Celebrating original videogame properties

In an autumn schedule full of sequels, Paul explains why original game IPs are important, and why we should check out Dishonored…

There’s a famous image published by Cracked that collates three screenshots taken from games displayed at 2010’s E3 games conference (Killzone 3, Medal Of Honor, Modern Warfare 2) under the heading ‘The State of the Games Industry’.

The pictures, of course, are almost identical: the same blood spattered screen, same first-person perspective, same muddy-grey colour palette, same military rifle with laser scope. 

This was over two years ago, and while some of the tireless optimists among us may have hoped that staleness and declining sales in the games industry may have led to something akin to what happened in Hollywood in the 70s. Back then, producer Robert Evans saw that the films at his studio, Paramount Pictures, were faring poorly, and so with nothing to lose, took a chance by giving unprecedented creative freedom to a bunch of young, talented filmmakers. This led both directly and indirectly to the creation of The Godfather, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, Jaws, and all the great 70s movies you know and love.

Unfortunately, gaming (at least in terms of big-budget, AAA titles) is still some way away from a paradigm shift that will produce similarly transcendent works. This is for a variety of economic reasons, with the main one being the very small profit margins on so-called AAA titles, which are continuing to get smaller every year. As a result, the big games publishers are unwilling to take risks on properties that don’t already have a built-in audience, and therefore a guaranteed consumer base. Also, marketing a unique, original property is a lot more taxing than for a genre sequel, where everyone knows exactly what they’re getting.

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The unwillingness of games companies to take risks has now got to the point that it’s not just gameplay innovations that are being restricted – just telling an unfamiliar story is now seen as a huge gamble. Recently, the action-RPG Darksiders was held up as an example of a company taking a risk on an original IP and it paying off, despite the gameplay itself being very similar to any Zelda game from the past ten years – and of course, Darksiders II launched last month, seeing the birth of yet another franchise.

Of course, if you want innovation in gaming, the low budget, independent scene has never been better, and the problems of creative stagnancy listed above certainly aren’t unique to videogames – just about every form of popular culture appears to be stuck in a cycle of franchise, reboot, repeat.

But blockbuster movies are a hot-spring of innovation compared to the AAA videogame industry – just take a look at this autumn’s big releases: sequels (Halo 4, Call Of Duty: Black Ops II, Medal Of Honor: Warfighter, Assassins Creed III), reboots (XCOM: Enemy Unknown), or licensed games (Lego City Undercover, 007 Legends).

There is one title released this autumn that stands out, purely by dint of being the only major release that doesn’t fit into one of those three categories. It’s Dishonored, the new stealth-action game from Arkane Studios, and developers Harvey Smith and Raphael Colantonio.

Actually, stealth-action isn’t a particularly accurate way to describe Dishonored’s gameplay, which seems like a combination of Thief: The Dark Project’s first-person stealth, Deus Ex’s open-ended gameplay solutions, BioShock’s plasmid-based combat and Assassin Creed’s, er, assassinations and free running.

As that list demonstrates, the idea of Dishonored’s gameplay being a wholly ‘original’ concept may not be entirely accurate, but since it’s true that really, there are no new ideas, only new ways of presenting them, then Dishonored’s presentation is also genuinely interesting.

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The art style seems diametrically opposed to many of the current crop of big releases, shying away from the faux-realism that many of its FPS counterparts attempt to depict and instead going for a deliberately unrealistic, ‘moving-painting’ style. Indeed, the aesthetic is said to have been based more on books and paintings than on movies and games, with 17th century influences blending with Orwellian dystopia and Lovecraftian horror.

The city of Dunhill is loosely based on plague-era London, but features anachronistic technology such as buggy vehicles, and is also said to have been directly influenced, at the developers’ request, by Half-Life 2’s City 17 (lead designer Viktor Antonov also developed much of that game’s technology and many of its environments).

As a result, Dishonored is difficult to place in any genre, or even any time period, and as such feels like a genuinely fresh and unusual title coming out in the middle of a slate of no doubt technically excellent but depressingly unimaginative sequels. It’s a reminder of why original properties are so important – free from the shackles of licensed content and the expectations of franchise fanboys, and a supportive publisher in Bethseda behind them, Smith and Colantonio have been able to make exactly the game they wanted to make, cherry-picking everything they find cool from a variety of influences before blending it into something uniquely their own.

The two men are industry legends, and have been responsible for some of the most critically-acclaimed games ever made, including Arx Fatalis (Colantonio), Deus Ex and System Shock 2 (Smith). It’s a testament to how difficult it is to acquire funding for original games, however, that even these two have struggled for many years to bring their ideas to audiences.

A recent profile on the pair at The Verge featured a litany of disappointments – Smith had his top-down strategy game Technosaur cancelled due to EA deeming (correctly, as it turned out) that isometric games were the future, then struggled with the pressures of churning out a direct sequel to Deus Ex on the Xbox. Colantonio was asked to lend game engines custom-built for his own projects to be used for other, bigger franchises instead, and worked for many years with Valve on the infamous The Crossing, a revolutionary and fascinating sounding attempt to blend multiplayer and single-player gaming, before developmental struggles led to him putting the game on hold to work on another, experimental project with Steven Spielberg, before that was eventually cancelled as well. 

Now, the two men have found kindred spirits in each other and in publisher Bethesda. The Elder Scrolls software giant acquired Colantonio’s Arkane Studios in 2010, and the pair say the publisher “fully support” their values and commitment to original game experiences.

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Whether Bethseda’s gamble will pay off, both commercially and artistically, remains to be seen: for now though, it’s refreshing and heartwarming to see a game released that so clearly favours the art of game design and a love for the medium over commercial interests. Hopefully, if it is successful, it will kickstart gaming’s ‘70s Paramount’ phase, and we’ll finally get a string of idiosyncratic masterpieces around the Christmas period.

For now, though, it’s good to see two men rewarded for their years of hard work, and their admirable, steadfast refusal to buckle to industry pressure.

Now, if they could just turn their attention back to The Crossing…

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