Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Great games steal, and should

Illustration for article titled Great games steal, and should
Image: Ubisoft

Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?


In my ongoing efforts to play all of the still-meager handful of extant PlayStation 5 games currently out there at the moment, I finally got around to booting up Immortals Fenyx Rising this week. And despite having a name so generic I’ve had to look it up twice just during the two whole sentences I’ve been writing this column already, I’ve genuinely been having a blast with Ubisoft Quebec’s brightly colored open-world god game. For a start, the writing is shockingly good; given how awful most video game comedy writing is, the genuine enjoyability of the Zeus/Prometheus double act that provides the game’s narration is a minor miracle all its own. But also, there are just a huge number of appealing aspects that Eternals Bird Go Upsie deploys in its own favor, from interesting powers that allow the title character to move and drag objects in the environment, to a design that puts an emphasis on lots of small, self-contained dungeons rather than big sprawling caverns, to an ethos of exploration that encourages the players to look out over the vistas, pick out a mountain, and glide their way over there to climb it with nothing but determination, grit, and an extensively upgradable stamina bar on their side. Why, I ask myself while playing it, hasn’t anyone made a game like this before?

What’s that, you say? Breath Of The What? The Legend Of Whom?!

In interviews, the game’s associate director, Julien Galloudec, has attempted to float the frankly ludicrous assertion that Unaging Chicken’s Climb is not a blatant riff on Nintendo’s 2017 genre breaker, The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild. While acknowledging that “we took inspiration from many games, including Breath Of The Wild,” Galloudec ultimately claimed that the two games are actually “very different,” presumably with a straight face that must have been an absolute nightmare to maintain. The truth is that there are so many aesthetic and design touches that appear in both games—from big things like the overall ethos of exploration, all the way down to the visual effects when you’re dragging giant metal balls into switch-containing recesses—that it would feel far more honest if everyone involved just admitted that they’d decided to take a beloved game as their blueprint and run with it.

Because here’s the thing: As someone who did not especially like Breath Of The Wild—gasp, shock, horror, the throwing of rotten fruit, monster parts, and half a dozen nearly broken swords, etc.—I’m really digging my time with Mummies Ostrich’s Ascent. What it loses of Breath Of The Wild’s admittedly admirable sense of scale and place, it makes up by being far more accommodating to play, and far more satisfying in the hands. (Also, it’s not written like a third- or fourth-run afterthought, which is a major step up from Breath.) The combat is far more instantly accessible, the navigation less onerous, the Korok seeds less infinite in their presence. If Breath Of The Wild is a game where you find your own fun, Ubisoft Quebec took the revolutionary step of just putting the fun front and center, where everyone can get to it without a lot of searching. And none of that refinement would be possible if their game wasn’t aggressively cribbing from Nintendo’s playbook.

The old adage holds that good artists copy, and great artists steal—and it’s nowhere truer than in the world of video games, where the job of creating the Next Great Thing is as much an engineering challenge as one of writing or artistic intent. It’s one of the things that makes those occasional patent attempts on mechanics like “mini-games played during load screens” or “a system where enemies that kill you remember you and get stronger” such a drag, because the only way revolutionary game mechanics turn into staples of great design is by being refined upon, and that’s a process that one studio typically can’t do all on its own. The things that make Breath Of The Wild beloved are genuinely great, even if they get bogged down by the game’s focus on repetition, and the Zelda series’ notoriously excessive wordiness, and they deserve to be explored.

Immortals Fenyx Rising—it’s okay, we’ve got like five Post-Its stuck to our monitor now, to remind us—is not an especially innovative game, as much as the people who made it might like to think it is. But it is a refined game, one that codifies, expands upon, and even improves much of what was exceptional about the title it’s imitating, openly or not. And that’s worth celebrating, too. We can’t all climb the mountain first, extendable stamina meter or no. But we can still find a better route.