Please, stop! Part 1

Clichés so worn the lining shows. Characters so laughable it’s a tragedy. Gimmicks so hollow their desperate echo drowns out otherwise meaningful experiences.

I’d like to talk about some of the flat and tired tropes the games industry keeps repeating, seemingly almost compulsively. Because maybe, just maybe, it will keep my blood pressure in check whenever another AAA budget is wasted on one of these atrocities.

Depending on your point or view, or perhaps your mood, this is either my plead to the games industry or just another rant. But I beg you.. You’re hurting us. Please, stop!

Wizards and dwarves!

Let’s start at the very beginning, with the most overused and abused genre. Yeah, you guessed it. Fantasy. I don’t need to say anything more, I’m sure, but I can’t stop myself. We’re only wasting time and electrons here.

You know, I like what Tolkien wrote. I like fantasy. But just as I haven’t read most of the me-too fantasy novels about yet another fellowship on some quest, I’m happy to not play the countless ultra-generic fantasy games out there. Elves aren’t that interesting, mate, and calling them “dark elves” doesn’t make you edgy or “mature”.

Perhaps the idea is that the races themselves are so fascinating that no further characterization is needed. But we’ve seen it all before. We’ve also seen the conflicts, the drama, the relationships and the overly simplistic and naive idea of morality of Tolkienesque worlds, and frankly, it’s boring.

It doesn’t even have to be all that new, just stop reheating the same old leftovers again and again! If you don’t have anything fairly interesting to say, then perhaps you shouldn’t be doing the writing.

Shoulder pads of Doom!

Look at my armor. I am so powerful!

I completely get why 12 year old boys think that these big, strong and emotion-less space marines are cool. It’s a great manifestation of the male power fantasy, occupying a great deal of many boys’ imagination as they’re about to mature into adults. What I don’t get is why grown men think it’s ace.

Game after game with almost identical space marine aesthetics. Someone has to be buying it. A lot of people, in fact. Plenty of designers must still think that the metal shoulder pads, and what must be the heaviest helmets ever conceived, are the best thing since… well, fantasy.

Covering characters in armor and then not allowing them even a hint of emotional tension is not a terribly good recipe for storytelling.

Zombies? Mein leben!

Zombie is the new Nazi. Ok, so it fulfills a need of endless waves of completely dehumanized gameplay targets, so I get why it is popular among content creators. What I find annoying is when otherwise serious settings all of a sudden explode into some sort of zombie apocalypse.

World at War, supposedly taking the terror of World War II seriously, has a zombie mode. Red Dead Redemption, an epic adventure in the Wild West, has a DLC add-on that sees zombies invading the prairie.

Come on. We can’t expect to be taken seriously if we just add whatever we feel like to any setting because “it’s cool”. Spielberg didn’t have alternative scenes with zombies on the DVD of Saving Private Ryan, and Clint Eastwood didn’t duel the undead in the director’s cut of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

Tentacle faced horrors!

Did you know that you can make anything interesting by quoting a few Lovecraft stories? Your material will magically transform into something fascinating and dark, and you will be seen as a great designer – just add tentacles to something’s face and you’re good to go! Man, your intellectual property just got so much cooler! Well done, you artistic genius.

Truth to be told, Lovecraft hasn’t been used nearly as much as Tolkien or the space-marine-oh-my-is-that-testosterone-coming-out-of-your-every-orifice thing (yet), but it has become a staple whenever a game project wants to add some otherworldly horror into the mix, and it’s getting old.

So, game designers everywhere – there are other ideas out there. You don’t need to remake the same setting over and over again.

It hurts. Please, stop!

7 Comments

  1. What do you think have been the most innovative and refreshing game settings recently?

    Totally agree with the Lovecraftian thing, and if the only innovation is its now in a ‘modern’ setting then maybe you need to be more imaginative.

    Batman: Arkham Asylum was a great, great setting. Soaked in atmosphere and the gamepplay was great too. Does World of Goo count as a setting?

  2. As much as I agree with you about the overuse of a very small bucket of clichés in games, I think it’s more complicated than game writers just being crap writers and designers lacking imagination (although many probably are).

    Clichés are tools you can use when you know what you want to narrate. Then you can pick your clichés and maybe even twist them slightly, (if you’re creative/brave/smart). But maybe game writers use clichés differently than e.g. book and movie writers – for different reasons?

    I find the writing in most games I’ve played horrible or just boring. I’ve stopped trying to care much about it.

    In a majority of games today the use of clichés seem to just be vehicles by which to introduce new mechanics. The goal is not the cliché, but he mechanic. As in your example with zombies in Red Dead Redemption.

