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Sick To Death: Five Game Design Cliches We Can't Stand!

Jonathan Lester
Cliche, Convention, Crysis 2, Flaws, New York, Pet Hates, Poor design, QTE, Rant, Zombies
Crysis 2

That's it! We've had enough.

Whilst we're convinced that the quality of games has reached an all-time high, there's no denying that design cliches are starting to completely dominate our medium. The same tired old gaming conventions appear over and over again, aggravating us to near insanity every time. In order to get some of the angst out of my system, I've decided to shift my frustrations onto the internet - and you guys - instead.

Here are five of the biggest offenders, and I hope you'll agree that it's time to make a change!

5: Quick Time Events

Sick To Death: Five Game Design Cliches We Can't Stand!

I know you're as bored of reading about how much we hate QTEs as we are of writing about how much we hate them. Bizarrely, though, developers have proved strongly resistant to the idea of scrapping them regardless of how many times we criticise QTEs in reviews, previews, commentary and angry forum posts. They're like a bad rash, and the infestation is only getting worse.

For those who don't know, Quick Time Events were an attempt to make storylines more immersive by providing interactive cutscenes... but in reality, displaying button prompts on the screen forced players to suspend disbelief by constantly reminding us that we're playing a game. The concept could have just been dropped years ago - but no such luck.

QTEs should only be used when they mark a branching point in the narrative or gameplay experience. Heavy Rain is an excellent example of this in action, as failing at one of its numerous events doesn't always result in death and failure. Rather, the story shifts in a new (and usually worse) direction. Unfortunately the recent examples of Bulletstorm and Crysis 2 demonstrate how not to include them, as the actions of crawling across the floor, grabbing a pipe or otherwise moving around could have just been handled by a quick cutscene or, you know, left out in favour of more combat. To add insult to injury, they ultimately create unskippable cutscenes! Which is another deadly game design sin that I'll have to leave for another rant.

We fervently hope that developers start to take the hint. Especially since us gamers, reviewers and pundits have been banging on about them for years.

4: Arena DLC

Sick To Death: Five Game Design Cliches We Can't Stand!

Downloadable content takes many forms: from the loftiest expansion packs to the rattiest collections of weapons and outfits available at launch. To be honest, we're sick to death with the whole DLC culture that pervades gaming these days, but there's one type of content pack in particular that we'd like to focus on.

When designing DLC, it's very difficult to create meaningful singleplayer content that genuinely expands on the original game. However, it's much easier to shoehorn your mechanics into a pointless selection of recycled arenas that are entirely separate from the canon and the rest of the experience itself. Mass Effect's Pinnacle Station, Borderlands' Underdome, BioShock 2's Protector Trials and Painkiller: Redemption are all reprehensible examples of this cash-grabbing tactic in all its cynical glory - and fail to reward their players with persistent experience, items or even much in the way of fun.

What's more, by taking away the canon and context, they frequently serve to shine the spotlight on flaws with their respective game's combat system that you might have otherwise ignored. Pinnacle Station was certainly an eye-opener for even the most loyal BioWare superfans, because its reliance on gunplay highlighted every single weakness of the hopeless AI. To be honest, we'd like to get back to the good old days of the fully-fledged expansion pack... but in the meantime, go easy on the arenas, guys.

3: Over-Characterisation

Sick To Death: Five Game Design Cliches We Can't Stand!

There's no doubt that videogames have brought us countless unforgettable characters... but just because a games can flesh out their cast with emotions, backstories and dialogue doesn't necessarily mean that they should. BioWare and Rockstar are adept at crafting believable NPCs and player characters that enrich the gameplay experience with their very presence, but you only need to take one look at the likes of Metroid: Other M and Bulletstorm to realise that it's sometimes entirely inappropriate to do so.

Not only does dwelling on an annoying lead character get in the way of the action (and it's important to remember that personalities are defined by in-game actions rather than dialogue and cutscenes), many studios seem to have forgotten the basic fact that us players like to read ourselves into the player characters - and actually put ourselves into the experience. This comes to the fore in simulations of all kinds: where all we really want is to pretend that we - not some proxy with a name and a pointless backstory - are piloting an awesome plane or crushing our enemies under the heel of a towering robot.

