I had a rather unique experience over the last week. Or at least, unique for me. These days, as I’ve lamented quite often and obnoxiously, I’m met with a schedule that doesn’t allow me to play and finish too many video games. However, in this last week, I’ve managed to complete two titles. And not just any two titles, but two fun and individual titles: Brutal Legend and Mass Effect 2.
While for the most part, these just seem like regular old video games on the surface, there’s something special about them. Something that struck me. You see, both of these games are genre busters. Games that come along and buck genre tropes, straddling the line between two or several different styles of play, combining them all in a way that doesn’t play awkwardly. Sure, there are several games that try to shove mechanics of multiple games together (Grand Theft Auto for one), but it’s more like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. Very rarely do these games actually succeed at what they set out to do. Which makes it pretty cool when the developers actually pull it off.
Let me start with Mass Effect 2. Over the first few hours, I had mixed feelings about the amalgamation of it as a shooter and as an RPG, but as the game moved forward, I was marveling at the fact that Bioware had created something that I hadn’t really played before: an operatic sci-fi shooter with customizable RPG elements that told an engaging story. Sure, many have tried. But none with quite the sweeping victory that Bioware did in Mass Effect 2.
The end of the game, for one, had me completely on the edge of my seat. I’ve heard some complaints and criticisms about the way the game handles the final mission, namely that any of your characters can die in a way that at first seems rather arbitrary. However, when two of my characters (one of them my favorite character in the game) kicked the bucket early in the mission, suddenly I was worried about who else might go. Would all of them? None of them? Would Commander Shepherd eat it, too?
As I’m trying to finish most games, I teeter on the edge of impatience and satisfaction for knocking another game off the list. With Mass Effect 2, all I felt was nervous anticipation because I wanted to see how the tale wrapped up, and find out if my actions resulted in the survival of the characters I really cared about.
Likewise, Brutal Legend combines humor, music/rhythm, action/adventure, role-playing, sandbox and RTS elements into a huge gaming soup, and the result is something truly special. I know that some people don’t quite care for the RTS stuff in Brutal Legend, but I found it to be terribly fun, and made for one of the most unique games I’ve played in this generation. All of the things it mixed together sound like they wouldn’t work on the surface, but in practice were executed brilliantly. Had I played it a couple of months earlier, the game would have easily landed in my top 10 for 2009.
Playing these games made me wonder why we don’t see more unique mash-ups of genres the way both of these games attempted to do. I think that while this generation has shown some cool leaps forward in terms of technology, story-telling and immersion, it feels like we’ve seen a step back in terms of innovation and gameplay. We are over-genrefying (yes I made that word up) games rather than opening them up to multiple styles. Shooters are becoming more restricted. RPG’s are being thrown in one of two molds, Western or JRPG. Music games feel largely the same. And on top of that, we’re slapping motion control on the same old formulas and labeling it “innovation”.
However, maybe the path to better innovation in the titles we play is in the mixing of genres. Left 4 Dead, for instance, made its mark by making a shooter that focused almost solely on co-operative play, and dropped a bombshell on the whole history, leaving many copycats in its wake. Heavy Rain, which I played a demo of over the weekend, feels almost like nothing else I’ve played in the last few years, save for Indigo Prophecy, by the same studio. I hope that as this generation moves forward, we start to see this more and more, as studios push the boundaries of what genres can do, and find new creations that are more unique, more long-lasting, and ultimately more satisfying as video games.
What about you guys? What are some of the most unique experiences you’ve had with video games in the last few years? Where do you think innovation is going to come from in video games?