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Saturday Soapbox: Loathing the Enemy

Tom's surprised that gaming's henchmen still fall below par.

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.

There she is. Always ahead, whether she deserves it or not.

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.

This guy goes underground to escape your attacks. Nowt you can do about it.

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.