The Art of Asset Reuse

When Super Mario Bros. 2 released in Japan, the predominant thought in Nintendo’s North American tentacle was that the game was too hard for American consumers.  Another less talked about issue, pointed out in David Sheff’s Game Over, is that they were a little afraid that the game was just too damn similar to its predecessor.  While the overall levels were the same, and there were improvements and changes, the game was hard to differentiate itself at a glance due to how much was reused.  The answer, as most of us know, came in the form of a reskinned version of Doki Doki Panic, another Miyamoto game that was released in America as Super Mario Bros. 2.

It is amazing that there was a time in our industry when asset reuse was considered baffling and not the norm.

In the fifteen or so hours I’ve spent with Dragon Age 2, I’ve been forced to raise a suspicious eyebrow to what the game borrows.  Not from its predecessor, mind you.  For all the game’s flaws, it stands on its own without leaning its rather unshaped weight on Dragon Age: Origins and taking assets from that game.  What bothers me is how the game creates assets and then…reuses them.  Itself.  Constantly.  There are five or six truly unique locations, copy and pasted over vast amounts of the game’s quest.  It is to RPGs what science textbooks are to Tennessee middle schools – incomplete.

But that’s not really the point.  Asset reuse is not a crime or Ubisoft would have been brought before The Hague years ago (and Namco would have shot itself in a bunker).  Nor is it an inherently bad thing.  The original Mass Effect doubled down on its asset reuse to create more side content without affecting the main story.  The only asset reuse in that main story was to create situations where the player is stunned by familiar locales being turned on their head, often literally.

Asset reuse is an art.  This is not to say it’s not a cost-saving, time-saving, effort-saving measure.  It’s also those things.  But when it’s used, there is artistry to using it well.  Unfortunately, if you’re doing it solely for those things, chances are you don’t really keep in mind the best way to use it.

For this, unlike very many things, we look to Majora’s Mask.

The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask is a game built on asset reuse.  Meant to capitalize on Ocarina of Time’s stunning success, but without spending four years and a massive budget, Majora’s Mask was forced to use a lot of what Ocarina of Time had created before it.  The result was a game that ended up taking almost the entirety of its predecessor’s assets, perhaps unwillingly, and used them to its advantage.

Majora’s Mask assumes the player has familiarity with Ocarina of Time.  Most games that reuse assets so blatantly, such as Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, attempt to play that familiarity down.  After all, advertising that you cheaped out on your full price game doesn’t exactly endear you to your audience.  Majora’s Mask counted on that familiarity, however, and used it to sell its world.  Characters you thought you knew in their one-dimensional Zelda fashion were turned on their head in Majora’s Mask bizzaro-world.

In other words, the game used the fact that it reused everything to fundamentally unnerve the player expecting things to be the same.

 

Majora's Mask used the wolf enemies, previously seen in Ocarina in its ice dungeon, to point out how strange it is that they're thriving on what should be a volcano.  It tells you how different this world is without having to actually say it.

Again, still an issue born out of the realities of game development, still things that could have been different with more time and money, but it is making lemon out of lemonade.

I think that is why games like Dragon Age 2 bother me.  When five of the six major event involving demons happen in the same basement of the same building, when every revenge mission against a rich person takes place in a Barbie’s playhouse cookie cutter identical mansion, it does more than just tell you the game was made on the cheap.  It speaks to an utter lack of vision in the game design.  I’m not going to sit here and tell you I can think of a dozen ways to marry the reused assets in that game with an actual mechanic or atmospheric reason to do them, I can’t.  I’d probably be a shitty game designer in that sense.

But apparently that is something I have in common with Bioware’s work on Dragon Age 2.