Now Where Have I Seen This Before?

Look, I know itÂ's hard to be creative.  I try to make some effort on that front every week through these articles, and sometimes even I just give up and write an article about how the internet is both good and bad.  This kind of surrender to lack of imagination is like the local news doing a piece on the value of exercise, or rap songs about shooting people, theyÂ're just the spackle in the hole where inspiration would have gone.  And yet, clichés only become clichés through near universal repetition.  At some point every cliché was a good idea – though many of them can be traced as far back as the time of Charlemagne – so itÂ's hard to blame people too much for going with what works.  But, letÂ's do it anyway.

There are plenty of clichés out there in gaming, and no dearth of awareness on the matter.  From crates, to gothic backdrops, to the Japanese art of women with cat ears, purple hair, and a tail clichés are sometimes just a matter of necessity in creating an established world in which to set a story.  Would it be cliché to have a hero who needs oxygen to survive, or who eventually dies when riddled with laser guided bullets?  Even the less believable stuff – recovering health enough to stave off certain death from a discarded first aid kit comes to mind – is a necessary sacrifice for the sake of gameplay.  But, thereÂ's really no excuse for rehashing overused material in character development.  Be it the hero, the villain, or the minions that stand between the two, the more interesting you can make characters, the better a game you have on your hand.  And yet, with game after game, the players on stage are barely more than caricatures of a thousand narratives before. 

I suppose you could argue an article about clichés is in itself a cliché, but that wraparound logic is so confusing that I suggest you not pursue the idea.  So with E3 lurking just below the horizon, and as we all prepare to be enamored by the great colorful glut of entertainment promise, I think itÂ's a good time to ask these developers to take another crack at those hoary prosaisms of character development.  Maybe they donÂ't even realize what theyÂ're doing has already been done to death, raised from the dead, killed again, and finally burned to ash and shot out of a cannon.  So here are but a few of the clichés that need to be avoided.

The Family Villain – I go into pretty much every game I play now with the assumption that the big bad will turn out to the protagonistÂ's brother, father, step-mother, or great-grandson sent back in time to kill the world that spawned him.  The Empire Strikes Back was pretty much the last time anyone was surprised to find out the bad guy was directly related to the good guy, and itÂ's amazing the concept lasted that long, particularly considering that Oedipus pretty much got it right in total the first time out, and that was some couple thousand years ago.  WeÂ're talking here about a cliché born pretty much the same time as written literature, so if you think youÂ're going to throw us for a loop in revealing that the bloodthirsty robot is actually holding the still living brain of the heroÂ's third-cousin, maybe itÂ's time to put the thinking cap back on. 

Mutated Primates – Yeah, I played System Shock 2 just like everyone else, and those evil chimps mincing about with their implants and their insidious psychokinetic ways scared me just like it scared everyone else.  But, letÂ's all remember that as a rule primates are funny, not scary – with the notable exception of marmosets.  One absolutely requires a deep and general sense of tension before placing primates into the role of evil minion, even when they are mutated and/or possessed of implants.  LetÂ's take Far Cry for example.  Fighting in breathtaking open spaces against teams of mercenaries is great, but introducing mutated primates, as if by afterthought, left me feeling both confused and a bit exhausted.  If we really must endow animals with nefarious intent letÂ's leave it to things that are generally scary or intimidating to begin with, maybe mutant bears, or venomous invisible snakes, or mechanical piranha.

The Undead – On first glance the undead seem pretty cool, these shambling minions raised from the bodies of the fallen, renewed with mystical life but at the price of their soul.  In practice they are usually awkward, mindless, and about as threatening as a bunny frolicking in the yard.  Skeletons, though visually impressive, seem as brittle as, well, peanut brittle.  And zombies Â"… donÂ't even get me started about zombies.  Aside from the fact that they are barely locomotive and not widely considered quick witted nor well read, even the movies seem to concede that pretty much the entire planet has to be turned before they become any sort of serious inconvenience.  Vampires were once cool until their immortality became so diluted that a loaf of crispy garlic bread could fell them.  By and large, the undead have been so overdone that to even elicit a mild disquiet you have to make them strange or unique, like having undead primates.  Which I do not endorse.

