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Bored with modern gaming's lack of innovation? You have no-one to blame but yourself (because games are doing fine)

So Heavy Rain creator David Cage has been rattling on about the state of creativity in video games again. He seems to think that the abundance of identikit FPS means that gaming is in danger. I find my palm meeting my face at painfully high speed, with an almost sexual level of attraction. My face now stings. But even more resounding than the painful reverberation of flesh upon increasingly-pink flesh is the unmistakeable sound of a man missing the point by a good 180 degrees. Because the fact is that games are creatively healthier than they have ever been, and you have no-one to blame but yourself if you can't see that.

Rather than witnessing a medium in creative stagnation, it strikes me that what Cage is doing here is the equivalent of eating at McDonald’s every day and then complaining that all food is terrible and worldwide obesity is inevitable. Or to put it another way, using the more culturally ingrained example of a better-established medium, a person who frequents the cinema weekly but only watches the big shiny Hollywood blockbusters has no right to say that film is dying just because he hasn’t seen anything decent lately. 

Games are fine. They provide more ideas, experiences, intellectual and emotional content, and good old clever interactive stimulation than ever before in a more broadly eclectic array of styles, scales, genres and tones than at any other point in their history. There’s limitless developer freedom and vast potential for getting any kind of game into the hands of an audience who will appreciate it. The fact is that if you can’t find anything worthwhile to play, then it’s your own damn fault for not looking hard enough.

I get that there are problems. Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not saying that every publisher in the world is bursting at the seams with a shimmering rainbow of benevolent creative ideas. I’m not saying that this year’s big E3 press conferences were exactly a bounty of eclectic innovation. They weren’t. They were a quagmire of indistinct perma-killing. Going off their evidence alone, every big triple-A franchise now looks and plays the same. Every game is an identikit gore cocktail, made up of the same bits of Gears of War, Assassin’s Creed and Uncharted. Choosing between them is like trying to make a qualitative judgment over different brands of bottled water.

But you know what? They’re triple-A franchises at big E3 press conferences. What the hell did we expect? In other news, McDonald’s is currently specialising in greasy meat and fried potato.

Budget spent and creative risk taken are usually inversely proportional. That’s the way it works in games. That’s the way it works in any medium. The higher the profit required, the more people a publisher will want to appeal to, and the safer the product will be. That’s why 90% of TV is vacuous crap for undemanding idiots. That’s why big budget films are little more than talking explosions with toy and TV licenses attached. And that’s why all the big budget game franchises are homogenising, desperate as they are to tick off all the same gameplay elements, presentation features and QTE stabbing options that their rivals have. And as a result they are losing their USPs, and have to fight even harder to stand out. Which they do by adding even more explosions and QTE stabbings.

But you know what? That doesn’t matter. Mainstream media culture has always worked that way. And it always will. And it doesn’t matter. Because a little to the left of the noise you always find the real stuff. For every Disney, there’s a Pixar, a Ralph Bakshi or an Adult Swim. For every Michael Bay there are hundreds of thousands of real film-makers making real, creative, meaningful films on a whole variety of budgets. And games work the same way. And with the internet being a thing that exists now (seriously, check it out, it’s right in front of you) there’s absolutely no reason to limit what you consume to what you’re spoon-fed by the guys with the big marketing budgets and the giant fear of failure. It's the nature of mainstream entertainment in any medium to provide flashy, easily-digestable popcorn content, and it's naive to assume that it won't. But shiny mainstream entertainment is only ever the tip of any media industry.

David Cage doesn’t seem to get this though. He says that "in most video games story's not very important" He says that he wants games to be expressive. He says that TV and film are expressive, but that in the games industry “we just shoot and jump”. He says "It's great that you can shoot at monsters", but that games should offer "something deeper and interactive" too. Frankly he seems to misguidedly patronise the entire medium he supposedly cares about.

He seems to ignore or be completely unaware of the real state of games as a medium, being so focused on the Call of Duties of the world (in order to draw direct comparison to the “deeper” work he does)  as to discount the vast array of important work being made easily available by the world’s developers every day. He seems to live in a world where the affecting ambient narrative of Dear Esther doesn’t exist. Where Jonathan Blow never turned an existential musing on regret and alienation into one of the biggest games on Xbox Live Arcade. In which a black and white abstract nightmare didn't become one of the platformer hits of the year on a console long deemed "the shooter-machine".

