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Ancestor Worship

November 30th, 2012 3 comments

Last week Michael Brough made a great post about maturity in game design.  Go read it, it makes some important points and is a good thought-stirrer.

It touches on some things that have been going on in the independent gaming scene recently, in particular the great lauding (and financing) of old developers making games anew, often in the same mould as the venerable titles they are renowned for, some even direct remakes or sequels.  I’ve expressed reservations about these in the past, especially the ones promising just “old school” and appealing to nostalgia instead of talking about their new games.  But I’m a gamer, and I’m not immune to these assaults myself.  I understand the nostalgia appeal, and I’m disgusted with it even as I walk into its trap.

It’s not a new thing of course – Nintendo have strummed on the nostalgic heart-strings of gamers for years.  Independent developers, many of which are now crying out against the attention these old developers are now getting, have long exploited nostalgic techniques in game design for their hungry audiences.  Pixel art and platformers have abounded.  But in the last couple of years I had a genuine sense that we were moving forward, with indies stretching to wholly new territories, creating novel art styles and truly innovative mechanics.  Has all that progress been reversed?

At the International Roguelike Development Conference earlier this year I opened with a talk entitled “The Roguelike Renaissance”.  The premise of the talk was simple (though likely too over-simplified for art buffs) – that the current wave of new and innovative roguelikes is akin to the Renaissance era of art, full of new ideas and optimism, as opposed to the Dark Ages that came before.  The Dark Ages of roguelike design were characterised by ancestor worship; the belief that everything had to be Nethack++, that the old games and mechanics were best.  In the Renaissance period we have ditched that philosophy, with new games like DoomRL and Tales of Maj’Eyal showing that we can do better than all that has come before.  We no longer blindly copy designs and feature-sets, we openly question the traditions of the past, and we say “screw you” to those that would proscribe what is and isn’t a roguelike.  This is a fantastic atmosphere to design games in, and I think it’s one of the reasons why Roguelike Radio has proven popular – we are free to question and conjecture to our heart’s content, and after breaking through the shroud of the past the space for novel game ideas has proven huge.

How strange it seems then that our ASCII-centred community can feel more forward looking than our mainstream and indie cousins!  It is a question of audience perhaps, as Michael concludes in his blog.  We roguelike devs with our free and open source games don’t care too much about audience, at least not as far as finances go.  Having said that, roguelike audiences do still flock around the older titles and traditional mechanics.

The new versus old is an important debate.  And it is versus.  We can enjoy and be inspired by old games, but we shouldn’t think they are the future as well as the past.  New works are important, new ideas are necessary.  We absolutely cannot just copy the crafts of our predecessors.  We can do better than that!  This notion that the classic stuff is better is ignorant and narrow-minded.  There is always room for improvement, we are capable of being better than those that came before us, and if we are to stand on the shoulders of giants then we can reach to different areas than they did.  This is the spirit of the Renaissance that we must embrace.

I hope the more mainstream community can pull itself away from this recent ancestor worship.  A ray of hope may be that the only real Kickstarters Success Story so far has been the innovative and popular roguelike space sim FTL.  There is still excitement for new things out there, and new generations of developers coming up with ideas others cannot dream of.  Our own works may prove as inspiration for the youth of today, and if they grow up surrounded by the spirit of constant innovation and improvement then they in turn will surpass us greatly.

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