5 Overused Clichés in Video Game Writing
One of the things about video games that interests me quite a bit is the writing that goes into creating their stories. Since video games are very different from other forms of media with stories, the process of writing a story for a game differs greatly from that of say, a movie or a book. Of course, that doesn’t mean video games are immune to common writing clichés that plague many stories. I created a list of some of what I believe are five of the most overused and annoying clichés that I’ve come across while playing video games. I’m a gamemaster for a tabletop RPG called Pathfinder, and a lot of things that go into being a gamemaster also go into writing stories for games. At its core, writing for games involves crafting a story that other people are intended to interact with, so there is some merit to what I have to say. Also, I deliberately chose to exclude the “damsel in distress” trope on this list because on a list of things that have been done many times before, it would be ironic if I wrote about something that has been written about many times before.
1. Mystic Exposition Dump
The evil demon, who was sealed away for a thousand years, is now free, and only the legendary hero can defeat him by using the legendary McGuffin sword.
The Mystic Exposition Dump is fairly common in the fantasy genre, and usually involves some character, usually an old man, babbling to the player about how the game’s world was created, how powerful the villain is, some prophecy dictating how the main character is the chosen one, or maybe all of the above. Regardless of what is actually being talked about, it’s so painfully boring and overdone that whenever I get the feeling a mystic exposition dump is coming, my brain just shuts off completely.
Circumventing this cliché/How it Can be Done Well: One of the easiest ways to turn off a player to a game’s story is to spoonfeed large quantities of plot details to them. I’ve found that the more endearing stories are ones in which the player starts out knowing very little about the world around them, but learn more and more about it as they progress through the game’s story. In the case of Dark Souls, the player starts out learning barely anything and by the end of the game there’s still mystery to the game’s world due to how little the game actually tells the player about the story. Alternatively, the player could be allowed to learn about the game’s lore and plot at their own pace by dispensing information through optional conversations with NPCs and in-game documents, like what the Elder Scrolls series does.
2. Items of Power
I’ll admit that I’m guilty of using this cliche in the adventures I write, and that’s because they’re such an easy plot device to implement. Oftentimes, obtaining a complete set of items of power is the primary objective of the main protagonist, and collecting each individual item in this set acts as the objective of each section of the game. The protagonist’s motivation for collecting these items is usually to become powerful enough to defeat the already-powerful villain, or it’s to prevent the villain from obtaining the items of power for themselves. This cliche can be done well in certain circumstances, but for the most part it’s just a lazy plot device, especially if it’s used recurringly across a series.
Circumventing this cliché/How it Can be Done Well: Instead of giving the protagonist the power to defeat the villain through magical artifacts, the player could fight the villain using just the skills and tools they obtained on their adventure. Sure, facing off against a powerful final boss while playing as a powered-up main character is cool and all, but putting the player on the same level as the final boss simply through natural progression shows them just how far they’ve come. Alternatively, a way this cliche could be flipped on its head is to deceive the player about the significance of the items of power. Maybe the player is told to obtain them because they have a high monetary value, but then it’s later revealed that their significance is much greater. Or it could go the other way around where the player goes the entire game believing the artifacts they’re collecting are powerful, when in actuality they are completely worthless.
3. The Revenge Plot
Look, I understand that writing a good motivation for the protagonist to take part in the events of a story is very difficult, even more so if that motivation is one that hasn’t been done many times before, so I get why many video game writers choose revenge as the main character’s primary motivator. After all, many video games involve some kind of violence, and a desire for revenge is a good reason for partaking in said violence. Plus, it gives the protagonist a reason for doing the things they do that isn’t just “because it’s the right thing to do.” The problem is that the revenge plot has become sort of a tired concept recently. Think of any sort of video game with action in it, and chances are its plot involves getting back at the villains in some sort of way. Initially it worked pretty well to get the player to hate the villain as much as the hero as a way of motivating them to play through the story, but now it’s been done so many times that it’s becoming more and more difficult to care about whatever wrongdoing the villain did to the hero.
