For our debut 'Question Of The Week' we asked what, in the opinion of Gamasutra's readers, the most creative game of 2004 was, and, of course, why. We received a massive amount of feedback, with over 60 responses, some of them hundreds of words long, and have compiled the best and most interesting comments here. Although hardly canonical, the results show exactly what the professional gaming community thinks of the state of creativity in the industry last year, and how some titles are bucking the alleged trend of gameplay conservatism tied to the increase in game budgets.
Katamari Damacy - 2004's Watchword For Innovation?
Although it was, perhaps, obvious, the overwhelming choice of most of the respondents was Namco's 'object aggregation simulator' Katamari Damacy. An astounding 75 percent of commenters mentioned the PlayStation 2 title at least once, and it's obvious that the completely unconventional gameplay, in which the lead character rolls a ball around, sticking objects in the game world to it, as the ball increases in size and more objects can be accumulated. Here are a selection of the many responses praising the innovation of the title:
Katamari Damacy, hands down. Unique concept. Unique gameplay. Solid execution. And most important of all, it was _fun_.
- Vince Dickinson, EA Tiburon
I don't think you can use the words "creative," "games," and "2004" without saying "Katamari Damacy." This is simply a wonderful, original game that players of all ages can understand and, most importantly, enjoy. I was shocked with how simple yet engaging the game is. The premise is, as far as I know, completely new, and certainly the execution of the game is unique. I consider one of Katamari Damacy's biggest accomplishments to be its reinvigoration of an arcade-style gameplay mechanic by utilizing simple controls to realize progress in the game. It's all about the controls!
- Eric Ellenberg, Georgie Institute of Technology
Katamari Damacy, of course! :) A drunken king? Recreating the stars out of balls of trash? Who could ask for anything more?
- Mark DeLoura
Katamari Damacy - you take a simple mechanic such as rolling a ball, and somehow pick up this multilayered dynamic as you abstractly roll over it. Each layer increases your range of challenges. Plus, each layer rewards you in the simplest of ways: "Oh! I caught a cow!" "Oh! I caught a bikini girl!" "Oh, now I can get that Giant Squid that was bullying me before!" "Oh!!! I caught a rainbow!"
- Nat Loh, Mechanical Butterfly Studios LLC
Katamari Damacy. I've never been so addicted to complete stupidity at any other point in my life. :)
Katamari Damacy was easily the most creative game of 2004. The gameplay was simple but addictive. Just being able to market a game where the object is to roll EVERYTHING up into a giant ball is amazing.
- Chris Allen, Volition
The one game that immediately springs to mind is Katamari Damacy for the Playstation 2. The graphics were simple, the gameplay was simple, but the concept was extremely unique. Sure, there was the jazzy music and the incredible sense of scale one got in the later levels (you could eventually pick up towering scyscrapers and even land-masses with your ball, though you would start relatively small each time), but just the idea of rolling around, picking things up, and making your ball grow was entertaining and extremely unique.
- Matthew Thomas, University Of Montana
Katamari Damacy, because it didn't limit itself by obsessing over the guns, the photorealism or the IP of others. Think about it - what do any of those have to do with creativity?
Indie Notables - Alien Hominid, Gish, Outpost Kaloki
There's often opportunity to innovate in the independent gaming scene, where much lower budgets mean gameplay experimentation is a somewhat easier (although many indie titles are not necessarily innovative in any way.) Nonetheless, titles singled out by commenters include The Behemoth's Flash-originating 2D console actioner Alien Hominid, as well as Chronic Logic's PC physics-based platformer Gish, and intriguing indie strategy game Outpost Kaloki. In addition, one respondent argued that micro-indie titles are the only places where creators are completely unfettered.
Of the few games I did have a chance to sample, Alien Hominid was probably the most creative game that I had an opportunity to play. The title had a hilarious and cohesive cartoon style to it- lots of great animated squash and stretch on the 2D sprites. The action was completely retro 2D side scroller shooter with additional combat abilities, like jumping on agents and biting their heads off. You can customize your character with hilarious unlockable hats. Vehicles range from tanks and spaceships to a Siberian Yeti. There is nothing as fun as eating cartoon Soviet solders via a Yeti. I couldn't stop laughing the first I played that level. Additional retro action in the form of mini-games like the atari-esque "Super Soviet Missle Master" add to the replayability of this game. I really have a hard time putting this game down.
- Camden Bayer, UDCom
Alien Hominid - when considered as a whole. The art direction is slick, and the lead character breaks the mold for side-scroller heroes. Where this game really shines creatively is the extras - PDA Games and Super Soviet Missile Master make Alien Hominid a creative delight!
