Reiteration, remediation, & recourse (Part 1)March 11, 2009
Having recently completed Resident Evil 5, it became apparent to me how the game is structured in both narrative and mechanically almost identical to the previous Resident Evil installment. This posting, however, will not be a discussion about the game but instead, something that has continued to nag at my brain for the past couple of weeks: the notion of reiteration in videogames or rather, more specifically, the philosophy of technological development that has “plagued” game design and mechanics for these past decades.
It is a problem we see with sequels in all mediums, where the same form from the previous entry is used as the foundation reliant on recognition. For example: looking at the Back to the Future 2 & 3 one sees a similar formula used from the previous Back to the Future film. This can either be an encounter with the bully, Biff in a bar from the 1950s, the 2010s, or the 1880s and his eventual demise in a pile of feces. Another example is a chase scene either using a skateboard, a hover-board, or a wagon. Viewers recognize the style, the format, and the plot device and through this recollection the story either plays with these events or reenact them to produce the same result.
Looking at Resident Evil 5 in comparison to Resident Evil 4 one sees outdoor environments eventually lead to a factory setting, near the end players meet zombies wielding weapons, and so forth. The games’ flow of difficulty and construction follow a similar route as the previous games. RE5’s mechanics are almost an exact replica of the RE4, except for the inclusion of a cover system and a few other tweaks. This exchange between tweaks and reiteration in videogames is common, especially now as we have reached the fourth and fifth installment in many game franchises. Street Fighter IV, Grand Theft Auto 4, Ninja Gaiden 2, Halo 3, Devil May Cry 4, and many other titles are essentially providing the same formula of gameplay either re-purposed or slightly improved upon.
It is a technological practice more so than an artistic one. A major fear of many artists is self-parody. Already, many gamers have grown tired of sequels, repeatedly asking for more original content or some drastic change in game design to arrive. It is a lofty balancing act where the developer either alienates the fans or tires them. A classic example if the 16-bit Super Mario Bros. games from the original to the lost levels to its legendary third installment. Yet, videogame sequels often fare much better than sequels in any other medium whether it is literature or film. That may say something more about the narrative value of games in contrast to its mechanical value. Only in technology do we see reiteration embraced so willfully by the consumer.
What does this say about the substance of the medium? A large belief of art is the notion of the archive. While this has been contested in philosopher Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction we have since reconstituted modern art into the archive with idolization of original prints, postmodern aesthetic, and disowned reworks films. Videogames remakes today are not given the same scrutiny and are often the optimal way of experiencing an old title for new users. We look forward to titles such as Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena or the original Persona on PSP. What does this say about the value gamers place over originality?The archive is increasingly often of no importance within the videogame medium. As consoles arrive to a point where developers can reintroduce patches into the gameplay these is nothing sacred about a work’s original form. As reviewers and gamers, patches are seen as a godsend and well received when it is perceived to improve a game by either balancing exploits or making its interface easier. Now we arrive where DLC can change the outlook on a game such as Ubisoft’s recent entry to Prince of Persia or Tomb Raider: Underworld? Games can no longer be judged at face value on release date but months after its release to see the kind of support developers continue to give to the intellectual property. The destruction of the archive is now disregarded, as gamers can no longer play games in its original form often forced to install a patch of sorts. (Note: I am aware that by deleting the patch and disconnecting a console to the Internet this is still an option.) But as we become or have become programmed to accept the patch as essential I cannot help but think that an artistic value of the medium has become lost in the videogame.
Reiteration also provokes another issue of contention in videogames, one more dangerously accepted than the issues previously stated. And that is the acceptance of plagiarism. When gamers widely see and accept the borrowed mechanics from games like Dead Space or the upcoming Dante’s Inferno whole new issues of merit present itself. This issue will continue in my next post and I will discuss the concept of remediation and whether it is of value as we discuss modern art and specifically its importance to whether we can consider videogames as art.