The sensation that everything has been done is common and overwhelming in art. Games currently are experiencing a massive and overwhelming version of this issue; with a lack of successful non-sequel games on our brick-and-mortar marketplaces, we find ourselves lauding iterative improvements, such as the blue-shell-stopping horn in “Mario Kart 8” or the Sky-Hook in “BioShock Infinite.” This is neither an abnormal nor a bad thing; artistic evolution comes slowly and less focus on innovation allows for expression and execution to come to the fore. It’s also a generalization ignoring those games with drastically new gameplay styles like the independent games “Sportsfriends” or “Mini Metro.”
Despite this, it can feel like we’re overwhelmed by sequels, especially when Sony’s gamble on “The Order: 1886” could mostly be described as conventional and their other fresh game, “Bloodborne,” is effectively a license and name away from being a “Dark Souls” game. Still, there’s no reason to feel that games have no further venues to explore beyond these upgrades, scene changes and types of storytelling, as there are new possibilities not yet explored.
Last year’s “Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker” was developed as an experiment in creating Mario platformer levels in which Mario could not jump. The final product only slightly resembles a Mario game in play, ultimately more of a puzzle and exploration game than Mario’s action-oriented jumping. This serves as a beautiful example of changing the rules of play. Often, rule changes are considered the distinguishing factors between iterative sequels. For example, between “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2” and the next year’s entry “Call of Duty: Black Ops,” the game added the ability for the character to dive into a prone lying-down position from a standing run, allowing the character to evade the line of fire and defeat opponents or take cover.
But these rule changes can be quite dramatic in nature. The Call of Duty multiplayer rules have repeatedly changed their upgrade paths, throwing out entire systems through which players unlock new weapons and abilities to use in multiplayer matches. The Zelda franchise also has experimented with changing these rules, perhaps most notably with 2013’s “The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds,” which allows players to tackle the game’s seven primary dungeons in any order they see fit. This change dramatically increases the sense of exploration and reduces the sense of frustration with difficult dungeons, but it also reduces the sense of a shared narrative between players in the community.
Alternatively, there are fields of play that have not even really been developed. The 2005 platformer “Kirby: Canvas Curse” experimented with making the ball-like Kirby character unable to move other than by rolling ever forward, and the player’s role was to draw Kirby’s path through the levels. The gameplay, more sedate and creative than most platformers, effectively went unreplicated, barring a couple of unpopular platformers and then this year’s Wii U sequel, “Kirby and the Rainbow Curse.”
There are loads of ideas that have, at most, been attempted once or twice and then abandoned for years at a time. Games still do not successfully have a control platform for swimming underwater, levitating (despite successfully incorporating gliding, parachuting and flying) or doing more than passing the ball and “shooting” in most sports.
One unexplored idea is players serving as their own judges for performance in a game. Games operate like a basketball arcade machine: If the ball goes through the hoop, it registers the successful shot and marks the points. They have hardly explored the idea of games with players as the judges of success, watching the performance in a game to determine who completed any objective “the best.” There is precedent in sports like ice skating, extreme sports and most Olympic sports, as well as board and card games like “Apples to Apples.” Video games effectively only feature these options in video game versions of “Pictionary” or “Apples to Apples.”
Perhaps the most obvious of these is the virtual reality technology offered by Oculus, Morpheus and other 3D headsets. These headsets effectively place the player as the first-person viewer in a virtual environment, using motion-tracking technology and 3D rendering to allow for the simulation of being in a space in which a game might take place. Players report that experiencing a game you’ve already played using the prototypical versions of these headsets feels like an entirely different experience. These headsets are expected to enter commercial release in 2016.
In the meantime, I have a simple recommendation for players: Recognize the limits of your own library. For example, with the sensation I’ve played it all, I’ve ignored all sports games, most RPGs, strategy games and horror games. We all ignore some types of games. I guarantee there’s always something to enjoy in genres we don’t explore.