I was talking to a friend the other night about how many (ostensibly) narrative games often do things that entirely defy logic and ruin a sense of immersive storytelling. The most obvious such convention may be the character’s repeated death and rebirth, but that one presents a particularly difficult question: How do you get around this convention without undermining the whole point of the game, which is to fight and escape death? That convention doesn’t have an easy answer, though, and not everyone is buying the kind of answers that have been offered to date.
Some other tropes, however, remain quite common and entirely possible to address if you’re really interested in prioritizing storytelling aspects. I thought it might be fun to point out a few such annoyances and suggest how they could be (or even have been) approached in more coherent ways. (And yes, when you’re writing a multi-hundred-page dissertation, thinking and writing about anything else in the world for a few minutes a day definitely counts as “fun.”) I invite you, too, to respond to these or come up with some more of your own in the comments.
The Disappearing Key: When you use a key on a door, the key suddenly disappears. This is the one my friend pointed out, which kicked off the discussion. I suppose it doesn’t bother me too much in very abstract games like the original Legend of Zelda, but it does seem pretty perplexing in games that are presented as more realistic and immersive.
Alternative: Make a show out of actually tossing the key away if we’re so sure it’ll never be used again—or even just let us keep our keys. Fallout 3 actually has a keyring in the inventory, full of keys you’ll never use again. I’m okay with that!
(Un)armed to the Teeth: You’re packing the most fearsome arsenal known to humankind, but you’re only shown carrying one weapon at a time. Once you’ve broken that rule, you’d think you could just carry anything you want—but no, despite your incredible weapon-hiding abilities, you probably still have a limit to how much you can carry based on an abstract calculation of your total weight allowance (Fallout 3), a fixed number of inventory slots (Mass Effect), or physical space in a magical briefcase that you don’t actually seem to be carrying either (Resident Evil 4).
Alternative: I actually thought it was pretty neat the way you can actually see the a weapons available to you right on your character’s person in Gears of War (and Mass Effect, sort of, but you actually had a huge inventory full of other junk too). For more complex inventory management, though, Fallout 3 implies an elegant solution that it never quite follows through with: gradually slowing you down as you carry more stuff. What the game does do is make you walk slower when you wear heavier armor, which was a decent step, but could have been similarly applied to weapons as well for a more balanced and immersive system. Rather than giving a single cutoff number for encumbrance limit, how about actually showing every piece of equipment we’re carrying on our person (or at least a big backpack or something), and make us slightly slower or less agile as we carry more, up to a certain limit where we won’t be able to run at all? For games that don’t want to deal with encumbrance systems, I suppose you could also just assign a “pack mule” character to carry around your stuff.
Puzzle Locks: I am all for games that make you solve puzzles to progress. I find it extremely distracting, however, when the puzzle is being used in a situation where it would make much more sense to have just had a locked or password-protected door. In Silent Hill: Homecoming, anybody can find a free hunting rifle in a graveyard as long as they find some special stones lying around and solve a riddle. In Resident Evil 4, anybody can unlock a jail cell door (in a church, of course) as long as they can align three colored lights properly. What evil villain guards an important treasure or secret room with an easy riddle? And don’t even get me started on sliding block puzzles.
Alternative: Come up with puzzles that make sense in the narrative framework. Alone in the Dark has a splendid puzzle, for instance, that involves dragging corpses around inside a bus, teetering over a chasm, so that the weight is distributed evenly enough for you to get out. But if we’re determined to have rooms locked with puzzles, we should come up with a narrative framework that explains why the villains are obsessed with puzzles. I would not complain about this in a game that pits you against an evil sphinx; that’s just their M.O.
Apocalypse Eve Shopkeepers: It’s the end of the world and you’re the only one who can stop it—but the guy at the store still insists upon charging you for guns. A lot of games do this, but my personal favorite example is Mass Effect; even the shopkeeper on hero’s own space ship is charging his superior officer for guns when the fate of the entire galaxy hangs in the balance.
Alternative: I suppose it wouldn’t be so glaring in those cases when the shopkeepers might be believably ignorant about the impending apocalypse, but really, this wouldn’t be such a problem if two-thirds of video games weren’t about literally preventing the end of the world. As for the ones that are, though, consider not putting shopkeepers with a subordinate military rank on the hero’s spaceship.
Crates: You can bust open crates (or barrels, or whatever the heck). And guess what? There are bullets (or money, or guns, or whatever) inside for some bizarre reason, and you feel perfectly justified in taking them.
Alternative: Make fun of players for thinking they can find stuff by busting open barrels (Fable II). Also, consider making “crates” that actually make sense as a place to store weapons, ammo, and money, like a safe/cash register (Bioshock, Fallout 3) or a gun locker/ammo magazine (can’t think of an example of a game that does this offhand, but I know they exist).
All right, I’ll call it a day with that. What weird quirks distract you in narrative games, and how would you like to see them changed? Feel free to chime in if you have better alternatives to those suggested here, too.