We all love video games. So much so, that on a planet of near-infinite possibility, where the only thing to hold us down is the infinitely-vast limit of our imagination, we can think of no better way to spend an afternoon than to plonk ourselves down in front of a small box and play Sim Ant for so long that we start to get THOSE hallucinations again. However, it’s not all fun and games and rival formicidae. Throughout the years, developers have learned to hide their hatred for the gaming public in myriad subtle ways, like a beleaguered wife hiding broken glass in the porridge of her demanding, grasping husband. And like the (collective) idiots we are, we crunch down that porridge thoughtfully, wondering whether the next morning’s breakfast will cause as much abdominal laceration, but stubbornly refusing to mention it. Spoiler Alert: Of course there are fucking spoilers.
#10 – You will lose all unsaved progress! Are you SURE you want to quit now?
One of the most niggling things about spending a solid 30 years playing videogames is the constant awareness of the actual physical harm it has caused. We’re not talking about the expanding waistlines or the neckbeard or the onset of type-2 diabetes; that was probably going to happen regardless. We’re talking about the short-term memory loss. There may have been a gorillion studies into the beneficial effects of gaming on hand-eye co-ordination, or improved cognition under controlled conditions, but three solid decades of gaming leaves one with less functioning memory than the Apple II. Again, fine. It’s not a big deal. As long as games don’t keep shoving it in our faces- OH WAIT.
Every time we see this message, it fills us with a colder dread than a Rastafarian ice-fishing contest. It’s unfair to ask anyone what they did ten seconds ago, and far more unfair to ask them if they’re SURE about it. What did you have for breakfast this morning? ARE YOU SURE? Of course you’re fucking not. And you don’t remember whether you actually saved, or whether the game is taking the piss, and waiting for you to turn the damn game off before realising you’ll have to play through an hour of the game again because you weren’t FUCKING SURE. So you have to go back. You have to go back into the goddamned game, and save AGAIN, and then exit, constantly repeating to yourself, over and over, the mantra of the modern gamer: “I’m pretty sure I saved..didn’t I?”. It’s even worse when we throw autosaves in the mix. Now you don’t even have control over saving, and you’re still asked this question, when what it really means is: “are you sure that the game saved itself recently? Wouldn’t it be a shame if it didn’t? You’d have to sit through that cut-scene with the helicopter again, wouldn’t you? And wouldn’t that be boring as shit? Yeah. Yeah, it would. Better keep playing!”.
#9 – Long-Ass Tutorials
Sometimes, a tutorial in a game is a very, very welcome experience. Playing through Crusader Kings without it would have been a truly baffling experience. There’s a lot to take in, and a lot of nuanced gameplay mechanics that aren’t obvious from the start. That shit needs to be explained, or the player will quickly find themselves in a position akin to trying to build a scale model of the Titanic using only the instructions for an IKEA bookshelf. Some tutorials are even enjoyable. If we’re really lucky, they’re integrated into the game itself, as seen in Portal or Metroid Prime, and we don’t even break the flow of the game when we’re bumbling around, learning how to jump, and trying to figure out which of the buttons makes our starting weapon do a thing.
These are not the tutorials we have a problem with. These are not the tutorials that last a solid ten hours, meticulously pointing out over-used game mechanics as though they were mind-blowingly experimental. The second a modern gamer sees an overabundance of waist-high walls, we know that cover is going to be involved, and to groan accordingly. We know that killing an enemy in a stealth game while out of cover will alert others. We know that we can push R3 to look down a rifle scope. Seeing this kind of bullshit is a sure-fire sign that the developers think little of their audience, and one can’t help but wonder if there isn’t some prick out there, sitting in an office with a smug grin on his face, safe in the knowledge that he has informed the addled chimp-brained plebs that buy his game where the fire button is. Even worse is when the gaming world will desperately try to justify a long-ass tutorial to the public. “It really opens up after ten hours” is not an excuse that anyone wants to see, unless they have more time on their hands than Madeline McCann’s babysitter. There is no mystique to these games. There’s no nail-biting anticipation to be gained from playing a game for eight hours on the promise that it might stop with all the hand-holding. Final Fantasy XIII wasn’t worth the wait, and neither was Destiny. A good book doesn’t come with a glossary of all the difficult words pasted in the front of it in case the reader doesn’t understand them. It’s time gamers were given just a little more credit.
