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Five Big Gameplay Clichés of the 2000s

Let's face it: Clichés drive media. Writing a good story alone lends itself to a slew of clichés to resort to. Just as filmmakers deal with the clichés specific to the process of filmmaking, there are a slew of them wholly associated with the process of game design and development. As we look back on the 2000s it helps to take a look at some of the burgeoning clichés that have emerged in video gaming. With a whole new decade upon us, we'll surely look back on them and smile as we develop new ones.

1. Helicopter bosses in first person shooters

Uses include: Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Battlefield: Bad Company 2, Medal of Honor, in general virtually every modern shooter that’s ever been made.

People who regularly play modern shooters are almost conditioned to expect this by now. You and your teammates have blasted through the last pockets of Russians and Arabs, your noisy commanding field officer is radioing in for evac, and all is well…or is it? Suddenly a helicopter zooms in for a surprise attack, the rotating blades apparently having been on silent mode until now. Your CO screams “CHOPPER! Private, take it down, I’m too busy trying to look useful here!” Thankfully Russian extremists and terrorist cells have curious habits of ambushing you with helicopters directly on top of stacks of rocket launchers and ammunition.

Helicopter salesmen make a killing in the Call of Duty world

How many choppers and apache gunships have you shot down with rockets over the last ten years? The average video game player has shot down an entire American Coast Guards’ worth of helicopters, and that’s just in single player alone. How many summoned helicopters have you Modern Warfare multiplayer fans peppered with bullets? All in, it’s a fair guess to assume the answer is way too many.

Modern war games aren’t going away any time soon, but most of us have had our fill of helicopters for this life as well as the next five or so.

Why it became a cliché

Video game players love their bosses, right? Unfortunately without giant monsters or massive spaceships it’s difficult to come up with a reasonable boss in a modern day setting. Choppers and to a lesser extent tanks are bigger, tougher, and hit harder. It’s a natural assumption to go by. The problem is that every modern war game goes by it.

It started with: It’s difficult to pin down the initial precursors to this cliché but the Call of Duty series is almost certainly a standard bearer.

2. Starting us with a terrible weapon

Uses include: Doom III, the Halo series, BioShock, Half-Life 1 and 2, most first person shooters

Picture yourself as a commanding officer of a beleaguered army. Your forces are hopelessly scattered and in total disarray. As the commanding officer, you know your cinematic death or betrayal will happen within the next six hours of gameplay or so. Your only hope is a nameless, voiceless super soldier. Despite your limited inventory of supplies, what will you give this last, desperate hope in the face of overwhelming odds?

If you answered a crowbar or a pistol with two clips, congratulations, you’re in a first person shooter. Fair enough, it doesn’t make sense to start us with a rocket launcher but one would think a simple machine gun or a pistol with more ammo or decent damage would be warranted to at least let us defend ourselves. If you descended to the bottom of the sea to a lost city teeming with psychotic murderers, are you really going to grab a wrench? Scaling the difficulty upwards with tougher enemies and bigger guns doesn’t mandate starting us off with next to nothing.

Above: The scourge of the Combine

Why it became a cliché

Monkey see, monkey do. It’s become customary for some reason to start players off with weaker weapons. The market has especially become saturated with shooters through the availability of the Unreal engine as well as the fact that big shooters like Halo and Call of Duty have made enough money to buy at least two continents apiece. It seems like every startup shooter copies this formula to the letter.

It started with: Arguably Half-Life, which was admittedly released in 1998. Halo helped this one take off in the 2000s.

3. Moral choice systems

Uses include: Fable, BioShock, InFamous, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

In the early days of the 2000s, moral choice systems seemed like vast, untapped potential. Just think, ten years from now we could have dynamic, far-reaching choices where a simple question of whether or not to save someone could have profound, game-altering consequences! It could give a game dozens if not hundreds of potential choices and ending!

Fast forward ten years, and what characterizes the conventional moral choice system is this. You are confronted with a school bus full of nuns on their way to deliver toys for handicapped orphans. Your good choice is to save the school bus and for extra good morality points you can personally deliver it to the orphanage. Your bad choice is to casually elbow it into a giant acid pit and for extra bad points you can piss in the acid for giggles.

Isn't this more fun without worrying about your moral ending?

These days the “conventional” moral choice system has all the depth of a piece of paper with a halo and a devil’s pitchfork scribbled on it. When press releases proudly proclaim that every choice has a consequence what usually happens is we’ll be able to be saints or jerks, and occasionally the telegraphed choice will pop up asking us if we want to be a benevolent god child or crowned the new king of Hell. As I already pointed out, real dynamic moral quandaries arise when you get rid of these damn things. They’re a hindrance, not a help. Move on.

