Nothing New Under the Sun: The Search For "Original" Games

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. - Ecclesiastes 1:9 (NIV)

It's all been done before. This was the argument of the author of Ecclesiastes, traditionally attributed to King Solomon. Solomon was the wisest of all people for his time, or so it was believed (and taught in Scripture). Despite Thomas Cahill's argument in his book "The Gift of the Jews" that it was the Jewish people who introduced the concept of linear time amongst a host of dominant cultures who saw life as cyclical, Solomon's wisdom suggested that nothing new is coming.

Of course, this is all a matter of interpretation. Obviously there are new inventions and new actions can be performed using them. What would Solomon have thought of a helicopter, a microwave, or a Sony PlayStation? But then, with these inventions, we also acknowledge that these "new" things are built upon various systems of knowledge, all of which ultimately stem back to something known even to the ancients. In this manner, even the Wii is not "new."

And, to make matters more confusing, "inventions" (which go against the grain of Solomon's teaching) are most easily formed in the sensory, or "real," world. New abstractions are even harder to deal with. And so it is that people searching in an almost quixotic fashion for some "original" plot or story mechanism are always let down. The same might even be argued for a game's graphical presentation and gameplay mechanics: when the best thing you can aim for is an imitation of real life, you're not exactly doing anything new, are you?

All this heady, conceptual stuff needs examples in which we can ground ourselves. So let's use these two for starters: Atlus' Shin Megami Tensei series, and Tetsuya Takahashi's "Xeno" games. Question: what do these games have in common? Answer: a grand mythology based on historical religions and philosophies in our world. The SMT series is notorious for including deities from the whole gamut of religious history, and Xenosaga makes extensive use of Judeo-Christian heritage with plenty of Gnostic overtones. None of this is new, but in its presentation, it feels exciting.

Indeed, when gamers say they want something "original," my knee-jerk reaction is to believe they actually want something quite the opposite. Okay, maybe relative to the current market they want something new. But what that something will be is most likely something quite old. This is true for an RPG's plot, as well as its game mechanics.

Another example: Final Fantasy XII. Yes, the combat system was "fresh," but it wasn't new. It was an amalgam of other gaming conventions. And ultimately, the Gambit system is little more than a series of simple programming macros: a series of if/then statements to determine your characters' AI. For someone endowed with great intelligence (like our legendary friend Solomon), the novelty of programming the characters would wear quickly and watching the action play out would bore even more. Truth be told, FFXII was most fun for people with average intelligence. Yes, they understood the Gambit system and were able to come up with a variety of interesting combinations for their parties, but they weren't clever enough to maximize the systems' potential, streamlining combat to a science.

I've played so many RPGs in my short life. Many people would say, not "many," but "too many." And I'll tell you this much: I'm no longer in search of "original" games. I'm looking for games with good presentation, and interesting use of old plot and gameplay mechanisms. It doesn't annoy me when I play a dozen JRPGs with spiky-haired protagonists, because, tired as the concept may be, I've seen thousands of people with flat, non-spiky hair in my life. All hairstyles have been done before. I don't really care what you do with my protagonist's hair at this point. But if I get to create my own character, you bet it'll be a girl with blue hair (that hasn't been done yet, right? Oh wait...).

Gameplay, story, characters, characters' hairstyles, even audio and visual elements: I'm not looking for "original." Perhaps the better word is "inventive." Manipulating old concepts and abstractions into something that makes them feel new: this is the best we can get.

- Patrick Gann