#8 – Repetitive Dialogue
Being as old and as withered as we are, sometimes we get the dubious pleasure of following the entire lifespan of a game device, from its startling, fresh-faced inception. However, nothing stays interesting forever, and soon enough, all welcome is worn out, and what we’re left with is the corpse of a once-good idea, hanging around and being embarrassing like the elderly uncle at the family Christmas who insists on telling everyone, with a drooling gin-fuelled enthusiasm, just how many Jews he shot in 1943. So it is with the character sound-bite. When first we heard digitised voice samples coming out of our ZX spectrums, we knew that we were on the cusp of something new, something fantastic. When our characters died in-game, a poorly-recorded, tinny “OH DEAR” spat from the TV. They were simpler times.
But the trend continued on, long after we got sick of it. By the N64, characters wouldn’t just jump any longer. They’d jump with a “HAH!” a “WAH!” and a “WAHOOOOO!”. The first time, we were happy with this. The second time, we were amused. By the time we finished a game centred MAINLY around jumping, we were ready to kill again. JRPGs protagonists now SHOUTED the name of their attacks with poorly-stressed emphasis, every fucking time. As time went on, it didn’t just become more annoying for us, but it seemed to become more enjoyable to desperate, unfunny nerds. T-shirts began to read “all your base are belong to us”, it took three solid years of therapy before we could hear “stop right there, criminal scum!” without wanting to punch something in the throat, and the slew of woefully cringe-worthy memes that followed it were even worse. It’s become commonplace these days for repeated dialogue to lampoon itself, which would have been great, if it weren’t for the fact that this very piss-taking delivers it directly into the hands of lamentable pre-teen youtubers. If we hear about how the cake is a lie one more goddamned time, there really will be an arrow in your knee. RUN, COWARD. Jesus, now we’re doing it.
#7 – Rushed Endings
Some of the little annoyances in this list we can forgive. They’re aggravating, sure. They might even cut into our enjoyment of the game ever so slightly. But we can forgive them. We’re basically good people, us gamers. We are known for putting up with a legendary amount of abuse before turning our backs. And in the case of Bethesda fans, that tolerance might well be reaching a Stockholm syndrome level of creepy. But some things are not quite so forgivable. Working your way through a game, be it 10 hours or 100 hours long, is a wonderful experience. A journey that easily rivals reading a great book from cover to cover, or listening to a truly sublime symphony. It’s cathartic. It gives us all the right feels in all the right places, and with any luck, ends with a bang. One final burst, that last crescendo that takes your breath away, makes you put down the controller and say: “goddamn, that was great.” Sometimes, however, we put down the controllers and have a bitter little cry.
A rushed, botched or bland ending is the worst experience a gamer can feel. It’s savouring a delicious cup of tea, only to find a used condom sitting at the bottom of the cup. A terrible ending not only smacks of poor design, but of bad storytelling, and makes the player wonder why they even bothered. If a game can’t be expected to draw itself to a cohesive whole, why respect any part of it? Sometimes, it’s a just big ol’ cynical cash-grab. Ending the fucking thing on a cliffhanger ensures that they’ll pay more to find out what happens next, right? All too often, the game sees fit to downright insult the players for wasting so much time on the game, as with borderlands’ fizzling dud of a conclusion. Not only does it annoy us as gamers, but it harms the industry as a whole. Nobody is going to take Metal Gear Solid 2 as seriously, knowing that it ends with all the grit and suspense of an episode of Inspector Gadget, and there’s very little value in Alan Wake as a psychological horror when the writers seemed to have fallen asleep at the desk in the final act. Oh well. At least we still have Sim Ant.