It also seems to be a world in which the publisher of Skyrim isn’t working with indies to put out one of the most intelligent, free-form and mechanically exciting first-person adventures of the year. In which a bleak, totally emergent, take-it-any-way-you-want, purely human-driven survival sim has not become one of the break-out hits of 2012 without even being a 'real' game. In which a Bioshock 2 designer has not, in fact, quite happily quit the big budget studio system to make a non-combat first-person mystery game set in real-world suburbia. In which an FPS RPG cannot and never will be set entirely within a three-day period in one single WWI trench for its entire run-time. In which a first-person puzzler cannot be set in a world made of living synths, nor also act as a real-world synth and musical composition training device itself. In which Snake cannot become a whole new deep, sensory experience, and isn't one of the most exciting downloadable games on the Xbox 360. In which this and this cannot possibly exist as viable commercial products.
Above: "But all we do is jump and shoot!" (Trailer from Ice Pick Lodge's The Void)

For whatever reason, be it ignorance or deliberate non-acknowledgement, Cage seems to boil the entire medium he works in - and supposedly cares about the artistic health of - down to the most mainstream releases on the big consoles. If I was being utterly, dreadfully, shamelessly cynical I’d put forth the thesis that the best way to make one’s own work look more innovative than it actually is would be to ignore genuine innovation and only compare oneself only to works aimed at the lowest common denominator. But I’m certainly not cynical. Oh no.

But the fact remains that Cage’s lament is an unnecessary and utterly unfounded one. And it seems to come from the kind of uninformed standpoint that can only lead to self-fulfilling prophecies if used as evidence of creative stagnation. You keep looking at things you don’t like and ignore all the things you do like, you’re going to end up sad.

Don’t be sad like David Cage. Find the kind of games you do like and be happy.

It’s great.

42 comments

  • cgriff63 - August 2, 2012 10:37 a.m.

    I agree with this. The comparison between AAA titles in gaming and Michael Bay films in the movies is spot on.
  • Technodude - July 14, 2012 2:16 a.m.

    I agree with you, Dave, to some extent - I for one don't put too much effort into looking for original games, I just take infrequent trips to my local GAME store to see if they've got anything new. But I do agree that there is, somewhat, a lack of imagination within AAA titles recently, and nothing seems to catch my interest anymore; every new FPS seems to be a CoD or Battlefield clone, every RPG an Uncharted wannabe. The thing is I don't believe it's entirely the Devs' fault. How exactly DO you reinvent the FPS genre? Add a new game mechanic? Use an original location? Blow aliens to smithereens instead of soldiers or zombies? I think the trouble with the genre is the stereotype it's been sucked into: it has to be violent, profanities have to be thrown around every three seconds, it's based on a war of some kind. I think if developers broke away from this we could see some really original content come out. For example, a game in which you HUNT animals/people, surviving threats from the army, for instance (playing from the opposite perspective of the typical shooter), or it could be a different adventure altogether, like a fugitive escaping from a prison. This does blur the line between RPG and FPS a bit, but just because it's labelled FPS doesn't mean it has to be a bloody war scene. Stop me if there is a game like this already, but I think we need some new ideas from developers like this to bring mainstream gaming to life again. The other problem with most FPSs is that they're... Pointless, really. Aside from multiplayer where you compete against other people, I have no reason to be shooting at the AI other than "you're in a war, kill stuff". One way shooters could innovate is to make a gripping storyline, with characters not likeable because of their cool voices or costumes, but because they're being torn apart by events occurring around them, or the player warms to them as a person, in a plot that has many twists and turns. Make it more of a fight for survival, for how far you've come, not just for the hell of it. I know I'm grilling the FPS genre in particular here, but it seems to be the one with the least creativity at the moment. And I thought taking risks was the best way to succeed? You learn from your mistakes, after all, and it would encourage game developers to try harder and increase diversity in the market. It might lose them a bit of money due to a smaller audience, but I thought games were made to entertain, with customer satisfaction being the priority. I think all game companies could learn a thing or two from Valve, personally. Portal 2 was one of the most original titles from this entire decade - it's got a great concept, brilliant visuals, no bugs, the most clever story writing I've witnessed from a game (I think it's the only game I've genuinely laughed at because it was supposed to be funny) - and best of all, it encourages the player to THINK. It doesn't tell them a thing about how things work, just the controls, and it encourages the player to experiment as well. Admittedly, this point is probably invalidated by the fact that the game can't tell you what to do because it would defeat the object of playing, but there are other games that do this. The original Tomb Raider, for example. Hell, if you wanted to know the controls you had to find out in her mansion BEFORE you played the story. And there were no regenerating health bars and the like, so you had to be cautious when low on health. And it was still a brilliant game despite the plot not being interesting too. Games have become far less challenging intellectually now, and I think that's a shame. Now you get maps and markers telling you exactly where to go, and in the case of the FPS, I think it would make a much more tense battle if you had to look for you objective. The gaming industry could do with some new companies that stretch the boundaries and bring new ideas to the table. With newer games with much more graphic and power potential coming out worse than titles ten, maybe fifteen years older than them, developers could do so much more with what they have.
  • francesco-ferrazzino - July 14, 2012 10:32 a.m.

