Very much like other people my age, I've been playing games, even digital games for a long while. Back when I was a kid, my mother and grandmother had something against playing cards (something to do with my grandfather gambling in ages past, as far as I understand) which obviously made them all the more exciting. I was a bit of lonely kid, so I have many fond memories about pestering my parents to play lots of children's board games with me. I guess my current interest in all things gamelike has its roots in not getting to play enough as a child. (Had I had my fill of Snakes & Ladders back then, maybe I would've migrated towards a more profitable career later in life? Who knows, maybe I'd be a banker or a politician by now, instead of eking out my way as an errant game designer...)
The point of this meander down memory lane is that this article looks at game design as a genealogical process, as a sort of a family tree of ludological delights. I'm sure most readers are aware that game design often is as much about borrowing and repackaging old ideas, as it is coming up with new concepts. Just look at Angry Birds, borrowing from the age old genre of catapult games. Or have a gander at a number of sports games, or more recently first person shooters, copying practically everything from their own earlier iterations each year, and making a pretty penny in the process. (As a side note, while running game design workshops I used to ask self-confessed sports game fans how the newest version of their game of choice differs from the earlier models. Frequently, there was no answer to be found.)
Recently, what got me thinking about this particular topic was a 2D-platform game called Spelunky by Derek Yu. In it, an Indiana Jones look-alike navigates an endless cave full of traps and monsters, eventually winding his way through ancient temples to the alien infested heart of the labyrinthine tunnel system. The game is brutally difficult, and the roguelike elements guarantee almost infinite replay value. I've followed its development from a freeware indie game oddity to its current status of multiplatform success. In addition to having an interesting developmental genealogy of its own (first freeware for Windows and Mac, then to the Xbox 360, PS3, PS Vita, and finally back to Windows), it reminded me of a game from my childhood. I started playing video games on my uncle's old and esteemed Commodore 64. In those days of infinite patience with the cassette drive, one of my favourites was Rick Dangerous, a game by Core Design (who, incidentally, would later make Tomb Raider). In it, a 1940's adventuring hero escapes from an angry tribe by fleeing from a cave system to a pyramid in Egypt, eventually fighting nazis in a castle. The story continues on to the second game, where Rick fights aliens. It would be hard not to draw parallels between the games.
In addition to the plot and characters, many design elements in the games are obviously similar. Both are 2D-platformers, the protagonists have similar functionalities (for example, VERY careful bomb placement is crucial in both games) and both games are very challenging. As a fan of both games I've had a blast spotting the similarities, and playing Spelunky has definitely brought back a lot of memories. These are all important factors in my fascination with the game, but Spelunky does add its own spice to the mix. It was the first time I encountered procedurally generated levels in a platformer, and also one of the first properly polished freeware games I ran into. And after playing the freeware version a couple of years ago, I was overjoyed to discover it published as a fully polished actual release.
It seems to me that imitation is indeed the greatest form of flattery, and oftentimes there is no need to re-invent the wheel each time you flesh out a new game. Good and solid original ideas are obviously to be praised, but sometimes an old idea is better than a bundle of new inventions. This relaxed approach seems like a must, for in the other direction lies snobbery and hipsterism. It also relates interestingly to the concept of game form as a language we learn and through continued play become fluent in: once you've played enough, learning a new game becomes easier, as your library of reference points grows. For a designer this means that copying ideas from older inventions makes your own product more accessible to your audience which is obviously a good thing. Games as a language and a genre of entertainment are both large topics that merit their own articles at a later date. For now I'll just conclude that nostalgia is a powerful thing, even (or especially?) in game design.