When videogames turn annoying

, | Features

Why is it doing this? It’s not stopping. Sure, a couple clacks would make sense because something mechanical has happened and that’s a sound mechanical happenings make. Clack. But why is it continuing to happen? Why is it an ongoing thing?


This is utterly insufferable. It’s drowning out everything else. Why won’t it shut up?


One of the latest tables for Pinball FX3 is Attack from Mars, which you might think is redundant with Earth Defense, a Zen Studios original that’s been part of the collection from the beginning. We aren’t told where the aliens who need to be defended against come from, so maybe Attack from Mars is a totally different invasion. And, really, there’s plenty of room among pinball table designs for overlapping theme. Pinball FX has the dozens of Star Wars tables to prove it.

But whereas Earth Defense is an early example of Zen Studios feeling their way into how to make pinball work in virtual space, Attack from Mars is a realworld table from 1995 that’s part of Zen’s latest — and greatest? — licensing deal. It doesn’t get a giant robot with a fancy LED faceplate. Instead, it gets historically accurate plastic figures of little green men pinned to the sides of the table. Martian invaders. And when an invasion happens, they don’t get to animate the way Zen’s Star Wars characters and superheroes animate. Instead, they jerk up and down to invoke the forward march of Martian invaders. The machinery inside the real world machine jerks them around with a cacophony of mechanical clacking noises. And Zen has faithfully made that part of the Attack from Mars table, because that’s what the table really did.

It’s incredibly annoying.


I hate how the noise drowns out everything else. Zen could have omitted the clacking sound, or even just lowered the volume. But they didn’t. In fact, it sounds like the audio mix leans into the noise. The little plastic figures jerking up and down are distracting because they’re not the usual flashing lights and drop targets that comprise movement on a pinball table. They’re chunks of inelegant plastic jostling around trying to draw my eye when I’m supposed to be watching the ball.


This makes me dread the invasion mode. It makes me really want to hit the dropdown targets that stop each plastic invader from jerking up and down. My reward for getting through this invasion isn’t just points; it’s also stopping that godawful clacking.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.


Annoyance can be a part of entertainment. Frustration is inherent in game design and recreation. Games are all about working out ways to overcome obstacles. Opposing armies, boss monsters, doors that are locked, treasure that’s hidden. Recreation often involves overcoming limitations. Golf would be so much easier if you just walked up and dropped the ball in the hole. Instead, you have to hit it with a stick until it rolls into the hole. Without the limitations, golf isn’t golf. Without the frustration, games aren’t games.

And annoyance can be part of that frustration. I couldn’t stand the cultists in Far Cry 5. The sneering Ubisoft overacting, the drawn-out “look how evil I am!” cutscenes, and especially the mandatory interruptions. The cutscenes in Far Cry 5 didn’t wait at a convenient checkpoint or scripting trigger. They shot you from offscreen with magical sleeping bullets that shut down whatever you were doing so you could watch one of the cultists preen and sneer and taunt you. I hated those guys. And that made the game better. I couldn’t care less about most videogame villains. But these guys? I couldn’t wait to kill them.

Negative emotions aren’t questioned in storytelling. On the contrary, they’re often celebrated. Tension, dread, suspense, sadness, loathing, disgust, fear. Horror is an entire genre devoted to negative emotions. I just saw Widows, a really effective thriller for how it makes you care about its characters and how it then imperils those characters. I had an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach the whole time. That was a feature, not a bug. Heck, even romantic comedies, the safest and least offensive of all genres, are supposed to make you sad about the obligatory third act breakup of the characters so you’ll be happy when they get back together at the end.

An important development in contemporary game design is a greater willingness for games to rely on negative emotions. The setbacks in Dark Souls, permadeath in roguelikes, limitations on fast travel, and inconvenient save points all have their place. And so do clacking mechanical sounds that will not shut up.