It’s so easy to bellyache about the lack of innovation in mainstream games, and even easier to praise the constant flow of quirky, experimental indies that try (at varying levels) to innovate with new gameplay wrinkles and ideas. For developers toiling for years in the service of the latest blockbuster, this stance might seem one-sided. But what if I told you that there was a simple way to distill this argument down to its core concept – and the only way to do it was through Canadian sketch comedy?
There’s one particular bit from The Kids in the Hall, the seminal 90s Canadian comedy troupe, that makes this concept understandable. In the sketch, Darryl, a hopelessly cheesy mook on a blind date, dazes off into a weird daydream of a miniature oompah band playing on a windowsill. He reveals to his confused date that every time he daydreams, it’s always the same thing – oompah band on a windowsill. When she enlightens him about the wonders of, you know, imagining things, what does he do for his very first imaginative daydream? He pictures his date playing triangle with the oompah band.
The premise is absurd but simple, and the parallels are easy to grasp – when you’ve gone for so long with only a limited understanding of what is possible, it’s hard to understand what else is possible, since you have no other frame of reference. So while Darryl’s first active daydream doesn’t venture far from what he knows, just the slightest bit of variety feels like a revelation.
Watch the entire sketch on YouTube.
You can see this process in the evolution of any medium. In early film, nobody even thought about moving the camera, since the most direct reference at the time was theater – and since you can’t move a theater audience, who would ever think of moving the camera?
The same goes for the first director to break from convention and shoot scenes out of sequence. Imagine! Filming a scene that happens before a scene that hasn’t even been shot yet! It seems silly now, but early on these basic ideas had to be invented, and it was up to those who could imagine a different reality – who could dream of something other than oompah bands – to pioneer new techniques.
Arguably, we’re at that point now in games, or have been for half a decade – only in hindsight will we be able to chart the evolution. But a sense of pushing the boundaries is becoming more visible. Playing with the concepts of whether games have to be fun (Passage), or if they even have to be identifiable as games (The Endless Forest, Proteus) rings like efforts to dream a little differently.
To put it into perspective, the rise of shooters as the dominant mainstream genre reflects a staidness in thought. Even as innovations and evolutions happen in the genre (multiplayer leveling ala Call of Duty; Forge mode in Halo), at the core they’re still working in the same basic structure. Instead of the oompah band, now there’s a metal band, or a bluegrass group, or an orchestra – but even within these variations, the paradigm is still music on the windowsill.
Still, it’s always frightening to branch out into uncharted territory, especially when million-dollar budgets are on the line. For every Portal, Journey and Infinity Blade that tries to do something different, there are plenty of titles that try and fail. But the industry is getting wiser at embracing controlled experimentation.
Something we tend to forget is that the games industry isn’t industrial supplies, or pharmaceuticals, or construction equipment – in our business, we can make almost anything we can dream up. For both mainstream studios trying to add exciting mechanics to something familiar and indies imagining radical new modes of interaction, the value of truly expanding our dreams will be returned tenfold in the new experiences we have still yet to conceive.