Imitation or Inspiration?

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I have been playing a game about a space-faring engineer who crash-lands aboard a massive vessel drifting aimlessly through the darkness. There's no way back, and the crew of the engineer's new surroundings have all died, making room for swarms of deadly aliens. To make matters worse, the enormous ship will soon plummet into a nearby planet, unless the engineer can brave the alien menace and get the ship's systems back online.

This game is not Dead Space. It is Alien Breed 2: Assault.

Video games, like every artistic expression, have evolved through layers of inspiration. Lives turned into health bars, which turned into regenerative abilities. Quarter-circle-punch began as a strange twist of the joystick, and became the staple move of fighters. Robotron led to Geometry Wars, and Geometry Wars to JoyJoy. But, at what point does inspiration cross the line into imitation?

I was recently struck by another blast of familiarity while playing the reboot of Medal of Honor. The events and locations were unique, but multiplayer had the distinctive flavor of Modern Warfare. Both games have rewards for killstreaks, classes, and ranks, but the most striking similarities are visual. At first glance, the two can be easily confused.

Some critics might chalk this up to video games entering a post-modern state in which everything we experience is nothing more than the recombination and reshaping of previous ideas. It’s a theory that neatly explains the rise of retro-inspired games such as Retro City Rampage and the BIT.TRIP series, but it fails to fully address games that aren’t purposely roving the depths of nostalgia.

As games grow larger in scope, so do budgets, and thus, the risks involved with any deviations from the norm. Can we really blame DICE for playing to the crowd in Medal of Honor? Creating a new scheme for multiplayer would mean building a completely new fanbase. Now, DICE can count on attracting former Call of Duty players on the lookout for something new, or at least, mildly different.

The divide between inspiration and imitation is a thin and jagged one. The closer a game toes the line, the more likely that it will have an easy time finding an audience. Step over and it not only risks the ire of critics, but a reduced audience. After all, why play a facsimile when you can have the real thing?

While not heavily invested in hardcore gaming, Apple is a perfect example of a company that edges along that boundary. Apple did not invent MP3 players, smartphones, or tablets, and yet, the company has been able to make its brand names synonymous with all three devices. Instead of innovating, Apple excels at finding new ways to implement existing technologies and concepts.

Blizzard mirrored Apple’s methods with World of Warcraft. The game has become the standard by which all other MMOs are judged, and became so mainstream that many people erroneously believed it was the first MMO. In actuality, hardly a single game mechanic was pioneered by World of Warcraft. Rather, World of Warcraft built off established concepts and refined them into new and highly addictive concoctions, and has in turn become 'the' game to copy.

This looks familiar...

I am reminded of a recent conversation I had with a fellow game critic. We realized that many of the games from previous years for which we still felt deeply passionate were not the usual high-scoring suspects, but rather, games that many considered mediocre; Mirror’s Edge, God Hand, and MadWorld come to mind. These are games that shirked imitation and attempted to forge new paths. They may have stumbled occasionally, and none were commercial successes, but their unique characteristics have been etched into my memory.

With so many risks involved, it's no wonder that many games take the safer route, but this does not excuse imitation that borders on plagiarism. It's time for more developers and publishers to look to companies such as Blizzard, Bungie, and PlatinumGames. Not for ideas, but rather, to see how these companies successfully expanded upon pre-established concepts to move gaming forward.

Where do you think the line between imitation and inspiration rests, and what games have crossed it?

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Brian Rowe
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