Aliens trying to wipe out Earth. Zombies have taken over the world. A plumber actually gets something done.
These are all hard to believe premises we instantly buy into when we play video games so we can get to the action. Once the action begins, the hard to believe premises shift over the to the game play mechanics – the ways we control that character. There are just some video game tropes that take you out of the action for a second and make you think, “There’s no way that could happen” but without them the game would be an annoying, overly realistic mess.
These are some of those tropes…
Character Upper Body Strength
Chief Offenders: Prince of Persia, Uncharted series, Assassin’s Creed series
Ever since 2003’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, video game companies have been churning out title after title of games in which the main character refuses to use surface streets. Whether it be Nathan Drake in Uncharted or Ezio in Assassin’s Creed, modern video game characters would much rather dangle from a ledge than use the stairs as they traverse a map vertically, scaling the sides of buildings or swinging from one rope to another to make a grand escape.
The assumption here is that these guys have the upper body strength of a gorilla on HGH. Yet, none of the side characters ever make mention of the fact that the main character’s hands are so powerful he could pluck a heart out of a chest without ever having to chant “KALI MA!”
Not even Nathan Drake from the Uncharted series, who is arguably one of the most self-aware characters in gaming, ever makes a witty comment about his hands being potential Grim Reapers. You’d think halfway through his adventure to uncover the legend of Curly’s gold he’d make an idle comment about how whenever he gets pulled over by a cop he has to hang his hands outside of the window because they’re legally classified as lethal weapons.
This gives these kinds of games a creepy, unspoken undertone. Nathan Drake is what happens when a grizzly bear becomes a showy magician; if he ever flipped out he could easily rip your face clean off the bone like a tablecloth, leaving only your screams and your now bare skull table. Hooray for metaphor!
Why It’s Needed
Climbing crap is adventure. As children, we all associate climbing with danger and excitement. A large banyan tree to an 8-year-old is a hidden temple filled with booby traps. Climbing from one branch to another is a daring escape from a flaming building before it collapses around us.
Climbing stuff–no matter how much it would tire a real person to scale one wall, let alone an entire city’s worth–allows us to live out the fantasy that we wanted as a kid. No one wants to play as Ezio Auditore, polite assassin who kindly requests to enter your domicile and in, idle conversation, suggests you let him kill you. You want to play as Ezio Auditore, the guy that scales 47 walls for no reason on his way across a city, only to scale 17 more walls when he reaches his destination. In order to do that, we have to tuck away our disbelief and stop that logical side of our brain from thinking, “Why isn’t this person made of ones and zeros asking me to make him sit on a bench for a couple of minutes with a nice cold Gatorade and a Power Bar?”
Running While Speaking Perfectly
Chief Offenders: Gears of War series, L.A. Noire, Mass Effect series
There used to be a clear definition between the action and the story in a game. You’d fight a bunch of bad guys then you’d enter a room and the screen would go black and you’d put down your controller to watch a five-minute cut scene explaining why the next round of bad guys all have cannons for arms and can kill you with one hit. Video game storytelling has since evolved and story is now being integrated seamlessly into the action, with characters exchanging bits of dialogue as you move them through the environment, either as you walk to your next objective or are in the heat of battle. It makes perfect sense, and it’s a nice evolution in game design.
But why does everybody speak so perfectly when you make them run for no reason? If Marcus and Dom from Gears of War are having an even-toned conversation, shouldn’t Marcus maybe pause to catch his breath when you make him spontaneously run in mid-sentence? If you were talking to your buddies and, in the middle of a thought, suddenly action rolled to the side six times because you become instantly bored when you don’t have things to shoot, and your speech patterns never once broke or stuttered, your friends would probably, and logically, assume that for a brief moment you were the dummy in a grand ventriloquism act performed by a bored deity.
Why It’s Needed
It saves a lot of time and money. When it comes to voice acting, game directors can’t take into account every minute action performed by a player, because they can’t possibly predict what a player will do once they have a controller in their hands. They need their voice actors to give them one generic take on the dialogue that assumes the player is just standing there, hopefully at least looking in the direction of another character so it doesn’t look like a conversation carried on by a bunch of blind folks who never honed their other senses.
Logistically, you just can’t tell a voice actor to deliver a line 45 different ways to cover all the random jumps and jolts their lungs would take if the player, say, quickly took cover because of an accidental button press. Imagine being a game director and having to explain to a voice actor how to read a line of dialogue just in case it’s being spoken while the player is teabagging a dead body. “You’re going to want to add a more sensual breathiness – a kind of mildly aroused grunt – when you read the line about activating the power nodes.”
The Silent Protagonist
Chief Offenders: Half-Life, Halo, Bioshock, Grand Theft Auto 3, Doom
Speaking of speaking, it appears being a side character in a game also means you’re such a self-absorbed narcissist that you don’t realize the person your entire war effort is hinging its bets on hasn’t spoken a word since you’ve met. The amount of disbelief suspension required by the player in this situation is akin to a child working through the logic of Santa Claus for the first time – it’s so obviously idiotic but damn it you want it to believe so badly.
Everyone you run into talks and talks, rarely asking the main character for his opinion on anything. It’s all about talking at you and not speaking with you. Gordon Freeman from Half-Life is clearly the hero everyone is hoping will save humanity, but if he were in your circle of friends no one would ever include him in the retelling of stories.
