Where's the Line between Iteration, and Being Derivative?

I recently picked up The Evil Within 2, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how much I’ve enjoyed the game. Back when the original Evil Within was coming out, I was one of the folks who picked it up on launch day. While I thought the game was good, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the game was often incredibly derivative of Resident Evil 4. Which isn’t a surprise give that Shinji Mikami was the director on both games.

I picked up The Evil Within 2 on sale expecting to feel the same way about it. Thinking it’s a good game but also feeling like it’s often to similar to RE4. But, I don’t feel that way. I don’t feel that way at all. That said, EW2 clearly follows in the legacy of RE4. The controls and weapons feel similar, the enemies are comparable, they both have really corny secret organizations experimenting on people, they even have basically the same shooting galleries.

Yet, EW2 doesn’t feel derivative, it just feels like basic iteration on an older game. I’ve been wracking my brain on why this game feels iterative, while EW feels derivative. I’ve got a couple ideas, EW2 is a more open environment, and the environments of EW often felt ripped straight from RE4, but I can’t really find a specific tipping point.

So where’s the line? When do games stop feeling iterative, and become derivative. When do they start feeling like they are ripping-off or just copying past games?

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The line for me comes down to how fatigued I am of a game type or style. Like, BioWare could just keep making games in the mold of their KotOR/Jade Empire era and I’d be happy as a clam, but you couldn’t pay me to sit through yet another Borderlands entry. Or sometimes it could just be the passage of time. I thought I was completely burnt out on Assassin’s Creed after Black Flag, but I enjoyed my time with Syndicate after not playing it for many years.

Now that I think about it, I’ve been using iterative vs. derivative as a proxy for whether or not I liked a game. Maybe the two concepts aren’t that different after all?

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Iterative and derivative are to me, incredibly comparable concepts. Honestly to me being derivative is just being iterative in a way that feels tired or worn out.

To clarify for the sake of continuing this conversation, I think derivative means “mimicry” while iterative means “expands upon”. For example, Assassin’s Creed 2 iterated on the original by expanding the scope, adding new means of interactivity and mission types, and improving the storytelling. On the other hand, Shadow Warrior was derivative of Duke Nukem 3D because it had the same gameplay, same sense of humor, same format for just about every gameplay design decision, all in the same game engine.

To the point of your OP, you made the distinction yourself: EW1 feels derivative of RE4 because so much of it is lifted directly out of RE4, from gameplay to aesthetic. EW2, on the other hand, has gameplay that is influenced by the path that RE4 set before it, but expands on it with a much different setting, an open-world take on its level design, and a substantially different tone. As such, it could therefore be considered iterative.


For me, to feel iterative rather than derivative, a game has to have some kind of identity distinct from whatever it’s taking its core from, or it must have suggested some kind of improvement to the formula it’s using. The comparison that comes to mind for me is the current crop of Metroidvanias, which really run that spectrum. I barely made it an hour into Axiom Verge before putting it down because it really just felt like a reskinned Super Metroid without many (if any) new ideas. On the flipside, Dandara, which itself takes so many elements from Super Metroid, has the unique movement mechanics that really helped set it apart and some really interesting dreamy narrative work.

Same thing with Hollow Knight and Dead Cells in their iterations on the Castlevania side of that formula—the former further develops the potential of an expansive and interconnected world, the latter iterates by combining those core combat mechanics and branching paths with roguelike elements. Iterations should present a new identity or some kind of improvement.


I’ve said this for years but the difference between something that’s a homage and something that’s derivative is whether or not the person speaking likes it

Things is, I like both! I really do. I would go to the mat saying that The Evil Within was a good game, but it’s just so similar to RE4 at times.

You can describe the first third of both games as law enforcement unexpectedly ends up in small European-esque rural village populated with zombies, there is a big guy with a chainsaw and a cloth sack over his head trying to kill the player.

I think to compare “derivative” vs “iterative” I’ll just go back to a few years ago to some 3DS JRPGs, since there are a lot of great 3DS JRPGs and many of them have very similar sequels.

As far as derivative, I’d point to Bravely Second as a not great sequel. It is basically the same game as the first one, only with a slightly different party and slightly different Jobs. But ultimately its the same idea of four youths traveling the world with random encounters and dungeons. (Sometimes even the same dungeon.) Nothing about this is bad per se, just if you’ve played the first game, you’ve played this one. It doesn’t push the tone in a new direction, it doesn’t really introduce much in terms of new gameplay or story, it’s just more of the first one. And since Bravely Default is already a 50 hour game at least, we really didn’t need more of it. The tone hasn’t changed, the goal hasn’t changed, it’s too much of the same thing.

Then there’s Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse. This sequel is set in the same underground Tokyo as SMTIV, features the same demon mechanics, and even has the same demons. It’s really a glorified expansion pack. But its a very different story from the first one. You find yourself with a whole party of characters as allies, where the first game was a very isolating and creepy experience. There’s actual towns instead of just collections of NPCs and quests. Also this sequel goes places, man. You could do the Persona thing and be best friends forever, or you could betray all your buddies, sacrifice them, and become a greater monster than the one you’re slaying. It is both lighter and much much darker than the first.

If you’re making a sequel and you aren’t doing something that might piss off a player of the first one, you’re doing derivative. It can’t be for the exact same audience, you need to screw up the formula somehow.