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Article - 'In Defense of the Cliché' by Mad Hatter

An item about Game Design posted on Nov 29, 2004

Blurb

Newton gives an excellent discourse on why gamemakers shouldn't be intimidated into not including clichés in their games. What's the real problem with clichéd games?

Body

Those of us who hang around the Game Ideas forum (And probably even those who don’t) have all seen the kinds of stories I’m thinking about. Sword-wielding teenagers who leave town with their best friends and a girl they’ve known since childhood, who’s probably a healer or a mage or something, to meet their destiny and save the world from an evil long-forgotten/sealed away/reborn/etc baddie. Occasionally you’ll see thrown into the mix wicked corporations, amnesiac ninjas, superfluous Japanese names, and any number of features lifted from the Final Fantasy series. Yes, these are the kind of stories that I aim to defend.

There have been articles written before that discuss the cliché, but most just say to avoid it, and sometimes give some tips on how to do so. What I’m saying is, if you want to make a cliché game, make it. That’s right. Throw your prohibitions to the wind and create a story about a little boy name Koji whose entire village was mercilessly slaughtered by bandits, and now that he’s older he picks up his blade to seek revenge against the evildoers, who incidentally want to revive the ancient demon Vargtholgothaiye and destroy the universe. I for one won’t think any less of you for it.

There is a basic assumption that if its been done before, it's bad. Ultimately I think this stems from the belief that if there is one common element with another game, there will be others. If we see a game that starts out in an all-too-familiar manner, we expect it to progress in one as well. No one wants to play a game that’s just a rehash of something they’ve played before, so if an idea feels the least bit derivative, it’s roundly condemned. But if there is such a bias against unoriginality, why so many cliché storylines? Players, I think it can be said, want a new experience, and not a story they’ve been through already. Makers, on the other hand, oftentimes want to recreate the experience they had making a game. They want to make a game that ‘feels’ like the game they just played, so they incorporate elements from it into the game they’re making. Other times, clichés pop up out of habit. Many commercial RPGs have common storylines and characters, so when someone whose played a lot of them goes to think up their story, they write what they know, so to speak. Protagonists become teenage swordsman and antagonists ancient embodiments of evil because, well, that’s what they always are.

Gamemakers drift toward clichés, and players run screaming from them. Most people’s response to this dilemma would just be to tell the makers to ‘be more original’ with their game ideas. There is another solution however, one that in part has to do with how these ideas are received when they’re posted on this forum. Imagine someone posts a story oozing with cliché. What sort of replies will they get? For the most part, replies that suggest he/she drop the idea and come up with something new. Surely understandable, no one wants to play a knock-off of a game they’ve already played. But will that necessarily be the case? As I mentioned earlier, there is this assumption we make that if what’s posted about a game bears a striking resemblance to another game, then the rest will be similar as well. To put it simply, if someone makes a post in which their intro is just like Final Fantasy VII, then people will assume it will end like FFVII as well. I won’t argue this, I think it’s a reasonable assumption, but on the other hand, that’s all it is. As easily as you can say, “If it starts out like Secret of Mana, it will end like Secret of Mana,” you can also say, “Just because it starts out like Secret of Mana, it doesn’t have to end up like it too.” And that’s the sort of assumption that should inform our comments to these kinds of plots. What’s posted will be cliché, and its our task to help the poster make it evolve into something that isn’t (or, even if it remains cliché, at least something that will be fun to play).

This is what I mean when I talk about defending cliché ideas. Instead of shooting the ideas down, we cultivate them. Let’s look at an example, say the teenager with the sword, who’s an orphan and doesn’t remember his past. Rather than discarding this character, let’s make him more interesting. One method would be to introduce a twist- maybe his parents aren’t dead, and in fact they are the ones who stole his memory from him, because they didn’t want him to know who he was/didn’t want him to know his parents/wanted him to forget a traumatic event. Perhaps he had a sister to whom he was very close, and she was killed in front of him. His parents went after the killer and left him with friends, erasing his memory (Through magic or whatever) so he wouldn’t have to suffer knowing his sister was murdered. Alternately, we could abandon the twist, and just add more details. There are any number of ways that this young man could have been orphaned- disease, famine, war, accident, suicide, etc; likewise there are a number of possibilities surrounding how he could have lost his memory. More importantly, there are countless ways one could choose to have this character deal with these events. Does he want to find out what happened in his past? Or would he rather just live out his life peacefully and let sleeping dogs lie? It’s very important to pay attention to decisions such as these, as they will strongly affect how your game shapes out.

It is not clichés that ruin plotlines, it’s shallowness. Any cliché (Any idea period, actually) can be brought up from the depths of suckation if enough detail and attention is invested in it. What’s truly ‘bad’ about the clichés mentioned in the opening paragraph is not that they’re overused, but that they’re superficial. If you wish to create an effective plot, worry less about being original and more about being specific. The greater the level of detail in the game, the better. Likewise, we who post comments to these ideas should care less about whether we’ve seen the idea before, and more about helping the gamemaker evolve the idea into something interesting.