow moral, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. I really feel that these devices are often unappreciated in the moment, but are later given praise when players realize how well such games can stand the test of time.

Aside from just the message itself, representational gameplay can also play a role in deciphering what the creators are trying to say. And when both of these blend into one metaphorical experience, the result can give players something deeper to think about coming away from it.
BIT.TRIP FLUX, released on WiiWare earlier this year, is a great example of this very tactic. When you put the pieces together, there’s something very human about the way things are presented. No longer "just" a character or even "just" another game, through effective use of the things mentioned above, FLUX manages to get people thinking in ways that games seldomly manage to do. What I love about it is the way it got me thinking beneath the surface, not only while I was finishing up the experience, but even months later. And, more praise to the cause, the thought-provoking music aided in my comprehension of the bigger picture. To me, that’s a mark of success.

As discussed in our special feature last month, quality licensed games are becoming more and more of a rarity these days. I don’t think it’s necessary for me to go into a lot of detail about how desperately licensed games need a more positive image again, but just as a preamble, development teams are treating these as quick cash-in’s as a means of accumulating resources in a time of financial need instead of an opportunity. 

However, Disney has left many feeling impressed over the effort they've exhibited this year alone, and I'm definitely in that group as well. Instead of taking a more laidback approach after Epic Mickey was over and done with, the studio plowed through and kept up that momentum. With what results? Over the last year, we have seen two notable license-based releases that have received positive remarks from various outlets and just gamers in general. Those being, Cars 2: The Video Game and Phineas & Ferb: Across the Second Dimension. I haven’t personally played their other Wii title, Disney Universe, and while there is some negativity surrounding this release, I can still sense Disney’s commitment to worthwhile family-friendly content this year. And that’s something I’m hoping we see more of in 2012.

Another set of games that come to mind are those classic,
engrossing text-based adventures. These serve as perfect examples of how immersive gaming can be, especially when said adventures feel less of a trigger-based kind of experience and more like something that carries different avenues of gameplay elements. Subtext and character development are two especially alluring properties seen in games such as these, and it's things like plot twists, unexpected endings and personality reversals that solidify timeless appeal. Or, at the very least, it ensures that the strength of the game still remains a focal point as it’s filed into their memory banks and brought back out much later.

The best example I can think of that illustrates this would be Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective. The game uses a great storytelling mechanic that even catches players off guard on more than one occasion, yet that’s not the meat of the game. The puzzle elements are, and because those work really well in the Rube Goldberg style that they have, it bodes well for the secondary forward-moving element to be so memorable also. Setup is everything and if the foundation of actual gameplay is there, then whatever is conscientiously added on top of that can further enhance the impression players take away from the game.

There are a few other positive examples in other areas of gaming. Just take
Monster Tale as an example. A game with innovative blends that took pet simulation, platforming and even some RPG elements and made it into one solid package. And then there’s Mystery Case Files: The Malgrave Incident, just one of a small bunch of games that successfully made disliked genres likeable again. All of these games stand as examples that first-run-hitting developers can look towards as they pull away from first-base productions and focus more on long-term appeal, surprise factor and hitting home runs.

Feature by KnucklesSonic8