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New Plot Devices Needed

I am sometimes often accused of being too critical when I judge gameplay mechanics. For example, while I understand that an invisible wall is sometimes the best way to limit a player’s movement, generally I find them to be a product of lazy game design. I also think it is cheap to temporarily take away a player’s abilities during an encounter just to make it more difficult (like removing Ezio’s ability to use “acrobatics” in Assassin’s Creed: Revelations or decreasing the player’s health in Bioshock).

I feel the same accusation mounting as I write this, but I cannot help it. For a while now I have felt that games lack a certain amount of creativity in their plots. It was difficult for me to put my finger on it exactly, but I felt like I encountered the same story in every game I played, even though they were very different at first glance. After I thought about it, though, I realized that there are two plot devices that are far too common: zombies and super weapons.

Try and think for a moment of a game you have recently played that has used zombies or super weapons. I bet it is not difficult to do. It feels like they are everywhere these days. Need a new “twist” for the player to fight? Just add zombies! How about some ultimate evil the player needs to stop? A super weapon will do the trick!

I decided to compile a list of games I have played recently that used either (or both) of these elements, intentionally leaving out games where the main focus is zombies (like Dead Island or Left 4 Dead).




The FloodHalo

Steelport ZombiesSaints Row

HusksMass Effect

Crazed WorkersDeus Ex


LambentGears of War

Infested MarineStarcraft

ZombiesBorderlands: Zombie Island of Dr. Ned

Hollow MenFable

UndeadRed Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare

I am sure the list goes on and on. The reason I dislike zombies so much is not because they were poorly thought out or poorly implemented in these games. For example, I am a big fan of the Halo series and the level which introduced the Flood, 343 Guilty Spark, scared the crap out of me the first time I played it. The Flood were easily my most hated enemy in Halo: Combat Evolved. No, the reason I dislike them so much is (if you will excuse the pun) because they have been done to death. A game designer can take any enemy and turn it into a zombie relatively easily.

Zombie-type enemies are simply not engaging enough. Applicable to all of the above examples, zombies are twisted versions of an enemy already seen in the game and their only strength comes from their numbers. A better way to make enemies more interesting is increasing their AI or giving them a weakness which is difficult to exploit. I have recently played Borderlands and I focused on playing as a Sniper. Each enemy has a weak spot. Humans have head shots which are relatively easy to hit, but dog-like creatures called Skags only expose their weakness when opening their mouths to growl at you. Spiderants are heavily armored from the front but their abdomen, which is completely obscured if the spiderant is facing you, provides a weak spot. Hitting a spiderant in the head will cause it to become dazed and spin slightly, exposing the abdomen. Simply spawning a lot of enemies is a cheap and easy way to increase the difficulty but it really ends up reflecting poorly from a gameplay standpoint.


Super Weapons



Deathwing’s Cataclysm Spell – World of Warcraft

CrucibleMass Effect

Reorigination DeviceWorld of Warcraft

Xel’naga deviceStarcraft II: Wings of Liberty

I dislike super weapons for a similar reason. It just feels so cheap. It is as though the game designers wrote themselves into a corner story-wise and needed to come up with an escape. “Crap, the player is up against truly big odds. We need something so powerful that the entire game hinges on its control.”

Again, using Halo as an example, while I really liked the game, the entire Halo array seems too much of a stretch even for a science fiction game. It is essentially a system of ring-worlds spread across the galaxy that wipe out most life when activated. Not all life mind you, just the life with sufficient biomass and cognitive capabilities to serve as potential hosts for the parasitic life form known as the Flood. How does it work? Who knows? It sure is convenient though.

The Crucible from Mass Effect 3 is even less believable. It has the power to re-write the DNA of all organic and synthetic life in the galaxy? Huh? What does that even mean? At the end of the day, whenever I see super weapons like this used I get a little sad. Their control is a handy objective to rally to, I get it, but it would be nice if a little more thought was put into the story.

Come on game developers! Stop using these simple and convenient plot devices and come up with something that has more depth instead. Gamers would appreciate it more than you may think.

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  1. While I agree that these concepts are overused as plot devices, I also consider why these things are so scary to us in the first place.

    First, zombies. We are inherently afraid of losing our minds and being controlled by other people. Becoming one of the masses is, in essence, really scary, especially in a society that is focused on individuality. (There is obviously some irony to be found here.)

    Super Weapons are obviously nukes. But it probably comes from our desire to be the only ones with the big bad weapons, instead of letting the enemy have them. Nuclear war is a very complex issue that really can’t be boiled down to one simple Darwinian concept, but I think that there is a Darwinian concept to these mega-weapon devices. It’s a very real fear in our current world, and is thus reflected in our culture.

    This is why you won’t see much originality until our society finds something new to fear. Unfortunately, catering to one small fear that only a small group of people share is just not good business, even if it may be good art. Additionally, fear of becoming mindless and a fear that the other guy has the bigger gun is somewhat timeless, though possibly cyclical.

  2. Something else to keep in mind for zombies…why do they keep coming back to zombies?

    Because they are a huge horror trend. Walking Dead is the perfect example. Culture wants zombies.

    So any smart business person will pump out as much zombie related material as possible.

    I know Borderlands and Red Dead were expansions, added after the fact to capitalize on zombies. They weren’t part of the original game and more put out as a “hey, like zombies, you’ll love this”.

    Just something to keep in mind. Demand drives the market. Until the majority of people stop enjoying things with zombies in them, you’ll continue to see zombies.

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