Originality: Not All Its Cracked Up to Be

in Gamer Thoughts

You know, we’ve all heard it. Every time we look at someone’s project, there is a large chance we will get how something is “totally new” or “like nothing you’ve seen before”. How everyone in discussions talk about how you should look to have your game be unique, or how you should avoid cliches and tropes like the plague.

I’m here to say something a little bit controversial. Nine times out of ten, originality doesn’t count for anything.

Now, I’m not going to use the whole “nothing new under the sun” argument, though it is pretty hard to come up with an idea that has literally NEVER been used, I mean there is an entire website devoted to keeping track of every recurring element in fiction you can think of, but that isn’t why I think going for originality isn’t a priority.

Huh, I kind of am surprised that we have our own page there.

Huh, I kind of am surprised that we have our own page there.

And now that you’ve escaped the trap that is TVTropes, I can also say that I’m definitely not saying originality itself is bad.

What I am saying though, is that originality for originality’s sake is almost always a bad idea. When you insert a character, situation, etc to your game, the question you should be asking yourself is: What does this do for the story? How does it communicate with the player? If your answer is ever: Its because its not been done before, with no other real reason. Strike that out. Don’t do it.

Its not about having original ideas, its about executing what you do WELL. The parts of your story should fit together like a puzzle to communicate something to your player. Each piece should have a purpose, and putting in a piece for the express purpose of being unique is just screaming “look at me, look at me, I’m special” without adding anything to the overall piece.

Not only that, tropes exist because they work. They are storytelling mechanisms that are capable of giving a lot of information to the player quickly. Familiarity in parts that don’t matter can make the parts that do matter easier to explain, because you don’t need to do all the leg work around explaining the basics. And sometimes they just work because they effectively evoke the emotion you are looking for in your player.

unique-is-not-useful

Tropes are used because they work. Sometimes, no one has done something because no one is that stupid. “I’m going to have a plot where this and this happens, and that is so cool because its never been done.” Well WHY? What were you trying to get out of it other than, its never been done? Its never been done doesn’t MEAN anything.

Writing isn’t about avoiding tropes. Its about executing what you use well. Want some examples?

Originality3Ice, the 8th episode of the 1st season of X-Files, is generally accepted as being the first episode of the series to really prove that Chris Carter had something special with this show. In the episode, Agents Mulder and Scully are trapped at an Alaskan research facility by inclement weather with a collection of scientists in which an alien parasite has secretly taken control of one of them. Movie buffs will recognize that… wait, this sounds like John Carpenter’s The Thing! And here is the thing, it shares tons and tons and tons of similarities. I wouldn’t deny it, and I don’t think anyone else would either.

But the writing and acting in Ice were phenomenal. The atmosphere of paranoia in the episode is so thick you cut it with a knife. It was not good because it was original, but because it set out to do what it did WELL.

Another example is Final Fantasy Tactics (yeah, I know, I mention this game a lot, I CAN’T HELP IT GUYS ITS A REALLY GOOD GAME). The entire game is one pile of tropes.

  • Corrupt Nobles
  • Corrupt Church
  • Ancient Demons
  • The Young Noble Main Character who is Truly Honoroable
  • The Downtrodden Peasant who will Change The World At Any Cost
  • Save the Girl

But even though its really really filled with tropes, all the interplay of individual parts tells a great and compelling story.

Don’t focus on originality. Focus on making the story you write good. Originality will enter into the story naturally, or maybe not at all, it shouldn’t be forced.

Originality isn’t good. It isn’t bad. It just is.

7 comments… add one

  • Azazelicko March 21, 2014, 5:51 pm

    I wholly agree with you, originality shouldn’t be the aim when making a game or writing a story, the aim should be for the game and story to be good, if it is original too you can pat yourself on the back and thnk how good you are.

    • Nick Palmer March 21, 2014, 8:56 pm

      Absolutely. Originality will either flow naturally from the story you mean to tell or not, and it really doesn’t matter either way.

  • SLEEP March 24, 2014, 1:39 am

    Tropes are building blocks, but a lot of the TVtropes community takes the idea of “there is no originality” and uses it as an excuse to make souless by-the-numbers shlock. I’ve seen a shocking amount of young storytellers decide “there is no originality so why bother i’m going to make FF7 with the names changed lol”. It’s a dangerous trap, and I feel a disclaimer is needed on any article which states “no originality” to also specify “generic garbage still exists too”. And well executed generic garbage exists, like most popular music and blockbuster films. Not that it’s bad AND I’M NOT SAYING ITS BAD NOBODY START A THING WITH ME ABOUT THIS, it’s just bland enough for everyone to consume without squabbles, and safe.

    I think it’s only true that everything’s been done before, when boiled down to the most basic ideas. Nothing’s been done before when looking at the little details, the exact method of production, the author, the crew, and idea, the little pieces that hold the big picture together are all unique! A snowstorm isn’t anything new or different, but no two snowflakes are the same, something like that I guess. >_>

    • Nick Palmer March 24, 2014, 11:14 am

      I agree that once you get to the detail level, things can be very different. That is why I have the issue with the “nothing is original” argument. And also why I even said that I wasn’t using it. The truth is though, originality will flow naturally. Trying to be original on purpose generally feels awkward. It should be about telling the story you tell well, and the details will fill in how its different.

      And yeah, straight ripoffs can be a bit :|.

  • Wiimeiser March 27, 2014, 10:01 am

    I think if anything, settings could use a bit more variety. How about an outback area for once? I can recall four games that have outback areas (the Ty the Tasmanian Tiger trilogy and LittleBig Planet on the PSP). Hopefully the new farm and western tiles will encourage a bit more variety in this area.

  • ZarroTsu March 28, 2014, 7:47 pm

    I think the biggest step people miss when writing an original character, characters, or story is that they simply don’t ask enough “whys” to contradict themself, if any at all, and then shrug it off repeatedly.

    The more questions you ask yourself about your character and plot, the more answers you can create. If you can’t figure out an answer, then maybe don’t do it.

    • ZarroTsu March 28, 2014, 7:48 pm

      (And yes, you should question the questions and answers too.)

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