    Seemingly Red Dead Redemption originally wanted the narrative and the “reality” of their world to be important in the game. So why do they undermine the “seriousness” of their own game like this?

    I think it’s because narrative in modern games are mainly used at the start of the game, to grab your attention and emotion and immerse you in the setting. As soon as the game has grabbed your attention the goal changes. Next you want to freely explore the game world and “do stuff”. Often this actively conflicts with being able to tell a strong/complicated/cohesive/original story or create a truly original setting.

    And as you’ve spent your 60th hour playing the game you’ve learnt everything you could ever know about the mechanics of the game. The game has become transparently what a game is: A set of mechanics. And so the setting is just another transparent part of this mechanic.

    At this point clichés are mainy used for mechanical reasons (quests, physical challenges), and this limits how complex and different those clichès can be. The clichès are used as “story colored labels”, and need to be “dumb” for that reason.

    Or maybe I’m wrong…

    (Predictably) I also think setting in games is what it is because the games industry is _industry_ more than Hollywood ever was. “Money people” plays it safe and focuses on speedy delivery. That leaves us with more of the same and a wariness towards trying out something new (unless it has already proven to sell well).

    And it sells well because most people don’t want change. They want more of what they already know. The roots of the games industry is found in male nerd culture. Dwarves and wizards, gigantic shoulderpads, zombies and Cthulhu. Not only is it an old heritage of the industry, but most of the developers and players of modern games identify with this culture still today. It is their (bread and) circus. Challenging them doesn’t pay off. Monetarily at least.

    Luckily there is a growing indie games scene for “gameophiles” like we probably are…

  3. pixelpark

    Polite Elliot:
    Innovative is difficult (when do we ever really have that?), but I thought the Red Dead Redemption setting felt fresh. The Wild West has never been done better in a game, and the fact that it took place near the end of Wild West era made it seem different.

  4. Nice GDC lecture btw

  5. pixelpark

    Nemolom:
    Interesting points.

    Regarding using clichés as vehicles for mechanics, you could easily mirror that approach with the world of cinema. The game designer needs to put a challenge to overcome in the path of the player. A writer needs to put a challenge to overcome in the path of the protagonist. One usually choses an overused cliché, the other (hopefully) does not.

    The point is that the plot points are functions in both cases, and that they serve a function does not mean they have to be a cliché.

    A character’s motivation doesn’t need to be simple just because the mechanic it gives texture to is. There are many good examples of simple game mechanics that build a rich game- and storyworld.

    The main gameplay (combat) in Read Dead Redemption is dead simple and not even very good, but it’s one of the tools used to tell a gripping story.

    In the case of Red Dead and the zombies, it’s not like the game needed the zombie fiction nor the zombie mechanic. There are so many great things they could have done with the awesome wild west setting they’ve built, but instead they just added zombies. And I think that shows a lack of respect for the otherwise great (artistic) work they did with the original product, and a lack of respect for those who truly enjoyed it and felt that it meant something.

    The point behind what I said about writing is that we could still make pretty good use of these tired settings, if only we did something interesting with them. But we often don’t, we trust that the settings themselves are enough. They’re not! They demand good writing if they’re going to work at all.

    And yes, as you say, the roots of games are in male nerd fantasies. I think that (and not the lack of decent writers) is the main reason we keep regurgitating the same stuff over and over. Most of us come from that background, and we keep making what we know and like for an audience we still believe are just like us.

    The thing is that the audience have changed; games have gone mainstream and it’s time to start catering to the rest of the public as well. The average gamer is in his 30’s now. We limit ourselves. Just think about allt he people that ignore us because of the often inane and childish themes and stories we cling to.

    And, well, many of us actually did grow up and did see our taste change. I’m not trying to sound smug or anything, but what I thought was cool when I was 14 is quite different from what I like now. I’m sure you feel the same way.

    Perhaps we play different kind of games, and perhaps we play them differently. But for me, the narrative of a game is often what motivates me to continue playing once I’ve grasped the mechanics and discovered the rules. And when I talk about narrative or story, I don’t mean just scripted events or traditional exposition – I include the exploration, the emergent experience that happens between the player and the carefully constructed possibility space of the game world.

    So in the end, we have story as a vehicle for our mechanics, but that does not automatically take us down the route of Tolkien of space marines – our imagination, our influences and our preferences does.

    The “please stop” post was me wanting to write a somewhat entertaining rant, but it’s good to get to explain WHY I feel the way I do here in the comments.

    I’d love to hear a response. =)

  6. Sebastian Schmidt

    its not really a response but I wanted to pick up some of the points and say something on my own.

