Ah cynicism, is there anything it cannot be applied to? Doubtless the games industry is too low hanging a fruit to just snipe for an easy topic to a weekly editorial, but when have I ever pretended to be above such things? If the industry is apt to rest on unchallenging deductions about how to design things based on what is popular, then why should I not be so similarly inclined? The topic this week, friends, is AAA mudslides or how a great game begins a series (usually a trilogy) with a lot of promise and ends up a mealy porridge. Too many game franchises began well for me to not be disappointed in their downturn a few years later. Often these games have the kernel of an idea that truly is unique or at least fresh amongst the current landscape, and the tragedy is that this very idea is the both the reason for the game’s popularity and the first thing to be compromised in subsequent titles.
Survival horror has been decried as woefully under represented in modern gaming since about the turn of the seventh generation (last gen) where the third person cover shooter, Call of Duty, and wide open exploration affairs like Fallout 3 were kings. Survival horror demanded smaller spaces, less exposition, and much less player empowerment. In general, the genre’s tenants are to design tightly in small spaces and with subtlety and tension built into the environments. And at a time when developers are trying to show off how big and loud their game worlds can be, at a time when consumers are showing greater interest in such things as well, these tenants of the genre did not mesh with contemporary demand. Once this specific dearth of design was noticed, after a several years absence, survival horror titles came back on the scene (not always successfully) but way back in 2008 there came an exemplar of the genre taking inspiration from horror film classics like Event Horizon: the wonderful Dead Space.
Like many firsts in a series, and new IPs in general, Dead Space had its rough spots. The initial starting weapon was arguably the only weapon one would need and enemy placement was predictable as they could only spawn through very conspicuous air vents. But the rest of the genre’s ideal concepts were in place. The player is not a soldier or even an athlete, but an engineer stuck in a terrible situation. There are no companions, save for some radio contacts and old messages left behind. The player character is also silent, an old gaming mechanic that would be broken by the second game. And by the third game, most of the original’s identity is stripped in favor of a cover based co-op experience, full of dialogue between partners and action packed gun fights between people. Slowly, as the game’s popularity increased, it was designed to look more and more like other successful games until it left the genre it started in.
And while not quite as drastic as all that, Mass Effect is guilty of creeping away from its roots to cast a wider net as well. While the original in the series has some terrible design decisions (comparing weapons and equipment was a chore), it offered comprehensive dialogue choices and character building while hanging on to an RPG aesthetic to drive the gameplay. That would be dropped slowly in favor of yet another cover based shooter, even while the character building would strengthen in the second game. But by the third game, even the plot and dialogue would suffer for the developer’s attempt at making the biggest flashiest game world possible as well as the wholly unneeded addition of a competitive multiplayer mode (remember that?). Something had to suffer since doubtless the publisher was not going to give more time for the game despite the bigger list of things to produce, and the thing that suffered was the ending. Longtime fans were sidelined in favor of the expanded playerbase as each game must attract more players than the one before. A fine enough sentiment, but when the game before is among the top selling games of the year, the ambition smacks more of greed than of savvy.
Here is where I would have otherwise brought up the Souls series, once again, but I have talked even my own ear off about that subject matter. Instead I would posit a counter example from none other than the banana empire itself, Nintendo. Pikmin is a series that knows exactly what it wants to be and when Pikmin 2 was released it was, to quote our own Lusipurr, just Pikmin again! It added a couple new kinds of pikmin, the titular little helper creatures, and refined some of the mechanics from the original game. The puzzle structure was quite the same, the conceit for collecting them was new of course, and the overall challenge was ramped up for series vets. By Pikmin 3 the game swapped in more new pikmin while hanging on to the core red, blue, and yellow ones. They added another leader character, to a total of three, making for more opportunities for clever puzzle solving and multitasking. At no time did the series attempt to fold some kind of popular concept into its design, quite the opposite. By the third entry they added a quirky bingo themed competitive minigame that no one asked for. And the re-released motion control version was a very natural fit for the series, making rallying and positioning groups of pikmin that much easier. So if I have one piece of advice for games like Dead Space or Mass Effect, or for games that wish to emulate them, it is this: be more like Pikmin. In fact, I just want to play Pikmin.
So, readers, Pikmin? Or do you Pikmin? Even if you Pikmin, let me know below! Pikmin today and tell all of your Pikmin!