Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Because Sometimes Convention Just Works

Posted by Rampant Coyote on May 10, 2011

A friend sent me a link to this article by a writer on the indie turn-based strategy game Battle for Wesnoth about – well, about why originality in story is often overrated:

The Uses of Cliché

The author states: “One of the most important lessons I’ve learned, and now teach others, is this: genre cliches are your friend. Too much originality can badly disrupt the gameplay experience. This is so at variance with our expectations about ‘good’ art that I think it deserves some explanation and exploration.

I guess this goes along with my own article, “Why Orcs?” Reading someone else kinda-sorta embracing the same position makes me feel a little embarrassed, because – well, because I personally value innovation and originality, and one of my biggest complaints about the video games industry today is its lack thereof.  The whole paint-by-numbers approach to making a top-shelf game.

But it works because it works. Originality and innovation are often unrewarded, while the latest Call of Duty clone / sequel / derivative makes a bundle of cash.

But more to the point of the article above: You can’t reinvent the wheel every step of the way. At some point, you have to fall back on convention, audience expectation, tropes, archetypes, and / or even cliches. And that’s okay. These act as a shorthand for the player, as comfortable and familiar aspects that make it easier to jump into the game and the “interesting” parts of the story.

As the author states, “Creativity is certainly possible under these constraints, but it has to be additive and incremental.” Different games have different thresholds of course,  and I think there’s more room in RPGs for unique and creative story elements than in a strategy game.

But I think this article explains to me why, on many levels, I preferred the first Wing Commander (yes, I’m delving into now-ancient history) to the sequels. The characters were much more two-dimensional and cliche in the first game. The story was far simpler – if you could even call it a story. But the simplicity allowed the story elements to do their job and then get out of the way of the game. Not to say I didn’t enjoy the richer storyline of the later games quite a bit. But in the first game, story was clearly secondary to gameplay, priorities which were reversed (or at least brought into parity) in the later titles. And so they fell back on conventions and simple, archetypical characters as a shorthand to the player to avoid lengthy exposition and character development for a pretty wide cast. So you had the “by-the-book” warrior lady, the older retiring “mother hen” guy who looks out for you, the ballsy seat-of-the-pants veteran, the reckless hotshot with something to prove, etc.

It works. A game has to function as a game. If it fails as a game (or just as “interactive entertainment” – maybe even calling it a “game” is too narrow), it may not matter how unique and creative the story is – I’d have been better off watching a movie.

I think the important thing to remember is that there are times to build upon the foundation of convention, and there are times that you need to push the boundaries and try something new. The conventions can provide a good starting point. And those very constraints can in many ways become the mother of invention and the source of creativity, giving designers a framework for their ideas.

But most importantly, it gives games solid, familiar ground to stand or fall back to even while we are exploring something new and wonderful.


Filed Under: Design, Strategy Games - Comments: 7 Comments to Read

  • skavenhorde said,

    “I think the important thing to remember is that there are times to build upon the foundation of convention, and there are times that you need to push the boundaries and try something new.”

    This is what makes great games a combination of both originality and convention. Maybe not a triple A blockbuster hit, but a truly great game none-the-less.

    Take Arcanum for example. You have a lot of familiar sites and sounds. You had orcs, elves, dark elves, familiar magic spells (sorta), familiar character classes and a somewhat cliche plot (big bad foozle is coming), but then they turned that on its head by putting it in a steampunk setting. The plot also had a few nice twists in it and the quests were unique to the setting. Not all of them, but quite a few used that setting to good effect. By simply putting all those familiar and safe things we know and enjoy in a completely new setting it felt like a breath of fresh air.

    There is also another that I remember fondly for the uniqueness yet still being able to grasp what was going on and that’s Albion. It was wonderfully strange exploring a new planet with all of its different creatures and environments, but then it was also familiar as well. There was magic, character classes I could understand, quests that went well with the setting and basically everything I just described for Arcanum, but taken to the next level. God I loved that game.

    Looking back now these aren’t blockbusters or Troika would still be around and Albion would have gotten a sequel, but still they were great games.

    There is one AAA game that I know of that combines the familiar with the new in a wonderful way and that’s The Witcher. So I hope The Witcher 2 makes millions and we see some many more of these kinds of games.

    Tossing AAA aside you have a ton of these kinds of games from indies. My favorite being the Geneforge series from Vogel. He takes everything we know and plops it smack dab in a completely new setting. Another great game.

    Of course there are the others that are in the works as well like AOD, Dead State and Frayed Knights (of course) to name just a few. Once again they have the same old stuff we know and put it in a new setting or gave it some kind of twist to make it their own.

  • McTeddy said,

    I actually had this talk with someone a few years ago. It started because I mentioned that I enjoyed Final Fantasy 3( japan – 6) and 9… while he was preferred 7. We ended up with a two hour long discussion that enlightened me.