Circumventing this cliché/How it Can be Done Well: If the revenge plot is to be avoided altogether, there are few different motivators that could be used as an alternative, such as love, survival, personal gain (mainly in the case of an anti-hero), etc. As for how the revenge plot can be done well, probably the best way to go about it is to have the protagonist’s motivation start out as getting back at the villain, but then as the protagonist goes on their quest for revenge, their motivation evolves into something more selfless and heroic. A well-known example of this is in the Ezio trilogy of the Assassin’s Creed series, where Ezio’s story begins as a quest to hunt down the Borgia after they murdered his family, but then on his quest he gradually becomes a seasoned assassin whose goal is to protect the innocent from tyranny, and this development is one of the reasons Ezio is such a well-liked character. Another way a revenge plot can work is if it’s presented sort of tongue-in-cheek. In games like these, the plot isn’t meant to be taken too seriously, and all it’s really meant to do is tell the player “These are the bad guys. They did bad things to you. Now go f*** ‘em up.” Overall, the revenge plot isn’t inherently bad, it just boils down to whether it can be executed in a way that’s refreshing, though not having it at all would be quite welcome as well.
4. The Scripted Defeat (That Fight Didn’t Count)
Picture this scenario. You’re fighting against a difficult boss in a game who has beaten you many times. After several attempts, you finally defeat them, eagerly awaiting the cutscene that follows showing their downfall. However, what you get instead is a scene where the boss appears to be barely winded and wins the battle by means completely out of your control.
Now obviously this is a pretty extreme scenario, but the point still stands. Few things are more annoying than beating a boss fair and square only for the game to give you a giant middle finger by having the boss win anyway. Not only that, but giving the player the ability to “defeat” the villain doesn’t really paint a good picture of how powerful said villain actually is. In some cases, the game’s excuse is that the villain was holding back and not showing their true power during the fight, but that’s a cliche in and of itself.
Circumventing this cliché/How it Can be Done Well: Generally speaking, this cliche should be avoided altogether, though there is one way it can be improved upon. It involves the classic principle of show don’t tell. Instead of telling the player how powerful the villain is through a cutscene, show them through gameplay. Make the boss extremely strong and impossible to beat so that the player feels as helpless as the main character. Once the player inevitably loses this fight, that’s when the cutscene comes in. In the previously mentioned case where the villain is holding back against the hero, begin the boss fight by having the boss lose health and deal damage in believable amounts, then once they drop to half health, the gloves are off. Video games are an interactive medium, and the more a game’s story can be experienced by a player rather than told to them, the better.
5. The Blank Slate
When it comes to writing a game, one of the absolute worst things a writer can do is write an unlikable main protagonist. After all, a game’s main character is the character with whom the player will be spending the most (if not all) of the game’s total playtime. In order to avoid this, oftentimes the writers will play it safe and write a character with absolutely zero defining character traits. The character is intended to be a self insert who is perfect in every way with little to no flaws except for sometimes being naive. I myself don’t buy into this style of writing at all. Characters are supposed to be like people, and real-life people have flaws. A perfect character shouldn’t be relatable to anyone because a perfect person doesn’t exist. I can understand why certain characters are blank slates, such as characters who were created at a time when story wasn’t as vital to games. Giving characters like Link and Doomguy the ability to speak and giving them more complicated personalities would not be very well received (fans’ reaction to Samus being able to speak in Metroid: Other M is proof of that). However, when a character created in the present day has no defining personality traits, most of the time that’s just lazy writing.
Circumventing this cliché/How it Can be Done Well: A great way to circumvent this cliché is to have a main character with their own set personality, but it’s just ambiguous enough that there’s room for player influence. A perfect example of this is Geralt from The Witcher series. Geralt has his own distinct personality, and despite the fact that the player is able to influence the things Geralt is able to say and do, none of these choices ever conflict with the motives of Geralt’s pre-established character. As for how this cliché can be done well, there are certain games that allow the player to paint their blank canvas that is the main character without having to use their imagination. Games like Mass Effect and Divinity: Original Sin let the player customize not only their character’s appearance, but also their personality, which allows for a character with personality traits that are both interesting and tailored to the player.