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Gamer Limit user Keith commented last week about Red Dead Redemption’s hydrophobic protagonist, whose life is extinguished without warning whenever he encounters water more than, oh, waist high. If you’re anything like me, your first time discovering this was accidental, maybe stumbling off of a dock. In my case, the next moments were spent staring at my screen asking, “Really?”

I actually find myself asking the question “How is this still acceptable?” rather often when I’m playing games. There are certain design flaws or failings that just seem like they should have been fixed eons ago, yet they still crop up, and often in some extremely high quality titles. So let’s all put on our bastard hats and tear into those design flaws that are well and truly unacceptable.

As I alluded to before the break, I have quite a long list of gameplay, graphical, or even sound quirks that I can no longer abide. But what is freshest in my memory is a thought I had multiple times during my time with Alan Wake, staring with the very first enemy I defeated. As the shadowy figure approached, I lined up a shot with my revolver, trained right upon his dome, and pulled the trigger. The bullet found its mark, yet the foe continued to stumble  toward me.

Perhaps it is unfair to Alan Wake since the game’s combat involves foes that aren’t quite human, but the vast majority of recent games involving gunplay have taught me to always shoot for the head. Years ago, in a world that didn’t know Splinter Cell: Conviction, with its immensely rewarding headshot opportunities, I might not have cared that the gameplay seemed predicated more on the number of bullets you put into your enemies than where you put them.

Yet the fact still remains that, for me, any enemy that cannot be killed with a headshot just seems completely unacceptable to me (discounting ten-story-tall ape monster things and all that). It’s an issue that is severe enough to take the fun out of shooting for me. If I know that it doesn’t matter where I’m aiming, why bother being strategic with my aiming at all? Soon enough, the shooting becomes mindless, and I find myself utterly unentertained, which for videogames is, well, a problem.

The issue extends far beyond headshots, though. Many games, like Red Dead Redemption, have systems in place to ensure that any shot you land upon an opponent is tactile: in essence, you can feel the impact through the reaction of the enemy. It’s not a matter of a little blood spray, but rather a complex series of calculations that analyze the area of impact and make the enemy character model react appropriately.

What would Red Dead Redemption be without the ability to shoot a fleeing thief in the leg to give you a chance of catching up and lassoing him? While the game is not perfect in that respect (enemies shot in the chest sometimes just seem to dance around like they have a snake in their boots), many of the game’s most memorable moments would be impossible without the ability to shoot enemies and really feel that your bullets have an effect on them beyond reducing some hidden health counter. And who remembers Soldier of Fortune? I’m pretty sure that without being able to shoot arms and legs off, that game would have been no fun at all.

I think it’s a main reason I’m unable to find much joy in playing games like Gears of War, in which shooting an enemy doesn’t seem to have much noticeable effect aside from sprays of blood. While it’s deeper than the “how many bullets” scenario I presented earlier, playing the game often does feel more like a matter of shooting as many bullets as possible rather than caring where they end up. And, sad to say, this just isn’t fun for me anymore. I need the game to recognize that, yes, the impact of a bullet has some serious force to it, and a body should react accordingly.

So, for me, any form of bulletspongeism is unacceptable behavior. Games have done and should do better than this, and those that don’t are glaringly transparent in this failing. Of course, there’s the exception of the multiplayer online shooter, but even in this case I hope for improvement. An online shooter that employed not only headshot realism (which has rightfully been the standard in most games for a long time now) but also appropriate limb feedback would be quite the accomplishment. The game that lets bullets trip your online adversaries yet does not ruin every bit of fun in the process will be worthy of some high praise indeed.

Until then, just don’t make me shoot a dude in the head three times to kill him.

  1. Bulletspongeism is a great word; that and enemies impervious to headshots really must go.

    A short list of some unacceptable behaviors: escort AI that doesn’t take cover (i.e. ALL escort AI), unpauseable and unskippable cutscenes, enemies that go on alert and then just forget you killed their buddy and go back to patrolling the same pattern, having items or quest plot points you have to gain/complete in order to get an ultimate weapon that are locked off from you because you didn’t know you were supposed to look in that one bookshelf in that one house in that one town 23 hrs. ago, and now they won’t let you return to that area. Any gameplay item that is a game changer that isn’t accessible through a reasonable amount of player exploration, or necessitates a FAQ to get it is UNACCEPTABLE.

