What is your least favorite video game trope? I have a whole list, top of which are the damn invisible walls around the game world. I understand why these walls are there – after all, you can’t just have endless game space. But there are always ways to disguise or hide these walls from the player. It is just a matter of how much time and effort you are willing to spend to do so. At the end of the day the invisible walls are driven by practical game design issues – the hardware limitations, the level design, etc.. So when I bump into one of these, I can understand and forgive the designers.
Another one on my list is the whole deal with insurmountable waist high walls. Nothing kills immersion like being unable to hop over a two feet flimsy fence. Sometimes designers use these to hide the invisible walls around the borders of the game world, and sometimes they just use them for lazy railroading. Either way, they are a flaw that usually appears during level design, and indicates that the team was either cutting corners or just did not care enough.
The examples above are very low level – they are problems with game implementation – the way the game world was put together by the designers and programmers. Being a programmer myself, I get annoyed at these, but I do understand why they crop up in games so often. They are quick and easy fixes for complex problems – and if you are on a tight schedule, dealing with much bigger game breaking bugs, these things are often not your main priority. Or the clever solutions you could come up with are not even in the budget at all. Given enough time and resources you could probably fix these without affecting the game as a whole. Sometimes this is done by the modding community after the game is released. For example, there exist mods that remove invisible walls from Fallout New Vegas or that impressive mod that removes borders around Cyrodil and allows the players to explore the entire continent of Tamriel.
There is one common trope however that drives me up the wall every time I see it. I personally call it “The Streaking Level” because it usually involves your character running around in his briefs for an extended period of time. TV Tropes calls it Warring Without Weapons. It is when a game strips you of of all your hard earned possessions, and forces you to slog through a lever or two naked, underpowered and defenseless.
Let me use Mafia 2 as an example here because it is the most recent game when this happened to me, and because it happens not once, but twice. Early in the game you are thrown into prison losing all the weapons and cars you have collected so far. Which makes sense, and works fairly well with the story and allows the game to roll the clock forward a few years. It really didn’t bother me. You get out, you get bunch of new cars, a collection of effective weapons, a very nice house in the suburbs and then it happens again, near the end game. Your house is burned down by some Irish thugs and you are forced to steal a car and escape the site in your underwear. Your cash counter is reset to zero, your weapons are gone, your house is destroyed – it just sucks. It feels like the game just took all your hard earned possessions and threw it into the garbage bin just to spite you.
But it not the only example. There are countless other games where I have experienced this. Some allow you to recover your weapons at the end of the level, while others destroy them like Mafia 2. In most cases this is frustrating, immersion breaking and infuriating. Here are just a few examples that gave me a lot of grief:
Fallout 3 extension “The Pitt” forcefully strips you of all your equipment during a cut scene upon entering the area. It really stings that the thugs who take away your stuff are low level mooks you would normally wipe the floor with. By the time I visited Pitsburgh my character could easily one-shot Deathclaws, and habitually wiped whole encampments of raiders just by passing by. Then she got beaten into a pulp by three dudes. Shameful, immersion breaking and stupid.
In Bioshock you have to surrender all your weapons to get through a plot driven door and fight your way through a level using just plasmids. Worst thing is that you know it is a trap – you know you are going to get jumped as soon as you enter the area, and you can’t do nothing about it. When you get the weapons back, all the ammo is missing
The first Fable has you imprisoned and stripped of all the awesome magical artifacts near the end game. It’s like the designers decided to put the game on hold for a while and make you do stupid minigames for a bit while your character ages into a grizzled old man. Thanks for that.
Dragon Age does this several times by dumping you into the Fade – a magical dream realm where equipment and weapons do not really matter. Oh, and they also do it in that prison sequence near the end game.
BioWare likes to avert this trope sometimes. Both Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 have a level in which you are asked to surrender your weapons (Noveria in ME1 and the prison ship where you recruit Jack in ME2) but a last minute intervention from an NPC allows you to keep them. It made me groan and get annoyed at the mere suggestion both times.
For me this trope is much more annoying and much less forgivable because it is a very high level issue. It is not an implementation issue that works around some game engine or hardware limitation. It is not a hack. It is a design choice made by the writers. It is a problem with the script itself. Someone actually wrote it into the story. Someone has decided that it will be beneficial and fun to strip the player of all possessions and reset his progress – if only temporarily. But it never is. It is always annoying and stupid.
If it is done early in the game, before you have a large collection of precious possessions and number of strategies tied to them, then yes – a sudden imprisonment or a visit to temporal dream world may be an interesting plot twist. When it happens near the end game – after many, many hours of hoarding special weapons rare items and amassing an obscene pile of cash – it just feels like a slap in the face. It feels like the game is going
“Oh, I see you are having fun right now. This will not do. I will just take all this stuff you collected so far and let you run around naked for a while. That ought to teach you not to enjoy yourself so much!”
It just irks me that this issue crops up so often. It is such a high level problem, that it would be trivial to resolve it at the writing stage. When you are in such early phases of game design, sweeping changes to the plot cost you almost nothing. I just don’t get why so many writers feel that their game desperately needs a prison escape level of some sort, and why no one ever vetoes that plot element.
What are your least favorite gaming tropes? Can you think of more examples of games that strip you naked for a level or two? Let me know in the comments.