Their Answering Machine is Our Amnesia

The film world sticks to a plot device that grows increasingly implausible as time marches on.

In film (and teevee), nobody checks their phone messages like a normal human being. Here in Canada, you pay the phone company for the Call Answer service. Messages are recorded silently through your phone. To check your messages, you put the receiver to your ear and navigate a little audio maze, usually pushing “1” to listen to messages, and maybe “7” to delete them. Then you hang up.

But of course, if you are in a movie, nobody will know that you just received word that the President has been kidnapped.

Bad Dudes shirt

Yes. Yes, i am.


Similarly, imagine you are lying in bed crying because the sinewy window cleaner you’ve been dating has just admitted to cheating on you with your snarly rival from that high-profile fashion magazine. In real life, when he calls, your phone rings once or twice, and then he is “forwarded to an automatic voice message service”, and told that “[Fiesty Female Protagonist] is not available”. He’s resigned to leaving a message on your modern-day Call Answer service. But the audience can’t hear any of this.

So instead, you have an old-school answering machine that actually broadcasts all incoming calls through its speakers, live, while the machine tapes them. “Diana … Diana, are you there? … C’mon – pick up, Diana. Allison lied to you. There’s nothing going on between us.” (The camera, at this point, is focussed on the machine, with you writhing in emotional agony on the bed in the background, out of focus.)

Answering Machine

Behold: the phuture.

So here’s the deal: in our modern-day, post-1993 society, no one owns an answering machine like that. It’s a complete contrivance cooked up by film and teevee writers to let the audience in on the action, and it’s ridiculous. You might as well show your protagonist churning her own butter to demonstrate that she’s dilligent. Attention writers: we don’t churn butter any more. Whenever i see one of those answering machines in a movie (and indeed, WHENEVER a character checks messages in a movie, it’s on one of those machines), suspension of disbelief is RUINED. Thanks for NOTHING, Hollywood. i want my thirteen bucks back.

Thank goodness GAMES don’t have any hackneyed contrivances like the answering machine, huh?

Oh wait. They do.

Keeping Up with the Forgetful Joneses

If i were to pick the single most overused, implausible storytelling device in video games, it’s retrograde amnesia. The cast of video game characters who start their adventures not knowing who they are or where they came from stretches on for miles. i found a partial list over at Giant Bomb. It’s so rampant that it’s enough to make me NOT want to play a game. i know that if i start into an adventure where the playable character has amnesia, the rest of the game’s writing may be similarly uninspired.

Forgetful Jones

I can’t remember the last video game i played without amnesia as a plot element. Dig Dug?

A nearly comparable offense is to start your character off grossly underpowered. Everyone likes an underdog story, and many games slowly introduce abilities as the player progresses, but DAMN, folks … when i start playing an RPG, and my character is a pasty-white androgynous skinny kid with spiky hair and a wooden spoon, i sarcastically say to myself “Gee – i WONDER if he’s going to get mega-powerful and dragonpunch Satan in the face by the time this thing ends?”

Answer: yes.

Credit Where Credit is Due

So i need to offer my props to a few games i can think of that don’t commit this sin: Banjo Tooie, where the bear and bird start with all of the moves they learned in the first game; Final Fantasy IV, where the main character is a well and respected Dark Knight who knows a thing or two about wielding a wooden spoon; Full Throttle, where you begin and end as a badass biker; and … maybe Shadow of the Colossus, where you are required to complete the entire game using your God-given gifts, and can only unlock extra items and powers on successive play-throughs.

Ben from Full Throttle

Ben. (Props to concept artist Alex Thomas)

i’m sure you can think of better examples! If you dare to defend amnesia in video games, lay it on me. OR: What’s your favourite game where your character DOESN’T start out as an underpowered know-nothing?

8 thoughts on “Their Answering Machine is Our Amnesia

    1. Ryan

      Jimmy – are those amnesia games, or powerful-starting-character games? One day, ima write that Satan-punching game just for you.

  1. Jim McBoyMan

    Resident Evil 1 – You’re Jill Valentine, a master of unlocking stuck in Racoontown!

    School Daze – You’re Eric, a troublesome imp stuck in school!

    Tomb Raider 1 – You’re Lara Croft, a british archaeologist stuck in a tomb!

    Mirror’s Edge – You’re Faith, a bike courier stuck in an extremely clean city!

    VVVVVV – You’re Victor (I think), a reversing kangaroo stuck on some strange planet!

    Robotron – You’re LL Cool J, a namesless superhuman stuck saving the last human family!

    Powerful Starting Character OF COURSE!
    If you make the punch-Satan-in-the-FACE game, can I be Wolverine
    (the godfather of all amnesia characters)?

  2. Bwakathaboom

    Although in Resident Evil you start off as an “elite counter-terrorism task force” member WITH NO DECENT GUNS! *Street cops* start their day with a sidearm, tazer / pepper spray, baton AND a shotgun in the car. In RE you have to go through half the game before you can get a decent rifle.

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