So a while ago I said online that I enjoyed a game's sequels more than the game that they were based on. People...got upset. One even told me, probably in jest, that this was a "crime punishable in every country's court of law". Whoa now, that sounds like a bit of overreaction, right?
OK, but what if I told you, that the game was Resident Evil 4, and that I'd said I enjoyed playing 5 and 6 more? Now you'd probably agree with those people. Really, how can ANYONE think that Resident Evil 5 and 6 are better games than RE4??? But that's not what I said or what I believe, but if I did, does that really matter? Resident Evil 4 is one of the most highly acclaimed and influential titles of the last few decades, it's made tons of money, been ported over ever platform imaginable and is loved by millions. Why would it matter if a few people don't agree? It's more than got its due.
Well, it because they're just wrong, right? Well, no, and also, that's the wrong question. A better one is why we are so adamant about defending such established opinions on certain games? Why are we obsessed with making sure the right are appreciated, and so uninterested in alternative reactions to others?
In simple terms, these are the games that make up what we think of as "classics". Or, in another way of looking at this is our videogame "canon". That's canon with one N in the middle, not two. Canon is defined as "a general law or criterion by which something is judged" or alternatively, "a collection of sacred texts". As in other media, canon forms the body of work which we consider historically and artistically important.
For games, however, our view of our canon seems to skew more towards the sacred text side. There's an almost religious view of games like Super Mario Bros, Super Metroid or DOOM. Some games are so revered, we judge entire genres on their relationship to those games. See Metroidvania, Roguelike, or Soulslike. Even when those relationships aren't so explicit, the seem to run under the surface. How times have you heard a platformer be compared to Mario 64 or Super Mario Bros?
The problem isn't whether or not these "classics" deserve this praise or attention, but that we tend to look down upon games that don't measure to the standards of these games, even if they never intend to. We look at games for what they're not, not what they try to accomplish. "Dynasty Warriors isn't good because it lacks depth of a real brawler like Devil May Cry." "Modern shooters suck because lack the speed of games like DOOM." "Yume Nikki is just a crap ripoff of Undertale."
Despite how ridiculous it might sound to heard that last one, given that Yume Nikki directly inspired Undertale, this is a real thing that real people have said. And that comes to the other problem with videogame canon--it worships a certain set of big titles and lets everything else slip through the cracks. Our view of what's important doesn't have space for experiments or aberrations. And our poor understanding of our medium's history reflects that. There are so many interesting parts to games history, but we're stuck talking about the same few games over and over.
Worse still, we rarely accept critical reevaluations of older titles, and even dismiss games in the same series that don't conform to the expectations set by these games. That's why you see the sequels to games like Zelda, Metroid, and Castlevania shunned for their deviations from the formula, despite any unique merits that might have on their own.
If we weren’t so obsessed our canon, maybe we’d have space to talk about how studios like Exact pioneered alternative approaches to 3D with games like Geograph Seal, Jumping Flash and Ghost in the Shell. Maybe we could talk about the unique terror Metroid 2's claustrophobic spaces and minimalist sound design evoke. We could see how the deeply racist depictions of African nations displayed in Resident Evil 5 were permitted by the practices of Resident Evil 4's Spanish villages.
We need to expand our definitions of what games are important, let alternative reactions exist, search out the quieter parts of our history, and judge games by their own merits instead of how well they imitate others. Games history is deeper than the few games we think of as classics, and we shouldn’t limit ourselves to such a narrow view of it.
Besides, punching people in the face feels way fucking better in Resident Evil 6 than it does in 4.
Here's a few stories for those interested in exploring this idea of "canon" further:
-there's "Picture in a Frame", a story i wrote last year which explores similar ideas, and is what i developed my video on canon from.
-to follow up, try either this video on The Dragon's Trap, or the original writing, on how it provides an alternative to Metroidvania style design.
-if you're interested in alternative approaches to 3D space, check out "Lost Worlds: Jumping Flash", which tackles the unique ways Exact's Jumping Flash approaches early 3D and what makes it so evocative.
-and if you're interested in the history of games, check out "The Vast, Unplayable History of Video Games", which compares our lack of preservation to the lost age of film, as well as
-"Towards an Art History for Games" by Lana Polansky, which tackles how our obsession with games as a product comes into conflict with our understanding of games as art
Until next time, peace!