#6 – The Point of No Return
It scarcely needs introduction, this one. Since games got budgets, and stopped being produced by maladjusted NEETs between science fair projects, games have been about the journey. And it’s quite a welcome release. Back in the day, it was about scoring points and collecting apples and shit, because technology couldn’t handle the type of visuals needed to register fully-realised vistas and cityscapes efficiently. So, it being all we had, we embraced it. Nobody cared why the fuck the bandicoot was trapped in a pyramid fending off weird skeleton monsters. It was all about stomping on crates. When this changed, so as not to alienate gamers, the collecting aspect of games seemed to stay. Now, though we’re playing as pirates/assassins/welsh people in a fully-loaded west-indies or amoral treasure hunters and raiders of tombs, we’re still encouraged to gather up scraps of treasure maps or diary entries wherever we find them like an archivist who took the redundancy news a little too hard. All well and good. It gives us a little something extra to do in these games, and like a fine wine, it gives us time to savour the whole experience while actually doing something.
The main problem is that while older games may not have let us backtrack, and we didn’t care much (because bandicoot-in-a-pyramid logic is rarely coherent), there is no reason for that same invisible-wall tactic to occur in modern games. Great effort has to be taken to make sure that these collectibles are lost forever, too, which kind of makes me wonder if the game developers aren’t fucking with us on some deep psychological level. “You can’t go BACK to the underwater cavern, man!” They hiss with loathing. “Don’t you remember? The submarine exploded and caused a cave-in!”. It becomes a pacing problem, really. Rooted in paranoia. Knowing that at any moment, the devs might pull the rug out from under us, and we’ll never find all the pieces of the ancient jade statue and unlock the secret area with the cool costume in it. It’s even worse when your character jumps down a wall juuuust that little bit too big to safely jump back up again, and you know that everything down the path you didn’t follow is lost forever. All because the idiot protagonist can’t be bothered to go and find a box to stand on, or use one of their many wall-climbing gadgets to hop over a six-foot wall.
#5 – Forced Stealth
Far be it from us to explain why people play games, but when we do it, it’s because we know we’re never going to be space marines or valiant knights or master criminals. It’s hard enough trying just to be functioning members of society without freaking out and trying to beat up the self-service machines in ASDA.
It’s a great tool to do things fictionally what we never could (or never would) do in real life. It’s just a shame that in nearly every instance of this happening, there is a fucking forced stealth section to remind us just how shit we are and heap on more nonsensical limitations than Kal-El’s trip to the National Kryptonite Museum. And we get it, we really do. It forces you to adapt your playing style to suit a new set of criteria, and perhaps learn to enjoy the game from a variety of different angles. But really, if we wanted to do that, we would. We don’t need to be forced to in the same way one might be forced to enjoy the refreshing taste of lilt by being tied up and dumped in a swimming pool full of it. And it’s not like any other entertainment medium has to put with this kind of shit, and with good reason.
Nobody wants to sit through an action movie where the protagonist spends twenty minutes quivering in a bush and watching irrelevant goon #652 walking up and down the same corridor and scratching his bollocks. Books don’t often treat us to four of five pages of being pressed to a wall to avoid a helicopter-mounted searchlight. Because it’s boring. It all ends up being quite a jarring experience that takes the player away from the game they’re playing and transports them to some horrible alternate dimension where people actually like stealth. Sure, it can be made to make sense. The player character might get captured and relieved of all their weapons, having to lay low to escape a prison cell, but through every second of that experience, we’re not trying to think of new and dynamic ways to experience the game world. We are thinking that if only we had a gun, we’d be able to settle this in a more exciting manner. By spreading the guts of some prison guard all over cell block B. Yes, that makes us horrible people, but at least we wouldn’t have to do any of that sneaking around shit.
