And now for something completely different
'Exploding thumb syndrome', 'crunch-time insomnia', 'pronounced bug-testing psychosis'... The deadliest ailment ever known to dev-kind isn't any one of these things. Instead, the single most debilitating sickness that a studio can suffer is that of 'acute franchise fatigue'. You see, by electing to remain in the same comfortable groove, studios - or rather, their more risk-averse publishing partners - can wind up jeopardising the team's creative edge. After all, no aspirant coder ever dreamed of being just another spoke on the wheel. Creative types crave inspiration - the opportunity to flex their artistic muscles, to flesh out one new world after another. Iterating the living hell out of 'Successful Shooter A' is not going to cut it forever.
That being the case, many teams will actively seek out something highly dissimilar when presented with the opportunity. So, cute company becomes gritty, and gritty company goes kawaii-crazy. The old 'tonal switcheroo'. Today's big list of stuff takes a long hard look at some of the most unusual examples of the above. Think of them as the high school goth/punk/hippy-phase photos of the video gaming world. Deliberate stabs at being different, with drastically variable results. And just for the hell of it, I've included notes on how they'd have looked if they'd made more of an effort to fit in.
Rockstar Games presents Table Tennis (Rockstar Games)
Better known for - Grand Theft Auto, Manhunt, Red Dead Redemption, L.A. Noire, The Warriors, Bully
Wait, you mean to tell me that 'Rockstar Games presents Table Tennis' was developed by Rockstar Games? Egad! Just think of the scandal sir! All of high society in an uproar! Yes, yes, alright, so the clue really is in the name, but that doesn't lessen the surprise that this unheralded sports sim came to us by way of the veritable mob boss of the medium in the first place.
Rockstar Games is - and (almost) always has been - all about the grit, grime and humorous self-delusion that permeates society, while Table Tennis - or ping pong - is precisely none of these things. So, was it all just some speculative dry run for GTA 4's assorted social activities? A 'proof of concept' for Niko's numerous hobbies? Well, not exactly. Instead, Table Tennis was intended as more of a glorified tech demo - a high-end test to discover just how much power could feasibly be extracted from the then-new Xbox 360 while focused on just one activity.
Quick Fix - Each team represents a different criminal faction, all vying for control of the city. Oh, and the ball is somehow rigged to blow, adding a neat, Russian Roulette-style element to play. When you hear that ticking, best get to hitting
Resistance: Fall of Man (Insomniac Games)
Better known for - Spyro the Dragon, Ratchet & Clank, Sunset Overdrive
Fair warning folks: Any international fans of Jane Austen, Downton Abbey, or whichever royal baby just proclaimed itself 'Grand Imperial Overlord' might find this next statement a little tough to swallow. Britain, birthplace of the light bulb, big teeth and 'the b'ardman' Billy Shakespeare is actually kinda grim. It rains a lot, Simon Cowell controls the oxygen supply, and roving gangs of tracksuited mutant-men take all of the best bus seats. So, you can only imagine the nation's collective joy at discovering the news that our quaint little isle had been chosen as the setting for Insomniac's first PS3 release.
Here was a studio with more love of colour than a pride march in a combustible paint factory. If anyone could spruce up this sad-eyed nation, then surely it was Insomniac! "Hahaaaa, but not really!", cackled Team Spyro - "we're actually going to make Britain even bleaker! But hey at least we're getting rid of all those nasty security cameras (yay) to be replaced by ravenous bug-like monstrosities (boo).
Quick Fix - The whole thing was just an alien Halloween-themed level of Insomniac's WhimsyMaker IV: The Cutening.
Jazz Jackrabbit (Epic Games)
Better known for - Bulletstorm, Gears of War, Infinity Blade, Unreal Tournament, Shadow Complex
Don't be fooled by the frosty demeanours and impeccably starched shirts of the Cold War era. Not every arms race need be so sullen. Just look at the battle to crown the 1990s' most kick-ass mascot. Back then there were so many 'anthropomorphic animals with attitude' on show as to force pet shops into kitting out their creatures with Hot Topic attire in order to compete. "But, what happened to 'Mr. Fluffy?', the kids asked". "Heuh, goes by 'Nailz' now miniature bazooka costs extra." If ever there was a golden age of gaming mascots, this was it - with names like 'Derrick the radical Duck', and 'Bill - the bear who kills for pleasure'. Then of course, there was Jazz Jackrabbit, the inimitable Epic Games' contribution to this colourfully madcap era.