    I will first stick to the Space Marine thing ( as i did in the E-Mail I sent to you …so sorry for repetition ) What I think about the mechanic to reuse known settings is the following : it largely depends on the personal attitude towards a given topic . Ill try to illustrate that with said Space Marine

    I myself am fascinated by the Space Marines ( as it is in the setting of Games Workshop ) but not because he is a 2,5m hulk wrapped into hundreds of kilos of servo-enhanced metal but because of what he stands for … its more or less an iconic archetype but its an archetype in a given setting its not a character that floats in an empty space but which is a part of a vital very well presented and elaborated universe of its own .

    So he is NOT just what he is on its own but a symbol for an idea, and THAT is what actually adds the fascination to it , not the armour ( even though from a designer point of view the armour-design is hilariously iconic ) but what made him into that what he represents its the fascination that stands behind this. He is what he is for a certain purpose and realizing this gives you the opportunity to actually plunge into the greater idea that stands behind the universe he is part of .

    I mean the fascinating part is that he represents extreme conditions, he is just the outcome of a given setting… a setting ( the universe of Warhammer 40k which is extremely grim and epic ) that is represented through him. you have to think of him as a door that allows you to enter into a room that is much bigger and multi-layered.

    What he actually represents is not an armour or male-power fantasies but a whole universe at War, a war which can not be won but has to be fought nevertheless for a perverted and twisted idea of pseudo-religious greater good , he stands for a a rigid codex of laws he and myriads of other living beings have to live by every day, he also stands for commitment and conscientiousness till death ..in other words : willingness to make sacrifices also so he stands for a state of mind almost unthinkable for the majority of us because its highly hypothetical, as none of us lives in a universe where war is absolute part of every day of every year for the rest of our lives, this may create a state of devotion absolutely unknown to anyone of us …these are the things he only represents in the boundaries of the game-universe …going even further and ignoring the cult-like dictatorship he is dedicated to he also represents real aspects of virtues like : self-abandonment, modesty, the will to help those who cannot make a stand on their own ( sometimes, you know, these times when they decide not scream “burn heretic ” and call in an Exterminatus )

    So what is the essence of that ? First of all : there is more than one point of view. Second : you have to be very careful which point of view you decide to go with (as a designer ) because it might ruin a perfectly good idea …and maybe this is a part of what you tried to express … how you approach a certain topic decides if its a one-dimensional world/character you are producing or if there is more to it .

    I totally have to agree with you that todays games are glib most of the time. They stick to the most superficial and rugged frame of an idea … like you did with that Space Marine ( no offense, I think you implemented some sort of irony to that ^^ ) as this is very easy to convey to an audience/possible gamer and easy to produce

    e.g. some years ago Microsoft and FASA turned Shadowrun into shit by simply ignoring every aspect of the fan-fucking-tastic original RPG, or the ( sure to be evenly bad ) Warhammer 40K Dark Millennium which will stick to an idea of small battles with limited amount of participants and the whole idea of classes like tanks, DDs and Healers all over again ( even though they said they want to “mix up this trinity” ) …I mean simply the idea of having a Black Templar Tank is ridiculous …because this means a focus on small groups where a tank actually has a role to play …but this does not fit in any way to Warhammer 40k …and the idea of a Space Marine doing Quests is beyond ridiculous.

    So what I am trying to say is that I am on your side in the general critique that todays game-developers dont put the needed effort into their design but I have to disagree that its that easy to say ” …this idea sucks, we have seen it a thousand times do something else” as I think it largely depends on the point of view you have towards a certain idea and what you try make with this idea ( as i hopefully managed to illustrate by the Space Marine example )

    so long
    Seb

    P.S. sorry if something came out wrong you can assign this to my insufficient English skills

  7. Sebastian Schmidt

    forgot a little thing , especially about the ” audience growing up” …you know how many grown up men/women play Pen and Paper RPGs or tabletop-games or trading card games ? Many of them just stayed the same, theyve grown up alongside with their games and they may be interested in the same things they where interested as a 14 year old and I do not see where it is helpful to judge in a manner like ” how is this even remotely possible that you like such things ? YOUR A GROWN UP MAN ?! ” …we are talking about … GAMES…. ^^

    You are talking about people growing up and changing their interests and about focusing on these changed interests …but maybe they havent changed that much … For me I always liked storytelling over huge big ass guns …thats why as a 14 year old my favourite game was Baldurs Gate 2 and not Counterstrike …maybe the most part of the gamers have the same story to tell

    What I am trying to say is simply : dont be too judgmental even in a entertaining rant ^^

    so long
    Seb

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