One of my favorite games of all time is the original Geometry Wars Retro Evolved. And now the sequel has come out and it has proved to be very valuable in exposing what was so well done in the original (and by original I mean the evolved version, not the original original). And what it has revealed has dramatically changed my views on video games.
To begin with here are the superficial differences between the two versions. There are more features, modes and better graphics in the new version. There are some new enemies and everything has been polished just a little bit more. Some of the rules about points have been changed and the way that multipliers are built up is different.
The major difference between the two games is what they become as a whole. The new game has 6 different modes which each focus on different aspects of the underlying game. Speed, dodging, shooting, grouping, and memorization are some focuses in these different modes. Since none of them are the main game, the whole thing starts to feel like a very good training tool.
And this is where my old video theory of video games starts to fall apart. I had said that video games were fundamentally about teaching the player things, such as a new skill. Yet this game, which has become simply a training game is not as enjoyable as the old game. It provides some amusement, but it is not as fulfilling.
I still feel that the teaching, learning and training aspects are still fundamental to the gaming experience, but they can't be the central focus. I see the teaching in video games now as more of the main meat of the art. In painting it is the viewing experience which hold everything together. In books it is the process of imagining. In music is might be letting the beat get into your body. In film it is about getting attached to the stories and the characters.
I see the learning process as integral to video games. Without it there is no interesting interaction and the whole thing just can't proceed. But what I realize now is that there needs to be something beyond that. The learning needs to be there simply to hold the experience together.
In the original Geometry Wars I feel it is the battle and the feeling this main battle produces which causes the experience to be so overwhelmingly powerful. In this game is was you versus an uncountable number of enemies. The game could only end when you ran out of lives. What was exceedingly important was how the game was balanced with new lives. It was designed in such a way that no matter how bad you were playing, it was always worthwhile to never give up and continue with all the focus you could muster. Even if you were down to your last life it was still important to keep trying as you could comeback. There was always a chance of getting a high score. In the new game, after a few minutes into any game you can usually judge if it is worthwhile to continue playing or whether it would be better to simply restart.
This original design caused the game to give me a real sense that it was trying to relate to some of the realities of life. I felt it was based upon the principal of never giving up no matter how bad the outlook. And being a game that always finished with your death, it felt like it had accepted the fact you were going to die, yet it was still important to do the best with whatever chance you get. These games that seem to answer questions about how we should be leading our lives are very powerful to me, even if the designers didn't realize what they had created.
And so in my mind games can't be about teaching, they need to be about something the designers believe, whatever that may be. It probably will be a theme that is being drawn from real life, or else it won't ring true for anyone. The teaching and training aspects are simply the vehicles in which the more important messages and themes ride.
Still Geometry Wars 2 is fun, especially the multiplayer.