I’ve said before that I have a great love for games that go out and try to do something that either no one has ever tried before, or that lots of people have tried but have never succeeded at. It’s easy to point at the hundreds of AAA military shooters or series’ where each new entry is exactly the same as the last, save for some single gimmick that’s immediately forgotten in the next release, in order to comment on stagnation in the video game industry. That’s exactly what a lot of discussions do, in fact. We tend to focus on what’s bad about video games, which recently has been the sameism of game design and how developers like to copy-cat one another until a particular idea has been done so much in so little time that it becomes a joke just to bring it up (see: zombies).
More discussion should be be going to the experimental games; the ones that try out new things or do old ones in new ways. A favorite of mine is first person platforming, an idea that so many games like to dip their feet into but that very few have actually gotten right. In many otherwise amazing first person shooters, a level with heavy platforming elements can really kill the mood if they’re not done correctly. A good example of this can be seen with Half-Life, which we all love, save, maybe, for the Xen levels at the very end where rushed level design and controls not made with platforming in mind left the player frustrated right after what was a great game in every other aspect.
On the other end we have Mirror’s Edge, a game which I love far more than I probably should. The story is so-so and the game is far too short to justify the $60 release-day price (which I paid), but I love the game nonetheless. And one of the biggest reasons that I do love Mirror’s Edge is because of just how right it gets first-person platforming. There are some rough edges, of course, but this game was the first that I played with first person platforming that didn’t feel awkward or like an afterthought.
Games that experiment are important. They set precedent for less daring studios to follow and they set trends. Valve is really good at this*. Look at Half-Life‘s groundbreaking use of scripting, Left 4 Dead’s use of environmental storytelling, Portal’s… everything. There’s also the indie scene, which, unbound by publishers and gigantic budgets that need to be made back, tends to explore being more daring with their design.
Experimental games deserve a lot of respect. Some try completely new things and some manage to perfect something that others had previously thought was impossible to get right. That second group is my favorite; there’s nothing like a game that does something thought of to be universally terrible in games but managed to make it entertaining despite that.
*Probably because they’re already making more money than God via Steam, and don’t need to worry about following established trends in order to break even.