Years Ago Today, Resident Evil's Creator Was Born
It's Shinji Mikami's birthday. The game designer is responsible for some of the most influential games around, including Resident Evil, Devil May Cry, Phoenix Wright, Viewtiful Joe, Killer 7, and God Hand. He's one of the industry's seminal figures – effectively inventing the survival horror genre as we know it today, and he's also one of a growing number of game designers that are closer to retirement than not. Shigeru Miyamoto, Hideo Kojima, Will Wright, Kevin Levine, and plenty of others helped lay the foundation for the industry as we know it today, but they won't be around forever.
It's a sign of how young this industry is that even the man known as "Father of Video Games", Ralph Baer is still around. He, as well as at least a dozen or so other designers, has developed followings in the internet age. They have fans, they have supporters, and some of them even ideologues (see: Gabe Newell). Eventually, these idols will move on – one way or another. When that happens, we'll face a transitional period, and we'll either adapt and evolve, or languish in creative bankruptcy.
I've believed for some time now that there's never been a truly original thought, save perhaps the first one. Everything is a modification or an allusion to what came before. This can be clearly seen in the evolution of language, and the history of various media. There's no music genre that exists in a vacuum: rock has its roots in jazz, dubstep in drum and bass. Similarly, the games we play have a direct lineage both the earliest games and to the cultural contexts in which their developers were steeped. None is without influence. That progression of culture is not only normal, it's enriching, and it tends to result in stories that have been refined for centuries or millennia that have, at their core, some element that relates to our collective humanity. That can fall apart, though, when we reference something without a concrete understanding of context, important or what it is that made the original so great in the first place.
These days, the meme-centered nature of the internet (by which I mean the modern definition of meme, rather than Richard Dawkins' initial idea) has created a perpetually self-referential loop. Games, it seems aren't that different. Earlier today Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare was announced, and I didn't see anything terribly interesting. While it's totally valid to say that I'm just frustrated by one of my least favorite game franchises, I'd argue that there's something deeper there.
More often than not, games have been repeatedly calling back to their past without either moving forward or offering many twists on old ideas. The deluge of pixel-art platformers, of retro-style everything, and of shooters that, at best, appear to be catching up to Unreal Tournament 2004 and Half-Life 2 is just disheartening. All of these things seem to take from the conversation more than really give back – with some notable exceptions. Portal is, at this point, one of the most well-known examples of a game adding to the conversation about how shooters work and play. Put another way, it uses the play created by games like Doom to do something radically different. That's important. It's also unfortunately rare.
When the idols, the founders of game design as we know it either pass away or retire, I wonder where we'll be left. Plenty of designers have been trying new, creative things with games, but just as many, and more importantly, the more successful up-and-comers aren't so much innovating as their updating the style of older platformers. Looking to the old for inspiration, for ideas is fine, but that's often used as a straight excuse to cash-in on nostalgia. If that continues, the games of the future will be boring and derivative, hopelessly alluding to cultural touchstones they don't understand.
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Bottom pic: Antonio Fucito, via Flickr