Wait, Epic Games? The same Epic Games that made 'Gears of Gore', Unreal Gore-nament and errr Bulletgore-m? Yes, the very same. Prior to pinning its colours to the 'smug-but-sad-eyed space marine' fad, Epic was doing its damndest to cash in on this similarly lucrative trend. Cute, but unavoidably edgy - Jazz looked like he'd just served four consecutive tours in Vietnam - the franchise managed to make it to a respectable three sequels before eventually dying a death, or - as your parents would have it - 'just running away to live on a lovely farm'.
Quick Fix - Love interest 'Eva Earlong' has actually been tortured to death. Jazz's Hispanic mate is crushed.
Lemmings (DMA Design)
Better known for - Grand Theft Auto, Body Harvest
The predecessor of the aforementioned Rockstar Games, DMA Design was the brainchild of one David Jones, whom you might also recall went on to helm Crackdown, and, er, APB. But then no one's perfect. Prior to the mammoth success of GTA - a game practically dedicated to death dealing destruction - Jones and company were rather more interested in achieving the exact opposite. That is to say, DMA's first successful venture was actually Lemmings, a game that might easily be described as a suicide prevention sim. The contrast rather makes David Jones look like some sort of tyrannical blackjack dealer of the soul, dealing out life and death on a madman's whim. Maybe...
What we know for sure is just how markedly different DMA's earliest output - and in particular Lemmings - is from the sort of titles that made it, and later Rockstar, such a household name. Sure, the 2D GTAs may have been reasonably colourful affairs, but that probably says as much about the graphics of the day as it does the studio's visual instincts. By contrast, Lemmings is willfully, almost unbearably cheery, right down to the fuzzy chiptune renditions of '10 green bottles (standing on the wall)' and the brain-mulchingly awful Can-Can dance. *shuddering intensifies*
Quick Fix - The player was actually a frugally-minded slaughterhouse owner, with all of the lemmings saved later becoming delicious snacks.
Commander Keen (iD Software)
Better known for - Wolfenstein, Doom, Quake, Rage
Moving from the unbridled, gouge-your-own-eyes-out enthusiasm of the 1980s to the flannel-clad grit of the '90s, society certainly embraced moody introspection with an ironic sense of zeal. Just look at pro wrestling. One minute the entire world was clamouring for dayglo, spandex-clad, real life superheroes, and the next it was energetic crotch chops and 'attitude'. Then of course, there was the music, with bands like Poison unironically polluting the airwaves, until a certain Kurt Cobain showed up to make lime-green lycra bulges somehow uncool. As the times changed, so did the video games, transforming from wholesome family entertainment into edgy, blood-caked cadaver factories.
Never was this more true than in the case of iD Software, which having begun life as a peddler of colourful action titles - including Commander Keen and Rescue Rover - soon began to crank out brutal FPS masterpieces. Keen in particular had once been the studio's greatest success story, with its winning interpretation of the console platformer (now on DOS) serving to establish the fledgling developer. Just think, if only Keen had been created just 5 years later, then the main character of Billy Blaze might've been some sort of pot-smoking pyromaniac.
Quick Fix - Billy Blaze is a pot-smoking pyromaniac. Commander Keen took place while he was high.
Darkspore (EA Maxis)
Better known for - SimCity, The Sims, Spore
Hands up if your very first instinct upon hearing about Spore - Will Wright's cellular-level evolution simulation - was to create a horde of murderous monsters, before leading them to the tippy top of the universal food chain? Yep, all of you. And it seems it was the same case at Maxis, given that the developer followed up the relative success of Spore with a decidedly darker spin on the format.
Sadly, Darkspore - not unlike most of the creatures featured within - didn't turn out to be quite as proficient as first hoped. You see, in addition to ditching the whole 'sunshine and rainbows' aesthetic that the studio had previously been known for, Darkspore also jettisoned a fair few other important elements, namely the studio's 'human tycoon' roots - replaced here by clumsy action-RPG mechanics and err quality (SimCity 2013 would come later).
Quick Fix - Simcity and Darkspore were all just part of an elaborate prank perpetrated by the all-loving EA corporation.
Alien: Isolation (The Creative Assembly)
Better known for - Rugby (2002), Total War series
Good thing I'm not above penning the same tired joke two weeks in a row now, otherwise I'd be completely unable to inform you that 'sweaty men slamming into each other' just about sums up The Creative Assembly's entire library. First came the noble sport of Rugby - also known as 'sword-less murder ball' and the basis for three of the studio's early titles. After Rugby came Total War, a concept that's not completely unlike a park-sized game of 'rugger', except with a few more pole axes and way less cheering New Zealanders.
