Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Lost, Damned: The Death of Novelty

Looking back on old games is a funny thing.

It's the nature of this young games culture (probably, for once, to its credit) that innovation is prized more highly than any other single asset. We're trying to push the medium forward, after all; but this means that going back to any game which did something particularly successfully, a couple of years later, is likely to be an experience of diminished enjoyment.

The games industry, at its best, is a magpie, stealing all the shiny bits of other games and polishing and adding to them. Soon you begin to take that innovation for granted- four years ago, the Gears of War/Rainbow Six cover system was brand new. Now, it's in everything, from the newest Grand Theft Auto to James Bond games and we can't see how games ever survived without it. Ditto regenerating health. Driveable cars in shooting games. Games seem a little broken without these obvious additions- running out from behind a wall, shooting, and running back,

This is a particularly peculiar experience when dealing with expansion packs. Even expandalones and completely reworked 'expansions' like the Half Life episodes are tied to their original source, but it's the straight-up, original-games-with-nobs-on expansion that is most curious. Case in point here: GTA IV expansion Lost & The Damned.
IV's a strange game: it came with a very immediate backlash, after the shine of the (wonderful) new technology and (progressive, at least) new style Rockstar had introduced. I've badmouthed it a little before but it was one of my formative gaming experiences. Where was all the space of San Andreas? The variety? The ridiculousness of Vice City? Where the hell were our jetpacks?

But I think its reputation has aged well. I was having a conversation with the friends I shared a copy of IV with, when it came out- I pointed out that our initial enthusiasm had seemed to burn out quickly, and if they thought it was a step backwards. They asked me, had I tried to go back and play San Andreas recently?

It's unplayable, they said. For all the ideas and innovations it added to the GTA formula (many of which were absent from IV), the nuts & bolts of that game, by modern standards, are fundamentally broken. IV polished the open-world, shooty-drivy game model to a hitherto unseen level- the newly crisp fidelity of this world and its inhabitants so much more tangible than the turn-round-and-they've-popped-out-of-existence world of the previous games.

Which brings us, finally, to The Lost & The Damned. Revisiting that polished world a year and a bit later (forever in gaming times), it seems somewhat tarnished. The game is technically new- but the world is unmistakably the same. The wonderful features of IV are still there, still enjoyable- the opening cutscene is impeccably stylish, and I've already had one hilarious encounter with a Euphoria-powered character who held desperately onto my bike as I rode off.

Yet, at times, I can't help but wince. Buildings pop in and out of sight much closer than I remember, all the characters except Jonny seem to be drawn by throwing a tin of brown paint over four or five pixels. And I don't remember Niko spouting canned lines so repetitively. In fact the game seems less accomplished than the much more sprawling IV, though I'm willing to admit that might be rose-tinted glasses speaking.
Meanwhile, and perhaps it's shallow, but the pure novelty of newness seems irrevocably gone. Without expanding on GTA IV the way Vice City did on GTA 3, there's even less sense of discovery. The world seems wilfully artificial- I've been recently addicted to the Red Faction demo- my eyes have been opened to this ridiculously fun (if imperfect) mechanism. I'm wondering- why the hell can't I plow through this wall? Meanwhile, Mirror's Edge makes Johnny's movements seem stiff and slow.

Both of these games have (or, in the case of Red Faction's demo, seem to have) some large failings of their own. But what they do is so fresh that their flaws become forgivable. More importantly, what they do achieve retrospectively eats at all that came before. L&tD is caught in a bind between the two positions- neither perfectly polished nor novelly innovative- and this makes it harder to love it. It's not a bad game by any means, but it's hugely crippled by this problem.

Gaming is such a forward-looking culture- apart from the odd stand-out, most commonly a Quake or Counter-Strike; ie, endlessly modifiable multiplayer games, we constantly hunger for the new. And often that seems like a failing, especially looking from the artsy hipster side of the fence, where I so often stand. But I think (3D, at least) gaming hasn't, maybe, yet reached the base level of tricks that, say, film has always had to hand. We're still developing those, and while we do, the standout classics-for-all-time will that much rarer. Gaming historians of the future will be interested in the innovators, but games like, say, Portal- relentlessly polished- are the best contenders for all-time-classic status.

Maybe.

Confession: Apologies, imaginary readers, for the giant hiatus there. The all-consuming entity of exams took me over for a bit there. I've missed you- and Blogspot most of all- I was always thinking of you, baby. The draft pages here are full of barely-begun ideas from across that period. But its hard to write about a media you've sworn yourself off for revision purposes. Let's hope it pays off, eh?

Confession II: I can see already there are flaws with this idea. For one, games can be both polished and innovative- HL2 remains very playable to this day, even if it's losing its looks with age. My opinion on GTAIV changes with the seasons. And I'm not sure how this applies to old games you've never really played: the acrobatic responsiveness of Mario 64 still impressed me when I got it for the Wii a year or two ago. I've got a cheap copy of Half-Life sitting on my desktop, waiting for experimentation. This isn't meant as a complete manifesto (obv.) its just something I've never thought about it till recently. This is the first draft, reckless in its own sense of newness, not the polished classic. Death of Novelty, the sequel, anyone?

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London, United Kingdom
Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.