The Villain Without a Cause – Evil, simply for the sake of evil, is boring.  If you can stump your antagonist with the mere question of why they seek to bring an apocalyptic end to the world, then heÂ's probably not fully fleshed.

Interviewer : And you are Baal?

Baal : Yes!  I am Baal, Lord of Destruction, and I will birth a fiery hell upon the face of the world.

Interviewer : Yes, I see.  Why?

Baal : Well, you know.  IÂ'm Baal Â"… Lord of Destruction.  ItÂ's in the job description Â"… itÂ's kind of my thing.

If I may indulge in some brief credibility destroying fanboyism for a moment, then let me elucidate why Spike from Buffy became such a pivotal genre character.  His status as undead notwithstanding, when it actually came down to plunging the world into a hell dimension, Spike posed the question of why.  In an instant the cultured part of me seeking engaging explorations of character was one with the base part of me that likes watching a hot blonde girl beat things up.  Spike, no less evil for his desire to save the world, illustrates a key flaw in far too many villains.  Say what you will about the quality of television exemplified by shows like Buffy, but itÂ's hard to fault their ability to craft an interesting villain.  For many in narrative development for gaming these days I donÂ't know whether to call it lack of vision, single-mindedness, or more appropriately thoughtless character construction, but the senselessly evil nemesis is flat and forgettable.

And, though I find the four clichés IÂ've mentioned so far propagated too often in the games we play, my absolute least favorite has to be Â"…

The Amnestic Hero - In modern literature of all kinds, video games included, the Â"˜big twistÂ' at the end is a virtual prerequisite.  Modern audiences seem almost disappointed if thereÂ's not some big reveal that turns everything before on its head.  WhatÂ's become problematic is that writing such a beast is really quite difficult without the use of stereotypical devices.  And when telling a story from a consistent point-of-view within the story, most often that of the protagonist, that final reveal is artificial when the narrator knew the whole time but just didnÂ't bother to reveal until the end that the villain was the heroÂ's zombie father bent pointlessly on destroying the world after a vicious mutant primate attack.  The obvious answer to this trouble is to then have the hero conveniently forget precisely the elements of narrative tension that the reader is ultimately most interested in.  It only gets worse in video games, particularly sequels, where developers abuse the amnesia device in explaining why a character who was a virtual god by the end of the last game now doesnÂ't seem capable of using a can opener properly.  ItÂ's far overdone and, for me, destroys the credibility of the narrative entirely when itÂ's employed.  Why?  Because itÂ's a bright neon sign that says the author is not afraid of abusing any device available in artificially manipulating the story.   

This is but a sampling of the many devices employed where creativity falls short, but hereÂ's hoping as gaming establishes itself as a mainstream story-telling medium, the writing will get better.  IÂ'm afraid thatÂ's not a realistic hope – considering particularly the state of narrativeÂ's most diverse medium, television – but IÂ'll hold out that hope anyway. 

- Elysium


Crates! Oni had crates. It redefined crates for the new millenia. Though Splinter Cell is doing its best to bring them back in vogue.

Oooh, oooh! What about "Heroes With Dark Pasts"?

One I can think of off the top of my head is the hero's motivation coming from someone killing his family. How many RPGs start out like that?

Writer #1: So what's the hero's motivation?
Writer #2: Well, the character is a naturalist and believes the protection of the natural order to be the highest calling a man undertake. Therefore when ...
Jackass: somone kills his family!
Writer #1: YES! That'll make him mad! And he'll probably cry. Alot!

Or Hell. What's up with hell. Everything is either going to hell, or coming from hell, or been there and came back, or you fight things from hell.

