Editorial: Reimagining the Game

By John Keefer

As I was growing up, I had a vivid imagination. I could be a soldier rescuing princesses, and have a squadmate that had three heads with peanut butter for blood. I’d swing my grandfather’s cane like a sword and use Christmas paper tubes as rocket launchers.

There were no bounds to my imagination. I think that’s why I eventually gravitated towards games, because they had a way of taking me places that I imagined as a kid.

But the more I play games these days, the more I realize that the games are not keeping up with an ever-changing imagination. Somewhere along the way, games keep revisiting the Greatest Hits of Imagination Past and its becoming a tired refrain.

Fantasy and futuristic characters need a new coat of mental imagery. Worlds supposedly far removed from Earth offer voluptuous females with two slender legs and ample breasts and denizens with two eyes, a nose and a mouth. No matter what color the skin or how misshapen the ears, they are all recognizable human characteristics. Where are the characters that see out their butt, grasp things with their ears and make love by rubbing elbows?

We have games set in space, hell, the future, the past, the Wild West, bad neighborhoods, and fantasy worlds with orcs and elves, or variations thereof. Is there anything left to explore? My buddy Gus Mustrapa recently bashed Dante’s Inferno for being derivative. But these days, when it comes to fully envisioned game worlds and indigenous peoples, EVERYTHING is derivative.

Maybe there are no game worlds left to imagine. Maybe it is a matter of taking existing worlds and reimagining them and forcing the player to experience them in different ways.

Assassin’s Creed and its sequel forced us to explore historically familiar cities and landmarks as a way to achieve goals in the game. I have to admit that I got a bit of a chill when wandering the streets of Renaissance Italy and interacting with it in a way that the textbooks could never allow. And there was a certain excitement at having Leonardo da Vinci as a collaborator. Granted, the game has a futuristic back story, but the gameplay experience was invigorating.

I would have loved to be in the Disney meetings where it was decided that a darker version of Mickey Mouse would be allowed. In the hands of Warren Spector, Epic Mickey looks to take characters and an environment we are all too familiar with and set it on its large rodent ear. Who wouldn’t want to play an angry Mickey?

It’s easy for me to sit here and pontificate that designers need to be more creative in engaging gamers in their worlds. Yes, you still must have the gameplay to back up the imagination, but there needs to be more creativity from the outset and build the gameplay and story for that. But honestly, why must space marines save the day? How often can you save a lost love from pirate ninja zombies? And why must our heroes look like Megan Fox and Matt Damon instead of the Elephant Man? More Sackboy and Oddworld isn’t a bad thing.

Oh, and maybe a character that bleeds peanut butter, too.

(Originally published in EGM magazine, 2010)

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