    Why is this blood vessel sticking out on my forehead? Off to do some deep breathing.

  2. avatar Ferahtsu

    My biggest issue with video games is a complete lack of in-game common sense. I’m referring to obstacle navigation that results with the game character running in place because he/she can’t figure out how to step over a ledge lower than their knee, apparently not even to save their own lives. This is most apparent in Bad Company 2. Who has ever tried running out of a building through a hole in the wall? Why can’t these “soldiers” clear a 5 in. ledge? I’m able to step over anything up to my knee effortlessly, so why can’t these in-game trained soldiers of war step over a brick?!

    There’s also those trees that trap you.

  3. I have to make a counterpoint here: sometimes, actually frequently, games are designed to avoid realism in order to make the experience tenable, if not what we would expect for realism. Your comment on headshots is a good example of this. During the design phase for Team Fortress 2, Valve intentionally disabled headshots for everyone except those wielding specialized weapons (i.e., Snipers). Their reasoning? Players would spend their time trying to aim for the head rather than actually complete objectives, making the game less fun.

    While it would seem preferable to have games mirror our own experience (or what we would expect to happen, given very few of us have actually shot something), sometimes changing reality is just a good design choice. Interesting article nonetheless.

  4. The only note I’ll make is that, while extremely spammy, Gears of War *does* have hitboxes and headshots do impose significantly more damage than chest shots.

  5. This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. I agree with the Red Dead drowning issue – it strikes me as a lazy way of avoiding programming swim mechanics. One of my pet hates is disappearing bodies; if it was possible to avoid this last generation then surely it’s unacceptable today, and anyone who argues that it can cause memory problems and can be detrimental to things like graphics only needs to play a game such as Fallout 3 to see that it’s entirely possible to have a game that looks stunning whilst having corpses that remain through to the very end of your game. Also, invisible walls can be a major annoyance – in my opinion it’s okay to have a small wall or some other visual reference of boundaries but to just have an invisible wall is again lazy and unnecessary.

  6. avatar Burt

    Funny you should mention SC: Conviction: the one thing that *really* shat me about that game is that on ‘Realistic’ difficulty, headshots didn’t always work towards the end. The enemy were wearing helmets, which is all well and good, but the problem is exacerbated by the fact that *two* headshots would put them down, every time, without question. If the first shot doesn’t leave them lying on the ground writhing in agony, why would the second shot be a guaranteed kill?

  7. avatar Wilner

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  8. avatar Yeah, They Do Behave Inappropriately

    There are still a number of “flaws of rules” in video games today. Some of my favourites include:
    1) Followers/support characters that for example, spring traps (as in Skyrim, which I love nevertheless)

    2) Underpowered weapons (Gears of War, anyone?)

    3) Overpowered weapons

    4) Artificial Idiotism (Skyrim’s sneak system)

    5) Enemies spawning out of nowehere (COD), come on, I literally remember shooting about two hundred virtual Wehrmacht soldiers as they kept spawning to a single location in COD 2. Pretty stupid.

    6) Cranking up the difficulty and lengthening the game by giving the player unthematic and maddening reaction tests and QTE’s to clear. These include God (awful) of War with its redundant hack and slash paced with annoying jumps and climbing sequences that require absolutely perfect timing. Also Resident Evil 4 with its QTE’s that interrupt game’s movie scenes.

    7) Unrealism in modeling injury. No one climbs back on their feet after being shot with a large-calibre rifle to any part of the body. However, in many FPS-games enemies (and friends) do this.

    8) Invulnerable “essential” characters (TES IV, TES V, Fallout 3 etc.) and invulnerable friends who will survive anything until they are scripted to die.

    9) This is not a gameplay problem per se, but I hate games that first glorify violence and then try to condemn it,. For example Call of Duty World at War manages to be soppy sentimental and utterly stupid with its whole “The choice of killing wounded or surrendered is yours”-thing in the Soviet campaign. Whatever the player does, the Germans are always butchered, but if the player made “the right choices”, Pvt. Chernov will praise him in his diary. Pfft. Tasteless.

    Thanks for letting me rant.

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