I had more fun than I thought I would doing last week's "Quit It" column on recurring formulas and devices I'd like to see Hollywood put back in the shed for a few years, so I figured I'd take a second shot at it. And since I'm in a PAX East kinda mood, I'm pointing my gripe-o-matic square at the gaming scene. Here are some well-worn paths I'd prefer game developers would abandon for a while.
"Gasp! It was The Russians ALL ALONG!"
There's a hysterically absurd moment in the 197th episode of The Simpsons, "Simpson Tide," where a Russian UN representative mistakenly refers to his country as the Soviet Union. When a fellow rep corrects him that the USSR was dissolved, the Russian cackles menacingly and bellows "That's what we wanted you to think!" At the push of a button, all of Russia's "new" flags, parades and iconography flip back over into Soviet-style, Lenin rises from his tomb and a brand-new Berlin Wall pops up out of the ground. Show runner Mike Reiss called the moment the nuttiest the show had ever been.
A decade later, that "nutty" - even for The Simpsons - moment is the literal premise of the supposedly serious Call of Duty: Modern Warfare franchise. And it's far from the only offender. Vanquish (which I liked, don't get me wrong) has you fighting Russians from space. More so than even Hollywood, the videogame industry simply refuses to admit that The Cold War is over.
The reasons for this are understandable. The Soviets were the last real-world bad guys with the numbers, technology and slick uniforms necessary to give your game scenario the "plucky American underdog versus overwhelming Evil Empire" vibe that shooter fans seem to crave. The state of real "modern" warfare - where it's the good guys who have the numbers/tech advantage and the bad guys employing DIY guerilla tactics - just doesn't work with a genre that's still stuck firmly in the mindset of WWII mythmaking.
Blanky McEveryman: Savior of Worlds.
There's a pervading logic in game design that player characters should be as close to a Tabula Rasa as possible, so that the player can more easily place themselves into that role for maximum immersion. I'm not talking about games with a character customization element, that's a different issue - I'm talking about avatars who're technically characters in their own right, but have been intentionally rendered so bland and empty so as to be filled with the player's persona; faceless homunculi like Master Chief or the (usually) nameless Legendary Hero at the center of most of my otherwise-beloved Dragon Quest games.
Personally, this has never worked for me, because most videogame heroes are actually heroes - selfless, driven and idealistic - while I'm a self-centered pragmatist. Even in first-person games, I'm never given to feeling like I'm inhabiting the main character; as far as I'm concerned he's going through his story and I'm helping by pushing buttons. So please, by all means, give him a proper name, dimension, backstory, personality, goals and all the other stuff he'll need for me to give enough of a damn to finish the game.
"Who locks a door with a #@&$! Rubik's Cube?"
Whatever you need, it's on the other side of that door. You move into position, press the "open door" button, and up pops some variation on a slide-puzzle. Oh boy, an Unlocking minigame.