I was far from the only reviewer to observe that Darksiders II very clearly draws inspiration and ideas from a number of other games that came before it. Happily, it does so well, and it does so successfully. The mechanics and concepts it brings forward from other games are nearly all good ones, and for the most part they’re integrated together well.
But much of the talk around Darksiders II has led me to wonder: where does the line lie? When does pastiche become homage, and when does an amalgamation of other parts become its own unique hole, to define the wave that will come after?
One game franchise I didn’t reference when describing Darksiders II was Prince of Persia. There’s a good reason for that: I never had the chance to play Ubisoft’s early-aughts series. For various reasons, I missed them when they were new and in the years since, they’ve become a corner of my backlog I’ve never gotten to. To me, Darksiders II had borrowed its climbing and platforming concepts from God of War.
As the creators of culture age, so too do the references. My grandmother might have remembered a big band song from when it and the radio she heard it on were new; I, on the other hand, would know it from a cover that came out during the 90s swing revival. Although I know where Oppenheimer referenced his famous, “I am become death” statement from, when I hear it I am far more likely to think of him than of the Bhagavad Gita. Old cultural signposts wear out, and new ones arise. The overall frame of reference changes.
Who, now, would compare a physics-based aiming game to anything older than Angry Birds in the the course of casual conversation?
All our games, of course, come from the same cultural morass. Yes, we often see two or more of something because the latter versions are trying to clone the success of the earlier ones. But sometimes, the same zeitgeist that gives one developer a certain idea gives two or three developers the same idea. Then, the race is on to be the first and the best all at once. But every game developer is, in some way, building on what came before. Whether choosing to borrow, enhance, or entirely reject a set of concepts, no-one develops in a vacuum.
As gaming continues to get broader, and its audience larger, players (and even developers) who know the origins of the concept they’re riffing on will become an ever-smaller percentage of the audience. While it’s important to remember history, and not to associate “older” with “worse,” in another way, that’s about the best possible outcome a gamer could hope for. Nobody needs to remember that Shakespeare invented half our best adjectives in order to enjoy how they flow in a sentence.
So if Darksiders II had its dungeon design heavily inflected by games I never played, still: the ideas carry through, to the first, second, and third wave of titles to take a good idea and run with it. Imitation, the old adage goes, is the highest form of flattery. To become such a part of the canon that people forget a time before you existed is perhaps the highest flattery of all: no-one can any longer imagine the world from before you changed it.