Saturday, June 18, 2011

The value of different.


Beyond the fact that I find the simple, old-school design mechanics of Alice: Madness Returns pleasant, much of what I exalted in that game are its rare qualities - you play as a girl, you play as a girl who's not ridiculously-dressed or sexualized in any capacity, and it contains a shocking story point that I have never seen a game seriously explore. Often, professional critics and even folks like me who just play an obscene amount of video games will seize upon games doing something new or different, as if that alone makes them a worthy way to spend your time.

After all, we play such an obscene amount of games that they all kind of blend together - so when a game does something other than what's usually crammed down our throats, it seems like it gets automatically celebrated.

...should it be? I say no.


Let's take Castlevania: Lords of Shadow as an example. It does nothing new. It's basically God of War with backtracking and a level select - but it's (mostly) so well-executed that what we have, at the end of the day, is a a well-made and fun game.

There's a reason ninety per cent of the games out there are very, very similar to what's proven successful in the past - the reason most shooters pretty much stick to the Call of Duty control scheme - because it works and it's fun. On the one hand, this keeps gaming regularly samey - on the other, it at least guarantees us systems and mechanics that are enjoyable to play.

When something comes along that's decidedly different, it is - by definition - not in keeping with these proven and pleasant gameplay tropes. When "different" takes the form of mechanics or structure, it is rarely a supreme success. It's like the first hover car - it's gonna' take them a bit of iteration to work out the kinks.


I was pretty hard on L.A. Noire for just this reason. It had acceptable driving and shooting, but when its gameplay separates itself from other titles - specifically, the interviews - it was, more often than not, a frustrating mess with infuriatingly arbitrary pass and fail design.

It took years, for example, for a great cover-based shooting system to get fleshed out and implemented in Gears of War. It took even longer for a game to manage to be both a sandbox title and a capable third-person shooter (GTA IV). More often than not, such new systems could use another half-decade on the drawing board... but when something new comes along that just works, right out of the box?

Well, that's just Goddamned incredible.


Portal, for example, blew our collective minds back in 2007, and went on to be named on almost every Game of the Year list. It was a simple, first-person puzzle-platformer with exceptional design and a simple, original mechanic that had a ridiculous amount of exploited potential.

We're a very, very hard-to-please bunch, us gamers. We demand the new, but we want it to be familiar. We want to be shocked, but remain comfortable - and that, I suppose, is why I feel so positive about Alice.

It is, without question, an old-school action-platformer. Its mechanics are, by and large, the successful execution of gameplay from ten years ago - but it bursts with visual originality, charms with its unique protagonist and crackles with shocking themes.

It is familiar and new, shocking and comfortable. Delicious.

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