A series of tweets from PurpleChair led me to a fan translation of “For the Frog the Bell Tolls,” a 1992 Japanese-only Game Boy release that seemed oddly familiar. It struck me in how incredibly specifically it called to mind Richard’s Villa, a side location from The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. I’d always liked it because of the frogs, but in the whole of things it wasn’t all that special. So why would something so forgettable come so richly flooding back to me?
It didn’t take much investigation to find the connection: not only is Richard’s Villa a direct reference to the earlier game, Link’s Awakening was built on its foundation! Suddenly those Zelda 2-esque forays into side perspective make a lot more sense. Trying out For the Frog the Bell Tolls, it was rich in the same quirky humour that I’d enjoyed in its successor, though distinct in its themes and oddly-deterministic combat. Worth checking out if you appreciate a bit of early 90′s charm.
But all this got me thinking about project assets: game engines and visuals and mechanics. If you’ve developed a solid and moddable system, why wouldn’t you explore it beyond the limits of a single game? It only makes sense. Though this might not work wholesale with extremely specific and tailored systems, there are likely bits and pieces you could bring forward into other projects. It’s why L.A. Noire (from Grand Theft Auto developer Rockstar) is punctuated with uninteresting and out-of-place driving sequences. But given the wide applicability of certain things (e.g. camera control, HUD elements, 3rd person driving controls), why do new developers have to start from scratch? You’d think that these elements would have been collectively developed and refined to the point of mastery by now, but because of the strange way our society works, each company’s internal tweaks are kept closely guarded, lest anyone take them and claim them as their own! So we end up reinventing the wheel again and again, reconstructing the same sort of structure to explore the same game space in our own way (though I will concede that this can lead to some very interesting wheels). Why is this? The mechanics of games (publicly accessible as they are) are mixed and remixed over and over, leading us into bold new realms of play, but the actual assets are kept under close guard. Certainly creators ought to be recognized and compensated for their craft, but why don’t we more actively encourage building on each others’ work? Newly developed film technology has never remained exclusive for long and large sections of our collective musical history depend on the sampling previous works. And I could argue that, at least as a partial result, those mediums have come a longer way in their development than games have.
Maybe it’s for the best. This way we all have to learn how everything fits together; we all have to learn to walk before we can run. This way a triple A studio can’t just roll in and slap prettier graphics on an independent title then use their superior marketing engine to rake in the dough (or can they? :S). And this way, at least in theory (and that’s a big theoretical, that one is), people are compensated for the work they do. But progress in an art, in an industry, is additive. We build on what’s come before; we internalize the lessons of the past to better inform our future work. Has our individualist approach hobbled us when we might otherwise fly? Again I run into the difficult friction of ideals and reality. I’d like to make everything I do open source, but, in looking out for a future of personal sustainability, I simply can’t. If ever I release something to the world market, I’ll have to protect it. Were someone else to run off with my product, our society as it is wouldn’t make sure that I’m provided for. The tragedy of the commons, again and again.
Maybe there’s a middle path. Maybe I can open some of my work to the world while retaining enough of it to present individual value. And maybe (yes) there are others out there willing to do the same.