Why classic games break the facade of creativity

As a self-proclaimed creative type, it wasn’t long before I realized most myths about creativity were bullshit. Give an ultracreative to the point of parody like Peter Molyneux a completely blank folder, an unending budget, a next-next gen console, and all the talent in the world to work with, and the office would have burnt down in six months. Or he’d make something fundamentally disappointing, like Fable. Creativity is hard work crossed with overcoming limitation. It is creatively overcoming difficulties. Not being able to do something is a more powerful creative force as being able to do everything.

So I was interested and a little confused to read an article about how retro is awful, about how games need to do entirely different things, on No High Scores. It’s impossible to break completely from the past—Peter Molyneux makes games about pressing X to kill stuff in a fantasy world, not about green pixels making you cry.

Games the article cites as worthwhile and creative are imitators, too. Shadow Complex reskins Super Metroid. Bastion has a blend of the mechanics of Diablo and God of War backed with a different kind of story. And while one could uncharitably call Braid an “emo Super Mario Brothers” that rips off Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, that game exists in only one place: in Braid. It’s not like other games, nor does it wear other games’ hats: it looks like the webcomic A Lesson is Learned, but the Damage is Irreversible.

The answer lies in the article itself: Virtual Console (and Good Old Games and emulation) keeps us startlingly aware of our history. Nearly the entire oeuvre of NES, Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis, Playstation, and classic PC games are available to us for a pittance. Unlike in literature, where Charles Dickens is something to be skimmed over in school and James Joyce is read only by authors, we’ve all played Super Mario Brothers and Final Fantasy VII. Gamers have more knowledge about the classics than fans in any other medium. When film directors are inspired by the classics, by Hitchcock and Bergman and Fellini, very few modern movie goers have seen these movies. They don’t recognize the debt modern directors owe their predecessors. Film buffs have seen them, of course, but they represent a small portion of the audience.

Meanwhile, we are all game buffs. We know where modern games’ creators ideas are coming from, because we’ve played exactly the same titles. Even the average video game player’s experience is informed by their knowledge of the past: people watch me play Braid and say “it’s like Super Mario Brothers”, because they have a point of reference. It why there’s such a prevalence of video game criticism but also why we decry the state of our industry as “unoriginal”: we’ve seen all the art our artists are stealing from.

What is killing film criticism is video games criticism’s strength: its egalitarian leanings. Anyone with a computer and a few hundred hours can play a lot of relevant games and write about them. They can see the connections that only the ivory tower elite see in films. While this approach has its downsides—there’s been a lot of crap written on the internet (and I’ve contributed my fair share)— its upside is that the video game fan base is connected, intelligent, and able to see the vast lineage of titles spreading out before them.

So backlash is inevitable from people who misunderstand the idea of building on your predecessors. Back when I did very little creative work I saw creativity as something summoned from the air. The myth of creativity goes like this: one thinks of something no one’s ever done, and they makes it. That’s not how it works, of course. I’ve thought of things “no one’s ever done before”, but, by virtue of actually having to create them, they become like something that came before. Sometimes I think of something bland and derivative, and the process of making it makes it unique; this happens less frequently, but it still happens. Someone might try to tell an entirely new story through the medium of the video game, but they end up telling it as a platformer because it’s feasible. Instead of reinventing the wheel, they attach it to their new model car.

Most often, so-called “creative” works are recognized because nobody’s seen the source material. It’s why we look back at the previous eras of games, up to the late PS2, and we see fantastic, unique titles. It’s why we ask, “How do we return to that golden era?” We don’t. We’ve tasted the fruit of knowledge, and now we can see the connections. We can see how JRPGs build on Final Fantasy VII. We have a genre called “the metroidvania”, building on both Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Go back though, and those connections are still there. We find thatSuper Mario Brothers, a fantastic work, came from Donkey Kong. We see Final Fantasy emerging from old-school Western RPGs and from tabletop systems. Metroid came from combining these two ideas, the idea of self-guided exploration and jumping. Soon, everything starts looking like a big, derivative family tree. Meanwhile, we don’t see the connections between our favorite directors and our favorite novelists, so we read their work and think of it as startlingly original. We think A Game of Thrones to be an astonishingly original novel for dispelling the Tolkien tradition despite the fact that the book is building on its own literary tradition. We don’t see the bricks, because the bricks are locked in yellowed volumes in the sketchy back rooms of used book stores. The facade remains undisturbed.

