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Innovation this year seemed to come in small bursts. Instead of having a genre-creating idea rock the world, we had more subtle forward-thinking ideas appear in small tweaks of existing design trends.
And that’s perfectly fine with me. I don’t need a developer to create something completely new to jar my design senses. Being clever and creative is good enough.
Judging from the titles my fellow GamesBeat writers passed to me while contemplating innovation in 2014, we appear to be on the same page.
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Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor
Warner Bros. took a creative risk, for a commercial publisher, when they allowed Monolith some creative freedom with the Lord of the Rings franchise. It wound up paying off in multiple ways for the audience. For one, we received a cool, moodier perspective of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy world. In another way, Monolith got to implement their unique Nemesis System.
In Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, players take the role of Tailon, a ranger that is out for revenge against Sauron’s Orc horde. Among this dark army lurk special, high ranking enemies that will remember their confrontations with Talion, note his actions, and then begin to alter their behavior accordingly in future battles.
This creates an open world environment that features vastly specialized and personal confrontations, as these altered enemies begin to go off-the-rails and pursue the player in unique ways. It’s a new level of crafting the game’s artificial intelligence on the fly, which we hope will carry over to other games in 2015.
When it comes to making a positive change to a genre, you don’t necessarily have to scrap everything and reinvent the wheel. Sometimes if you just rethink how we use a spoke or where we place the bolts, you can vastly improve things.
Creative Assembly’s Alien: Isolation is a very good example of this. At its foundation, the game is an ordinary first-person stealth game. The pinch of genius, however, is in the Alien’s design.
Fans of the stealth genre are used to sneaking around very dumb computer controlled drones that walk a very strict path and never break from a predictable routine. The monster in Alien: Isolation breaks from the monotony of the traditional point A to point B patrol. It randomizes its patterns and stalks the player relentlessly. There are no absolute safe spots to hide and no full proof strategies for sneaking around the creature.
The added decision to make the beast indestructible, which turns being spotted by the creature into an instant death sentence, makes the Alien one of the most tense stealth adversaries in gaming.
Isolation raises the bar in the stealth genre considerably, and all it took was tweaking the artificial intelligence of one enemy creature.
This War of Mine
It is very easy to retreat inside of our self-centered bubbles and skew the horrible events in our world. These situations are often too large and complex for us to understand, let alone control. So it is easy for us to simplify, and more importantly, adopt a palatable narrative of these events.
Interactive mediums can be a very powerful tool to reinforce our self-induced pleasant untruths. Video games make it a blast to play virtual soldier, firing weapons of extreme slaughter at our buddies in a make-believe world. These war zones are specifically designated arenas of combat where innocent people have been safely teleported out of harm’s way. With a little help from the right new media outlets, our constant search for positive spin can give the arena-illusion power.
In reality, armed conflict often takes place in communities that have no clear and flashing boundary lines for its participants. They also lack a set schedule for innocent people to leave. People like you and I find themselves trapped by a conflict that is as controllable as a natural disaster.
This War of Mine touches on the truths of conflict and the effects it has on people by having players manage a group of civilians in a war-torn city. None of the playable characters are extraordinarily heroic or superhuman. Not one is a trained soldier or even a very adept survivalist. They get hungry, require medicine, fear for loved ones, and struggle to keep from breaking down in an intolerably high stress environment. Just like the vast majority of you reading this now.
It’s not just the counterbalance to war games, but it also turns the post-apocalyptic fantasy on its head. Survival means risking death by snipers or being murdered and looted by other civilians. There’s nothing lighthearted or other-worldly pleasant about the desperation.
I’m not looking to guilt trip or condemn the fun of playing fantasy, and I don’t feel 11-Bit Studios is either. I have a tinge of shame inside of me that we find this innovative in 2014, not because This War of Mine doesn’t deserve it, but simply because the medium rarely addresses this topic.
Rollers of the Realm
The most frightening part of trying something new is failure.
As true as that may be, failure is a harsh word when we discuss Rollers of the Realm. I may have had a lot of constructive criticism for the game last month, but its unique qualities make it far from a failure. As much as I feel the idea needs a lot of tweaks in its fundamentals, I think the way Phantom Compass tried to mix role-playing game narrative with pinball is deserving of a spot on this list.
The idea of making balls playable characters with their own plot points and back stories and playfields that represent fantasy locations filled with soldiers and creatures to take down is creative. When Rollers of the Realm is on point, it exposes the abstract physical narrative of pinball like no other experience.
The Floor is Jelly
Games can be a powerful interactive tool when it comes to answering the questions other medium’s can’t.
In Ian Snyder’s case, that question is, “What if everything you touched was made of jelly?”
The Kansas City Art Institute student set off to find the answer to this deep philosophical conundrum via some creative prototyping. He eventually struck on an interesting twist to the platformer genre.
As the name suggests, the floors, ceilings, and walls of the game world are made of jelly. The environment squeezes and stretches to the avatar’s every touch, helping to propel the player through its squishy, dream-like world. It’s simple in concept and execution, but still brilliant and delightful.
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