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FunBITS: Gaming’s Long, Sleepless Night

“With insomnia, nothing’s real. Everything’s far away. Everything’s a copy of a copy of a copy.” — The Narrator, “Fight Club”

The Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), the big annual gaming conference, wrapped up on 18 June 2015. For 20 years now, E3 has been the signature annual event where the video game industry tells us where gaming is going. But despite this year’s E3 being proclaimed as the “best in years,” it feels like gaming is going in circles. Here’s a sample of what was announced:

  • Doom (a reboot of a game released in 1993)

  • Gears of War 4 (a sequel to a game from 2006)

  • Halo 5: Guardians (another sequel to a game released in 2001)

  • Fallout 4 (yet another sequel to a game first released in 1997, which was rebooted into a first-person role-playing game in 2008)

  • Final Fantasy VII (a remake of another game from 1997)

  • Rise of the Tomb Raider (another sequel to a game that dates back to 1996; the first movie adaption was released the year I graduated from high school)

  • Star Fox Zero (a sequel to a series that began in 1993; much of it based on an unreleased sequel from the 1990s)

  • Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (another sequel to a game from 2007)

It feels weird to see gamers be so excited for stuff I played so long ago. This is only a partial list: there are many more sequels and remakes not mentioned here. Some are actually sort of interesting, such as Shenmue 3, an unexpected sequel to a long dormant series, and Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, another surprising sequel to a moderately successful parkour-inspired shooter — though this time, the awkward gunplay of the original will be done away with.

Don’t get me wrong, I love or at least like all of these series. Doom, Fallout, and Uncharted are three of my favorites, and Final Fantasy VII is often regarded as the best entry in the Final Fantasy series. A new Tomb Raider is always welcome, as it’s one of the few successful franchises with a female protagonist. There’s nothing wrong with franchises, sequels, or even the occasional remake, but where’s the new stuff? Gaming is a medium with unlimited boundaries, so why is most of what we’ve seen just a copy of a copy of a copy?

This problem extends even beyond the big game publishers. One of the most popular iOS games of last year, 2048, was a shameless ripoff of Threes (for my review of Threes, see “FunBITS: Threes Is Good Company for iPhone and iPad,” 21 February 2014). Browsing through the Top Paid games on the App Store, I see the now years-old Minecraft, Terraria, and even NBA Jam, another game from my childhood. Fallout Shelter, perhaps the most popular App Store game at the
moment, is a spin-off of the Fallout series, effectively a remake of SimTower, but with a creepy breeding element and real-time play that encourages you to wake up at 4 AM in the morning to play, like Farmville.

This lack of originality isn’t limited to video games. The biggest movies of this summer have been “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” “Mad Max: Fury Road,” and “Jurassic World” — all sequels, two of which were film franchises during my childhood. Even in literature, two of the most anticipated upcoming releases are the sixth entry in George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” (that’s “Game of Thrones” to you HBO viewers) and “Go Set a Watchman,” Harper Lee’s long-lost follow-up to “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which was actually written after “Go Set a Watchman.” Even Chuck Palahniuk, author of the aforementioned “Fight Club”, is jumping on the sequel bandwagon with “Fight Club 2”. Maybe Chuck, like his nameless narrator, has succumbed to insomnia? But I digress.

There are some bright spots in gaming, but you have to look for them. The highly anticipated No Man’s Sky promises to take the Minecraft formula to the next level, with an entire universe of procedurally generated planets to explore. Nintendo’s upcoming Super Mario Maker lets you create your own Super Mario Bros. levels, though the only examples so far have been the Nintendo equivalent of torture flicks. On the indie front, there are games such as The Long Dark, which is an open-world survival simulator still in development.

But surveying the mainstream of gaming, and even pop culture in its entirety, I feel like Bill Murray’s character in “Groundhog Day,” forced to relive the same day over and over again. Speaking of “Groundhog Day,” I’m sure Hollywood will announce a remake soon, with a CGI Punxsutawney Phil.

I’m not quite sure when this pattern began in gaming. I suppose, in a way, it has always existed; I remember a time when every first-person shooter, no matter how unique, was branded as a “Doom clone.” And long before that, there were endless clones of Pong and Pac-Man. But it seems to have grown worse over the years, as an oligarchy of franchises has achieved near-total hegemony over gaming.

My theory is that it’s so expensive to create the sort of high-definition, 3D experiences that gamers have become accustomed to that publishers can’t afford to take risks. A couple of years ago, Mark Rubin, an executive producer of the Call of Duty games, said “…games are becoming harder to make and more expensive to make. And I feel like smaller studios are having trouble. I can’t speak for them, but I would think they are having trouble making big games that hit the big AAA market because they’re harder to do.” As for indie developers who rip off other games, I’d suggest that it’s the same thing
on a much different scale. Why take a chance on a new concept when you can copy a working formula, like Flappy Bird, and make a profit? It makes sense from a business perspective.

Ironically, the very technologies that should make gaming an infinite canvas are turning it into a limited one, as the games have become almost impossibly complex and expensive. The PC version of Batman: Arkham Knight (the fourth entry in the “Arkham” series) was so buggy that Warner Bros. pulled it from sale — something that’s unheard of in the industry. Bungie, creator of the popular Destiny online shooter, was going to charge a total of $80 for players to get all the content in its upcoming expansion, The Taken King, until players lashed out (but kudos to the Destiny team for being original, if somewhat derivative). It’s easy to blame incompetence and greed for these situations, but I think we also have to make allowances for the sheer difficulty of modern game development.

Between endless rehashes, unplayably buggy games, outright money-grubbing, and online drama such as Gamergate, it’s no wonder that I don’t enjoy gaming as much as I used to. It’s not like I’m asking for a constant reinvention of the wheel, but even somewhat derivative titles like Destiny manage to mix up existing conventions to create fresh experiences, much like “Pulp Fiction” managed to be a watershed moment in film, despite borrowing heavily from earlier movies. Steve Jobs may have been right when he said, “great artists steal,” but the best artists steal from many places.

Regardless, I’m still on the lookout for fresh and original games to share with you here in FunBITS, because they must exist and their creators need encouragement. And if you’ve played a game that stands out from the copycat crowd, let me know about it!

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