This list of five video game cliches highlights the all too common design choices that hinder gameplay, story, or player immersion in some way.
1. Falling, exploding, falling
One of the easiest ways to ruin any sense of vulnerability that the player has as the main character is to wantonly throw them about each level or scene, only to have them recover with little effort. Hell, Commander Shepherd straight up dies in the beginning of Mass Effect 2, only to come back later more or less the same. Characters like Isaac Clark in Dead Space, Lara Croft in Tomb Raider, and Nathan Drake from Uncharted all share a certain proclivity for falling off cliffs, ships, helicopters, planes, cars, and any other elevated point they traverse throughout their journeys.
What makes these back-breaking, spine-snapping, tumbles of death stand out so much is how a simple shake of the head is usually enough to recover from repeated catastrophic events. It’s hard to take seriously any moment with characters that easily escape injury and death so often. Throw in some explosions, crashes, and general mayhem, and you have everything you need for a cliche scene that’s purely staged as entertaining flair and an easy route to the next plot point.
Check out Call of Duty, Battlefield, Halo, or any other action game, and these moments litter the stories to the point where these once-surprising cinematic moments end up succumbing to the same sense of “Bayhem” Hollywood action films do. The action and intensity is so consistent and so one-note in tone and purpose that the experience as a whole winds up feeling flat, boring, and uninteresting. If game studios want to avoid this pitfall, choosing these kinetic and frantic moments more sparingly may serve not only their stories better, but the player too.
2. Quick time events
A now common strategy of game design, quick time events have been used as a way of presenting cinematic and emotionally tense moments while still giving the player time to react to the action on-screen. The problem with these moments is that they far too often are over-simplified, sometimes going as far as requiring the same button combo multiple times for a boss or sequence. It’s all too easy.
Take a game like Mortal Kombat X, for example: Though the choreography, scene concepts, and set ups for the quick time events may be entertaining and fun, one cannot ignore the repetitive inputs the player is expected to press within the scene. The deliberate ease of the combat actually works against the bold and brutal effects the scene wishes to present. It’s great crazy action neutered by slow and unchallenging QTE requirements. Every time the action slows down for a simple command, the scene loses a little bit of momentum.
Instead of the X-ray attacks being automatic to the cut-scene, why not allow the player to choose how to dissect their opponent through strikes? Providing multiple options within each quick time window would allow for some variety while still maintaining the same overall design. It’s not that QTEs are always bad, it’s that they’re often monotonous. Ideally, like falling sequences, quick time events should be used to elevate specific moments rather than overused to the point of exhaustion. And for goodness sake, if the only way to fight a boss in a game is through a bunch of quick time events, that’s a poorly made boss — looking at you, Far Cry 3.
If you play the original Assassin’s Creed or the Crackdown games, you’ll find yourself searching for flags and orbs to the point of insanity. In the video above, the painstakingly long effort to capture a final orb only highlights how impressively annoying collectibles can be in games. Obviously in game world time, the day passes fairly quickly for cinematic effect, but the fact that the player started at dark and finished during the day just trying to obtain one orb is enough to make you crazy, considering there are hundreds of them to collect in this game alone.
To its credit, Crackdown at least designates orbs to upgrade your character, so it does have its benefits, barely. Add to that the time required to collect the hundreds of flags in Assassin’s Creed, and the process of trying to collect everything in every game you play becomes a daunting, if not futile, endeavor. To make matters worse, most of these collectibles serve no other purpose than to provide achievements and hook gamers longer than they normally would play a game, all for the sake of say, 20 gamerscore.
The process is also commonly frustrating due to a lack of tracking ability for what you’ve found, creating a general sense of tedium from the sheer amount of time it takes to complete collections. There’s no worse feeling than collecting 499 of 500 orbs only to find that what you thought was the last one is one you already have, and you have to check all the locations again.
At least the modern Batman games make you work for your worthless items through the Riddler’s various challenges, giving you some satisfaction even if it’s meaningless. Considering many collectibles in games serve no purpose and are seemingly impossible to complete without the help of online guides, which further remove you from the immersive experience, there are few advantages to adding items for scavenging other than for story exposition or upgrades.
4. Unsympathetic villains
Despite all the symphonic and cinematic flair of General Shepherd’s betrayal of the main characters in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, the above clip highlights how like many James Bond villains, he’s bad because, well, he’s the bad guy. There’s no reveal of or allusion to his deeper motivation in the game; there’s only the simple presence of villainy. The same can be said about villains like General Raam from Gears of War and the Human Reaper Larva from Mass Effect 2.
They’re big, ugly, scary, and powerful enemies but are ultimately dispatched through the ever-obvious weak points in their defenses, as bosses love to reveal, and are forgotten forever. The problem with a flat but imposing villain is that the character only functions as a mascot for the greater threat you are facing. There’s no underlying motivation or standing with the other characters that give the villain any real weight.
Without human qualities, villains who are only purely evil don’t interest the player as much as someone who does have a distinct moral and philosophical character. That’s why The Illusive Man in Mass Effect 2 is more interesting and engrossing than the Reapers themselves, despite them being the ultimate villains in that universe. The Illusive Man has doubts, plans, and hidden agendas, while the Reapers just want to blow stuff up.
5. Protection and escort missions
To be fair, a game like Dead Rising relies on escort missions as a part of the story, but that doesn’t make the experience any less frustrating. Take any game that requires the player to escort and protect often dim-witted and vulnerable NPCs around a dangerous world, and you surely have players who’ve chucked controllers into walls. If you do manage to lead these stumbling, worthless characters to their destination, past all the fences, debris, and enemies they get stuck behind, you’ll be lucky still that they don’t just trip on a curb and die. It’s common knowledge that the NPCs in most games are mediocre at best when it comes to self-preservation, so caring for them is downright infuriating at times.
If a game is merciful enough to put the character that needs protection in one spot, like Destiny, the problem with following around the artist formerly known as “Dinklebot” is not that he’s vulnerable, but that he’s not relevant at all to the situation. Besides always alerting the enemy to your position by tripping alarms, the Ghost is no more a character worth protecting than a hovering key that takes ages to do its only job: unlock doors.
The issue comes down to a lack of NPC agency and relevance. If these characters could actually protect themselves and help as much as you are expected to help them, then the process of escorting or protecting them wouldn’t feel so grating and one-sided. It’s fun to cooperate toward a victory, but it’s laborious when you must do all the work yourself and are further hampered by handicapping NPCs. It’s no help that they’re usually screaming for assistance or berating you for not doing a good enough job, so the whole experience comes across as depleting and unsatisfying. Counterintuitively, the more the game asks you to help, the less you want to.