Rather than decry some games for being unoriginal, we need to embrace them for what they do bring to the creative table. Braid may look like Super Mario Brothers, but how does it tell a story? How do its mechanics engage the player? Limbo may be a run and jump platformer but how does its aesthetic assist in it telling its story? Rather than rejecting games because we can see their lines of lineage, we need to look at what they will add to the next generation of games.


  1. monkey

    That is a interesting point. I do agree with you that gameplay mechanics are reused in every game, every year (Really cannot think of anything unique). Even though your arguments prove your point, I think they are offensive to developers who put all their work in make their games: “…the art our artists are stealing from.”.

    Yes, Braid is very similar to Mario or many others platforms and has elements of Prince of Persia, however I have never seen anything like the end of Braid in any other game. Or narrator in Bastion. Or the spider in Limbo. Those were really creative ideas.

    You say that in your conclusion, actually, but it was not as effective as the main point about game mechanics rip-off.

    Sorry if there are any errors, I am not used expressing myself in English.

    • Tom Auxier

      It’s cool! And I agree with you. Those are very creative ideas. They all come from someplace else (I can’t place the end of Braid, but Bastion’s narrator peppers noir films and the spider comes from childhood fears). That they all feel unique is what’s important about them. What I’m saying is that we should say, “These ideas are good, and they are executed in a novel fashion. How can we learn from them, rather than straight out dismiss them.”

      I don’t think it’s offensive to suggest creative types steal from each other, either. I’m a creative type. That’s what we do. There’s a reason there was such an uptick in Mario Brothers 2 type platformers on the indie scene a few years ago: because fewer people have played that game. It’s a more undiscovered text than the first Mario Brothers. You can take inspiration from 2 and feel more original. It’s why, as an author, I’m reading the most obscure people I can think of: because I want to be inspired by things that nobody’s read.

      • monkey

        Now I understand your point. This is true. Everything we create is a product of influences of everything we feel, there will always be references to something else in our creations. We call something creative when it gives us something unexpected, which is different and appears unique to us because we could not connect the dots and find the source of inspiration of the author. So, developers should do the same as you said, find inspiration outside the context of games.

        This is a great article, which made think a lot, thanks!

    • monkey

      yep there are errors. damn!

  2. BitterAlmond

    Great article. A lot of gamers think all side-scrollers are the same these days… while simultaneously snatching up Modern Warfare 3.

    I’ve got to disagree with you about Fable, though. That game was really cool when it first came out, even if it didn’t live up to Molyneux’s hype. But seriously, what game does? More people need to just figure out how to read through the guy’s hyperbole.

    • Tom Auxier

      Fable was pretty cool, I will give it that. That said, it proves my point: trying to do a thousand creative things ends as well as a house on fire, and only really, really talented people with a lot of money can pull out a decent game thing from it.

  3. The attacks on familiarity seem wrongheaded. The familiarity of the mechanics is the point; you start with simple, easily-understood, familiar mechanics so that people can recognize how and where you’re subverting them.

    Oh, and the comparison between Braid and Prince of Persia: Sands of Time was just…odd. Gives the impression that he hasn’t played any more than a few minutes of the former, since Braid does a whole heck of a lot more with the concept than PoP did.

    • Tom Auxier

      It is, I will admit, a strange comparison that equates the stuff of the mechanics for the intent. I didn’t want to quibble with it too much because then I’d come off as a Braid homer.

      And yeah. Creativity is about subversion of accepted standards. The problem is, people don’t see it that way: they see it as something completely new, which is near impossible.

  4. Megamaniaco

    What we need is more concepts which have not been mixed before. If you mix around enough ideas from here and there and give them a twist it’s not copying, right? Big companies can’t afford to be that daring, but the indie scene totally can. And that’s why I love it.

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  6. Conway Hu

    As someone who was trying too hard to make something “no one’s ever done before”, this was a real eye-opener.

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