Reiteration, remediation, & recourse (Part 1)

March 11, 2009

gameboysHaving 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?

With a face-palm Benjamin scoffs at Pong's 100th reiteration.

With a face-palm Benjamin scoffs at Pong's 100th reiteration.

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.



  1. The archive argument is an interesting one…sometimes I wonder what exactly I’m recording when I write about a game. Should all of our essays on games be gathered up in the archive and the game allowed to change? Is it wrong to want an experience machine to be in perfecting working order, if only so that people can appreciate it on the best possible level?

    There will always be the write-ups recording the game during its lamer stages…

  2. I’ve been playing the Sega Ultimate collection for the PS3 and all the games are kept exactly as they are. I appreciate that. The thing about archiving technology is that eventually it is that the technology soon becomes out of date. My Genesis doesn’t work as well as it once did, and even if it did I doubt I could find catrages to games I didn’t own very easily. Technology is a very dubious thing to archive. Video games may be tthe new medium, but their history will take much more effort than any other medium to preserve.

    Most people making video games today are programmers not artists. I think that is the problem for repetative video games. How to build a better ship is about the frame work, not the decor.

  3. It is great that compilations such as Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection exists. What we have hear is two opposing philosophies between art and business–though I would not want to imply that both are incompatible. But when we are looking at not only technology but programming, do we give it the same regard?

    Yes, game mechanics may become obsolete but they should not be disregarded and forgotten. I am sure programmers and developers take pride in their work and they shouldn’t be confined to look at games through a merely a business window of profit. Repetitiveness is not a major issue of concern, rather the acceptance of it in videogames more than any other artistic medium. Not only this, but the tinkering of the very same product.

    If someone were to remake a Zelda games with better graphics and updated game design the majority of gamers would be in adoration and acceptance. A trend in games I see is that gamers are unwilling to accept frustration or mechanical hurdle. Flaws are essential for a work of art and yet we continue to outcry for them to be closed out without regard to the value of its initial release.

  4. There is no need to be so pessimistic about the state of such a new medium. Even film went through such a phase, where critics were afraid cinema would die as no new narrative ideas would be created. They were afraid cinema would be stuck in an infinite loop of adaptations from literature and the stage, and cinema would never rise to be a legitimate medium for artistic statement. Video games in this era are going through the same kind of worry. With mechanics being replicated and the notion of the deterioration of the archive, video games can never be considered works and would never transcend this loop. One can see the similarities in this way of thinking.

    However, I would like to suggest that we rethink mechanisms of games into a function of genre rather than the sole definition of game. After all, it isn’t the mechanics that make a game enjoyable. Yes, they allow for a much pleasurable experience, but games with the most simplest of mechanics create very enjoyable experiences. Rather, when we think of genre in video games, we should automatically think about how the creator uses the game mechanics to influence the player’s decisions about how he conquers the creator’s challenges. Thus, mechanics simply become a tool, not the very essence, of a video game. Reiteration of mechanics then, can be seen as a reaffirmation of the foundations of a genre. For example, the Street Fighter player will keep playing iterations of Street Fighter not because of narrative, but because each new installment presents new challenges to be conquered by the player while keeping the same methods of completion. To admonish a (while probably stale) perfectly good game simply because it is a sequel ignores the sheer reason why we play games. Admonishing sequels is like refusing to watch films in the same genre because they will somehow be unfaithful to the “father genre.”

    We always see video games in a constant cycle of affirmation and reworking of their conventions. Of course, profitability is a factor in why sequels are made, but games are constantly reworking themselves, much like genres in other mediums rework themselves to integrate ideas of the public into these genres, and force out tired old ideas. This is only natural in such a medium where we simply cannot be contempt with the one product. We need many more, we need more challenges to conquer. Parody exists in video games, and they are applauded as original works, though their existence is very rare. Where we get true innovation, real artistry is when a creator decides to deconstruct and destroy the very foundation a game’s genre is built upon. This has happened before, and games that have done this have been canonized into legendary works.

  5. I appreciate this discourse, but it’s less in line with your other posts. Here you ask good questions, but I find your blog to be much more interesting when you make insights into the social commentary of video games.

    I hope you come to the conclusion that Video Games are not art. Their is not enough independent or creative medians to produce video games. If their were you might see more indy creators out there. There is a bottom line to video games. No matter what someone’s vision is, it has to fit in the context of a business model.

    That’s probably why you see so much reiteration. Financially, producers and developers can not “afford” to change the styles and gameplay. They fear that they will lose an audience, and when they depend on those audience members for profit it creates a terrible cycle.

    a very sad video game player

  6. @ Vincent
    Great points and I hope to bring up some of these factors in Part 2 of this posting. The reaffirmation of mechanics is a fascinating subject to approach this topic and it’s one of the more unique aspects of videogames as technology that I love about the medium

    @ Chris
    Hopefully I will come to these conclusions about social commentary on Part 2 as well. But I’m glad I posed many of these questions because it clearly touched upon a nerve with your response. It always comes to this argument between art versus commerce.

    But I will argue that there are many indie developers and artists in the realm of interactive media. I have posted previously about these very same designers. What I fear is that the industry is taking a direction similar to Hollywood which is unfortunate as it has the option of creating an entirely new business model and philosophy within its entertainment niche. Personally, the more Fordian assembly line production of games that seem to have plagued the film industry is a danger to me. Though it has its benefits, I do not believe a slavish following of this system is completely necessary or even beneficial in the grand scheme of things.

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