#4 – Breakable Weapons
As evidenced before, we have a bit of a love affair with videogame weaponry. The development of mankind has been one long list of more and more efficient ways to kill each other in a variety of nasty and humiliating ways, and it stands to reason that our interactive fictions would follow suit, just without any of that annoying realistic crap (though that can sometimes make them a little silly). Everyone remembers their favourite weapons from videogames, from Doom’s BFG to the weird cat silencer thing out of Postal 2. Being given power that you don’t deserve and can’t properly handle is what gaming is all about. So it strikes us as kind of irksome to come across a really nice weapon in a game, only to have it break after a couple of uses. We get attached to these things. Having to craft a new pair of razor-knife-boxing gloves in Dead Rising gets very boring indeed, and it’s just not the same knowing that it’s not the same pair. The pair that gave us the giddying glee of slicing through a horde of zombies faster than a freight-train full of thoroughbreds. Scarcity is fine in a game. Survival horror would be shit if ammo was plentiful enough to take the all-important edge off.
However, even in a survival horror, if we pick up an iron bar, we want it to act like an iron bar, rather than the strange rice-paper equivalent we end up with. We understand that having to monitor the state of your weapons might be useful in some situations. You couldn’t wield a wooden plank or a TV set with the surety of say, a sword, without it falling to pieces after repeated use. But we should at least expect a sword not to break after a couple of trips through a zombie’s chest cavity. It becomes less a mechanic of realism in gaming, and more the kind of tedious restriction on the action that goes hand-in-hand with stealth segments. It would be realistic for the next Call of Duty game to include backfiring, cheaply-made firearms and long mind-numbing levels where your squad plays endless card games while waiting for the next deployment, but it’s never going to be included because levering realism into gaming is like a trying to teach an eagle to pilot an F-17. It flies better without it.
#3 – Shitty Writing
Shitty writing is one of those unfortunate throwbacks to a bygone era that we all should have outgrown by now, but gaming has a horrible tendency to keep alive conventions that really shouldn’t be relevant any more. Gone are the days when endings could just be a quick “CONGRADURATION” before the harshness of the game over screen, and storylines really ought to be more than a quick question of how bad enough we are as dudes, and whether that level of badness is agreeable to the task of rescuing the democratically-elected representative. Whether we like it or not, games are just better now, and have to march on with the times and be better.
We have characters now, and deserve characterisation. We have fully-realised settings now, and deserve contextual information. What we don’t deserve are one-dimensional muscle-heads with their signature grunts and smart-hot chicks in glasses constantly saying “This might be bad!” whenever the music gets all angry. The main problem with shitty writing in gaming is that it’s lauded as masterpiece by many, leaving the rest of us to wonder exactly how a human being can be so easy to please. Metal Gear Solid 2 can be praised for many things, but masterfully-written it is not, and lines like “we’ve managed to avoid drowning!” just couldn’t have slipped under the radar without someone realising how bad they are, surely. Not that MGS is the only offender. Devil May Cry is given the same “so bad it’s good” treatment, as is any Final Fantasy game. We tend to overlook little things like dialogue, characterisation and setting, but if any attention at all was paid to them, we’d really have some masterpieces on our hands. It’s not going away any time soon either, if the cancer-inducing dialogue of the PT demo is anything to go by.
There remain very few moments in video gaming that can be held up as truly serious contenders for great fiction, because somewhere along the way, the writers decide to insert a dick joke or a horribly-written line of dialogue that makes those of us over 12 cringe so hard that we vibrate through the floor.