Developers, please take note. If you're working on a shooter or a sim, ask yourselves whether you actually need to flesh out your cast... and take a few lessons from Half Life, Halo and Ace Combat. By letting us read ourselves into the characters, less can be infinitely more. In terms of both work and reward.

2: Teh Z0mb13S!

Sick To Death: Five Game Design Cliches We Can't Stand!

Yeah, let's face it, you knew this was coming. We're huge fans of Left 4 Dead and Treyarch's riotous undead-killing cooperative modes - though it's possible to have too much of a good thing. These days developers seem to think that they can slap shambling undead freaks into any piece of tat and call it a day. They hope that gamers will buy their titles simply because it contains zombies... and annoyingly, we do.

No more, though. We're finally sick to death of zombies - simply because they're utterly boring to fight against. They just stagger at you. Or run if you're lucky. Enough.

The fact that studios desperately have to provide us with "special" undead who offer a unique challenge (and a much-needed breath of fresh air) highlights how aggravatingly staid zombies have become. There's nothing wrong with a survival horror title or George Romero DLC homage featuring them from time to time, but otherwise, we hope that gamers will start to demand more from games than just the inclusion of brain-eating, brainless fops. At least they're easy to write AI behaviours for.

1: New York

Sick To Death: Five Game Design Cliches We Can't Stand!

I'm reliably informed that New York is an incredible city and a great place to be; a bustling metropolis that pulses with life and adventure. Unfortunately it's also an overused, cliched and uninteresting place to set a videogame. The Big Apple is a sprawling mass of dull grey brick, steel and glass - and is as visually uninspiring as it's simplistically designed. It's boring. So why do developers persistently choose it as a location?

Two reasons, primarily. Firstly (and most obviously), it guarantees a title an instant fanbase by cashing in on our love for the real world city and the films/games/stories that have come before. There's also another blatant perk, which is that New York - especially Manhattan - is essentially just a massive rectangular grid with a park in the middle. It's therefore extremely easy to code compared to the labyrinthine backstreets of London and San Fransisco.

The fact of the matter is that games set in New York ultimately succeed despite the setting, not because of it. The recently released Crysis 2 boasted a fantastic engine, but the grey brick and overcast skies struggled to provide us with any real wow factor. It was held back by the surroundings, not helped by them. GTA IV was a great game because of its characters and sandbox shenanigans - but even the most avid fans were quickly bored by the gritty setting. There are any number of more exciting, architecturally varied and plain better places to choose for the backdrop to a title, and we desperately hope that we've seen the back of this annoying trend.

Start spreading the news. We're bored of The Big Apple.

Right, I've had my say - and it's time for you to have yours. Are you bored of a gaming cliche or gaming convention that needs to be publicly ridiculed? Want to argue with any of my ramblings? Or is an auto-levelled zombie arena shooter set in New York starring an obtrusive main character* your idea of a great game?! Have your say in the comments!


Add a comment2 comments
Lemming  May. 12, 2011 at 15:03

My personal hate is the horrible "generic crawling somewhere via ducts" sequences in so many games. Even some of the best titles in the FPS genre have you climbing about in air ducts or lift shafts! I almost cried when I saw the battlefield 3 trailer.. an amazing realistic war game.. and so our soldier gets down on the floor and crawls into a room via a duct! I'm pretty sure the real US army would infact blow the door wide open and storm in guns blazing.. now THAT would be fun! Crawling in ducts? Nah!

Josh Clark  May. 12, 2011 at 23:44

Absolutely agree with this list, especially the top two. I think the one thing I dread in any game, just above vehicle sections, is the appearance of an escort mission.

Manhunt, Resi 4, Fable 2. Hitting the Game Over screen just because a friendly NPC can't fight back is the single most irritating gaming convention around, I reckon.

Just another reason to love Alyx I guess...

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