It was a dark and stormy night...
Video games can tell some amazing stories. Their ability to mix audio, video, and interaction together into a single work can really draw participants in and have them connect with the piece on a deep, emotional level. Games can make us laugh, cry, or even give us the ability to create new stories on our own that we can share with others. At their best, they give context to our actions within the game. Those actions then influence the how the story plays out, and the two compliment each other to form one cohesive whole.
For some games, however, the story feels like more of an obligation. Developers figure, 'well, we gotta have some sort of a reason why Shooty McMurderPants is running around shooting stuff and murdering people all day long, so here you go!' Inevitably, this can lead to shortcuts and sloppy storytelling, where your actions in the game feel almost completely disconnected from the plot, creating what critics call "a giant clusterfuck." Here are some of the laziest storytelling cliches for when you feel like just phoning the whole thing in.
This one is a classic, as well as a personal favorite of mine. I don't care if we're talking books, games, or whatever else - if there's a character with amnesia that always equals a good time because it means everything is not as it seems. And let me tell you something, there's nothing better than having everything be not as it seems. Friends can be revealed as enemies. Characters can tap into long-forgotten powers. Secret identities can become not-so-secret identities. Nothing is off the table, all without having to write a word of opening exposition.
Even so, you can have too much of a good thing. A twist doesn't feel like much of a twist when you know the twist is coming - just ask M. Night Shyamalan - and when amnesia is on the table then you KNOW a twist is coming. You never see a character with amnesia that just turns out to be a normal dude, or better yet never recover from the amnesia ever. Imagine that: amnesia with no payoff, now there's a twist.
6. You're better than everyone else
This is a apex of video game power fantasies. You're the Master Chief. You're the Inquisitor. You're the one the prophecy spoke of. You're better than everyone else. Congratulations! Now get out there and start saving the universe because dammit that's what you were born to do. And everyone else knows it, or will be made to know it in short order.
But does literally the entire universe need to revolve around you? There are plenty of heroics to be found in the everyman as well. It's easy to be brave when you're a genetically enhanced super soldier or blessed with some ancient and mysterious power. If you're just some random person - like you or me - then it's a lot harder. But isn't that struggle against such overwhelming odds part of what makes someone heroic in the first place?
5. Audio logs, audio logs everywhere
You're a game developer. You've spent months - maybe even years - developing this amazing new world to serve as the backdrop for your game. You've got Word documents coming out your ears detailing the rich history, the triumphs, and the strife of this world and its people. But how are you going to fit all of it into your game? Two words my friend: audio logs. Just fill your world up with old recordings made by some person for some reason, and PRESTO you've got yourself some backstory.
It's just too bad audio logs are so boring. There's no getting around it. No one wants to stop blasting dudes in the face and listen to a dead guy's answering machine for five minutes. I don't care how interesting his messages are. While audio logs (or journal entries or whatever) are efficient at conveying a lot of information, they hardly take advantage of the medium's visual and interactive strengths. Especially if they're the kind that make you REMAIN STATIONARY or SIT IN A MENU to listen to them. They're the most infuriating, and completely miss the point of being an audio log in the first place.
4. The bad guy calls you on the phone
Bad guys just love calling heroes on the phone to tell them how unimpressed they are with the whole situation. Why do they feel the need to do this? Why does Azmodan in Diablo III hop on the demonic Skype every time I kill one of his lieutenants or destroy one of his siege engines just to let me know he really doesn't care that I just killed one of his lieutenants or destroyed one of his siege engines. If you really don't care that much, don't pick up the phone.
Having a bad guy call you up on the phone just to taunt and tease the player doesn't accomplish all that much, other than remind us "oh yeah, that's the bad guy." The nastiest, most memorable, and downright coolest villains are never the ones that spew empty threats at you all day. They're the ones who get shit done. They don't have time to chat because they have an evil plan and they're sticking to it. And when they do finally give you their attention, it's because you royally screwed up said plan. It's because you earned it.
3. Dead parents. Dead wives. Dead families.
Sometimes it can be hard coming up with a reason for players to actually like, or care about, your hero. Think about, say, Kratos, or Talion from Shadow of Mordor. They're basically dudes who are angry all the time and run around killing people and/or monsters day in and day out. So, why should I care about his person? Because his family is dead. Not only that, they were murdered right in front of his eyes.
It's the perfect motivation, really. You free your hero up from his parental responsibilities while also giving him a reason to want to straight up murder a bunch of dudes in cold blood. It's a win-win. Except now it's been done so much it's become comical. The moment you see a nice, happy-looking family in a video game, you KNOW they're on the way out. Especially the wife. Holy crap, if you're some dude's wife in a video game your part might as well be played by a skull and crossbones because you're living on borrowed time.
2. You're stranded in hostile territory
Being stranded in hostile territory sucks. It doesn't matter if you're in Silent Hill or Rapture, or that island in Tomb Raider. The result is always the same: everyone wants to kill you. It's really just a convenient excuse for having you murder everything in sight. And because you're in an enclosed environment, there's no need to worry about the ramifications - or even the reasoning - behind your actions. This is a fight for survival, dammit, and you're just doing what needs to be done.
Of course, since everyone and everything is trying to kill you all the time, there's not much room meaningful, non-murder-related interactions. Sometimes you meet a companion or two, and maybe you help one of them escape, but at the end of the day your only real meaningful contribution was putting shotgun shells in the faces of your enemies.
1. The bad guy is the same one from the last game
Nothing invalidates your gaming accomplishments more than seeing the villain from the previous game show up unexpectedly in its sequel. All that hard work. All those hours of strategizing and preparation. All of it rings hollow when you see that same villain inexplicitly return from the dead. Plus, since it's the same villain all over again you know how the song and dance plays out. Their personality, weaknesses, and master plan, all the jazz has already been established. Here we go again.
This is really one of the most lazy entries on this list. "Quick, we need a surprise twist that won't take a lot of explanation, nor require us to set up a new character right before the end of the game. Solution: bring the old villain back from the dead!" It's perfect. Players already know the old villain, but who would have suspected they'd see said villain again in this new game? Who needs new ideas when we have all these old ones to fall back on!?
To be continued... ?
Whats disappointing about this is list is that, at one point or another, every entry was a really cool and original idea. Then everyone started doing it. And it became too mainstream and it started to suck. Now everyone does it and it's basically ruined. Everyone ruins everything. Of course, this list is by no means comprehensive. I'm sure you all can think of even more storytelling cliches everyone has managed to ruin.