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Are exploding red barrels the biggest cliché in video games?

An image of a red barrel in a videogame
Red barrels - who leaves them lying around for just anyone to shoot?

Hello again, and welcome to The Fixer, a monthly column in which I – the most uniquely qualified games critic working today – turn my unfathomable expertise towards the very worst gaming clichés, like a Death Star focusing its big green laser on a planet full of dumb Ewoks. My long career spent fixing games has remedied some of the industry’s most insidious tropes. For example, before I came along it was commonplace for every first-person shooter to feature an in-game background check before you could have a gun. Games would simulate in gruelling real-time the two-week cooling-off period required to purchase a firearm, while outside the invading alien forces razed cities to the ground, as the fastidiously law-abiding protagonist stared helplessly from his living room window. It was a rubbish idea, and it’s frankly hard to believe it ever existed.

Today, however, I’m focusing my Fixer beams on what must surely be the most persistent cliché of all time, an object so ubiquitous that a game without one could hardly be considered a game at all. I’m talking about the cylindrical bad boy, that hot red explosion in a tin, that waist-high tube of flammable juice around which Nazis and demons inexplicably choose to congregate. Can you tell what it is yet? Reader, it is time we fixed the exploding barrel, which is currently receiving attention for its BAFTA-worthy performance of cylindrical scarlet volatility in The Division 2

The problem

Even The Division 2 has handy red explodable barrels everywhere

Even The Division 2 has handy red explodable barrels everywhere

The oil barrel has been a staple of videogames ever since it was possible to get enough pixels together on-screen to render one, but in their early years these proto-barrels were disappointingly inert and resolutely unexplosive. Sure, burly henchmen in beat-’em-ups would occasionally chuck them at you from the back of a moving van, but the risk they posed could be easily mitigated by stepping a few feet to the left or right as they bounced harmlessly overhead. 

Their evolution into the big league bangers we know and love today can be traced back to their breakout appearance in 1993’s Doom, where they presented both a danger to the player and an opportunity to set off huge chain reactions that would result in an inattentive demon getting exploded into guts. Years later, once ragdoll physics came along, designers couldn’t resist programming enemies to huddle around exploding barrels, like they were in some kamikaze knitting circle, so players could send their charred corpses cartwheeling into the rafters time and time again.

And that’s pretty much where the barrel’s evolution rolled to a halt. Exploding barrels have infested every game, including Half-Life, Resident Evil, Tomb Raider, Borderlands, Far Cry and Just Cause – it would almost be faster to list the games that don’t feature them), but besides when they’re used as makeshift tables in pop-up hipster Kombucha bars, you simply never encounter them out in the real world.

The solution

Is that an exploding barrel? Well, it's not red, so... it should be okay if I shoot it

Is that an exploding barrel? Well, it's not red, so... it should be okay if I shoot it

The role of an exploding barrel is simply to provide something colourful to aim at, besides the bad guys, and that also causes some degree of harm to anyone nearby. What could we replace it with that would still fulfil those criteria? How about literally anything else, like water balloons full of hot egg whites, pinatas full of bad smells, or a resealable freezer bag with a single angry wasp inside.

For the remaining exploding barrels we can’t get rid of, games should make it more believable that anyone in their right mind would wilfully stand next to something so dangerous. Audio designers could record snippets of expository dialogue for the player to overhear, such as “I’m only two weeks away from earning my barrel inspector certificate”, or “this barrel brings me great comfort, as it reminds me of my dead husband, who died by standing too near to an exploding barrel”. Then, at last, we could give exploding barrels the elbow. Just not too forcefully.

The Fixer takes aim at more video game cliches, overused tropes and general nonsense every month in Official Xbox Magazine.

Steve Hogarty is The Fixer - mending videogames one cliché at a time.