Canary

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5 Gaming Cliches that need to DIE.

Everyone has an opinion about which gaming tropes are good, and which are bad, and in most cases the quality (or necessity) of a given cliche is more dependent upon the skill with which it is executed than the nature of the trope itself.

Mostly--but not always.

There are some cliches infesting our contemporary medium that are simply too ridiculous to ever be implemented with any real success; some tropes that are so pervasive many gamers don't even notice them at all: here are the five worst gaming cliches that need to die.

Or, rather, the 5 most annoying gaming cliches that ought to have died out years (or decades) ago.

#5: Directional Audio

Some of you may read "directional audio" and have no idea what I'm talking about. Others may know but simply wonder why I think it's such a big deal. First: let's talk about why audio matters. Why does audio matter?

In a game, moreso than in any other medium (that makes use of noise), audio is profoundly important. It is expository--through spoken dialog, the player learns about the virtual world he or she is inhabiting. This provides context for the experience--it allows you to know what you're doing, and more importantly, WHY you're doing it. Noise also goes a long way to establishing the setting--environmental noise and background music sets the tones for specific areas, and makes the world come alive. Try playing Dark Souls or Persona 4 or Zelda without any music, and the experience is far shallower.

But audio also has a more immediate, necessary role: through audio cues, players can detect enemies and thus avoid imminent attacks, see through traps, ascertain the environment--and through simple dialog (often in the form of commands barked at players) learn his or her most immediate objective.

And almost all of that is LOST with directional audio.

But what is directional audio? It's audio whose volume is dependent on the position of the games camera, and/or the proximity of the player to whoever or whatever is speaking. This is an ancient trope, and at first glance, it's a good one--it's one of those little tricks that programmers worked out years ago, and were really impressed with, and have therefore used it in every game since.

There's only one problem--human hearing is not based on direction. If you're speaking to someone in real life and walk 5 meters away, you can still hear them perfectly. Not so in games. If you're 1 meter away from someone, and then turn your head away, does the sound suddenly drop off? In almost every contemporary game, that's exactly what happens--from Mass Effect to Call of Duty to Arkham City.

And it needs to ****ing stop. Saying, "I'm sorry, but I didn't hear you: I was looking the other way" is just too stupid of a notion to exist in this day and age.

#4: Ye Olde England and other Archetypal Settings

Okay, yeah: this is an obvious one. Ever notice how almost every game takes place in one of four basic settings? We've got Ye Olde England for fantasy games, the Modern Era (literally 1940-present) for most shooting games, and then Star Wars and Mad Max based-worlds for all science-fiction settings. Those 4. That's it.

Let's look at the big games of this generation and classify their settings, shall we?

Borderlands - Mad Max
Call of Duty (all) - Modern Era
Catherine - Modern Era
Dragon Age (all) - Ye Olde England
Dragon Quest (all) - Ye Olde England
Fable (all) - Ye Olde England
Fallout (all) - Mad Max
Ghost Trick - Modern Era
Grand Theft Auto (all) - Modern Era
Halo (all) - Modern Era
L.A. Noire - Modern Era
Mass Effect (all) - Star Wars (or, more accurately, a shallow rip-off of Babylon 5).
Persona (all) - Modern Era
Professor Layton (all) - Modern Era
Rage - Mad Max
Resistance (all) - Mad Max
Saint's Row (all) - Modern Era
Uncharted (all) - Modern Era
Yakuza (all) - Modern Era

It's so homogenous I could puke. Actually, I think I did. Variety is, as they say, the spice of life--and when it comes to settings, games offer hardly anything in the way of variety. It's no wonder that games like Valkyria Chronicles and Red Dead Redemption and Journey and The Witcher are so appealing to so many gamers so long before they were released: they offered unique settings that promised a far more unusual(and therefore interesting) context than is typical for the genre.

Human history is ancient: we have a majestic past stretching back further than we can imagine, and a future equally great in scope: we have thousands of cultures and languages and stories to tell, so why is it so many games are so intent on telling us the SAME stories in the SAME settings over and over again.

This cliche doesn't just need to die--it needs to be killed with fire or acid.

#3: State-based A.I.

Another mechanical cliche that irritates the hell out of me, but that many of my fellow gamers (that's you!) may not be fully aware of. What is state-based AI? Basically, it's artificial intelligence in its simplest form--the enemy (or allied) AI characters or units each have set forms of behavior depending on state.

