Have you ever looked at something, noticed a recurring theme or element that you recall from your previous experience and knowledge, and then dismissively thought or exclaimed: ‘oh, that is just like -blank-’? Of course you have. We all do it. Practically everything you see, do, or experience possesses some sort of recurring pattern or theme that has been seen throughout history. When you saw Avatar, part of you felt like you had heard the story some place before. The graphics and 3D effects were able to partially lull your mind to sleep, but you still couldn’t help yourself from subconsciously trying to decide if the plot was more of a rip off of Pocahontas or Furngully. If you played through Darksiders, you would have been hard pressed not to draw similarities in the gameplay to Legend of Zelda. As you read through your favorite book series, or watch one of those horrific reality television shows, you feel like you almost know exactly what is going to happen more than half the time. Recurring themes pop up everywhere, whether we recognize them or not.
I bring this up because I see this complaint coming up again and again in reference to video games. The most relevant example, for me personally, would be with my experience in Bioware’s new MMO, Star Wars The Old Republic. Both in the game’s general chat, and in the media, the game is constantly compared to Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft. People accuse the game of being far too similar in formula, play style, and general mechanics to Blizzard’s online behemoth. Similarly, games like Killzone, Halo, or Resistance Fall of Man all share very similar game mechanics, general play style, and plot devices. They all have you running through war zones and rubbled environments, throwing grenades and shooting at anything that moves, all while trying to save the human race from aliens. Modern Warfare 3 and Battlefield 3 both had you trying to prevent a domestic crisis or attack in the United States from groups of Russian terrorists, and you can hardly even tell the game boxes apart without the title. In five years, people will think back on them as ‘just another shooter.’
So now we come to the heart of the matter. With the latest trend of sequels, downloadable content, and expansion packs, gamers are complaining that everything seems too similar. And they are right. But you also have to wonder if comparing the similarities in a game, song, movie, or any other type of art with works that have come before it is really a valid complaint, or merely a limitation or constraint of a genre. When a game ‘copies’ a solid, popular, or well implemented mechanic from a previous title, should this be something we criticize? Is it wrong for game developers to be inspired by their competitors in an attempt to give audiences what they want? Or is it simply a sound business policy?
I would argue that audiences should never become fully trusting of repetition, and always be wary of the ‘cookie cutter’ style of art, lest we become content with mediocrity. Yet, by the same token, I would also argue that repetition and similarity is a common, and natural part of creating works of art (which I most certainly consider video games to be) that shouldn’t be used to discredit a work, so long as the end result is enjoyable. If history has taught us anything, it is that something cannot come from nothing. If similarity or repetition is a bad thing, then we should only read one fantasy book, play one first person shooter, level up one MMO character, have sex only for reproduction (ouch…), listen to one love song, and eat only one potato chip.
But what do you think? Do you agree? Or do you despise games, movies, and other art that is similar to things you have seen, played, or otherwise experienced in the past? Does a game have to dynamically change and come out with something groundbreaking and new in order to be a true masterpiece? Is that even possible anymore? Vote in the poll and leave a comment bellow to let us know what you think! Don’t be shy.