Pretty much since I was a child, video games have been full of jerks. Donkey Kong? What a prick. Super Mario Kart? Full of jerks. I wasn't that familiar with the expression "climb a wall of dicks" when I was 10 years old, but if I had been then I would have directed it in Princess Peach's direction almost as often as I burst into tears because she pipped me to the line on Rainbow Road.
Things haven't changed. In the last few weeks I've completed Duke Nukem Forever and inFamous 2, and even though there's probably more than a decade between the "last modified" dates on their respective design documents, they are both full of jerks. There are jerks who fly around, jerks who burrow under the ground so you can't hit them, and jerks who sidestep just as you fire. In the last case, it's as though the developers recognised the fact that fine aiming with an analogue stick is a bit fiddly so they honed in on that particular enemy motion as a way of keeping their little jerky jerks out of danger. In fact I bet that is what happened.
What amazes me about all this, I guess, is that this is a creative medium which is almost always in the spotlight for putting out game after game about shooting things in the face, and yet even though it's more than 20 years since I started playing games I still can't play two of the things in a row without running into poorly designed or otherwise irritating enemies.
It's not the fact that bad guys put up a fight that bothers me so much, but the fact that they seem to have been designed from the perspective of frustrating the player's progress. The ice ninja dudes you run into halfway through inFamous 2, for example, can spring a hundred feet into the air in a split second, usually just as you're about to land a killing blow. The only thing that this achieves is to make the player angry. "Hey! Why don't you climb a wall of dicks while you're up there, jerks!"
The reason it bothers me so much is that video game developers have gotten really quite amazingly good at almost everything else in those 20 or so years. Look at what else I've been playing lately, like Portal 2, a genuine video game comedy, and L.A. Noire, a troubling police procedural. As for inFamous 2, it may not be perfect, but it absolutely nails the superhero comic book ending, whichever moral path you choose, and if I play something for 20 hours and the last thing it leaves with me is a grin plastered across my face then I think we're getting somewhere.
So it doesn't make sense to me that we have people smart enough to solve engineering challenges like creating an interactive city from scratch, and yet they haven't noticed that it's irritating when your superhero has to hide behind bins half the time because he's liable to be shredded by the first ditsy henchman with a popgun into whose cone of vision he's unfortunate enough to trespass.
Nowadays developers win endless brownie points with the press and gamers when they come up with a neat way of enhancing our enjoyment in some way we hadn't considered - like Valve's ongoing background efforts to guide our eyes towards things we need to see without resorting to a clumsy "Something's Happening" button prompt, or Skyrim's nested menus that condense a lot of inventory management into just a few screens and clicks - so why can't our enemies be designed to complement our entertainment as well?
Splinter Cell: Conviction and Batman: Arkham Asylum are both examples of games that are already getting this right. In both cases the player-character is a silent predator with an arsenal of gadgets that allow us to stalk people and stylishly incapacitate them, and in both cases the developers decided that the rank-and-file bad guys should therefore be smart but generally dopey enough to wander into dangerous territory quite frequently. In Splinter Cell's case they even have the decency to howl hilariously repetitive dialogue into the gloom to help give up their positions, which is nice of them. SHOW US HOW YOU DID IT AT THE AIRFIELD, FISHER. They are food for the hungry jaws of sexy game mechanics and little more, and I kind of love them for it.
Then of course there's the Metal Gear Solid series, where not only are your enemies generally there to be savoured rather than chewed over unhappily, but even the bosses are memorable for good reasons most of the time. Who didn't gasp when they first figured out Psycho Mantis?
So it can be done, and if any forward-thinking developers are reading this (and not grinding their teeth and wondering who the hell I think I am for telling them their business), then I've got a good starter checklist for things that I would personally like to see enshrined in enemy design from now on.
Here we go. First, does your enemy's health bar ever replenish itself at any point without warning? Then he is a jerk. Does he teleport behind the player? Then he is a jerk. Does he respawn when you exit and then re-enter the room? Then he is a jerk. Is he impervious to an attack that has worked on every other enemy in the game and only succumbs to an obscure tactic you vaguely mentioned in the tutorial and haven't asked us to think about for the last nine hours since? Jerk.
I love video games. I have been playing them since I could barely walk, I have made a career leeching off their popularity and it's beginning to look as though I will continue to enjoy and be amazed by them until long after things like the Daily Mail are dead, which is a nice bonus. But please stop filling them full of jerks. I will tell my children about Psycho Mantis. I will not tell them about that guy who burrows under the ground and pops up behind me. The power is in your hands.