Why it became a cliché

The thought of moral consequences to actions is titillating for sincere developers who want to make a great story, and also a fantastic buzz word for marketing. It’s a win-win situation that guaranteed this cliché taking off. Peter Molyneux may be notorious for overhyping his releases but he’s at least passionate about what he does.

It started with: The ironically named Black and White was one of the earliest iterations of the moral choice system of the 2000s, but Knights of the Old Republic really kicked off the trend. Fittingly, the former was the work of Molyneux, who arguably set the standard for vastly overhyping choice and consequence in video games.

4. Quicktime events

Uses include: Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, Resident Evil 4 and 5, Ninja Blade, Wet, Dante’s Inferno, a ton of games that use them four or five times throughout the entire story

Picture this. You’re interviewing people for a prestigious job you need filled, when in walks a clean cut, brilliant individual. The person dazzles you in the interview and you hire them. Then when they actually start working they spend all day surfing Facebook, loudly listening to music and annoying coworkers, and going to the bathroom every two hours for reasons that don’t involve using the bathroom.

In my mind this is analogous to what quicktime events have become. When Shenmue and God of War first popularized quicktime events I remember GameNow referring to them as “the catalyst of gaming in the future”. Well, it’s the future. Developers have now managed to exploit absolutely everything wrong with quicktime events. What started as a fairly innocent way to lend some interactivity to cutscenes has become an almost lazy method of engaging the player when a developer can’t or won’t find any method of being creative. For every game that handles them well like God of War III there are a dozen Ninja Blade's. This is particularly apparent when quicktime events aren’t actually a central part of a game, but thrown in periodically almost as a fallback option (I’m talking to you, Resident Evil 4 and 5). This makes them impossible to predict and it only gets more infuriating when they automatically kill us and we have to start over.

I sure hope you hate gameplay, because this is the bulk of Ninja Blade.

Then you have the bizarre games like Ninja Blade or Wet that proudly try to bill themselves as “cinematic”. What this basically means is watching a series of pre-rendered cutscenes while the occasional reflex test pops up. Why in the name of Bayonetta's ass is a video game – a dynamic new form of interactive art – trying to bill itself as more akin to a movie than a game? Cracked had a good theory, but if I wanted something cinematic, I would go watch a movie.

Of course, don’t think this means that “cinematic” games aren’t above the same cheap tricks that a lot of other games with QTEs employ. Wet shamelessly makes entire bosses little more than pre-rendered sequences of quicktime events without any real interaction whatsoever. Both Wet and Ninja Blade have a habit of randomly flashing quicktime events during cutscenes, which feels like the developer is giving us an excuse to not skip the scene or go make a sandwich like we did during Metal Gear Solid 4.

Figure out how to engage us without resorting abuse of quicktime events, please.

Why it became a cliché

In the late 1990s games like Final Fantasy VII, Metal Gear Solid, and Resident Evil 2 dominated sales charts, and part of why they were so successful was their jaw-dropping cutscenes. They weren’t interactive, though. The idea of making cutscenes interactive probably seemed like the video game equivalent to splitting the atom.

It started with: In fairness, this one isn’t really new. The odd arcade game like Dragonls Lair used them but Shenmue officially coined quicktime events as a term, and God of War popularized them.

5. The easy path is inaccessible, you’re taking the long way!

Uses include: BioShock, Half-Life 2, BioShock, Doom III, BioShock

This is by far one of the most convenient ways to contrive a player into going through the deadly buzz saw and acid forest rather than the tunnel of fluffy pillows and rabbits to your next objective. A door will lock, a roof will collapse, a black hole will spontaneously appear, you name it. Of course, this always has the foresight to happen when your ally – who has a head start – is safely past the threshold and gets to sit in a control room eating Skittles while you faff through the dangerous territory.

New rule: Galaxy-wide ban on ships that use keycards for locked doors.

BioShock is beyond a doubt the most recent showcase of this. Virtually every in-game objective is as deceptively simple as walking through a door or pushing a few buttons. Rapture evidently operates as much under Murphy’s law as it does Ayn Rand because every single time you’re given an objective like this the universe momentarily conspires against you and you have to go through a much longer, treacherous area.

Why it became a cliché

It wouldn’t make sense to for us to successfully teleport to Black Mesa East or go through a few corridors to stop the antagonist in Rapture. That would be boring. It’s much more logical for us to have a reason to take the more treacherous road, but how many ceilings can collapse before we need something new?

It started with: This one is way too ubiquitous to even begin to lock down a starting point, but Half-Life 2 comes to mind. Alyx was safely through the collapsed roof while we had to go through jumping puzzle jamboree Ravenholme.
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About Michael Carusione of us since 11:37 AM on 09.05.2010