Thoughts on Plot-Induced Stupidity


We enjoy some games for the stories they tell, whether they’re stories of heroic drama, love found and lost, and anything in between.  When we really get into those stories, we can forgive nearly any other game element that’s poorly implemented.  One of the ways the story kicks our suspension of disbelief—and enjoyment–squarely in the naughty place is when the characters act like complete idiots.

Characters can act like idiots for different reasons—sometimes the entire plot hangs on one—or more—acts of the protagonist(s) that are, and there’s no nice way to put it, freaking stupid.  Now, that’s not to say it’s always a bad thing; take the Toejam & Earl or Ace Attorney series.  Both hang their hats on characters from the protagonists on down being complete morons, but that works.  It serves the humor quite well.

Freezing your tuchus off for no good reason.

The problem usually comes when the game is trying for a more dramatic plot.  Take Resident Evil: Code Veronica for one example.  In order to proceed, you need to partake in an unnecessary fetch quest, which ends in a death trap.  One character figures out what to do and escape, but another, well—doesn’t.  He redeems a few more Idiot Coupons, and ends up—again, totally unnecessarily—in Antarctica.  The best part is when he screws up a task so royally, the room the player-controlled character is in gets flooded with poison gas—because he was too busy staring at a certain portion of the female protagonist’s anatomy.  No joke.

Code Veronica is by no means the only or worst offender, but it does highlight the problem quite well.  When the player knows darn well that following a certain course of action is bloody stupid, and only because they were paying attention, but the character does it anyway—that’s stupid, yes, but more than that, it rips us out of being involved with the story.

When the story is important to the game, when it grips the player through interesting and complex characters, enough interesting twists to please even a staunch fiction critic, such moments of idiocy are arguably more powerful—and more obnoxious—than the entire plot being insipid from the get-go.  When we get into that story, when we can’t put the controller down or step away from the keyboard because the story is as engaging as any novel—we feel more of a “shock” when a character acts completely against common sense.

The Blackwood Company--filled with scum, thieves, murderers, yet let's not forget about their choir. Lovely singing voices.

For example, take The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.  Like most games in the series, it was received well and for good reason.  The story was interesting and engaging—mostly.  There’s a bit where you have to infiltrate this evil version of the Fighters Guild—whom, you are told (by said group, no less), are evil, kitten-kicking jerks who happily employ the worst dregs they can find for the most malicious and amoral jobs possible—and are given a drug which, you’re told—again, by them—will turn you into a mindless, frenzying slaughter-machine.  Even though you, the player, know better, and the character by all rights should know a heck of a lot better—the character takes the drug anyway.

A slaughtered village of innocents later, and you have to fight your way back through the anti-Fighters Guild to—destroy the laboratory where the drug is made.  The head-slap that incurred was mind-boggling.  There was the immediate question—why couldn’t you do that before, when you didn’t have to wade through a million mooks to get to it?

We’ll forgive a lot in our games if the story grips us.  The controls might be dodgy, the economy easily exploitable, the N.P.C.s governed by artificial stupidity—but when the story itself feels broken, when our suspension of disbelief is kicked so hard it falls right to the ground—it makes the game harder to enjoy.

There’s been some improvement over the last few years, but you can all too easily still find shining examples of the above.  Hopefully publishers and developers alike will continue to ensure the stories make sense.  Further, we gamers have to be more willing to stand up and say that if we’re going to be given a dramatic, compelling story, we want it to make sense.  Like so many other things, unless we make our desires known, nothing will change.  The best way to do that is with our wallets.

Here’s hoping we’ll change just as much as our games.

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2 Responses to “Thoughts on Plot-Induced Stupidity”

  1. Agreed.

    It’s even worse when it’s one of those “But thou must” choices. A few years ago, one of my friends loaned me the original Suikoden. While I went a bit farther afterward as a favor to him, I think I hit the end of my tolerance level during the bit with the blatantly unsavory-looking characters who offer you tea that one of the other characters notes is bizarrely bitter. I was practically yelling at the screen after four or five repetitions of trying to refuse the tea. I can (sort of) deal with too stupid to live characters; I just snark about them a lot. But false choices where the only actual choice is the blatantly stupid one? Obnoxious.

    • Ah, yes, the old “grip the controller in anger at the utter stupidity of the protagonist until the plastic squeaks” bit. I have to say I’ve gone through that a few times, myself. The most recent example for me would be in Godfather II, when the protagonist totally believes someone who’s been skittish and “not quite with it” from day one, going so far as to go against advice given by Don Michael.

      Obnoxiousness indeed. It can make playing the game very—tiring.

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