    The game’s that I preferred were very cliche. It didn’t take me long to realize that psychopath Kefka was an evil clown. Within the first 10 minutes, I knew that Locke was a misunderstood thief who had a soft spot for women. The characters were all very easy to understand… it wasn’t until late game that you learn that the characters have depth.

    The cliche’s allowed me to quickly feel at home in these new worlds. Once I felt at home, It was easy to stay immersed in the story and the characters.

    Final Fantasy 7 on the other hand… was unique. I needed to learn about Mako… and Avalanche and Cloud’s checkered past to understand why he is so annoying… It took me so long to feel comfortable here… that it didn’t have the same impact. Instead, my memories of the game are often based on the boring learning the lingo parts rather than the “Amazing” story.

    Besides, using your Wing commander example… they used so little text… yet… I developed actual emotional opinions of the characters.
    -Paladin was a good man and a decent pilot but he likes the sound of his voice too much. I’m fine with war stories in the bar… but when I’m getting shot at… I need to focus!
    -Maniac… he’s a great asset… but seriously… he scares me. His love of charging capital ships and disobeying my order to retreat when he’s on fire… just… wow.
    – Spirit was my wing of choice. Quiet… calm… careful… precise… there was no one else I wanted to fly with. I knew that if she spoke I needed to listen and I knew that she would follow my orders.

    The fact that I can develop actual emotional bonds without needing to know everything.

    Besides, many of my friendships can be based around cliches. We’ve got the coder-friend who always shows off his new tech demos. We’ve got the gamer girl with a short temper and a heart of gold. Heck… I can be summed up as the lovable jack*** who always shows up when the chips are down.

    Sure… there is more to people than a cliche… but cliches are a good way to create an instant connection.

  • Jacob said,

    Short side-note: the author of the cliche article is hacker dilettante extrordinaire, Eric S. Raymond. Yes, *that* Eric S. Raymond… 🙂

  • Jaes said,

    I absolutely loathe cliches. All games, story-driven or not, need to feel fresh to be interesting, IMO. Conventions and archetypes are fine, sometimes great, but please, developers, stay clear of cliches 🙂

    I’m not saying it’s always possible to completely avoid cliches, but I think it should be every creative persons goal to creative something at least partly unique. It doesn’t do anyone any good to allow cliches as a “rule”. Not the gamers, and not the medium. There are so many games to chose from, old or new, that I think most people can’t be bothered with too many cliches. And it keeps the medium from evolving.

  • Jaes said,

    EDIT: “…but I think it should be every creative persons goal to *create*…”

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    Cliche is perhaps the wrong word… I’d attempt to explain but TV Tropes has it covered!

    Tropes are tools: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TropesAreTools

    and in particular the first quote on that page:
    “The reason that clichés become clichés is that they are the hammers and screwdrivers in the toolbox of communication.”
    —Terry Pratchett, Guards! Guards!

    And on a more personal note, I love the Sierra adventure games for their often inventive uses of such tropes, Quest for Glory for example has a mixture of subverted tropes and those played straight. When done well, you’ll never mind, but when done badly they can tarnish a game.

    Ultima is a great example of tropes done well, the basic setting is at times completely unremarkable, and yet in the details and evolution of the series it became so much more than where it started.

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    Tricky subject. Cliches can definitely be tools, but those same cliches can be lazy hacks in other hands.

    Truly original and innovative stories or games often fail because they try to do too much on their own, so cliches can be good if used originally and with a care to make the details and implications of their use all the author’s own.

    Arcanum is a great example. I definitely support the shout-out to a great game. It made me wonder why more games haven’t moved elves and orcs and magic out of the Middle Ages. What about modern times? What about prehistoric times? We’ve seen one version of the future with them in the Shadowrun games.

    Using elves and orcs is still a cliche, but it becomes a bit more palatable and interesting when the “what if” isn’t “What would Tolkien’s Middle Earth look like with more dragons?” and instead, “What would Tolkien’s Middle Earth look like after an industrial revolution? Or 1000 years of technological progress?”

    I always thought White Wolf’s World of Darkness was an interesting setting, despite indulging in massive cliches. That was almost its entire point – “What if all the dark and horrible stories and myths were all true? How would that work? How would the world be different?” So in a way, it was an extrapolation of what the world could be like if all those cliches were unabashedly true.

    Even if we wanted to avoid cliches entirely as authors, we never could. Almost every story in existence is a version of the Hero’s Journey. It’s even been said that we’ve been telling and using the same seven plots for thousands of years – we just change the details around.

    I think perhaps the most important thing is for an author or designer to be AWARE of any cliches they are using, and employ them purposefully.

    The real trouble arises when authors use them as a “paint-by-numbers” for easy (lazy) stories. Or even worse, when authors employ cliches and don’t even realize it, believing their story to be some miracle of creativity and originality unseen in the world.

    I believe cliches are disliked because “familiarity breeds contempt” as they say, and we are exposed to the same cliches from childhood on. We all have a first time exposure to a cliche, when it was brand new to us, and probably liked. Good authors give us those feelings back – they dress up cliches so that they seem new once more, if only for a little while.