Game(s) of the Week: Stacking and TDU2

Original rockers.

A funny thing and I mean that in both senses of the word 'funny' happened to me this week. I got plagiarised by a weird website (posting to another website) which is run buy a guy who was Dana Carvey's double in Wayne's World. (He has also written and directed an awesome movie called The Suitcase. "IT HAS ITS OWN BAGGAGE")

Basically, half of my Test Drive Unlimited 2 review was reposted elsewhere, without credit and with some of the words changed around so it barely made sense any more ("it really is really satisfying in the moderate term, particularly at greater rates of speed, in case missing the participation to maintain you"). The offending passages have been taken down now and we're told it was all a regrettable and inadvertent mistake. In truth, I found the whole thing much more bizarre and amusing than upsetting, anyway.

But it did get me thinking, especially when I read Kristan's intro to today's Download Games Roundup. The games industry, since its inception, has recycled ideas. Sometimes developers' own, sometimes their rivals'. I'm not being judgmental; it can be a creative (or, at least, usefully iterative) process, and it's not like every other entertainment industry doesn't do the same. Just look at the slate of third-generation remakes at the cinema, or all those hip young bands trying to sound like Gang of Four.

But burrow down through sub-genre, mash-up and "tribute" and eventually you reach the plain old rip-off the game which, so to speak, just changes the words around. We like to think the Wild West days of the "clone" are behind us; the days when opportunistic coders would rush out copies of famous games on platforms they weren't available for, just changing the graphics. (Games like The Great Giana Sisters.)

But are those days really over? Is Digger Dan OK just because Boulder Dash isn't a current game, and they've put a squirrel in it? Isn't the above more or less what Gameloft does (very successfully, by the way)? And even if you legitimately own all the rights and are just ripping yourself off every year, is it really going to save you?

Gameloft CEO Michel Guillemot uses a variation of the age-old literary defence: that there are only seven stories to be told anyway. I don't buy it. Games don't work like that. They're works of design, and like all design, they must draw on both sound engineering and genuine innovation to survive.

Make no mistake: the traditional games industry is on the brink of paleolithic extinction, while the new digital and mobile dawn risks making all the same mistakes computer games did 30 years ago.

So it gives me great pleasure to salute two true originals this week.

Stacking and Test Drive Unlimited 2

Not choosing between them might seem like a cop-out, but it's not in the spirit of my point. These are two studios and to give them their due, two publishers who are trying, each in their own way, to escape the creative paralysis games find themselves in in 2011.

Stacking - first 15 minutes

Tim Schafer's Double Fine is using the freedom and shorter production schedules of the download market to sidestep the burdensome expectations players and publishers have had of games like Brutal Legend and Psychonauts, but also to let their creative juices flow, brainstorming all-new ideas during "forget everything you know" sessions called Amnesia Fortnights.

As Christian noted in his 8/10 review of Stacking, "it's apparent that most of Double Fine's energy has been spent on forgetting how games should look rather than how they actually play." But the result is still an effortlessly charming game with a unique mood and singular concept in a genre that was struggling to survive as little as a year ago.

It's to Double Fine's credit that it's dreaming up new aesthetics for gaming, and to THQ's credit that it views these originals as a genuine business opportunity and is prepared to splash out on prominent advertising for the likes of Costume Quest on sites like this one, something few other publishers would do.

Meanwhile, as odd as it may seem to celebrate a racing game sequel here, it's Eden's obstinate refusal to abandon, compromise or pollute its frankly crazy and virtually unattainable dream for Test Drive Unlimited that marks the French developers out as heroes.

Test Drive Unlimited 2 - first 15 mins

Other games have taken vague swipes at the breathtaking scale of its quasi-MMO, second lifestyle, petrolhead paradise Need for Speed World, FUEL, Burnout Paradise but none have had the guts or the heart to come close. "Unsteady but passionate and ambitious, TDU2 is fantastic escapism," I wrote in my review.

Perhaps it would have been sensible to rein in the ambition and features and concentrate harder on polish; perhaps it would have been commercially prudent to mix and match in some ideas from successful rivals. But then it might have ended up like Killzone 3, losing its identity in its desperation to ape Call of Duty and Halo. Rearranging the words.

That's not for Eden. Test Drive Unlimited isn't a product, it's an idea. Given the opportunity for a second run at it, Eden chose only to do things that would further its idea, and nothing that would dilute it. Maybe it didn't make it a better game, but just like the experimental process which birthed Stacking it made it more like itself, and less like all the others. Right now, that seems like the noblest aim of all.

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