It makes you wonder why everyone develops emotional attachments to these characters. Actions may speak louder than words, but what if the hero’s words are all about how much he wishes he could hibernate within a pillow fort made from the bodies of those he’s killed? These people may never know that they have a genuine psycho leading the charge – a psycho that really wants to stuff your intestines into your stomach to make a you-pillow.
Why It’s Needed
Video games satisfy that childhood dream of being the hero; the savior of all mankind. It’s a lot harder to do that if the main character that is supposed to be you is flapping his lips all the time, saying crap you’d never say. This is especially true in the case of first-person shooters, where the point of view suggests that you – yes, YOU! – are the one kicking ass and saving the day. Without the main character interjecting his or her opinion all the time, you – yes, YOU, the gamer – are free to implant yourself on to the clean slate the game has provided. It may still be, say, Claude from Grand Theft Auto 3, but, really, you are the one killing hookers with a baseball bat and shooting pedestrians just to hear them scream.
Bad Guys All Have Short-Term Memory Issues
Chief Offenders: Any game involving stealth
Guards in video games search for a suspected intruder the way most people vacuum – they lazily hover around an area for a few seconds, never going behind or beneath furniture because who the hell knows what evils lurk there and they don’t want to have to be the ones to deal with it.
This problem is only magnified when you get caught. In the Metal Gear series, getting caught is visualized with a green exclamation point springing up over a guard’s head. The guard sees you, he shoots at you, and then you turn a corner and hide in a box. The guard looks around for a second…and then process to forget you ever existed, which is an act so telling of the morale of the army you’re facing that it should have been paired with an animation of the guard shrugging his shoulders and mumbling “Ugh. I don’t even care. I have a headache. Why don’t these terrorists cells ever cover dental?”
If you woke up in the middle of the night to find an intruder in your living room, and then the intruder turned a corner and vanished, would you want go back to sleep? No. You’d call the cops and then you’d duct tape all of your kitchen knives to your fists, thus turning you into the Knife Puncher, the guy whose fists have the power of cutlery. You’d be turning every corner with an unintelligible scream of fear rage. You’d be 100% ready to slice up that intruder into small, easily digestible bits so you could feed the intruder morsels to the gaping mouth of hell.
Why It’s Needed
If the guards never stopped looking for you, every stealth mission would end the same way: you’d get antsy, and the guns you have on you would start talking to you. Being quiet is boring. Why don’t you pull my little trigger a few times and I promise, you and me can make all the bad people go away. A stealth game with extra emphasis on the stealth is like a crazy lab experiment cooked up by Nazi scientists. “How long can we make this person wait in a box before he blacks out and kills everything?”
When the guards actively search for you, that’s the game designer giving you the window to kill everything in sight to escape; an easy way out. When the guards give up the search and go back to standing in a hallway and daydream about world domination and boobs, that’s the designer reverting the gameplay back to the core stealth mechanic, getting you right back on track.
Bad Guys Get Strong With You
Chief Offenders: Elder Scrolls series, Fallout series, Dragon Age series, Mass Effect series
You know how you’ll be fighting bears and it’s be a struggle at first, but then you become so experienced and powerful that fighting a bear is as easy as crushing an ant? You know what’s really great about that? When the bear community has a massive bear G8 summit and the head bear gives a stirring Powerpoint presentation titled “How To Be As Strong As The Guy That Keeps Killing Us.”
Just when you thought disposing of bears would be easy, the bastards take a few self-defense classes and can destroy you all over again.
That’s video game logic. It’s called Scaled Leveling; it makes no sense. If life is all about becoming better, smarter, faster, wiser, and more powerful, so you can be the top dog, scaled leveling is all about making sure none of that “getting better” crap makes a difference. If you take karate classes so you can fight back against a bully, the bully won’t instantly be given a yellow belt when you do so it will be an even matchup. The reason you trained so hard is so you can flip the bully on his back, hold your foot to his throat and say something really cool like, “I guess the foot’s on the other throat now, huh, Bartlett?!” (Your bully’s name is Bartlett, and his M.O. is stepping on throats for lunch money.)
Why It’s Needed
Scaled leveling is a staple in the RPG world because RPGs, by their nature, are all about getting progressively stronger. By the end of most RPGs you can take on legions of foes with relative ease. Scaled leveling, as the name implies, evens the playing field so the opening hours of the game aren’t a massive chore while the closing hours can be played blindfolded while slapping a cooked ham on to the controller at random intervals.
Bears in Skyrim, for instance, are a challenge for the first few levels, but after you’ve gained some experience they become relatively easy. Wait a little longer and bears will put up a fight again. For as unrealistic and distracting as scaled leveling can be, it keeps you from losing interest in a game because it’s suddenly become too easy. We all love feeling like a god, but there’s a difference between feeling powerful and being able to crush any fool that thinks your maxed out destruction magic can’t be used to melt his face down to his chest, where it will then be frost-blasted and affixed permanently between his nipples.
Luis Prada’s work can be found on Cracked, FunnyCrave, The Smoking Jacket, and GuySpeed. If you visit his Tumblr page, The Devil Wears Me, he will give you a non-refundable virtual hug. (Subject to geographical limitations, like whether or not you’re near him.)
Speaking of silicon entertainment, check out Luis’s writeup of Five Times that Breast Implants Saved Lives! –>