Magic systems are another cliche. There's always several types of magic that cover all the major bases. Hippy, Evil, Explodey and Sexy magic. They may have subclasses like HippyEvil magic and they may combine Sexy and Hippy magic. Still, it's always the same. I guess you have to do some of that to keep from confusing people, but seriously. If you're going to go ahead and say "there is no explanation for this crap, don't even try!" at least you could make the crap interesting.

You forgot the Androgynous Male Japanese Hero!

Actually, both those came to mind, along with several RPG staples like levels and the 'mana' bar. Another one that just missed the cut was the dramatically out of place non-sequiter, such as going through contrived lengths to get a 15th century nobleman to say 'yo dog, that's phat!' In fact the more cliches I thought of the more I had to limit the discussion to just character development and motivational issues. Others that I just skipped this time around is the bad hero with the heart of gold, the sidekick who is much more than he seems, and the damsel in distress

Why do fantasy RPGs always have to revolve around adjectives like "epic" and involve the "fate of the world". Wouldn't it be cool to have an RPG based around saving your family's barley from being stolen by the slightly surly serf in the next hovel over? Ok...maybe not. Maybe if he was a really surly serf.

I think you can do a whole series of articles on this.

The ones that bother me the most are crates, yes, and "RPG hero always begins the adventure by oversleeping".

Old Man Murray even had a Time To Crate rating. Worst game design device evar.

i would be happy if all FPS games simply dropped the being-caught-and-knocked-out-and-left-with-no-weapons-or-armor-in-a-really-dangerous-place-3/4's -into-the-game scenario

If you're going to go ahead and say "there is no explanation for this crap, don't even try!" at least you could make the crap interesting.

That's beautiful, man.

Edit: So this isn't just a "me too" post, I'll add one I am surprised is not mentioned - starting the game in jail with no equipment and having to break out. Or starting the game under attack and either narrowly surviving or being knocked out and left for dead or being barely rescued my a serendipitously timed cavalry charge.

One that bothers me is always having to save the world by some evil. The worst is the ever looming "UKNOWN EVIL". Saving the world is fun and all but sometimes I just want to say "to the hell with the world". It's not as overly used as some other plot devices or game mechanics but sometimes it really grates on me.

How could you forget the cryptic prophesy?

The drunken or crippled old man that is an invincible fighter except when he dies trying to protect his prodigy.

The child thats raised by the enemy to want to kill his family.

The superpowerful introverted hormone crazed teen poised to stop the ultramega corp of evil beauracracy.

The "shortcut" that ends up taking three times as long as the safe route. It usually ends up killing/disabling one of the hero's party.

Come to think of it, Ive always wanted to do a story where the villian is the previous saga's hero. He felt his calling, united the country against injustice, removed the despot and found out, its f*cking tough to settle things down again and run a country. He jumped into something he wasnt ready for. He is a warrior and not a governor and he gets stretched to thin biting off more than he can chew. He realizes he needs to make compromises for the greater good that are going to piss off a section of his population. Hence, the call for a new uprising and a new hero. When the new hero confronts the old hero, the old hero says, "be my guest its all yours" as he laughs riding off into the sunset.

Come to think of it, Ive always wanted to do a story where the villian is the previous saga's hero.

Isn't KOTOR 2 aiming for that?

Come to think of it, Ive always wanted to do a story where the villian is the previous saga's hero.

Also Diablo 2, is it not?

Also Diablo 2, is it not?

Yeah but sorta. The old hero was completely possessed by Diablo so it wasn't a Conscious choice.

Come to think of it, Ive always wanted to do a story where the villian is the previous saga's hero.

I know I've played a few games like that but I can't think of them right now. They have to exist somewhere.

The point really is that most stories end with the evil being thwarted. They never have anything to do with the reconstruction. The hero builds up his native land and unites them against the controlling power. Of course the hero single handedly decimates the other side and then the story ends. Think of all the crap that went on after the civil war during the reconstruction. In Hollywood and video games, we win, the war is over, the end. They dont give you the catch. That it takes decades of embittered reconstruction in the aftermath of the hero's victory.

There are lots of people who can stir the flames but cant tend the fire as it rampages.