5 Plot Devices That Make Good Video Games Suck

Writing a good story is hard. Making a good video game is hard. Trying to make a good video game that also tells a good story is damned near impossible.

Not that they don't try. Video game makers are working hard to achieve their dream of a playable movie, or at least a game that looks like a movie in a two-minute trailer. But when you're playing the games, that "I'm in the movie! Whee!" illusion disappears as soon as you hear things like...

#5. "Hey, Nico! Instead of hijacking that armored truck, let's go bowling!"

In Grand Theft Auto 4, your average GTA player's thought process generally flows something like this in-game:

1. Steal a car

2. Find old lady

3. Run over old lady

4. Sex with hooker

5. Run over hooker

6. Grab Hot Pocket from microwave

7. Kill some cops

8. Visit car wash to get old lady and hooker bits out of stolen car's grille.

...and so on. If you were to follow that thought process from start to finish, not once would you see the words "I want to watch my fat cousin eat." But guess what you had to do, frequently, over the course of the game?

"Ooh! I know!"

And it wasn't just your cousin, oh no. Thanks to the relationship minigames they decided to include, practically every hard-bitten gangbanger you came across turned out to have abandonment issues, copious amounts of free time and a love of pool and darts that bordered on fetishistic.

I'd rather be playing darts.

The girls in the game are even more high-maintenance; bailing out on the relationship if you don't take them out often enough, or ramp your car into the river just once during a date. Though they can't hold a candle to the women you're supposed to "marry" in Fable 2. People have made detailed How-To Guides on how to stop a woman from divorcing you in that game (hint: get ready to spend lots of time gathering gifts and being romantic with her).

Seems Like a Good Idea Because...

It's just like the lovable characters in a good novel or, even better, real-life friends! What better way to add depth and drama to a game?

Doesn't Work Because...

We do favors for friends in real life because we enjoy their company. They're never going to code a video game character who'll give us anything like the feeling we get from human companionship, and it's probably unfair to expect them to. Instead it becomes a bunch of tedious minigames played with a robot who only knows 10 pre-recorded phrases, done purely out of an artificial sense of obligation.

It's Sort of Like...

Spending time with your in-laws during the holidays.

#4. "I can get you what you need. But first, you must do something for me."

You're the Hero of Goodness on a quest to save the world from the evil machinations of Dark Lord Fuckblade. You're walking through town on your way to his Pointy Castle of Badness when WHAM, you walk straight into a locked door being guarded by some schmuck who with only two lines of dialog:

Pictured: The Mighty Dark Lord Fuckblade.
Not pictured: Machinations

"Sure, I'll let you through to the Pointy Castle of Badness," he says, buffing his nails on his lapel, "just after you go to the forest of Everthorn and gather me the testicles of six night slugs."

Fuck that guy, and all guys like him.

Bioware is a frequent offender of this kind of game-length-padding bullshit; in Mass Effect you play as Commander Shepard, a Spectre Agent. Spectres are basically space-flavored double-oh spy-types, empowered to exercise ass-kicking protocols and initiate the taking of names.

That is a complex expression on his face right there.

In one mission, Shepard and his/her crew touch down on an icy planet to investigate some shady goings-on. At one point you need to get into a garage, so you go find someone who can give you a pass to get in. But to get the pass and progress into the game you're forced to first participate in some corporate espionage that your average gamer couldn't give a fuck about even if you hooked them up to a fuck-giving machine.

This gimmick is at its worst when you near what you think is the end of the game. You're ready and excited to finally face the evil nemesis and- "Wait! First you have to go over the entire map again and find the five broken pieces of the ultimate weapon!"

This almost killed the Bioshock experience, where after the big showdown with Andrew Ryan is foreshadowed in the game's big twist, you're then forced to go on a series of "fetch quests" to get the stuff you need to take him on--a process that takes about as long as the entire game up to that point.

Seems Like a Good Idea Because...

More game is better, right? If the player is having fun, if you give him more stuff to do he'll have even more fun!

Doesn't Work Because...

Do you know why we didn't watch John McClane hunting for tape in Nakatomi Plaza for 15 minutes? Because it's not important to the plot that they spent the first 80 percent of the movie building.

Storytelling is a delicate thing, it takes pacing and well-defined objectives. When, in the name of making the game longer, you force the player to go circling back around a bunch of hallways it brings the narrative to a screeching halt. It also frustrates players by making them run around searching for macguffins like demented magpies.

It's Sort of Like...

Stopping a rollercoaster every 30 seconds to make everyone get out and grease up the tracks.

#3. "Got the files? Good work, now come on home. You can go out the way you came in."

You have just tirelessly battled through hordes of foes, finally fighting your way into the heart of the enemy base/lair/dungeon to finally find and grab the macguffin. Your character grabs the secret files/treasure/magical orb and you set the controller down, ready to see a congratulatory cutscene.

Nothing happens.

You're just standing there. Suddenly the horror dawns on you that the game is going to make you turn around and fight your way back out of the building.

You are boned.

This happens in one of the last levels of Halo 3 (Cortana). You have to infiltrate a flood-infested covenant ship. It's filled with waves of enemies and it's incredibly disorienting, due to the fact that the fleshy walls make it seem like you are lost in an endless tunnel of meat.

After what seems like hours, the Chief finally rescues Cortana, and the player can finally breath a sigh of relief. The ordeal is over- wait, no it's not. Cortana tells the Chief that it is time to clear out, yes, back the way you came. To add insult to injury, even more enemies are coming out at you now, further extending your nightmarish romp in the bouncy castle of flesh.

Have you had enough of the meat carnival? No? Good, because you're doing it all over again.

Though that is not as evil as The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass and the fucking Temple of the fucking Ocean fucking King. To access each new level of the game you have to go back through the same temple over and over again, solving the same puzzles, avoiding the same enemies. Over and over and over and over and over and...

Seems Like a Good Idea Because...

"We spent a lot of time designing this damned level! We'll be damned if you're going to just go blowing right through it!"

Doesn't Work Because...

Here's the thing. A movie ticket is the same price whether you're going to see Inglourious Basterds (153 minutes) or Zombieland (88 minutes) and moviegoers are OK with that. They really don't judge the movie by how much movie they got.

Maybe more Wikus.

Games are different. Gamers partly judge value by how long the game is, and that makes storytelling really freaking difficult. As we said before, stories have to move at a certain pace, and can only have so many plot points and twists before they start to seem pointless (see the middle seasons of Lost). So how in the hell do you extend it and make the gamer feel like they got their money's worth?

Honestly, pretty much anything but this.

It's Sort of Like...

Shooting a movie that's only 50 minutes long, but stretching it out by having every other scene be a flashback... of the previous scene.

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