Tuesday’s Top Ten: Annoying Tropes in Video Games


Yes, it’s that time again—time for another Tuesday’s Top Ten.  Each week we go through the top ten something-or-others in video games.  This week, we’re going to get a bit more subjective than usual.  This week, we’re going to discuss the top ten annoying video game tropes.

The term “tropes” actually starts out with Merriam-Webster, who defines it thus:

a : a word or expression used in a figurative sense : figure of speech
b : a common or overused theme or device : cliché <the usual horror movie tropes>

Normally, I’m a stickler for dictionary definitions.  However, I’ve come to prefer the definition of “tropes” from another web site, appropriately enough named T.V. Tropes, who defines it as:

On this wiki, ‘trope’ has the even more general meaning of a recognizable pattern — not only within the media works themselves, but also in related aspects such as the behind-the-scenes aspects of creation, the technical features of a medium, and the fan experience. Around here, it is a stunt root, as in, ‘That isn’t really different enough from our other tropes to be separately tropeable.’ The tropability of a work is referred to as its tropiness.

The intent being to set Daniel Webster spinning in his grave as quickly as possible.

Don’t let all this give you the impression that we exactly invented our sense of ‘trope’: the more or less synonymous expression ‘resonating tropes’ long pre-existed the site and community here, and you will find people outside of and independent of the site using the word ‘trope’ in the same fashion that we do. Note that currently the Oxford English Dictionary actually recognizes the definition ‘a significant or recurrent theme; a motif’, its earliest quotation for this meaning being from 1975. Merriam-Webster also somewhat recognizes this meaning, but twists it into “a common or overused theme or device : cliché”, which seems unjustly condemning.

Like with any “wiki”, T.V. Tropes should be taken with a healthy pinch of salt, and it’s better to approach it with desire for entertainment than to assume it’s an authority figure.  The site certainly doesn’t take itself too seriously, nor does it proclaim itself to be an authority.  That said, its approach and focus is interesting.  The usage of “tropes” is a handy short-hand.  It’s easier to say “That work was particularly anvilicious,” than it is to says, “That work was heavy-handed and unnecessarily obvious in the moral it was trying to get across”.

That leads us to our current Tuesday’s Top Ten, again on the annoying video game tropes.  Tropes are not inherently bad (or good, or inherently anything else), but there are annoying ones.  Such as…

10. I Can’t Reach It
Typically found in puzzle or adventure games, this one is for those times when your character, say, drops something and it rolls a little under the sofa but refuses to reach his hand under there to get it out.  The character refuses to actually simply stretch his arm a little to grab the thing, even though it’s right there.

The character refuses to so anything less than construct a mechanism ludicrously complex, or do anything less mind-boggling than race around the game world for a rat to retrieve the item for him.  When games have only one example of this, it’s somewhat annoying, but the more a game features this sort of “thinking”, the more it insults the player’s sense of basic logic.

09. Now Where Was I Going Again
You just picked up a great game—it’s as lengthy as you like them, as deep as you like them, and starts out the gate as something you can enjoy.  So you play for a few hours, then save your game and put it down.  Because real life is what it is, you don’t pick it back up again for a few weeks or even months—then you realize you have no idea what you were doing or where you were supposed to be going.

Annoying as heck when it happens to you in a game that doesn’t do much to point you in the right direction.  Thankfully it’s becoming much more rare, with the popularity of “journals” and “quest logs”, and the like.

08. Gameplay Automation
One of those concepts in video games I just don’t get is this one.  As you can see on that page, plenty of games have some variation of this, but I just don’t get it.  You can basically set up the game—or simply allow it when it asks—to literally play itself.

Where’s the fun in that?  That turns the gamer from an active participant into a passive observer, and in that case, why not put on a movie?  Games should be interactive, not passive.  Some games are particularly annoying with it, so you can set up battles to conduct or resolve themselves, N.P.C.s to do their own thing, your own character to follow them, and so on.  This one’s annoying for taking a crucial element out of gaming.

07. Twenty Bear Butts
This is one we’ve all run into at one time or another in our games, though they’re most prolific in the world of M.M.O.s.  It’s a form of a “fetch quest”, where you have to go out and collect a lot of something by killing random enemies, animals, whatever.

It’s obnoxious for a lot of reasons, one of the most egregious being that it’s boring.  It’s boring the first time you do it shortly after starting the game, and it’s double-plus-ungood by the end of the game, where you’re still sent after twenty bear butts.  It’s boring because there’s so much about it that doesn’t make sense to the story and/or setting and/or character, and it’s basically a way to pad the game out.  Making the game seem longer than it really is by adding things like this is not an element of “fun”, it’s a way to annoy gamers.

06. Level Grinding
Nearly omnipresent, especially in mainstream games, this one is particularly obnoxious.  It’s even more boring than twenty bear butts, as here you’re not really trying to collect anything but experience points.  If there is a more pointless exercise in games, I’m not aware of one—and I’m not sure I want to be.

