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April 11, 2012 / jwaxo

The Crystal Key (Poor Innovation)

Non-iconic games tend to not have iconic screenshots.

When my brother (finally) got his license, there was very little to stop the two of us from shooting off on random adventures, mostly so he could flex his driving muscles and feel like a completely awesome person, and I got to hang out with my big bro. We could listen to the radio all we wanted, swear up a storm, and all the while go to the stores that our parents would have found too annoying to get to.

Most of the time we just used this as an excuse to go to church at a later time than our parents, preserving a precious half-hour of time that was normally spent just sitting around during their practice. We would go to friend’s houses, or to the YMCA without having to bike, or to the video store to rent some games or something. I would always, always go along. There was bound to be shenanigans of some sort, and, if I were lucky, my brother would spread some of that sweet, sweet money around that he was earning at whatever stupid job he had.

So you can see that it wasn’t really that strange that when my brother said we needed to go to the Office Max to get something or other after dark, I jumped at the chance.

Not normally the bastion of childhood.

We did all of the usual stuff there; tested out all of the office chairs, made fun of the stock photography in the frames, marveled at the many types of paper. My brother picked up the art supplies he needed, we noticed the dark glares we were getting from the employees, and we headed for the checkout.

It was there that we passed by that single island of hope in an entire store of boredom: the game shelf. Instantly we were all over it, picking up unlikely-sounding game after idiotic title. A game based on Robot Wars, yet another golf game. But then something mysterious, something awe-inspiring: The Crystal Key. Its mysterious cover a dark conundrum on the shelf, with a single keyhole of a tropical paradise peeking through.

My brother picked it up and flipped it open. “Huh. Looks like Myst.” Interest immediately sprouted in both of us, having spent an inordinate amount of time exploring that beautiful classic. He gave me a devil-may-cry grin and plopped it onto the checkout stand. Five whole dollars, on a whim! What power high schoolers with jobs had!

We went home and installed it

And, well, let’s cut to the chase: the game was not good. It was like Myst, and not in a bad way: there were a lot of interesting ideas there that the Myst series wouldn’t have for another game, including panorama views, a manageable inventory, and others. The problem is that the things it got wrong were so wrong; the lessons it should have learned from Myst weren’t there. To name a few: the ability for endless experimentation, the idea of not punishing your players for being wrong, the concept of your beautiful images contributing instead of just being fluff.

You were locked in with the game. A problem, in that it isn’t fun.

The problems are too deep to go into, but they aren’t the main lesson that I learned. I’ve spoken about good ripoffs before and I’ve spoken about bad ones, and maybe I spoke a bit too hastily. A ripoff isn’t a ripoff if the source turns into a genre. Example: when Doom first came out, it was the very first first-person shooter, that is, a game where you wandered around a level, viewing it from a first-person, 3D perspective, shooting guns at people. So, for a while, every game that imitated this style was a Doom-clone. As the genre was defined and redefined and refined, it turned out that these games were not so much ripoffs but attempts to refine the genre.

Later, Halo tweaked that model, with regenerating health, limited weapon selection, and great set-pieces that added to the environment and experience, and, for a while, the games that came out all started refining and improving on those ideas, for better or for worse. And from these trials-by-fire, we end up with massively improved games, with the occasional throwback to remind us why the genre used to be a certain way.

The Crystal Key was an open-faced attempt to cash in on the popularity of Myst and its sequels. There’s no denying that. But the fact that it attempted to change the model a bit, by giving an inventory and a multitude of bad ends like the adventure games of yore, is really something to be applauded. It did not succeed, and its innovations fell flat, but these kind of failures are necessary to help make a genre come into its own.

And even I saw, from my seventh grade position, that a genre was forming there, even if it had some bad attempts. Not that I didn’t use a walkthrough to get through that sucker–it was hard.

It also didn’t dissuade me from riding along with the old bro, even if we occasionally turned up stinkers/came close to dying.

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