    Well we are tryin to innovate fps bringin' them to life!
  • bass88 - July 13, 2012 5:23 a.m.

    For every Michael Bay there are hundreds of interesting films? Brilliant! Let me check the cinema liwtings... Hmm, I'm confused. All that's on is CGI cartoons, slushy romances and PG13 garbage featuring smug twats with superpowers that are impervious to any damage so suspense is taken out altogether. Where are these intersting films? I know I can find them later on DVD but I'd like to see them as the makers intended - on a cinema screen.
  • bash street kid - July 12, 2012 11:44 a.m.

    It's true. Gaming has never been so good. But then again there's never been this many possibilities.
  • Malakie - July 12, 2012 11:26 a.m.

    This is so right on.. Game quality, game immersion, and BUG free on release games are not anywhere in sight now. Today we get BETA releases that require major and constant patches just to run. Today more and more games are released with little content and we are expected to PAY for DLC's that add content that should have been in the game from the start.... and yet we still pay FULL price for the base game. Back in the day when games still came on disks and CD's only, you HAD to release as clean and bug free code as possible. Why? Because there was no internet where users could easily download patches. Back then if your game came out unable to run due to a game stopping patch, your title died a quick death. You HAD to put some real effort into good coding and even better Q&A before release. Today we see MORE and MORE companies not even putting any effort into this. And how do I know this? Because back in the day, for a couple years that I was a civilian I had a small dev company that released a number of Amiga titles. But even so, anyone with common sense can see this trend today without any experience. Take any title in the last year that has been released only to find on the very first day that No ONE could run the game due to a major game stopping crash upon load. There is NO WAY IN HECK anyone can tell me they did Q&A because a bug like that would have easily appeared during testing. I mean come on.. a bug that CTD's within seconds upon game load? A bug that halts a quest right in the middle of the adventure and it occurs to EVERYONE... No way that was tested for. Back in the day we had to PLAY our own creations to insure we COULD get through the game entirely, finish all quest and so forth. And btw, a few of the game titles you Amiga fans probably know that we did including Abandoned Places, Brigade Commander, Thromulus, 4-Get-It!, Memory Challenge, and even our best selling tool/utility, WMS V1, 2 & 3 (Workbench Management System - Amiga, Windows Management System - PC). All those games were on Amiga except for 4-get-It which was also a PC release. REAL computer games are rare now. Games like Elite, the Ultima series, and many others from days past when the Commodore 64 reined supreme are real and true games of the day. Today there ARE some games and developers worth supporting AND following but they are getting less and less. In my opinion some of the very few companies worth supporting who ARE still creating awesome work, relatively bug free releases and who FULLY support not only their products but we the user are as follows: Egosoft - The entire X series (probably the closest to Elite in the field today) from X-Beyond, X-Tension, X2-The Threat, X3-Reunion, X3-Terran Conflict, X3-Albion Prelude to the upcoming X3/X4 game, Egosoft not only creates a fully immersive universe second to none, they consistently are on the boards and supporting their customers. Kerberos - Sword of the Stars Series. And yes, Sword of the Stars II series now. They had a major problem on release of SOTS II when master release code was overwritten/lost due to a major mistake internally. HOWEVER, they have bent OVER backwards to make it right not only in terms of game design and patch work but to we the users directly. As far as I am concerned those two companies are THE premiere devs today and no other company comes close to the content found in their titles but more important, to their customer and player support. There are a few other games out there that have pretty good content out of the box, i.e. The Elder Scrolls series Morrowind, Oblivion and Skyrim or perhaps Men of Valor series but again direct and full support of the devs to the players is very lacking AND these companies are also trending more and more to base game releases and major DLC enhancements that have to be purchased to get any decent content. All my opinion but there is a trend and if it is allowed to continue, we will only have our own selves to blame.
  • ParagonT - July 12, 2012 12:33 p.m.

