Written by: Anastasia Salter, Pop-Culture Editor
In my continual fascination with the future of gaming and storytelling, I spend a lot of my time playing experimental games, filled with new mechanics, original puzzles, unusual tales and unexpected graphics. These games are fascinating—and, with emerging markets powered by digital distribution and new models of payment, they are only beginning to reach their potential–but the majority of the gaming industry soldiers forth untroubled by such experiments, with proven series releasing new titles like clockwork, often distinguishable from the last only by graphics or a change of setting. These are the games that non-gamers often know and cite as reasons the industry can be easily dismissed. But these games, rather like the formula genres of fiction that fill the virtual shelves of Amazon, remain testaments to the essential appeals of the form while also holding warnings for its future.
I was reminded of this by a recent Xbox Live Arcade release, Crimson Alliance. Crimson Alliance is using a twist on the idea of “freemium” gaming: it’s free to start playing, but it order to keep going you need to pay to unlock a character class. Other than the temptations of free gold, the game generally plays fair, requiring no further monetary investment—although the misleading free download of the game combined with the stigma of micropayments doesn’t win it any points.
The gameplay of Crimson Alliance is immediately familiar, as it is a clone of numerous predecessors with few alterations to the basic formula. There’s nothing new here—just a smooth execution of a highly repetitive style of game that has been done many times and yet will not fade. It is linear, the puzzles are straightforward, and the difficulty is reasonably progressive. And, thanks to a beautifully done shared screen cooperative mode that mimics the style of an arcade game, I’ve already spent more than a few hours immersed in its world of zombies and lich queens.
Why can such a formula endure? Hack and slash games have evolved in graphics, and even added complexity, but the fundamentals remain unchanged. I’ve watched them grow–Doom begun the trend, albeit from the first-person shooter perspective, but Heretic was the game that captured my youth and more hours of spare time than I care to remember. Even though it was simply Doom in fantastical clothing, the addition of the new types of monsters and powers in the place of guns made all the difference for me.
Compare that to Diablo, the first installment in a defining series of gaming that combined endless fighting with a third person view and vague elements borrowed from role-playing games. The story—a descent into the pits of hell located conveniently beneath a small but well-stocked village—was admittedly thin, but that mattered far less than getting cool armor and increasingly more powerful weapons for slaying demons:
Gauntlet Legends, an arcade action-adventure game with fantastical characters and a shared-screen cooperative mode, remains one of the most famous games of this style and is in gameplay a near-perfect match for Crimson Alliance–though the more recent game avoids both the “micropayment” madness of quarters and the communal character leveling of arcade game saves based on 3-character names and passwords. (At my local arcade, the name “AAA” with the password “ZZZ” was maxed level in no time.)
Even the next installment in the Diablo series is by all appearances fundamentally true to these roots, despite a flirtation with a real-cash powered economy and the always-on Internet moving the game from truly local play (the arcade standby) to a pseudo-mass-multiplayer:
The defining genres of the industry—the shooter, the sports game, the RPG, the real-time strategy game, etc.—are unlikely to go away. They remain some of the best testaments to the possibilities of immersion brought on by the right balance of interactivity and challenge. Watch an intense gamer in a rolling chair dodge incoming virtual bullets not just with his keyboard but with his entire body—that is gaming at its fundamentals.
While the industry contemplates the outside arguments over its own artistic merit, games like this one are released every day, continuing these strong traditions while failing to learn from the innovation going on just next door. Yet the crosspollination of the experimental and the familiar offers truly tantalizing potential for the future. After all, there’s no reason that the story for Crimson Alliance, delivered through motion comic cut scenes, needed to be quite so dreadful—or so appalling in its depiction of a supposedly sex and power crazed young woman turned villainess whose appearance (and outfit) is straight out of a DC comics reboot.
Well, there’s almost no reason—the game’s free-ish to play roots bring it even closer to the series it derives from, perhaps more from necessity than anything else. Making a well-executed clone is still an easier feat that building working original gameplay, particularly because the previous models offer so many lessons learned. Taking those next steps into hiring a skilled writer, researching and building from something outside a well-trodden mythos, or rethinking the all-too-familiar principles of D&D-esque character classes and magic requires a larger investment, difficult to justify when many players will push to the end of the “trial” experience and then move on to the next well-reviewed “free” to play clone. If we only get the best we are willing to pay for as a collective, there’s not much incentive to go beyond the well-executed formula to something that can push the genre further.