Video games are a curious beast. Their virtual worlds present us with rule sets drawn from reality yet they often use incredible settings to provide new and exciting experiences. Some imagine high fantasy or sci-fi, others attempt reality accurately, and many have a calculated mixture of both.
In order to do all of this, designers have created a number of devices to guide the player along. Some of these devices have become so ingrained that players instinctively know how to react to them. But as visual fidelity rapidly rises and environments become more realistic, the more conspicuous ones become guilty of breaking the game’s immersion. So, should designers scrap these lazy clichés or should they be celebrated as part of gaming’s unique appeal? Judge for yourself; here are ten of the best (or worst) video game devices.
Notable examples: Modern Warfare 2, Half-Life 2
Primarily (but not exclusively) a fixture of the first-person shooters, exploding barrels are a neat way to mix up tactics, show off the physics engine and generally up the explosion count. Some games have added fire extinguishers and crates to the explosive repertoire but you know exactly where you are with a red, rarely logically positioned drum. As long as we keep blowing them up, designers are going to keep putting them in games.
Notable examples: Doom, GoldenEye 007, Resident Evil series
Surely one of gaming’s most ubiquitous devices, the key card forces us to search around, admire the level and kill the guy holding on to it, all before going all the way back to the locked door it opens. Maybe it’s not a feasible requirement for walking through a modern building, but a great way to give a level mileage. My question is this: if only one armed guard has a key guard, does he have to escort the others every time they need a comfort break?
Glowing Weak Spots
Notable examples: Zelda series, Metroid, Conrta series
In order to up the challenge, designers came up with weak spots for players to aim at instead of the regular old face. But how to make players identify these Achilles heels? I like to think that at some point someone said, “Make them glow,” and behold, it worked. Knees, brains tails, eyes, sprouting evil glands; all of these can now be seen glowing red, and we have never looked back. While Darwinists may point out that no animal advertises its vulnerabilities, thanks to Link, Samus and co, these beasts are fast becoming extinct anyway.
Notable examples: BioShock, Fallout 3, GoldenEye 007
Sure, the real world does have toilets, but it’s not just the about inclusion of toilets in the level design. It’s the insistence of making them rewarding to explore. Every FPS player worth their salt knows that a room with toilet stalls in will likely contain a health pack or some ammo. GoldenEye had a memorable scene where you descend from an air vent to kill some guards on the John, but more recently BioShock and Fallout 3 flaunt high-def toilets like they’re going out of fashion (were they ever in fashion? – Ed). The cynic in me would point that toilets are popular among designers because they can be cut and pasted for a quick, easy room design, but I think this unhealthy obsession goes far deeper than that.
Focusing Light to Solve a Puzzle
Notable examples: Resident Evil 5, Alone in the Dark (2008)
Thanks to long forgotten underground temples with incredibly complex moving parts,we’ve had quite a bit of exposure to this rather unusual phenomenon. Sure, puzzles that involve reflecting light give the player great visual feedback, but ultimately they’re daft and occur a bit too frequently. For example, Resident Evil 5 took a surreal turn when Chris and Sheva inexplicably found themselves in the Temple of Doom, and then after outrunning a pure rolling sphere of that particular cliché they were presented with, you guessed it, a traditional light focusing puzzle. It felt joyless, remarkably forced and out of touch with some otherwise up-tempo zombie blasting.
Notable examples: Frogger, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, Assassin’s Creed
Swimming requires brand new rules, controls and animations, so it best for everyone if contact with water just kills you instantly. Characters have been biting the H20-borne dust since games began; even the brave Frogger perished in water and he was a frog. Even more jarring than that is how gaming’s hard men react to water. Assassin’s Creed’s Altair had unparalleld parkour skills but apparently no 25m swimming badge. Games seem to accept this departure from reality given the obvious difficulties it presents in level design, and simply because swimming tends to be a bit dull.
The Bridge is Down
Notable examples: Grand Theft Auto series, Uncharted 2, Zelda series
The bridge-tumbling-down cliché has brought excitement to the big screen for decades but conveniently having a impassible, broken or under-repair bridge is video game designer gold dust – and they milk it. What better way to limit movement than to include a giant chasm that’s temporarily impossible to cross? Fear not, for eventually you will trigger something to make the townsfolk repair said bridge, or failing that your horse will learn to jump said chasm.
Robbing Homes in Full View of the Owner
Notable examples: Zelda series, just about any role-playing game ever
Don’t steal is one commandment games love to flout, to the extent that it can be quite shokcking when characters actually react to petty theft. Whilst the players of the family-friendly Zelda franchise can assume villagers are donating their money to Link and his breaking of pots were all ’accidents’, the cut-throat, post-apocalyptic world of Fallout 3 is populated with characters who might kill you for stealing a bobby pin and then there’s the guilt of losing in-game karma.
Notable examples: All Super Mario games, Ratchet and Clank
As if game worlds weren’t treacherous enough with their bullets, mutants, demons, giants bees and bodies of deadly water, there’s bottomless pits scattered wildly around all kinds of actions games and platformers. These sheer drops of insta-death made something like sense in 2D scrolling games where you couldn’t see what terrible fate awaited a character who dropped off the bottom of the screen. As games moved into the third dimension, bottomless pits followed, now with full perspective of those ‘Nooo!’ moments. Special mention to Prince of Persia in which companion Elika magically catches you every time you fall – an argument for sticking with gameplay clichés?
Notable examples: Gears of War, Army of Two, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2
A new cliché has entered gaming recently: the concept that a pat on the back and a few stern words has sufficient healing power to rally a dying soldier. This buddy pick-up ability gives added incentive to stick together in cooperative multiplayer and makes daring runs to rescue a fallen comrade exciting. This, coupled with the low-hassle regenerating health model of most modern shooters, ensures protagonists eat more bullets than ever before. It obviously represents a significant deviation from realism, but its success and proliferation proves that gamers are more than happy for that to happen, and that’s it’s probably going to stay.