influence and derivation; or, dead space and every other game/movie that is slightly scary or set in space

so it has definitely been a little bit longer than i would have liked since i posted last, and chris kindly reminded me that you don’t tell people you are going to do something like this and then not do it. but — mea culpa, mea culpa — i have a had two very good excuses. mostly having to do with video games…and learning the anchorage bus system (which, by the way, is much nicer and convenient than i would have ever expected. i can get from my house to the university to my other work place all on two buses and within thirty minutes. who would have thought?).

the two video games that i have been playing have pretty much consumed my free time (of which there is not much). one has been incredibly addicting: it has fascinating puzzles, a variety of enemies that have to be killed in different ways, a pretty fascinating story told through terminals and other computer mechanics set throughout the levels — which are also fascinating enough so that you are actually looking around to find the hidden terminals while you are getting the shit beat out of you from all sides — and a few genuine moments of the tiny scares — you know the ones, not the jump out of your seat and freak, but the the more startling kind. the other game has absolutely fabulous graphics, relatively decent level layout — with a few really memorable scenes — a good variety of weapons and missions and certainly holds the attention. but it i wouldn’t call it addicting in the same sense as the first game.

it is the first game, marathon, however, which was created in 1993 and published in 1994 that was the most addicting. the second one, dead space, i found very good, but nowhere near the level of expertise that i was expecting.

now, i’m not what one would call a hardcore science fiction fan. in other words, i’ve seen dune but i’ve never read it; i like old star trek shows but can’t stand the new ones (even though i am looking forward to the reboot); saw 2001 but not 2010. the same could be said for horror movies. i’ve definitely seen my fair share of horror movies but i’m no connoisseur. and i’m definitely not into the torture porn genre. so i’m not approaching this subject from the perspective of an expert on these two particular genres. in the same sense, i’m adequately, but not intimately, acquainted with the survival horror genre in games. i know that alone in the dark really started the genre, and i’ve played parts of games like system shock (both 1 and 2) and some of the resident evil series (and all of 4).

but even for someone adequately acquainted with the genres that dead space draws upon, it is hard not to feel a certain sense of deja vu when playing through the game. as i mentioned earlier in this post, i downloaded the open source code for marathon the other day and started playing it a couple of nights ago. for those of you who don’t know, marathon was a trilogy developed by bungie studios from 93-97. it is comprised of three games (marathon, marathon 2: durandal, and marathon: infinity) and was not exactly what you would call a smashing success commercially. as a game however, and i can only speak from playing the first one, it is fantastic. a clean, visually stimulating experience that will draw the player into its clutches much more rapidly than one would expect for a game 15 years old.

playing marathon at the same time as dead space, however, got me thinking about a couple of issues. the first one has to do with influences in gaming. all you have to do to realize that there really isn’t very much incredibly new coming out from the development front is to listen to any podcast or read any opinion column in order to get a list of influences on any one particular game. i’m speaking predominately from within the gaming community (e.g. games that influence other games) and not even referring to the games that are influenced by (not necessarily created from) movies, video games, or even current events — although these are viable topics for discussion. there is no game, in this era of development, that invents a new genre. there are many that re-invent certain genres, but rarely any that truly invent a genre.

of course the argument that there is, in fact, nothing new under the sun can be made here. but that’s not the point. rather it in acknowledging influence that the game developer, writer, or artist is freed up to be able to draw on what is viable for their vision of a game or narrative in order to render it as the most influential game they can. having said that, it then becomes kosher to discuss how a game is influenced. it is no crime to say: “x game is kind of like a little bit of y game and z game put together.” what is the difference, howver, between that statement and the statement that says “x game is y game and z game.” in other words, what is the gaming equivalent of the difference between, in music for instance, a mashup of “mr. brightside” and a techno beat, and dj dangermouse’s the grey ablum. one is influenced and therefore innovative, the other is a copy and therefore derivative.

marathon is influenced by the great works of science fiction, that much has been written about before and is a given. is dead space a great work that is influenced by a myriad of other games and texts? or is it derivative of these other texts? to put it in the words of harold bloom, is it a strong misreading or a weak misreading? and since this post has already reached a 1000 words, we’ll pick up with that topic in a day or two.


One thought on “influence and derivation; or, dead space and every other game/movie that is slightly scary or set in space

  1. c_eliott_j says:

    Great post Ike and sorry for being such a pushy pain in the tuchas! haha

    I received a copy of Marathon in ’94 as a Christmas present from my parents. That was the year I really came into my own as far my interest in computer games went. I had played Kings Quest and others of earlier ilk but due to the fact that my family were always Mac people none of the so-called “good” games were ever made available to me. If I remember correctly that first year Mac Warehouse was offering Marathon as a promotional giveaway if you bought a copy of what I had been eyeing the entire year before, Myst. Myst was of course a life changing experience, but Marathon was really the sneak attack of the bundle. Wolfenstein and Doom were already on the market making waves but Marathon in many ways brought the genre to a new level. Not only in technical terms but also in plot and overall gameplay. Marathon left you with a feeling on solitude and a much more immersive experience overall. I recall that winter in front of my Mac fondly to say the least.

    To go to the core of your post I would say that it’s a question that I have wrestled with for a few years now. What is influential and what is influenced? Also, to take it further, what is original and what is only style? I guess you could make the argument that nothing today is original but it breaks down due to specific purpose. Take for example the peanut. We’ve cultivated and eaten the peanut for hundreds of years but was George Washington Carver original in his invention of peanut butter? Is the process or end product enough to be labeled as innovative even if the materials have previously existed? The more pressing question in my mind relates closer to the topic at hand. That question is – How much originality comes from industries developing products based on market research? Can artistic/gameplay originality stem from the end sums of a numbers game that is targeting an picked audience? We’ve seen the effect of the marketing machine on how music is written and distributed in Westernized culture for the past 50 years. With the advent of explicitly targeted entertainment is anything in the space original now? Whether it’s Political Documentaries for the Leftist Grad Student or Hannah Montana lunchboxes for 14 year old girls… Has knowing too much about marketing ourselves killed true original innovation?


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