The 2D 'side-scroller' platform game was tired (and largely retired) years ago, but Gish makes it fresh again with the addition of really unusual characters, unique abilities, and a solid use of physics as an integral part of gameplay.
- Jay Barnson, Perimeter Data
Gish - gaming's first hydrodynamic hero perhaps? A fun variation of the venerable platformer, for the PC no less.
Gish, a shareware game. Physics and playability at the service of fun, not the other way around.
Outpost Kaloki is a completely different take on the "Tycoon" game genre, giving it personality, humor, story, and a completely accessible interface. It really took Tycoon games to the most interesting new places the genre has been since Tropico and Roller Coaster Tycoon.
In the end, I will venture to guess that the most creative games were probably made using Mark Overmars' Game Maker tool, and nobody outside of that community will ever hear about them (with rare exceptions like Jumper and Seiklus). Not because the games aren't good - there's some really great stuff being done there - but because it's all being made by kids, and it's not polished or presented to the world in the way that the AAAs or even the indies are. And it's more creative because they're all just toying around there; besides obvious the clone projects(which are popular and yet at the same time frowned upon) there's no real "manufacturing" going on, no profit/loss worry, no marketing or distribution other than a forum post and a Geocities page. They can think up a crazy idea and they have a good enough tool to do something with it other than plead to people: "write my game, guyz!" I haven't followed that scene lately, but it is most definitely one to watch for amateur talent.
The FPS Kings - Half-Life 2, Doom 3, Others
Although riffing on the central FPS gameplay theme, it's clear that some of the biggest titles of this year from Valve, id and Bungie had chunks of innovation in them that can't be ignored. A number of those who replied picked up on this, pointing out facets of these titles, as well as other which really help take game immersiveness or community interaction to the next level.
Half-Life 2's effortless ability to immerse you in its world began before you'd even hit "New Game". In one menu vignette the birds are a-singing, frogs a-croaking and the waves a-lapping until an oppressive helicopter invades the scene, ruining the tranquillity. You're eye is then drawn to the litter floating in the river, which begins to bob up and down in reaction to the helicopter’s down-draft. Why has this area become so dirtied by trash and sound pollution? The helicopter passes in to the distance - but it will be back. That is, unless you do something about it...
- Kenneth Young, SCEE
Half Life 2 - I have to give Valve credit for a number of reasons - the company, despite the numerous delays, breaches in security, and legal battles with their publisher, has managed to once again lay the foundation for the community to thrive upon, an incredibly creative move. This is still the only PC game engine that I know of who has a built-in voice client. It's been 6 years and counting...when will the rest of the PC gaming sector catch up with this advent?
Regarding Half Life 2 - technically, it is the greatest advance in gaming. I have had some of my greatest gaming moments ever playing this title. The stress of guarding places in Nova Prospekt, followed by the euphoria of finally getting through it is one of them. Another that comes to mind happened while playing Half-life 2 deathmatch - I was fragged by a friend armed with a melon-equipped gravity gun! I laughed so hard, I was killed twice more before I could recover. The graphics, physics, story, voice acting - it's the most complete package that a game has ever been.
- Todd Howard
Half Life 2, because it was so much fun to play and to just look around inside because of the exceptional graphics. Valve also brought new life to their other Half Life games by using Steam, and also porting them to the Source engine. You get all of this for the price of one game. Not a bad deal at all. It extends the life of the game and the value of the game was worth the price.
- John Nelson, Atomic Design Laboratory
I think Doom 3's use of music as an integral part of the soundscape was an excellent idea and beautifully executed. As the player moves around the environment they are unwittingly acting as a DJ, organically mixing between whispering voices and the choirs of the damned.
- Kenneth Young, SCEE
Doom 3 - The editing tools that are built into the engine of Doom 3 are a blessing for modmakers and mappers. These are creative tools for creative people, and I look forward to the next crop of games to take advantage of this technology. This game, however, looks simply wicked.
I know I'll take some flak for this, but I really enjoyed the creative implementation of Halo 2's new gameplay features. To fans of the game, it felt intuitive and familiar, but it also gave the player a lot of new toys to play with (dual wielding, new vehicle options, etc.). It was also accessible for folks playing the game for the first time, which you have to respect as well. No, its not the next Sims or Katamari Damacy, but I think its very creative and original for a big-budget sequel.
- Coray Seifert, Large Animal Games
Other Stand-Outs, Pointed Responses?
Although there were a core of particularly honored titles, there were a multitude of worthy games mentioned only once or twice, and we're happy to present the highlights here. It's good to see a range of games honored, showing that, although lack of originality and creativity is often bemoaned, there are plenty of games out there twisting the normal formula around. To end, there's a particularly dead-on response which wonders if the question of originality is even fair. Perhaps it's not, entirely, but at least it's provided some interesting feedback here. Thanks to everyone who replied.