#2 – Condescension
Another unfortunate throw-back from a time when gamers were underaged pimply nerds with all the charm and social grace of the unabomber’s okaycupid profile, condescension is still very much rife within the industry, an industry that probably assumes that gamers are still all awkward teenagers who get into snorting fits of nervousness over the sight of breasts. The main problem is that those under-aged nerds have grown up now, and in many cases have families of their own, or at least some functioning idea of how sex and relationships work. Even the ones who are adolescent are starting to get more discerning, demanding more from their games than a couple of explosions and a healthy dose of jiggle physics. Not that I’m trying to agree with the social justice retards on this one. Objectification of an object is fine and dandy, and video game characters are just that; objects.
The point is that objectification needs some damned fine writers behind it to make it worthwhile, or it just ends up being a female character with massive tits and a gun purring “Hello, boys” in the midst of an alien onslaught, or cutscenes of muscle-shirt wearing ‘roid freaks ejaculating bullets to the tune of the star spangled banner. These are conventions that have become comical by now, and they’re not really fooling anyone, let alone tricking us into buying games. Inserting flamboyantly gay characters or grrl power stereotypes into gaming doesn’t matter shit unless they’re actual characters, either, and when the writing isn’t up to it, these games carry the stench of an after school special, giving the average gamer moral messages about diversity and inclusivity that they probably didn’t even need 20 years ago when they showed up in Saturday morning cartoons. Assuming that gamers fall for these idiotic tropes time and again borders on the insulting.
Gaming, as a medium, is catered to the lowest-common denominator, and it’s starting to feel a little constraining. Political ideas could have been explored in Bioshock without a massive golden statue final boss to scream “I AM THE EVIL FREE MARKET!”, and most people who played the game would have understood it just fine. We don’t need the ham-fisted racism dialogue of the Mass Effect series, in which there actually ARE a group of wildly-different species, often those that oppose each other violently. And we’d be just fine if the empowered teenage female WASN’T the main character, but just a regular flawed fuck-up like the rest of the cast.
#1 – Moral Choices
One of the best developments in modern gaming is the idea of choice. To be given a choice, there needs to be a situation. And for there to be a situation, there needs to be some kind of flowing narrative where the actions of the gamer matter to the overall tapestry of the game-world. Okay, so this only really works in theory, sometimes. The tapestry of the gameworld is more like a soiled tissue at this point, and we’re lucky if any of our actions are ever mentioned again, but in some cases, more noticeably in games like Spec Ops: The Line, the choices we make can have a drastic effect on the way we think about our in-games actions. In the example of X-Com: Enemy Unknown, even the vaguest micromanagement has long-lasting effects on the game you play.
The problem comes along when poor writers decide to insert poor moral choices. Do you kill this guy horribly (BAD!), kill him slightly more gently (GOOD!) or crack a shitty joke (NEUTRAL!)? The main problem here is that it’s the morality of the player that should be brought under intense scrutiny, but in many cases it’s the morality of the writers that are brought into question. Bioshock Infinite, and the now-infamous baseball tomfoolery springs instantly to mind. Sure, it’s morally wrong to stone a race-mixing couple, but is it any more morally good for the protagonist to tear into some poor copper’s skull not 20 seconds later? Or to blaze his way through a city, murdering countless hundreds? It’s cheesy, and childish, and made all the more distasteful by the fact that the ‘evil’ choice doesn’t actually let you commit the act anyway.
The Walking Dead series contains some great moral choices, but it doesn’t really matter what you choose to do, as the writers aren’t going to let you change the story in any dramatic way. This illusion of choice merely builds up to a woefully confused ending where the big baddie blames you for ruining his life regardless of whether you did or not, adding that you were totally there while other people did it.
Anything more annoying to add to this list? What makes you want to rage so hard that you loop back to Ghandi? Comments below!
In a fit of rage over the ending of the ZX Spectrum version of The Neverending Story, WASDuk writer Arkworthy, took to the streets in a misguided attempt at protest. After being led astray by liquor, mind-bending drugs and sleep deprivation, his demonstration made local news in Reading under the headline “naked buffoon attacks town centre statue with bat” The gaming world refused to change. .