It usually entails picking a “sweet spot” in the game world where the monsters or whatever else are easy enough to be taken down efficiently but also grant enough experience points to make the endeavor worthwhile.  You grind that spot for a while and perhaps eventually move on to another one.  That all involves trial and error, unless you know the game well (or are using a guide).  It’s annoying because it doesn’t further the plot, it’s not a constructive use of the gamer’s time, and is usually just another way to pad out the length of the game.

05. Plot Lock
A rather obnoxious one that’s also often counter-intuitive, the Plot Lock is when your Level Seventy-Nine Awesome Monk of Coolness is stopped cold—by a wooden door.  Not a magical one, not one that really doesn’t lead anywhere—one you do need to get through, but only with the item or ability that the developers decided you need.

This one usually can be recognized pretty close to instantly.  You or a friend will exclaim, “What the [really loud expletive]?! I have lock picks! In my hand! Why can’t I pick this lock?!” Then there’s the muttering as you slog your way through wave after wave of enemies to get one small item/ability, then trudge back to be finally allowed to pass.  This is actually related to its more obnoxious cousin…

04. Insurmountable Waist-Height Fence
Imagine this—you’re a very powerful magic-user.  The very elements are your play-things, and your power is such that you can call down meteors from the heavens to smite your enemies, and that’s before you get good and warmed up.  You’re wandering along, strutting through a field without a care in the world because you know that nothing can touch you that won’t feel enough pain to radiate back through its ancestors.  You come to a fence barely half as tall as you are, running through the field.  And nothing you can do, no power you possess, can so much as scratch it.

There are quite a few versions of this, but all are annoying.  The developers are forcing you to go the way they want you to, completely ignoring the powers you’re supposed to possess—including the power of jumping.  Annoying as heck because it usually doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.  An obstacle that should be able to be bypassed can’t be, just so the developers can keep you where they want you.

03. Fake Balance
Starting the last three on the list is this one, where the developers intended to create a game balanced enough to offer something for everyone—or make every character a player could choose to play viable enough—and fails horribly.  Sometimes a result of a development team in over their heads, sometimes a result of the team working to push out a game far ahead of when it should be, or whatever else.

There’s a difference between differing difficulty curves for different characters and the ability to completely stomp the game as one but die from a paper cut by another.  Particularly annoying since the developers tried to make the game more balanced, but failed—horribly.

02. Fake Longevity
A few of the previous entries fit this, as do many others.  It’s padding the game out by making the player go through any number of time-wasting filler.

What makes it so annoying is not just the filler itself.  Filler isn’t always a bad thing.  One of the major issues is that it’s marketed incorrectly.  When game box proclaims the game has sixty hours of content, a hundred, whatever, and most of that is just running back and forth—that’s a lie.  That’s not however-many hours of content.

It also makes “shorter” games look bad.  Sometimes games are short because developers don’t want to pad the game out unnecessarily.  Sometimes it’s because the developers felt the story worked best not parceled out in few-and-far-between increments.  Padding a game out with timer-wasters like fetching twenty bear butts makes other games look bad in comparison, unfairly and unnecessarily.

01. Fake Difficulty
This is the number one complaint gamers tend to have with games, but it’s not as unwarranted as it’s sometimes proclaimed to be.

Sometimes it’s because of how the game itself is coded—glitches that all but make the game unwinnable, controls that just don’t make any sense, or things like complex puzzles requiring precision jumping in a first-person shooter, a genre where you typically can’t see your feet so have no idea precisely where you’re standing in the first place.

Worse is when it’s because of the artificial intelligence written for non-player characters is written such that your A.I.-controlled team-mates (or, worse still, someone you’re supposed to be escorting) are downright stupid, A.I.-controlled enemies know exactly where you are in the level at all times, bosses are unnaturally invulnerable to certain powerful attacks, the enemy acts like it has access to better resources than you do even when it’s supposed to have the same, and more.  So much more.

Worse still is when the computer outright lies to you, and not for reasons of plot.  It’s usually found more in bad translations of game text, but there are times when it’s just a blatant lie to get the gamer to spend more time (and money, in the arcades) on the game.

Less annoying is when the player is denied access to information the character would have.  Whether something small like visiting every house in the village to find the character’s friend, or something much more critical like a timed mission through a route populated by enemies, dead-ends, and more, that the character would know well enough to race through with ease, denying the player knowledge the character should have—or would by all rights obtain—is obnoxious, and just one more example of fake difficulty.

Fake difficulty is a trend in video games that’s hard to track with precision.  Sometimes what seems like fake difficulty is simply a player not understanding what it is the game is asking them to do.  Sometimes it’s simply the player not themself being skilled enough for the fair challenge.  Sometimes, it’s even a player crying foul to cover up for their own lacking skill.

When it can be pointed to and dissected, it’s shown to be annoying on a level few others on this list really come close to achieving.  It’s a level that makes whatever other compliments can be given to a game—the depth of story, immersion in mechanics, prettiness in visuals, whatever else—irrelevant and forgotten, ensuring that the main, if not only, memory a player will have of the game will be a sour one.

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2 Responses to “Tuesday’s Top Ten: Annoying Tropes in Video Games”

  1. Hi there, just found this website from reddit. This isn’t not blog post I would typically read, but I liked your perspective on it. Thanks for creating an article worth reading!

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