In Defense of Explosive Barrels

I’m always a little confused when people talk about “realism” in games. Maybe it started with Old Man Murray’s famous screed about the medium’s overreliance on crates.

As comedy, this kind of analysis works. More worrying, though, is when players, critics and designers decide that the conceits of the medium, or of a particular genre, should be excised in the name of “realism.”

The classic elemental environments (fire level, ice level, etc.) have already fallen out of favor. Characters being obstructed by knee-high fences is unforgivable in the era of open-world games. RPG loot drops must be rationalized because a celebrity game designer noticed that birds don’t carry swords. And the explosive barrel – stalwart vetran of FPS design – is now seen as a ridiculous affront to realism.

What the detractors fail to acknowledge is that explosive barrels are fun. Very fun. I’d go so far as to say that the explosive barrel is one of the fundamental elements in the Periodic Table of Interactivity.

Just trying to enumerate the possible uses for a well-realized explosive barrel (like the version in Half-Life 2) reveals how much interactivity is packed into each:

The barrel is a physics object, and thus can be stacked or climbed upon. It can be thrown with the game’s gravity gun, wherupon it explodes on impact, providing an impromptu grenade launcher. It can be exploded with a burst of gunfire, but a few careful shots with the pistol will start it burning, creating a timed explosive used by player and enemy alike. Finally, the barrel can be triggered by other explosions, leading to the possibilty of chain reactions engineered by the level designer, or savvy players.

The explosive barrel is a powerful tool of player expression. It elevates the vocabulary afforded to the FPS player beyond just “point” and “shoot.”

I could go on raving about the merits of the explosive barrel, or describe how other “unrealistic” conceits like elemental levels/abilities or double-jumping benefit their respective genres, but I hope my point is clear.

These “cliches” persist because they are more fun than the monotonous grey “realism” of so many of today’s games.

[Note: I do give the TV Tropes site credit for understanding that tropes are not bad. Now we just need to get the players out there to understand it.]


I have been neglectful of my nascent blog since the beginning, but now I have an excuse. Just over a month ago, I became a father.

Having spent a month at home with my wife, and falling in love with baby Morganne has been an amazing experience. Even though many people had told me what to expect, I was completely unprepared for what an exhilarating and terrifying endeavor it is to be responsible for a new life (in every sense of the word).

I’m back at work now, which I’m sure will present its own challenges for the new parents. Whether this bodes well or ill for the prospect of further posts, I do not know.