The Copying Trap

Words: 4177 Approximate Reading Time: 30-35 minutes

I’ve been playing through the recently released Chronos: Before the Ashes by Gunfire Games, and have found myself incredibly frustrated with a lot of things. The game is a soulslike with some interesting new additions, but I found that my frustration might be a useful jumping-off point for talking about the problems of “copying.” I’ll apply that term broadly: I don’t think Gunfire is trying to really copy point-by-point the Souls games, but I think there’s still a lot of overlap that’s causing a problem.

Before I set out, I’ll note three things.

First, Chronos: Before the Ashes is actually a reworking – effectively a port – of a 2016 game that Gunfire had made (merely named Chronos). The original had been a VR game, and this is simply a version of the game that is available for non-VR players. I have no qualms with Gunfire doing that. But since I don’t play VR games, I never experienced the original product, so I will be approaching this as though it’s a brand new game.

Secondly, I’ve already written a post on the genre of soulslikes and how they often fall short of their goal. This essay will not be an attempt to retread that ground. Indeed, I think that it is possible to fairly claim that Chronos: BTA is not a soulslike, since it is really only the combat that feels heavily influenced by the genre. But insofar as the game lacks elements of exploration – which is likely a product of the VR background – the degree to which the game is a full-fledged soulslike is certainly up for debate.

Thirdly, this will not be a full review of Chronos: BTA. I will use the game as a basis for what I want to talk about, but won’t be getting too far into the finer details of the game itself.

Instead, what I want to use Chronos: BTA for is to look at what it tried to do differently, and how those attempts don’t really accomplish anything truly pathbreaking.

Setting up the Trap

It is both easy and common to compare new properties to previously existing ones. If a new game comes out, what is it like? Is it good or bad? Does it do anything interesting? Does it do anything new? Obviously the purpose of reviews is to go over the specifics of the game, explaining how well everything works, or how it ends up not working.

But for the rest of us, an easy way to talk about games is through that comparison. New game X is like old game Y, mixed with a bit of old game Z. Or new game X is like old game Y, but with some twist.

Just as it’s easy for us to describe games in this way, it can be easy for developers to latch on to popular properties and try to iterate on them. Hence, I think, why the explosion of soulslikes came about in the first place. But this trend is in no way limited to the Souls games. You can find plenty of other developers who have built games in ways that seem designed to evoke a sense of familiarity with some other game that players would be familiar with, or that the developer/development team really enjoyed.

We’ll say that a game becomes a “copy” not when it does everything the exact same way, but when the original game, whatever it is, serves as the fundamental blueprint. If we were to formulate it as a phrase, it would be “The game is like X, but with Y.” A game can thus add new elements, but if the core of the new game is designed around the core of the old game, then you’re dealing with copying to some degree.

Think of it like a car. You could do something as superficial as slapping a different coat of paint on it and change nothing else. Or you could make some smaller changes here and there. Or you could end up replacing every part with something different (at which point you’d really end up with an entirely different car). So the closer and closer you get to that idea of just taking the basic car and changing a few things here and there (up to just changing the paint), then you’re looking at a copy.

I’ll note that “copying” isn’t necessarily bad. Newer developers might try their hands at copying as practice, or to help get off the ground. It can also be a useful way to experiment: using an existing system that’s already been proven to work and then adding a few new things to see how those new things work. So a game isn’t bad or poorly designed merely because it’s copying an existing property to some extent (even if it’s to a large extent).

I’ll also note that “copying” does not mean that a developer is lazy. So while I’m setting this up as soulslike games in general, and Chronos: BTA in particular, are copies of the Souls games, I do not mean that these developers are cheating or cutting corners or doing something wrong. Sometimes a developer could very well be copying things because they’re unimaginative, but it’s hard to know for sure. At the very least, I will presume that Gunfire Games is not being lazy – and I don’t really think it’s the case. But I still believe it’s useful to think of the process as “copying,” because it helps identify a fundamental problem with the overall design process.

Nevertheless, this framing can be aggravating. It can be aggravating for players, because it’s not always helpful to describe games in this way. If I tell you a new game is “like X, but with [insert alteration here],” that doesn’t necessarily convey much information. When I say it’s “like X,” how much like X is it? A lot? Some? And how much does that alteration change the game? Does the game do things better than the X it’s being compared to, or worse, or about the same?

It’s an easy way to describe things, but not a very good way.

