On Infringement and Insipidness

I wonder if the time for originality is officially at an end. Video game release schedules are littered month after month with sequels and re-imaginings to a point of painful predictability. I get it, times are tough, go with a sure thing to ensure the bottom line is satisfied. The movie industry has proven that the decision-makers feel safer supporting a known entity, even if that simply means updating the dialog and adding some gratuitous sex or violence to spice things up. The video game industry appears to be falling into the same stalemate. Without the financial security to try something truly new and original, we are force-fed sequels and clones instead of something fresh and new. You say Heavy Rain, I say Dante’s Inferno. After reading a week’s worth of reviews and interviews about this game, I have had my fill.

I assure you, the rest of these words are mine and mine alone.

In trying to find a position to take in this post, I remembered an exchange in Jurassic Park: “You didn’t earn the knowledge for yourselves, so you don’t take any responsibility for it. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could…” I’m not trying to discredit the work of Visceral Games; developing a video game from scratch is not an easy task. If video game development were easy, everyone would do it, and we wouldn’t have anything to complain about. But beyond the 1s and 0s of the game remains the fact that not only is there absolutely nothing original about this game, but if the critical press is any indication, Visceral Games takes absolutely zero risks with the opportunities presented by Dante’s Inferno. The final product is a spineless replica of a successful franchise with a new setting, and even the setting has already been claimed by prior art.

I understand that I am not bringing up bullet points that have not already been used ad nauseam. In a summary of published reviews, Kotaku’s Mike Fahey notes that “not one review [he] browsed failed to mention God of War.” The extent that God of War is cited likely depended on the reviewer’s frustration with the lack of originality. By simply playing through the demo the similarities cannot be avoided: combat, camera, controls, on-screen display. It is clear that Visceral Games is a fan of the “if it isn’t broke” philosophy of game design. I can’t entirely blame them for taking the easy road. Why waste potentially millions of dollars developing an interface unique to gamers, forcing them to adjust to something new and unfamiliar? Why not emulate game design that has proven itself successful twice over the past five years and going on its third iteration in the next month? I think it’s a case of a smart, calculated business decision rather than an instance of lazy development. I’m not accusing Visceral of cutting corners with their game. I just wish they had the motivation to take a path less traveled.

And yet as I offer back-handed comments to Dante’s Inferno, this game refuses to be ignored. It’s not often that NPR will have a featured report on a video game, but just a few days ago a piece was published stating that “Dante’s ‘Inferno’ Makes A Hell Of A Video Game.” How many games are getting notoriety, albeit poorly articulated notoriety, from ABC News? I guess this means the over-the-top and often times ridiculous marketing campaign behind the game was successful if non-traditional outlets are giving this game the time of day. Everyone is familiar with The Divine Comedy in one form or another. I’m sure all of you have at least read the Cliffs Notes. Promoting a game based off Dante Alighieri’s poem is one thing, but suggesting that consumers perform “acts of lust” at Comic-Con is a bit much. I get it, there is a wealth of material at your disposal to help market the game, but must all of these efforts be so juvenile?

Dante’s Inferno is truly one of a kind. I can’t think of another piece of classic literature that could so easily be manipulated and mangled into a piece mediocre game design. By simply getting this game to store shelves Visceral Games has over-achieved beyond all expectation. I hope they understand the gift that they received in this source material. Converting 700-year-old literature into level design must be infinitely easier than level design based on genuine creativity and original thinking. Dante’s Inferno will likely find success though no genuine effort of their own volition. Source material poached from 700 years in the past, game design barely modified from 5 years ago — congratulations, Electronic Arts, you’ve managed to walk the fine line between homage and copyright infringement to perfection. Maybe you can argue that the game is greater than the sum of its parts; personally, I’m not buying it. Nearly every form of written criticism concludes this game pushes no boundaries. This game takes no risks. While this game may not disappoint, it does not impress. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that such a mediocre effort found its way to completion: Why wouldn’t EA seek to get the most attention through the least effort possible?

In what seems like a recent epidemic of the industry, this game accomplishes nothing original in its setting, storytelling, gameplay or overall experience. We will see how Visceral’s efforts are rewarded in a month when the almighty NPD data is revealed to the public, but I’m sure a sequel is already in pre-production. I, for one, am looking forward to the ground-breaking marketing campaign for Dante’s Inferno 2. It can only get better from here. Congratulations, video game industry, you brought this on yourself.

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