Saturday, 9 March 2013

Language Games: Clones

"I'm a clone, I know it and I'm fine."
After dabbling for a few years in writing my thoughts on games down in words and forms that other people could understand instead of keeping my feelings restrained exasperated abandoning of pads and grunts of joy/despair from in front of a screen in the safety of my own home, I've progressed onto tackling the idea of consistently trying to review games, and I'm starting to think about how hard it is to actually write about games well. Part of the issue resides in the idea that a game is inexplicably tied to its mechanics and presentation in a way that other mediums aren't (bear with me) and this poses a unique challenge to a reviewer, with three of the choice issues being: how do I explain these mechanics which at there most basic are “Push A to do B” without boring people, how do I separate the my inability to control a game well from the actual quality of the control scheme, and how do I talk about something that is mechanically similar to dozens of other titles without falling back on those titles?

I think these are all fairly interesting ideas so I decided to postulate a bit on them and write about them, and tackle them in three separate bits. Obviously I don't write for any big sites or anything, but these issues have cropped in my very basic communications about games with others, and are issues with the vocabulary around gaming that exists so far. So maybe there are examples of reviewers out there doing it right, or maybe I've missed communities where these issues are resolved through deft prose and delicate syntax, but as far as I'm aware that isn't the case. Anyway, onwards.

“Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.”

There are limited viewpoints a game can take place from, at least that we've seen operating successfully. Games tend to be boxed quite aggressively into these categories, with the likes of Third Person Action Game and First Person Shooter being labels that are bandied around with aplomb. I don't want to debate genre as I think that's a whole other issue that needs specific analysis and discussion, and that might ultimately be too reductive for practical use, but instead the idea that a game that is similar to another is labelled as a “clone" which, as a word, implies some kind of reduced worth or merit. 

If a developer was to make a Third Person Shooter with a cover mechanic today, it would almost instantly be labelled by consensus as a 'Gears of War clone' due to Epic's fine handling of the cover mechanic. If the same game were to take place in a jungle environment, or include a little more platforming or exploration: Uncharted clone. Restrictive over the shoulder viewpoint with a bent towards horror? Resident Evil clone. Little more SciFi in the mix? Dead Space clone. Large open area map? Grand Theft Auto clone.

It's Isaac Clarke, in Spain!
I personally thing the reducing of a title to the status of the clone of a larger title is a huge misstep in any kind of dialogue about games. Firstly it is going to be a fact that any game with a Third Person control scheme is going to be incredibly similar mechanically to any other. The control system is defined as it is because it works so well, the system is tried and test much as the panel structure of comics works, and the editing techniques in films work. As a medium gaming isn't mature enough to effectively play with these conventions for results other than frustration. We know right trigger is fire, and it always will be, this does not help us talk about the game. Secondly, it's a kind of reductionist approach to games that will always baffle me. Indiana Jones is a series of film deeply rooted in old adventure serials, matinee films and B-Movies, and borrows a lot from them in order to work so well, yet it is not a clone of whatever the most iconic of those films it is trying to emulate. In order to talk about games in a more constructive way, this tired crutch has to be let go as it doesn't help anyone as anything other than reductive short hand.

“A Call of Duty is a Medal of Honour is a Doom is a Castle Wolfenstien.”

It's Leon Kenndy, in Space!
Take Dead Space as an example. Ostensibly a game that would be referred to as a Resident Evil 4 clone, try and envisage a way that this description helps beyond stating some basic facts about the control scheme and part of the tone. It doesn't convey half of what is so brilliant about Dead Space at all. The grand architecture of the Ishimura, the brilliance of the HUD being reduced to elements of Isaac's suit itself, the mechanics involved in fighting the necromporphs, the pace, structure and tone of the majority of the game are not accurately described by this description. Further more it's incredibly lazy and full of misdirection. How else would an over the shoulder survival horror game with guns have worked? What control scheme could have been applied that wouldn't have in some way aped what is already known to be a robust and expressive system?

The whole idea that any title coming out is simply a clone of a previous big title is a disservice to a game, it's easy to reduce a game down to its constituent parts and mechanical influences, but just because a First Person Shooter is set during a real world conflict, it does not make it a Call of Duty clone or an ARMA clone. The time to lazily compare games in this way has gone, and it's up to us to stop labelling them in this way and instead embracing each titles unique ideas and contributions to the medium. So common place is the clone descriptor, and so expected by the population at large, that a game has even commented on the entire idea; Metal Gear Solid 2 is in part a commentary on the fact that all people wanted was a clone of Metal Gear Solid despite the intentions of Hideo Kojima, and the Raiden dupe was doubly effective as a response to this and also as its part of the story. That any disaster film that comes out isn't immediately referred to as an Independence Day clone, and that people are able to appreciate these similarities without that being their only way to articulate the content and presentation of films simply shows that the language we have to talk about games isn't quite up to scratch yet, and as the medium evolves we're going to need to step up our own discourse to adequately communicate the differences of the offerings before us.

No deeper meaning, nope.

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