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The Clone Wars

by on November 10, 2014

(Before I get started: hello, everyone! Sorry it’s been so long since my last rant post. Glad to be back!)

I love the term “clone.” It’s so derogatory and dismissive. It’s the video game review equivalent of calling someone an asshat on the internet: “0/10 Just another clone.”

But here’s the thing: I enjoy playing clones. There, I said it. Maybe there are support groups for people like me.

I’m excited about Planets Cubed (Minecraft clone). I enjoyed Craft The World (Terraria clone). I enjoyed Cthulhu Saves the World and Breath of Death (Final Fantasy and shameless Breath of Fire clones, respectively). I enjoyed Dust: An Elysian Tale (Megaman X clone), and Shovel Knight (another Megaman clone, but stealing more from the original). I love Saints Row III and IV, even though they’re just GTA clones. I could go on and on about the clones I’ve enjoyed (and I’m about to).

DustCthulhu

What do I enjoy about these clones? Well, first: they’re well-made games. They have great art, wonderful storylines (most of ’em), well-developed battle systems, character development, balancing, and variety in strategy. A couple even have good voice acting (something I’m not sure FF can boast, even today). Now, if I had pitched these games to you and you hadn’t played a similar game earlier in your life, you’d probably think they’re great games! That’s intentional, of course: I picked the most successful clones out of the batches of clones that were cloned by their clone-y game developers.

But when we start implying things are knockoffs of other things that we enjoy, and they are somehow less worthy of our attention because of it, we’re undermining the medium of video games as a whole (and we’re being kind of ridiculous as well). I saw a comment on Craft The World that called it a “Minecraft/Terraria clone with a bit of Dwarf Fortress.” And I have to ask myself: doesn’t this irate clone-hater really mean: “This game has elements of Minecraft, Terraria, and Dwarf Fortress and yet cannot accurately be described by the characteristics of any one of them.”? Don’t a different art style, a different balancing, a different way of progressing through the game, a different set of enemies, a different tech tree, and totally different music and sounds give the developers enough room to weakly cry, “Hey, dude, I’m my own game!” before being drowned in a cataclysm of internet-hate?

Let’s talk about a great game: Final Fantasy 7. Obviously a fantastic piece of work and I know half the people reading this blog just got nostalgia-roused. Cloud’s seriously awesome. The game’s seriously awesome as a whole. What about Final Fantasy 8? Albeit not the most critically-acclaimed of the series, but a heavy hitter in its own right.

But it’s a clone. Look at it! It has Limit Breaks! It has summons! It has a taciturn, emotional main character. The guy’s name is even a meteorological term: Cloud? Squall? Clone, I say! Final Fantasy 9? Another one! They thought they were being clever by adding in that whole “Trance” thing, but let’s be honest, it’s just a gimmick to mask how much of a clone it is. Evil bad guy who turns out to be related to the main character? Way too convenient.

To be fair, Sephiroth wasn't into crossdressing.

To be fair, Sephiroth wasn’t into crossdressing.

Why is it when games that are really quite similar are made by the same studio, they get a free pass? We just call them members of the same game genre (which they are). But all of a sudden, when somebody else makes a game in that genre that resembles another game by somebody else (especially a critically acclaimed game like Minecraft), we cry foul and call it a clone of whatever game it’s most similar to, even when it’s much less similar to it than those FF games are to each other.

Though why are we stopping at video games? Bach’s a poser. His Fugue in G minor is just like his Fugue in C minor! That prelude in D? “2/10, Prelude in A clone.” Arthur Conan Doyle writes Sherlock Holmes finding and solving a mystery in every book! Not to mention, he’s not the first mystery writer. The whole series is a clone. He even used 95% of the same words that Dickens used. Van Gogh? Used a lot of the same base colors as Manet and Degas. Not to mention, he did dozens of paintings of haystacks. Sure, they might be different haystacks but that doesn’t stop them from being clones.

Okay. I think I’ve sounded sufficiently ridiculous. Here’s the point (at last):

When you call somebody’s game a clone, you are marginalizing and dismissing every ounce of work they poured into that game. YOU weren’t there when they got together and started building their engine. YOU weren’t there when the artist’s mom passed away and they had to quit with only half the assets done. YOU weren’t there during the coding, during the endless hours of debugging. YOU weren’t there when the lead developer’s car was broken into and their laptop was stolen. YOU weren’t there during the crippling self-doubt of the question, “Will this be successful?” YOU weren’t there when EVERY game studio who has ever made ANYTHING had to overcome the insurmountable hurdle of completing and releasing a game. And you think you’re justified in calling their efforts worthless simply because they aren’t completely unique from everything else that’s ever been made? Go make a game, even a simple one (even a “clone”), and get back to me. When you realize the magnitude of effort it takes to make a knockoff of something that came before you, you’ll consider the “clone” genre a little differently, and maybe even find it within yourself to enjoy them from an artistic perspective.

Video games are an artistic medium, like it or not. And when we rate things poorly because we deem them clones, we are telling artists everywhere that we don’t want different pictures painted with the same colors. We don’t want different stories told with the same words. We don’t want different recipes made with the same ingredients, no matter how tasty they might be. And I’m not okay with that.

So when you go to type your scathing comment on some internet forum about how a game’s a clone, ask yourself: did this game tell a different story? Did it challenge you in a different way? Did it look different, feel different, seem different at all? And then, if the answer to all these questions is truly and honestly “No”…

Still don’t post your comment. It just makes you an asshat.

From → Reviews

2 Comments
  1. Excellent article. Games can be in the same vein or genre and can even borrow aesthetics or mechanics and still be quite excellent. Some game lines make their living (for better or worse) by being extremely iterative: Dynasty Warriors, the Dragon Warrior Series, and any sports game one could mention. Again, while the result is not guaranteed to be good, it is not automatically demeaned simply by utilizing similar aspects.
    And such comparisons will change over time. Spectacle fighter being a mere God of War clone? That would have been Onimusha or Devil May Cry clones a bit prior.
    Using good ideas taken from others and building on them can be a great thing.
    Just ask the Romans. 😉

  2. Really great read! I agree with a lot of what you are saying. Some great games have been born from inspiration from other games. We are actually in the process of developing our own game.

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