It can also be aggravating for a developer. Not only would you want a game to be assessed on its own merits, but imagine everyone simply comparing your game to something else. When your hope is that the game has some quality that helps it stick in the minds of players, having that game reduced to “it’s like X” can be awful. Because years later, people will likely remember X, whatever game it is. But your game? At best, it might be remembered as “hey, do you recall that one game that was like X?”

In this sense, while I’ve been talking about Chronos: BTA as a copy of the Souls games, it is ultimately a copy in the sense that it gives off the vibe of being “like Souls, but in VR” which of course is no longer in VR. And so now it’s going to end up being “like Souls, but with ______” (I’ll fill in those blanks shortly). I’m sure Gunfire Games doesn’t want to be reduced to those comparisons. Because they clearly put a lot of thought and effort into the VR portion in the original game, and into the alterations to the core gameplay itself. And they tried to find ways to make those alterations interesting.

And yet, those alterations don’t fix the underlying problem. It still feels like it’s just changing a few parts of the car.

Falling into the Trap

So let’s look at Chronos: BTA to see what it’s trying to do, and why it doesn’t end up working as I think Gunfire intended.

The basic mechanics of the game – the soulslike portion of it – are mostly competently done. If this were a full review, I’d dig into the details and explain the problems there, but things like the combat and basic exploration are what a person familiar with soulslikes would expect. There’s nothing there that would confuse a player.

So the real meat is what the game tries to do differently. I could point to a bunch of little differences, but I’ll focus on two big components that give the game its uniqueness compared to other soulslikes.

The first is its aging mechanic. The Souls games and pretty much all soulslikes are built around the idea that the player is going to constantly die and revive. This mechanic is usually incorporated into the story in some way, and often even baked into the nature of the game itself (i.e. there is a corpse run to recover lost experience or currency or items before you die again).

Chronos: BTA instead ages your character when you die. So your character starts out at age 18, and gets older by one year with each death. The aging is not merely cosmetic. The player character does visibly age, but it also impacts the character’s attributes. Certain attribute scores are easier to buy when you’re young, while others are expensive. As you get older, those scores reverse in terms of cost, the idea being that when you start out young, playstyle is focused on physical combat, and as you get older you focus more on using magic. In addition, at every decade (i.e. age 20, age 30, etc.), you get to make a choice out of three traits that give special bonuses.

So that’s really interesting. Here’s the major problem: the alterations are still pretty minimal. The basic gameplay doesn’t really get altered. While the aging is presented to the player as a genuine shift in gameplay, it’s still the same basic physical combat: block/dodge/parry and attack. “Magic” is oriented around charge up effects for your weapon and temporary buffs that you can perform once you’ve accumulated enough power. But nothing terribly drastic.

But let’s say as a hypothetical that it did offer a significant change: this mechanic relies on the player dying. So it’s hard to know how a player coming at these games from a new perspective reacts, but as someone experienced with the genre there is an additional problem: the game is essentially too easy. And I don’t mean too easy for an expert. Even someone who is simply okay at these games (where I would place myself on the spectrum) is going to get through fairly easily. I think admittedly that this is a holdover of the VR component, since it appears the difficulty of the original game would have come primarily from fighting against camera angles.

Which means firstly that the mechanic isn’t terribly interesting. But just as important is that the information it conveys to the player is thoroughly unclear.

I’d originally come through with the impression that if you died too many times, the game would literally be over. This would of course be dangerous, and would have further helped to explain the relative ease of the game. But once you hit the age of 80, you get a new trait that prevents you from aging further. So there’s no actual danger from dying.

But more than that, it’s something that a player might not really fully experience, because the game needs to kill the player, but so many other elements of the game make it easy to survive. For reference, reaching age 80 would require 62 deaths over a single playthrough. I ended up dying a grand total of nine times. Because parts of the game work against itself, making survivability both tough and easy at the same time. So it keeps feeling like the game is working at cross purposes with itself. In fact, it appears that the best thing to do (if you know what you’re doing) is die a couple of times, grab a trait to increase the amount of experience you get, then grind out a bunch of levels and pour them into the “physical” stats, and then intentionally die repeatedly to get the rest of the traits. After that, you can just play normally.

The second component is a focus on puzzles. Most games in the genre focus solely on exploration and combat. If you’re not fighting, you’re running around trying to find things. If you can’t progress, it’s either because you need to kill an enemy or boss, or else you need to wander around to find a new path, or a key to open up a new path.

