“I cant believe I’m about to say this – I’ll never work in this industry again – but in the mainstream space I really haven’t seen a whole lot of progress. It seems like we’re getting more finely-tuned, prettier versions of games we’ve been playing for years.” – Warren Spector
Ingenuity is rare in the world of video games in this age of sequels and rehashes. When the NES rolled around, gaming was in its Genesis and ideas were plentiful. As Mario became a hit, companies followed the popularity and platformers flooded the market. The Super NES came out, and RPGs flourished with the extra cartridge space. Square and Enix dominated the market as platformers were still being refined into perfection, and soon companies jumped on the latest trend.
With the introduction of 3D gaming from the Nintendo 64 and PlayStation, every previous genre had the chance to have a new start, for better or worse, in the third dimension. Adventure games especially exploded as collect-a-thon platformers were released in excess as a way to establish a mascot for Sony’s new console. Following that generation up was, again, an era of improvements. The graphics looked better, and suddenly action games became huge. Platformers, RPGs, adventure games, among the rest, had already made the jump to 3D, so now was the time to perfect things, as well. Finally, last generation spawned the flood of shooters, open-world games, western RPGs, simulators, and about everything else you can think of. It’s not like any of these genres were new this time around; it was just that the basic ideas from years before had been redefined over and over, and the surge of gaming into mainstream entertainment caused a lot of old ideas to become.
However, as Warren Spector said, nothing today in the industry is new. Almost every game you see today, especially from AAA companies, is just the same old game with a new coat of paint. The Witcher 3, while a great game, is the same open-world RPG that you’ll find on the skeleton of Skyrim and Watch_Dogs. These games on the surface, and even deep down, are radically different and it may seem blasphemous to even think that they are similar, but at the true core, all of these games are open-world RPGs where you travel around, level your character up, and complete quests. True, untouched ideas are hard to come by today.
The exception to this, though, is the indie scene. Last generation was the first generation where the people that were raised on video games were old enough to create their own games, and with the breakthrough marketplaces of Steam, PSN, Xbox Live, and Nintendo eShop, developers were given extremely easy ways to get their game out to the world. In some aspects, this is just continuing the problem of over-saturating the market with games everyone has already played in one form or another. On the other hand, wading through these waters will reward players with some truly unique experiences. Last year, a small game called Undertale came out of no where and redefined the RPG genre, causing surprise universal acclaim overnight and holding a place on many Game of the Year lists. This year, the FPS genre has received the same treatment. After unfathomable amounts of Call of Duty and Battlefield, a game like Superhot proves that you can breathe fresh air into anything.
Superhot is a game that sees its genesis at a game jam for first-person shooters. The team was given a week to develop a working prototype, and the director of the game, Piotr Iwonicki, was inspired by a Flash game called Time4Cat where the player guides a cat to food on a busy road intersection. In this game, the world around the cat only moves when the player moves. Iwonicki thought this would be a cool concept for a shooter, and the team created three levels, which were eventually released as a free browser prototype. The game quickly gained popularity, as Iwanicki says, because players were looking for any variation in the standard formula of FPS games that had not changed since Doom. The team went to work on a full release of the game from there, which was successfully Kickstarted in its first day on the website, and was later released in February of 2016.
The game consists of bite-sized levels where your goal is to kill everyone in the stage. Everything, including bullets and people, moves when you move. You can punch a guy, grab the gun from his hand, and shoot him in the face in slow-motion, but in reality it only took you a second. This leads to some gameplay that is very reminiscent of Hotline Miami in the sense of destructive trial and error. When you start a level, katana or gun in hand, your main focus should be on learning where all of the enemies come from and what the environment is like. Death brings you quickly back to the beginning of the level to try again, and there are no penalties for death, so constant experimentation is encouraged to get the job done. Every level is a puzzle in itself where you must strategically avoid death as an onslaught of red men come against your one-man army.
This simple addition of the time stopping breathes new life into this otherwise stale genre. Call of Duty and Battlefield brought the first-person shooter genre into prominence last generation, but the market became oversaturated with the games as developers kept pumping shooters out without any real innovation. Developers have tried to freshen it up since, with the parkour and mech of Titanfall to the asymmetric hunting of Evolve, but only a couple have been able to succeed. The only example I can think of is Team Fortress 2, with its class-based gameplay and multiple modes that allow for instant variety, as well as a reason to keep playing.
Superhot is another example of how to take a simple concept like shooting from first-person and freshen it up with a solid twist. Games like Titanfall try to build upon the groundwork of games like Call of Duty to improve and add ideas, but fall flat when that only leads to a few good ideas that do not hold attention for long. True innovation comes from completely reworking what we know about something from the ground up. The reason Super Mario 64 has been hailed as the true innovative 3D platformer is because it took conventions that people had grown to love and threw them in the trash to bring something truly new to the table, while still feeling fa
miliar. It wasn’t just because no one had experienced that level of 3D gaming at that point. Super Mario 64 wasn’t, at face value, much different than the 2D games that people adored. It had jumping, it had enemies, it had end goals, and it had Mario. The difference came in the openness of the game. Levels had multiple stars hidden inside that could be obtained through varying means instead of a single flagpole, and it allowed players to truly get to know their environment for the first time, instead of passing by from start to finish. Peach’s Castle was a living, breathing level select screen. It broke the barrier between level select and actual level by creating one cohesive gameplay style that was used in every corner of the game, as opposed to breaking it apart before.
With Superhot, the game does not feel like a first-person shooter, but it also doesn’t feel like a puzzle game. There is something extremely unique about it, even though almost all of the conventions feel familiar. You’ve shot a gun before, you’ve avoided enemy fire before, and you’ve gone into the fray over and over to find the best way through before. For some reason, though, the way Superhot feels is new and old at the same time. Missions are only a couple minutes long, at most, which is very strange for a shooter. You are given so much power as the controller of time, but you are still susceptible to constant death. You are given only four different weapons, but all hold significant power. Something in the psychology of a player is going to immediately enjoy the game, simply because they’ve never experienced this specific feeling in a game before. The mainstays of shooters, like military settings, a boatload of guns, and realism, are completely tossed. Everything about the game is unique, and yet none of it is either. The game has an average score of 83/100 over 53 critic reviews, so clearly many people are understanding that this new experience is something that needs to be played.
Today’s market relies on trends and sequels, but it comes at the cost of the consumer. We crave new experiences. That’s why crowd-funding has grown in recent years, as people are given the chance to make their voice heard about what games they want to see made. They are putting their finger down and saying, “That’s something I’d like to experience.” Nintendo relies on a mix nostalgia and innovation for players to buy their games, which is why people treasure them so much, as they have found a balance of shoving another another new Mario game but with a new twist or revival like New Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Galaxy. Until the bigger developers see that players need new adventures and ideas to want to keep playing, the indies will be making the headlines.