    It really doesn't seem like you read the article at all. Not to be mean or anything, nice comment and all, but its pretty repetitive. Your first sentence wasn't really related to what the article said at all which is an indicator.
  • Y2Ken - July 12, 2012 6:40 a.m.

    I love playing "guess the editor from the title". Got it right again. :p Great article anyway Dave!
  • berry87 - July 12, 2012 1:54 a.m.

    I think your completely wrong and have joined the bang wagon, i believe games have dropped in quality when it comes to a quality story and original games and games are very simple, i put this down to the online aspect, lets take red dead redemption a great short lived game, only a handful of towns, not alot to do in the town story was alright but was pretty much the same missions and only got interesting once in mexico, in my mind thinking of the wild west i could of thought of at least 50 more things they could of put in the game to make me play it longer but no they opted out, and put a strange multi player thing in it, alot of single player games are suffering from adding multiplayer to it, take max payne for example great story i loved it but wow was it short but low and behold they've tacked on a multiplayer you seem to suggest it's our fault that there isn't but is it our fault that these are the only games what are being produced, i loved point and click adventures, i love the humour the stories everything about them, what happened? well they decided to try and take the graphics to 3d and ruined the genre and then told us that the genre was pretty much dead, well no the genre isn't dead it's just the half hearted effort the developers put into the games. and yes games look good and i am having fun with them but i find games alot more easier than they once were i mean all fps's are pretty much the same but thats all wat is coming out but the only reason they are coming out is because the developers saw that the sales were great and just stuck to that and not make a new game, but this also lead to alot of other developers making fps's aswell the biggest greatest example of this is syndicate what a load of horse ****, the originals were great games so orginal, brilliant, this genre could of benefited from the graphic's and space on disc's now, it could of even been made into an good third person but no they took it and made it into an fps, forget about xbox live arcade were talking the big developers. the games industry and the big companies are in it just for the money, so big sale games and genres will be produce over and over again, it's the worsed situation were in because the creators don't get any freedom anymore and keep producing the same all the time, the problem is yes maybe it is our fault we buy into the games but when you think that there the only games out there which are of good qaulity and nothing truly new and exciting and made well then thats what we have to do, until the sales start to drop and we'll be introduced to a new genre.
  • robotdickens - July 11, 2012 11:56 p.m.

    All games are lacking innovation and here's why: everything has been done before in one flavor or another. But aside from that, games have lost their innovation because game devs want to make a profitable game safely and cheap. The easiest way to do that is to cut out on time spent making new things about games. MW and Battlefield are both two great examples. Regardless how good they are, the graphics, story, maps and in some cases engines are exactly the same. You could take all the new stuff from MW3 and switch it to 2 and no one would know the difference. Innovations come few these days because whatever is seen as an innovation can be just a gimmick ie. Inversion or Singularity. Singularity wasn't bad, but it failed in many areas where it could have thrived.
  • alexandre-bret - July 11, 2012 9:28 p.m.

    the less innovation makes me save money on wanting any titles. except REsident Evil 6 Its mandatory I buy it
  • PBC13 - July 11, 2012 2:32 p.m.