Part of this focus includes a different form of inventory management. Rather than just having a bunch of items that can be used or equipped, Chronos: BTA allows players to examine, interact with, and even combine items. You can’t just mash random things together (you can try, of course, but it won’t accomplish anything), so it operates somewhat like a point-and-click adventure where you need to figure out the right combination.

Again, that’s really interesting. There are certainly lots of ways that puzzle games can go wrong, because it’s definitely easy to mess up puzzles. But the idea of trying to orient exploration and progression around solving puzzles is something that would really set the game apart from other entries in the genre.

But again, there’s a major problem. In this case, the number of puzzles is few and far between. The game mostly falls back on a simple exploration system, and progression ends up being “go down Path A to find a key to open Path B.” Because there are so few puzzles, you aren’t sure what you’re supposed to do if you run into problems: did I simply miss a key, or is there a puzzle solution that I should be looking for? Similarly, while the game teaches you that you can interact with items in your inventory, it’s used so rarely for puzzle-solving problems that the player has little reason to think about it. Essentially, the game wants you to be thinking in terms of puzzles now and then, but isn’t really training you to do it. Instead, it’s training you to think in terms of a normal soulslike. Which becomes especially troublesome when that “normal” mindset is rewarded about nine times out of ten, and it’s only that final tenth time that it turns out you should have been thinking in terms of a puzzle.

And what puzzles are there aren’t terribly interesting. They’re mostly pretty simple to figure out, and the only reason they end up being hard is either because you don’t know what you’re supposed to be doing (i.e. you don’t know you’re even trying to solve a puzzle), or because the underlying puzzle can be tough for those who don’t know what they’re doing (in other words, there’s a slide puzzle; if you know how to solve slide puzzles, it’s not a huge hindrance, but if you don’t it might end up being more annoying than fun).

These, I would say, are the two ways that Chronos: BTA tries to set itself apart. But I don’t think it ends up really succeeding in setting itself apart. Instead, it just ends up being yet another mediocre soulslike that falls short in the ways so many other soulslikes fall short.

Of course, in its original incarnation the game would have effectively been “like Souls, but in VR.” Which I can understand being interesting, but still doesn’t radically alter the core. It’s still the same basic car that we’re driving, we’ve just made a lot more changes to how it looks.

Escaping the Trap

In describing these problems, it might seem like Chronos: BTA essentially doomed itself. In other words, it might appear that I’m saying the attempts to do something different were bad ideas, and what Gunfire Games should have done is try to make a better copy of the Souls games.

While I think that’s a possible path to take, I think it’s ultimately the wrong one.

Instead, I think the ideas were good. But ended up being poorly implemented. The problem wasn’t the ideas, but the fact that Gunfire was trying too hard to stick to the safe path of being a soulslike, and perhaps also limited by its attempt to make a soulslike in VR, rather than to make a soulslike that was really different. In other words, the game wants to be unique, but it ends up being “like Souls, but with aging/puzzles.” The game reduces itself to the simplistic explanation.

Instead, I think Gunfire should have leaned harder into these new ideas and explored them in more depth. They wouldn’t need to do both at once: choosing one idea and focusing on it would work fine. But doing something really different is what’s important. Because as I said before, we’re still driving the same soulslike car, with just a few different parts.

Let’s look at the aging mechanic. Since the changes are so minimal, the end result is that it contributes a lot less to the experience. At best, the aging mechanic basically offers a way for struggling players to get small boosts to help them progress and overcome obstacles. But since that’s all it can really do, the game largely gives the impression of just being another soulslike.[1]

However, imagine instead that the game was more brutally difficult. The player was expected to die more often, and thus much more likely to age and get the various traits through normal play. Then couple that with a hard limit for the number of deaths (i.e. once you die too many times, it’s game over and you need to start over). This would turn the game not simply into a soulslike, but also a roguelike at the same time. Admittedly, this system could be potentially lethal for player engagement. After all, really tough games are often going to turn players off, and while the game is short in general, it still takes a decent number of hours to get through. So the prospect of losing, say, 7 hours is something that players are much less likely to accept compared to losing only fifteen to thirty minutes.

As alternatives, imagine that the aging affected gameplay to a greater degree and was more fluid. That is, rather than a slow progression towards old age with traits now and then, death aged the player much more rapidly, and shifted play from melee combat at a young age to a combination of melee and ranged combat at middle age, and finally ranged magic combat at old age. Add into that giving the player ways to reverse the aging process. This would help ensure that the mechanic has a more central role by actually affecting gameplay, without trapping players.