Usually, it goes something like this:

Passive: enemy does not detect player, and is therefore either motionless or performs basic patrol movement.

Active: enemy detects player and moves directly toward player, attacking.

Sometimes there's a middle state ("Alert") where the enemy AI "almost" detects the player, and adopts a new searching-movement pattern.

As I said: AI at its lowest form. Take the notoriously difficult game, Dark Souls, for example. It becomes much less difficult once you get a handle on how limited the AI is, and learn to use the terrain to your advantage. Or stealth-based games like Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Once you figure out the basic AI states, the challenge evaporates.

The gist of state-based AI is that A) it's extremely predictable, and B) fails to provide much in the way of challenge. It's one of the reasons so many games artificially inflate difficulty simply by altering the Health/Damage attributes of the player and/or his or her foes.

Normally I'd leave it at that, but I just know someone is going to ask, "Great, so what's the solution?" Simple--we move on to the next "stage" of AI. Ever notice how enemy (and ally) AI in games today seems roughly equal (and in many cases worse) than AI in games 10 or even 20 years old? That's because we've been stuck at this stage for a very long time.

The next step? Objective-based AI. Let each individual AI be governed by two factors--one, the objective. This is what the AI wants to achieve; and two, how far the AI is willing to go to achieve that objective. To keep this post short (and I know, it's a long one--and we're still only half-way through!) I'll simiply say that a more dynamic AI like this would allow the AI to operate in the absence of the player--to act more like a human being. To advance and retreat based on the situation, to make decisions based upon what the player is doing AND what other AIs are doing. To decide when to give up and flee.

Just think of it: when was the last time you saw AI in a game act with even the smallest semblance of self-preservation?

#2: A Villain in lieu of an Antagonist

Everyone these days is talking about how games are an emerging art form, and about how the medium is as great a revolution to how humankind explores narrative as books or film back in the day.

And you know what, they've got a point. Games have a lot of potential. Shame hardly any of it is realized. We keep seeing the same archetypal plots unfolding in the same archetypal settings with the same archetypal characters--and the one role holding the narrative back more than anything else is the antagonist.

A good narrative is all about conflict, and a good conflict requires A) a protagonist, and B) an antagonist. The player is the protagonist. He or she is a fully realized human being, and can use his or her imagination to fill in whatever gaps may exist in the game's own narrative, making the protagonist (or player-character) of every game the most integral, fully-realized and full-dimensional character in the cast.

In those few games that we deem truly great--truly memorable, from Suikoden II to Shadows of Amn to Dragon Quest VIII to Final Fantasy VII--we always see actual antagonists. Some of them are evil, some of them (as was the case with DQ8's Marcello) actually have the moral high ground. They're all fully-realized, fully-developed characters that feel just as human (or moreso) than the player character. And you know what? That makes for one hell of a compelling game.

But what do we usually get?

Final Bosses. Evil monsters with no goal beyond simple destruction, with no ambition beyond annihilation, with no personality beyond "LOL evil." From Dragon Age to Mass Effect to L.A. Noire to Uncharted, video games typically give us boring mono-dimensional monsters in lieu of actually, fully-realized villains.

And lets not forget the cardboard enemy types. I think the (painfully underwhelming) Ace Combat: Assault Horizon really hit on all of the boring enemy cliches--there are poorly-equipped evil brown people with no clear motivation, and then there's the fan-favorite big bad, the USSR--risen from the grave. Who wage war, once more, with no real motivation. Which is basically the same roster of foes and depth typical to the average Call of Duty or Bioware game.

*sigh*

People, if you really want gaming to evolve into a genuine form of narrative expression on the same scale as film or literature, that's something that ought to die--and given how well realized many SNES and PS1 era enemies are, it should have died long, long ago.

#1: The Mana Bar

I've pointed out this cliched mechanic several times in the past, and criticized it, only to be ridiculed by my peers. But guess what? I stand by my assertion that the mana bar is an unnecessary relic of the past that has no business in contemporary gaming--in fact, it never did.

It's a staple of most RPGs and action games--you have one bar for HP that depletes as you take damage, and another bar for mana that depletes as you cast magic spells or use special abilities. Hell, it even pops up in DBZ fighting games and the occasional sim.

So what's the problem?