City of Heroes - This game turned the "Massively Multiplayer RPG" concept on its ear in a number of ways, defying convention and proving that it could still work. It caters to casual players; partly does away with the concept of 'collecting unique loot'; allows an incredible freedom of movement through the gameworld; prohibits almost all means of griefing; de-emphasizing penalties; and provides an excellent mechanic for allowing characters of extreme level variations to play together. It also maintains an outstanding loyalty to its source material, presenting most game mechanics in terms and forms that appear a natural part of the superhero comic-book world.
- Jay Barnson, Perimeter Data
The Legend of Zelda: The Four Sword Adventures - because it, beyond any other game in 2004, showcased a compatibility between the two distinctive gaming platforms (the GameCube & Game Boy Advance) from Nintendo and created another industry standard.
- Martin Gosserand, MCK
City of Heroes, for providing a streamlined, addictive, and high intensity take on the old MMORPG genre.
Singstar is also another groundbreaking creative breakthrough. The idea of combining karaoke with actual gameplay (being rated on your performance) is simply brilliant, and deserves to go down in gaming history.
- Soeren Lund, Deadline Games
Paper Mario 2: The Thousand Year Door. PM2 has an original graphical style, which is blended intuitively and creatively with its gameplay. For example, as a piece of paper, Mario can turn sideways and fit through small gaps, roll up into a tube, or turn into a paper plane at various parts of the game. The battle system is also unique, with a small test of co-ordination required to complete each attack. Thid may sound like a small factor, but it is effective in player's attention during battles - something that many RPGs struggle to do. Battles take place in front of an audience in a theater, and if a player consistently pleases the audience, the size of it will increase. Lastly, and also most importantly, the game has a crazy sense of humour and light-heartedness, which fits well with its theme.
Another great game is Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War. Quite simply, it is the best RTS for skirmishes (single or multiplayer) that I have played since the original Red Alert. Four unique races, each with vastly different strategies should be a balancing nightmare - and yet it excels, where all others have failed. With on-field reinforcements, deep upgrade levels, and unit types that shine amidst the wonderful graphics engine that allows close viewing of the action on the field, the game has been an addiction for me even with the release of Half-Life 2.
- Todd Howard
The new release of In Memoriam (called Missing: Since January in America) is one of the most creative titles of the year. The revolutionary view of gameplay, along with execellent video and audio makes it an extremely creative game. If the actual game design had been a little better, it would have been a smash-hit.
- Daniel Sundstrom, Behind The Kurtain
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas for being the next installment in a series that continues to change the gaming industry.
Ratchet & Clank 3: Up Your Arsenal is one of the most creative games I've played this year. I thought that series was always enjoyable because of the unique weapons you gain as you progress throughout the game, but this latest version is the most creative still. One of my favorite weapons in this newest version is the Rift Ripper - I thought it was really smart that someone considered having a weapon based around a black hole.
- Josh Slaymaker
Karaoke Revolution - unique gameplay accessible to gamers and non-gamers alike. Fun to play and fun to watch, proves that playing games can be a sociable activity.
Fable, because of its Grand Theft Auto type of freedom in an RPG universe.
Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures because of the innovative mechanics; having four "main characters" in a console RPG led to some interesting and challenging puzzles and levels.
- Chris Herborth, Texar Corporation
EverQuest 2 attempted to advance a weak MMP game market adding a plethora of new features, especially voice acting and facial expressions. Prior to this MMP games were static, boring leveling grinds. The core grouping dynamics were challenged, even though they could have quite easily just left the power-gamer essence that made the first EverQuest successful. I applaud this title for their efforts to advance what I feel is a genre that deserves more design emphasis, better sense of place, and plot. The degree of creativity in the project was done with one thing in mind - the player, not the market.
- T. Elliot Cannon, Crytek
Rome: Total War - I believe that Rome: Total War is the greatest and most original titles of the real-time strategy and turn-based strategy genres out there. Consider the fact that you can play each of the games styles or both, its epic battles and complexity of gameplay makes it a favourite of mine.
- Dean Zisman
EyeToy is equally another game/gadget that open up new avenues of interaction with games. Unfortunately, no-one has come up with the perfect game to exploit the device, but I'm sure it will come.
- Soeren Lund, Deadline Games
Part of my own problem in finding creative games is that there are so many games being made now, and so many games are built on top of previous ones in genre or specific elements, that it's really a very silly question to ask. People don't ask this question of movies or songs - why is interactive entertainment any different?
[Article illustration by Arjan Westerdiep @ drububu.com]