How about a little creativity?

Posted by: Antonio Manuel

Look away, I'm hideous!

That ugly mug comes from Ninja Blade, an Xbox360 game by From Software, due for release early this year. Beholding this screenshot a single thought crossed my mind: “Here’s yet another game full of monotone, disfigured, festering, puss-filled monsters”. Is this the best these guys can come up with? More of the same old crap we’ve seen since Doom and which turned into a tired cliche some time after the release of Quake.

The future of HD gaming!

The future of HD gaming!

I guess this is a consequence of the obnoxious gritty “realism” most developers seem to go for nowadays. We’ve got these amazing high-definition displays capable of reproducing billions of colors, they’ll blast your photo-receptors into oblivion from all the sensory overload (Wipeout HD uses color to awesome effect, especially in Zone mode), and instead what do we get? Endless shades of grey and brown with blood red gratuitously splashed about. The designers sure were paying attention in the class on chiaroscuro, but seem to have been out sick for color theory.

Real Tokyo versus Ninja Blade's Tokyo

Real Tokyo versus Ninja Blade's Tokyo

Just look at this screenshot of what is supposed to pass for Tokyo and compare that to the real photo of the city. This reminds me of what I read in some reviews for Mirror’s Edge. I found that city to feel quite realistic and yet there were reviewers who called the depiction sterile. Again, it seems games are only true to life when everything look like crap. It’s like Fallout 3 where everything, including rust is a shade of grey because color apparently can’t appropriately convey bleakness and desolation. Then there’s the overuse of bloom and depth of field. We’re forced to enjoy our games through the eyes of someone with astigmatism and showing symptoms of cataracts. And I think they’re colorblind too.

But back to the enemies. They’re grey hunks of meat that would blend into background if they weren’t always lunging at the hero. I suppose evolution was somewhat effective in that regard; it’s too bad it didn’t account for glowing eyes. And the problem isn’t just color or lack thereof, but why in the hell do these things always have to be shambling, misshapen monstrosities. They all look like victims of severe radiation poisoning. They should be writhing in agony and begging the hero to be euthanized.

Fallout 3 and Quake 4

Fallout 3 and Quake 4

Of course, someone is bound to remind me that these are just games. It’s fantasy; there is no such thing in real life! But that’s just my point! If you’re going to go for the fantastic why not be more creative?! Who comes up with these concepts? It is the marketing drones who stand over the designers nagging with their stupid ideas? “I want more grit and grime and how about you give this guy here an awful disfigurement, like a second arm growing out of his chest.”

Surely the decision makers are a big part of the problem, but ultimately I place the blame on the designers. It’s not like the concept sketches we’re shown are ever this wonderful cavalcade of creativity and color. So in the end I can only guess it must be a cultural thing. Kind of like thug culture so pervasive in many American games I feel like the gore and psychotic imagery is a proof of manhood. Everything has to be disturbing to be cool. Real men don’t play games with color, someone might confuse it for a gay pride flag. Like you can’t have color and seriousness all in the same game.

Resistance 2 and Gears of War 2

Resistance 2 and Gears of War 2

Demons from hell are thing, but even aliens in games are poorly imagined. Take the popular games like Gears of War 2 and Resistance 2. We either get giant maggots or humans with monstrous heads and giant fangs. And don’t forget the electronics and armor grafted onto their bodies for spice. This is the best they could come up with? Humanoids like we get in every other FPS, but cursed with a disfigurement for a head. I find it particularly cute how these aliens run around packing heat like common household thug. You’d think with the creativity shown in movies like Star Wars and games like Starcraft or Warhammer 40,000 we’d see a little more inventiveness. Especially given how large these franchises both are.

This guy should see a doctor.

This guy should see a doctor.

The sad part is that art and literature are teeming with rich ideas. It doesn’t take much research to find something unique to work with. Let’s go back to the game that started this rant, Ninja Blade. Given that the lead character is a ninja, didn’t it occur to anyone to draw on the Japanese mythology? Ninja Gaiden already has pretty much cornered the market on ninjas battling abominations so why not go in another direction?

Japanese mythology is full of all kinds of colorful characters, both literally and figuratively. A couple of years back when I was in Japan I discovered this cool line of small figures that represented all sorts of demons from Japanese mythology. I’ve always thought of using them as inspiration for a game, but that’s never happened, and now they’re all hidden away in some box somewhere. 😦

Japanese mythological figures.

Japanese mythological figures.

Anyway, all I’d like to see is a little more creativity. A game doesn’t need to be cartoony to feature strong use of color. It’s a bit unfortunate, however, with the me-too tendency of the gaming industry and given that the majority of popular games continue to perpetuate the same tired themes I’m not holding out much hope for change.

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3 Responses to How about a little creativity?

  1. evonne says:

    Agreed completely! The pantheon of archetypes, colors and styles is so broad and yet most designers get stuck in a narrow path that bores many gamers. I love playful, creative games like Worms where there’s a sense of global goofy play and real adventures like Real Lives where the gameplay involves healing family members from disease and poverty.

    Here’s a few more thoughts on creativity and game design:
    http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/006939.html

  2. labfly says:

    agreed. i would love to see vid game prod push the envelope. you might enjoy alternate reality games. args are v creative (especially some indie games) due to lack of big budgets, as well as the basic arg cross platform design. like many indie films, indie args tend to have richer storyworlds & better character development. although there are some who still lean on cliche, i do see more arg designs that are truly creative w/both story and game mechanics. but args can be done on a shoe string budget – vid games can’t. i think vid games might be like tv, where there are a few suits who give the green light & are not too thrilled with taking risks. i’m sure there are v creative vid game designers out there who would love to give us something new… but can’t get anyone to pony up the funds.

  3. 3327 says:

    It’s interesting that this is From Software, who made the very excellent Otogi: Myth of Demons, which seems to draw on exactly what you’re talking about: Excellent use of color in the context of Japanese mythology.

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