Or as a slight alteration to that, imagine that the aging was an action performed by the player. Rather than being triggered by death, the player had an item or could enter a portal that would allow them to choose an age, which might provide different gameplay approaches or be required to get through different parts of the game. Such a system would again allow players to experience the changes more reliably, while still preventing the creation of hard walls that players can’t get through.

Meanwhile, look at the puzzle component. Since the game gives so few puzzles, not only does the puzzle solving not end up being that fun when they happen, but they can also become aggravating because the game isn’t properly setting up its expectations.

But the game could have been built more heavily around the puzzle solving. Rather than just a few puzzles here and there, it could have been designed to more a more open-ended puzzle solving game with some soulslike combat thrown in. I’ve mentioned this game in another essay, but La-Mulana is I think an excellent example of a game that combines puzzle solving and exploration through the 2D Metroidvania genre, and Chronos: BTA could have attempted to be a 3D soulslike version of that. Make the puzzles more constant, and rather than “get the key to put in the lock,” orient the exploration around finding clues. There are a couple of decent puzzles early in the game that could provide the basic inspiration for what the game could have been.

Add on to that the idea of making inventory usage more central. While the game allows players to interact with items and combine them, it’s very rarely used in an interesting way. As an example, two of the most common forms of inventory management involve finding boxes that you simply open up to get upgrade materials, and combining upgrade materials. These two forms of interaction are incredibly dull, and actually make the process of inventory management annoying, because it keeps adding steps to the basic process of picking things up.[2] But instead, Gunfire could have made those processes more involved. So opening a box with an upgrade material requires solving a little puzzle. And combining individual items requires solving another puzzle of some kind. There are certainly plenty of existing puzzle games that have these item manipulation puzzles that could provide insight about how to go about the problem. By adding in these systems, not only would players get more used to the idea of manipulating items and puzzle solving, but it would change these elements from “here’s an extra step to get the thing you need” into “here’s a process that can give you a sense of accomplishment and the thing you need.”

This new focus would also allow players and the developer to ignore the combat system to an extent. The combat could easily be mediocre without causing a major problem, because the combat is no longer the focus. Obviously you’d still want to make sure the combat is good if possible, but this shift would radically alter how the game was viewed. It would no longer be “like Souls, but with puzzles.” It would instead be “a puzzle game with Souls elements.”

I don’t think these are the only things that Gunfire could have done to improve Chronos: BTA. These are the two, though, that seem most obvious and build on what I think are the most interesting aspects of their game. I think the ideas they’re putting in are good, but because they’re just small changes to an existing core, they become dull or annoying.

Concluding Remarks

In talking about Chronos: BTA, I’ve tried to give an example of how games that “copy” existing properties fall into a trap. The trap ends up being one of comparison. Much as drawing inspiration from popular (or beloved) properties can be good, it can also be treacherous. And so a developer needs to find some way out of this trap.

Most games usually try to be different by making a small change to the existing core. So the game copies its predecessor and then slightly alters something, usually adding a mechanic, that can be interesting, but ends up accomplishing nothing. Because there’s a fair chance the copy is unable to capture the magic of whatever it’s copying, while the added mechanic doesn’t radically transform anything.

I think the answer here is to lean harder into the change. I believe the major error is that developers who make these copies keep trying to play it safe: they change very little, and the end product is just a mediocre copy that gets forgotten after a while. But I think often these copies have interesting ideas, but those interesting ideas are mere ornaments.

Instead, it is better to really experiment. If you have an idea that you think really changes the game, don’t just put it on top of the existing system like a coat of paint on a car. Actually think about how you can rebuild the car with new parts to really explore that idea.

The worst case scenario is that the game fails. Maybe the idea wasn’t that interesting, or it wasn’t done right, or it just can’t be done right. But at the very least, by really trying something new, you can at least fail on your own terms. Because the alternative is to likely end up failing by being compared to someone else.

[1] I don’t want to fault the idea of these boosts for struggling players. I dislike the idea that a tough game needs to go all out, and that more “casual” players need to be punished. My complaint is that the mechanic itself seems to accomplish nothing beyond that purpose.

[2] My guess as to why the systems were put in was that they were to teach players how to interact and combine. Which makes sense, but the problem is that they don’t really accomplish the task they need to. Particularly the little boxes. What those boxes teach you to do is pick up a box, open it, and then get what’s inside. What the game needs it to teach you, though, is that when you pick up an item you should check to see if you can interact with it. Since there are only a small handful of items that need to be interacted with to progress, the needed lesson gets lost.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: