Game Design Talk: Exploding Barrels and Other Video Game Clichés


I’m on pace to finish Uncharted in the next few days, and I’ve had a really good time with it. If my queue of PS3 games to play wasn’t so big right now, I would have likely jumped to the sequel immediately. There are however, a few very specific gripes I have with this game, and one of them I wanted to use as a jumping-off point for a bigger discussion. For a game that at times tiptoes into the realm of realism, there are some very specific video game clichés that really take me out of the moment. In particular, I can’t help but shake my head every time I see strategically placed explosive barrels in the environment.

As with most games featuring explosive barrels, they always seem to be placed in just the right location to explode around key bad guys. The game also uses explosive barrels to blow up certain parts of the environment to open up new areas to you. My question is, why are these barrels located here in the first place and why are bad guys standing right beside them? From a gameplay perspective, it’s a mechanic that is often used to help easily dispatch a large group of enemies at once. However, from a story perspective, the excess number of exploding barrels makes absolutely no sense.

What bothers me even more than enemies conveniently standing around exploding barrels is when the game uses them as a means of triggering certain events. There was one area where I didn’t know where to go until I found a wall with dozens of exploding barrels stacked on top of each other to form a mini mountain. Why would the enemies stack a ton of barrels against the wall in this fashion? If they were real people, they wouldn’t. Even worse was one sequence where I killed a key enemy without blowing up the exploding barrel beside him. I wandered around the area for a while before the game told me to shoot the barrel in order to blow up the bridge so that I could progress. The designers of this sequence must have known that killing this enemy like you do almost every other enemy would break the sequence, but they put it in there anyway.

I understand why video game cliches such as exploding barrels (or any cliché in any medium) exist. They’re an easy way to achieve a desired effect. However, using a cliché does come with disadvantages as well. Gameplay cliches, such as exploding barrels, can take away from the immersion of the experience when you have to take advantage of a common gameplay mechanic that logically would never happen in the real world. Video game clichés aren’t just limited to gameplay; video games have a number of visual, audio and story clichés as well. This UGO list points out a whole bunch of video game clichés, but I’m sure you can name a bunch on your own.

The ‘easy’ answer to this problem is to not include clichés at all. However, that would be ignorant to believe that someone could just make that happen. Making a cliché-free anything at this point in human history is damn near impossible.

With that said, I still think Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune could have been a better product had it not been so dependent on clichés, such as the exploding barrels and other cliché elements put into the game, which I won’t mention here because some of these elements spoil the plot. Some of their uses of gaming and story clichés were just downright lazy and in my eyes, were one of the few negative points about a great game.

Are there any gaming clichés or instances of gaming clichés that really bother you?

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