Mana is based on the eastern concept of Chi (or Qi or Ki). Basically, it is the "life force" or "spirit force" of a being. In short, the mana bar represents the life force of the player. You know what else does that? The HP bar.

Two different mechanics based on the same concept. And it's EVERYWHERE.

Remember back how when Dead Space came out, everyone was so impressed by the lack of a HUD, and wondered why it had taken the medium so long to get rid it--after all, it seemed like a no-brainer in retrospect, right? The first (good) RPG to merge HP and mana bars will get a similar reaction, I promise you.

What function does the mana bar serve? Class distinction. The basic dichotomy is this: warriors have high HP and low mana, mages have low HP and high mana. This forces mage-classes to focus on ranged, skill-based combat, and forces warrior-classes to focus melee-based combat. The ultimate end is that warriors are able to soak up damage while tanking, whereas mages are "glass cannons" (or in the case of the old Infinity Engine games, glass nukes) that can deal out way more damage, but can't take much damage. At all.

So what changes when you merge the Mana Bar into the HP bar?

Nothing at all. You can have a mage and a warrior with the same HP stats: the warrior is the same as ever, but the mage gets weaker with each spell--because the magick is literally eating away at his or her life force. Actually, this does change one thing--it gives added tension to magic-based combat. It makes the whole dynamic much more intersesting--do you have the mage focus on weaker spells so that he or she can better defend his or herself, or risk mightier magicks leaving your mage vulnerable to enemy attacks?

The mana bar is the worst sort of gaming cliche--it's not something that makes the experience much worse than it ought to be (those kinds of cliches are the easiest sort to spot and remove), instead it's a trope so common, so pervasive that developers add it without thinking about it, and gamers glance at it without considering whether or not its necessary.

As games in general move more and more toward greater accessibility (mostly through more streamlined graphical user interfaces and more efficient, logical gameplay mechanics) ancient cliches like mana bars, recycled medieval settings and direction-dependent audio need to die.

The sooner, the better.

Godmars2904617d ago (Edited 4617d ago )

I think that the Mad Max/post apocalypse motif has been done to death. Likewise LOTR/grudge fantasy, but not the modern era if you exclude shooters.

Don't know what your issue is with Persona. Pre-P3-4 there have been ones set post apocalypse/rapture as well as turn of the 20th century Japan.

Edit:
Still hold that the modern era isn't all that worn out. Aside from FPS. Sci-fi for that matter, again in regards to RPGs.

ME is a shooter. If it were an RPG ME2 would have done more with "non-combative" races like the elcor than make them background characters.

Canary4617d ago

I think you're confusing Persona with Shin Megami Tensei. The SMT games have had a bit more setting variation, but Persona 2, 3 and 4 all took place in modern Japan. And the first game, too, I think--but it's been a very long time since I played it, and I didn't spend much time with it.

coolbeans4617d ago

This blog definately required some thought. Some of these graze by me unnoticed (save for AI) :P.

SageHonor4617d ago

A couple things

~ Thank you for not making this blog cliche. I agree with coolbeans. It does seem like you took time and effort to create this

~ Mass Effect 1 had a GREAT antagonist. Saren and Sovereign. Now Sovereign was all about simple destruction etc but Saren actually was definitely deep as a character and had good motives. Especially if you read the novels. I cant say the same about the collectors in Mass Effect 2 lol. ASSUMING DIRECT CONTROL

~ In Deus Ex the developers kept talking about IMMERSION.. yet the A.I. would constantly break me out of that. At least they were funny.. KEEP RUNNING ASSHOLE! RUN YOU BASTARD! YOU RUNNIN? YOU RUNNIN BOY!!

~ I like your A.I. idea. Bioware actually stated that the enemies in Mass Effect 3 have specific objectives they want to carry out etc. I also thought KZ3 had great enemy A.I.

theonlylolking4616d ago

You should not have to read novels to find out the characters motives.

SageHonor4616d ago Show
unkn0wn4617d ago

Impressive blog,very good read and interesting theoretical (at this point at least) solutions to AI. I don't mean that it's theoretical in that it can't be done, only that, like you said, developers seem to be stuck.

Coolbeans made the comment that some of these graze by unnoticed, but I feel like the point of innovation is seamless immersion.

Sillyace924617d ago

Good stuff, especially about Directional Audio, I really hate that

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