Fridge Logic and Video Roleplaying Games

Fridge Logic,” for those of you who do not make a habit of reading TV Tropes (I’m sorry I just did linked that for you, by the way), is best described as “You see something happen, and at the time it was cool — but you realize later that it made no sense, really.”  This happens stereotypically when you’re at the fridge getting a snack later, so: Fridge Logic.  According to the above link — again, sorry that I’m almost forcing you to spend the next hour reading TV Tropes pages — this term was more or less coined by Alfred Hitchcock, so it’s actually a totally legitimate cultural reference, right?

Anyway: videogames in general have this problem all the time, and computer roleplaying games (RPGs) definitely have it.  The phenomenon is typically linked up with the Idiot Plot (I’m just going to stop apologizing now for linking to TV Tropes) to produce scenarios where either the player or the non-player characters (NPCs) do dumb things, and hopefully the player doesn’t think about them until afterward. To give but one example: player-characters (PCs) are always being handed time-critical and absolutely-sensitive combat, stealth, and/or diplomatic missions by people that they’ve just met, who the players don’t know, who have not explained the finer details of the situation, and who will never provide critical backup, or even do a background check. And if the player is lucky he can maybe respond to all of this with a snarky line of commentary off of the dialogue wheel.

Not that you’d want to play a game where every mission broke down to you explaining to your erstwhile boss that no, really, she should just activate the specially-trained, crack quick-reaction force that’s going to be suddenly available to attack you later in the game if you screw up something (or just for nebulous Reasons).  People want to blow stuff up and apply large amounts of kinetic energy to bad guys: that’s why people play action-based video games. And it’s also escapist, of course: delegating authority and responsibility typically doesn’t get those brain biochemicals flowing.  That’s all one half of it.

The other half of it?  Limitations of the medium. I’ve mentioned this before, and it bears repeating: you can get great sensory output out of a computer RPG, but tabletop RPGs allow you to improvise in a way that computer RPGs simply cannot. A computer video game is a complex digital machine — with an almost infinite number of moving parts that nobody can see. The more options that you put into one, the more opportunities you are giving one part of the machine to slam into another part and make the entire thing crash. And when a computer RPG crashes, it tends to also smash up into a million little digital pieces, too.

Is this actually a problem, though?  Yes, and no. Or no, and yes. In the ‘no’ column we should remember that people want to have fun, and although you’re expected to be thinking a bit more in computer RPGs the ultimate objective in anything resembling an action-based one  is typically to find an opponent and make his life bar go down while your bar stays the same. So it’s legitimately OK to keep the players caught up in the moment and running around accordingly. It really is.

But in the ‘yes’ column there’s this: falling back too often on Fridge Logic is not so much sloppy as it is an encouragement to be sloppy.  A computer RPG’s story that relies overmuch on “Don’t think about this too hard” runs the risk of not living up to its artistic potential — and, yes, RPGs count as a form of art, although you’re always going to get people who get upset if you say that.  Worse, if the game goes out and makes a ton of money anyway, the game’s inevitable imitators will likely assume that sloppy plotting is a virtue, and not an overcome obstacle. It’s like the fetch quest (“Go get me twenty rat tails, and don’t ask me why!”): nobody likes them, but some popular games used them.  And game designers that wanted to make popular games used them, too.  The entire thing snowballed, so by now fetch quests are practically traditional.

There’s a lesson there.