    There is no one in gaming I have a more severe dislike of than David Cage. He seems self impressed almost to the point of parody. Regardless of if he is right about this or not, and I think not, his opinion on the matter is not of as much consequence as he believes it to be. He hasn't offered the industry enough himself to start waxing lyrical about what it's doing wrong. If this was Gabe Newell, for example, maybe I'd listen. But David Cage isn't the pioneer or prolific producer of great games and/or ideas he believes himself to be. Creating a few video games that try desperately to be films does not a visionary artist make.
  • winner2 - July 11, 2012 2:07 p.m.

    I'm not bored with gaming's lack of innovation, I'm bored with Houghton's tendency to talk down to the readers. Also, as Paragon pointed earlier, he's a hypocrite.
  • jedisamurai - July 11, 2012 1 p.m.

    I don't like the arguments you present. For one, I liked Battleship. :D But seriously, if mainstream film-making was heading downhill you'd get up on your soap box and tell everyone to watch indie films made on a shoe-string budget? Think for a minute. Yes, the indie scene is EXPLODING on PC, but most people IN THE WORLD are not PC gamers (not a matter of quality, just a matter of sheer numbers). There are indie games for 360, but they are buried, and often (in my opinion) of inferior quality. Sometimes a great concept comes through as a downloadable title (heck, most of the games I own for 360 are download titles), but in general the mainstream games are so filled with FPS ultra-violent garbage that I simply don't play 90% of them when they are released on disc. What does this result in? I'm going back to my PS2, Xbox, gamecube, and dreamcast for my gaming needs. The prices for the best games (Robot Alchemic Drive, Jet Set Radio, Advent Rising, Rogue Galaxy, Skies of Arcadia, ect) are comparable to prices for new titles, and I'd rather play something old and awesome than something new and crappy. You know that something is wrong when MOST of the truly great downloads and retail releases on Xbox and PS3 are re-releases of older games (Ikaruga, Radiant Silvergun, Virtua Fighter 5:FS, worms, Beyond Good and Evil, Outrun 2, Rez, Jak Collection, Sly Cooper Collection, Metal Gear Solid Collection). We always have potentially great games COMING but where the heck have they been? Where is Jet Set Radio 3? Panzer Dragoon Zeta? Jak 4? Sly 4? The only games that seem to get AAA sequels are FPS garbage. Thank goodness for Child of Eden...
  • Cyberninja - July 11, 2012 4:58 p.m.

    Sly 4 is coming out this year as Sly Cooper theives in time
  • aaron-price - July 11, 2012 12:06 p.m.

    Rayman origins was innovative... Well kinda
  • BaneTigerSeeker - July 11, 2012 11:33 a.m.

    The sad thing is that innovative and unique games do not really sell all that well, due to gaming becoming more mainstream and production costs going through the roof. Great games like Okami, Beyond Good and Evil, and Psychonauts hardly sell because the market for those games are too small. It is just easier for companies to take a tried and true template and to tweak it a little to make games feel fresh and familiar at the same time. That is the reason why Nintendo franchises are so successful.
  • Tjwoods18 - July 11, 2012 10:47 a.m.

    I like games that challenge me to think in an abstract way, not one that gives way point after way point. "COugh" Call of duty.
  • Manguy17 - July 11, 2012 9:55 a.m.

    For fucks sake dave, now my neck hurts from nodding in agreement so much
  • Scuffles - July 11, 2012 8:53 a.m.

    I sorta agree with both of them AAA games for the most part are a stagnant quagmire of tepid same oll same oll, annual roster update badness. The people I blame for that are the gamers who buy whatever new AAA title publishers slop onto their plate. On the other hand there are still a great number of wonderful games to be had, all one must do is look. If you hold out a bit a truly great AAA game will roll around. Smaller and Indie developers are also a great source for innovation and adaptation..... and they certainly deserve my money more than a cookiecutter AAA title. Remember for the most part all AAA means is "We spent tons of money to saturate the market with advertising!"

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