Where’d My Key Go? (And Other Game Design Annoyances)

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.

12 thoughts on “Where’d My Key Go? (And Other Game Design Annoyances)

  1. Nice list! What always gets me is how little impact to your health a gunshot often has, and how finding a pile of food heals you up! Can’t think of a real solution, aside from not having gun-based games (or sci-fi scenarios where guns aren’t bullet-based), but it certainly punctures realism.

  2. With out getting into specifics about any one game. One thing that always bothers me though is the inability to interact with your charge in an escort mission, for what reason can’t I tell them to wait a moment while I go ahead and dispatch any trouble.

    The only time a charge wasn’t just a walking target was in Fallout 3, I gave them a gun and they used it.

  3. Great examples, thanks for the comments!

    I think maybe the least jarring solution that allows us to keep that system is using protagonists who are somehow superheroic—armored, resistant to damage, whatever. I also think a game that portrays gun damage more realistically could work, but would also have to encourage a more conservative fighting strategy. This is what I really loved about the old PS1 fighting game Bushido Blade: You’d circle one another for a while because the point was to get a single, lethal strike, perhaps incapacitating some limbs if you miss along the way.

    And as for healing, I did kind of like how Alone in the Dark makes you take time between fights (because you probably won’t have time in the middle of them) to bandage visible wounds in real-time. I’m willing to buy that system more, though, when the damage is from occasional bites and scratches, rather than constant run-and-gun gameplay.

    I did appreciate that about Fallout 3 (especially when I realized they could shoot for you AND you could tell them to stay put). Resident Evil 4 was kind enough to provide dumpsters for your charge to hide in, too. I think it’s a good sign that I’m having a hard time thinking of a game that does this poorly; I know I’ve played plenty of awful escort missions, but perhaps they’ve been done better in recent years as people become more aware of how hated they are.

    To consider another alternative, I especially liked the escort mission in (one of the ends of) Kane and Lynch, which kept going even if you weren’t very good at escorting.

  4. Admittedly I don’t play enough games to remember which ones have aspects like this that annoy me, but I was impressed when I first started playing Left 4 Dead and saw that your entire inventory, from your pain pills to your molotav, is visible stuffed into your belt or pockets.

  5. In The Witcher your (Un)armed criticism was addressed fairly well:

    (1) you’re an action hero, there’s no way you’re carrying any armor other than what you’re wearing;

    (2) you can carry four weapons max: the two varieties of swords you’re trained with, and two others (one large, one small);

    (3) all your weapons are drawn on your avatar.

    (2) leads to a real paucity of weapon types – but since you’re trained in swords, you’re probably only going to use two swords – works better with a strongly-constrained character definition than it would in Fallout.

    (3) leads to some clipping issues, but they aren’t too bad.

    And on Crates, Fallout 3 does tend to put weapons & ammo in gun lockers.

  6. This seems like as good a time as any to link to Old Man Murray’s seminal Crate Review System.

    I can’t remember perfectly, but I believe the guys behind that site made a point of having the first thing you see in the game they designed/wrote — Portal — be a crate.

  7. The most annoying thing for me in alot of games is where you fight a character who is immensly powerful, but when they join you they are usually sub par to yourself even though they just handed you your but. Or when a character you know to be hardcore dies from a would that compared to the hits you have been taking dies is superficial.
    As for escort quests, the game i feel handled it best was all escort devoted. Back on the PS2 we had ICO, you told the girl to wait or come help you, yes she couldn’t fight but she was still obedient.

  8. Good point about weird party dynamics in RPGs; on a related note, check out “Life of the Party” on Hit Self Destruct: “consider games like Knights or Mass Effect wherein your character faces the greatest conceivable evil in the universe, but isn’t allowed to take more than two people along to fight it.”

    As for escort quests, I’ve often wondered about what makes Ico okay when we revile this in other games. Probably the relatively not-stupid AI of Yorda is a big part of it, as you say. I think the way the characters are animated and directed to look believable as children—such as in Yorda’s timidity when she zaps open a doorway—might also make us more forgiving, to help us make them feel real. The blank-faced robot nature of so many game characters, unwilling to follow even the simplest instructions to avoid their own demise, is definitely one of those narrative-breaking moments for me in a lot of other games.

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