Considering that the studio's trajectory has largely been one of realising increasingly massive battles, you might've expected their first 7th & 8th gen release to follow along in kind. But it was not to be so, as the team actually decided to trade in all of that crowd-stabbing malarkey for tense, psychological horror? *cheesy record scratch*
Yes, the claustrophobic vibe of Alien: Isolation is certainly a far cry from the blood-soaked dust bowls of the ancient battlefield, though there are at least a few similarities. For instance, if said alien isn't made up of the same contemptible code that powers Rome's nigh-unkillable Egypt faction, then I - sir or madam - shall eat my hat.
Quick Fix - The xenomorph starts doing the haka
Mini Ninjas (IO Interactive)
Better known for - Hitman, Kane & Lynch, Freedom Fighters
Hitmen and ninjas, you say? Why, they aren't so different at all. Sure, one may sleuth around in a suit, while the other skulks it up in a pair of satin pajamas, but their aims remain roughly the same - bump people off with a minimum of fuss and then scarper back home unseen. So, what exactly makes Mini Ninjas so totally unlike all the Io games that came before it? Well, as those of you with a fully functioning set of eyeballs may already have surmised, 'Ninjas is to grit and realism what One Direction are to musical excellence. ie. the complete antithesis.
Prior to the release of Mini Ninjas, Io Interactive was a lot like The Terminator's titular death bot. Cold, calculating, and armed with only the most pitch black - or is that laser red? - of comedic sensibilities. But then Io met the younger John Connor of this protracted allegory, and somehow learned how to smile. Yes, okay it may have been a little clunky at first, but at least the desire was there. What a shame they felt the need to continue said metaphor and blow up that fleet of cop cars afterwards. But yeah, let's not mention Kane & Lynch...
Quick Fix - The mini ninjas behead a beast that turns out to just be a bloke in a costume. Guilt consumes them. Dark filters are applied to the screen.
The Dog Island (Yuke's)
Better known for - WWF Smackdown, WWE Smackdown Vs. Raw, WWE 2K, Rumble Roses, UFC Undisputed
'Idealised bodies bumping into each other' might sound like something from the 'Literal Titles' section of the adult store - where it sits right next to 'Recreational Intercourse 4', - but it's actually a rather fitting description of the Yuke's formula. This is the company that gave the world the Smackdown! series, followed up by brief forays into women's wrestling (via Rumble Roses) and an eventual dip into the UFC - aka that sport in which two athletes try to form one big Katamari ball while punching each other in the face.
Of course, there'd be no need for a Yuke's-specific entry on this list had the company not also chosen to wander off the baby oil reservation along the way. The Dog Island represents just one of these unexpected diversions, and remains perhaps the most tonally dischordant. From musclebound behemoths pounding away at one another to an ultra-cute RPG starring a swathe of talking dogs.
Quick Fix - Something tells me that the good people/ crazed lunatics at PETA (delete as necessary) arent going to be too pleased with the concept of two dogs battling in out in the octagon. Instead we'll plump for the idea that these cutesy pooches are simply killing time prior their owners' returning from the ring. Delightful.
Black (Criterion Games)
Better known for - Burnout, Need For Speed
Prior to the company's recent return to the FPS market (via Battlefield Hardline), Criterion Games was much, much better known for its work within the racing genre. Having made its name with the Burnout brand, the studio was eventually tapped up to work on the Need For Speed series, though there would be at least one major detour preceding the switch. Black, released back in 2006, was an ambitious PS2 shooter boasting slick visuals and a then-unbelievable level of environmental carnage.
It also happened to be a fair sight more gritty than anything the Burnout boys had previously attempted - though considering the amount of deaths implied by Burnout's iconic 'Crash Mode', perhaps not so different after all. All thoughts of vehicular carnage aside, Black succeeded in flipping the Criterion script in almost aspect imaginable. A new franchise, new genre, and a newly brutal tone? You might say that Black was the black sheep of the Criterion collection. *pause for lengthy applause and bow*
Quick Fix - Gunning down punks to an emo-tinged pop-rock playlist
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons (Starbreeze Studios)
Better known for - The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay, The Darkness, Syndicate, Payday 2
Despite its heavily emotional nature, there's still a great deal of whimsy at work in Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. Far more, in fact, than in any other Starbreeze game to date. Butcher Bay is all about the grime of doing time, while stretching the definition of 'good behaviour' to 'not getting caught shivving dudes in the dark). Payday is madcap but similarly violent. And The Darkness? Well, that game's name is The Darkness.
Starbreeze may be pathologically unable to produce a purely nice clean game in which nice things happen to nice people, but for all its pathos, Brothers' sunlit, Fable-looking fantasy is by far the closest the studio has yet come.
Quick Fix - They're brothers only in a figurative sense, members of the same gang in a futuristic cyber-prison, banged up for bank robberies.