You know the devices, you can smell 'em coming from a mile away. Not the cliche surprise familial relations, end-of-the-world plot twists, cookie-cutter ninjas out for nonspecific revenge, or 4 Whatevers holding up the Thingamajig of Global Importance; I'm talking about recycled ideas of a much more subtle nature, the kind meant not to drive the plot but to manipulate the player.
They're easy to miss, and yet quite familiar on a very basic level. They use players in a way that they've been used several times before, sometimes without even knowing it. I'm talking about devices meant solely to heighten drama, enhance the atmosphere, or create tension, while adding little of substance to the situation at hand and often being wafer-thin on close examination. Allow me to highlight a few:
Log files of the DEEEEEEEEAD!: These can take many forms, but typically are viewed in a log book or computer file, whose author dictates events as they steadily progress from normal, to bad, to worse, to Armageddon. A rather recent example of this is Vampire: Bloodlines, which recycles the concept at least four times, three of which are virtually identical. The first time is creepy; the third is milking it. Look, buddy, I can see you're dead, and the sewers are full of monsters. You don't need to leave me a message stating that you've been killed by the monster, I can kinda figure that part out for myself.
Unspecific Capitalized Pronouns: Any time a bad guy or guys refer to an unspecified He or She, capitalized, the game is telegraphing that it has an ace up its sleeve, just in case you thought it was gonna be over the second you offed the first named bad guy you find. The question "Do you think He has awakened?" is never ever asked unless the knowledge of who this He is could be beneficial to the party in some way, typically in the way of a traitor in their midst or some ancient creature about to wake up pissed off and come after them. UCP's, in short, are foreshadowing. Similar rules apply for "that man," and for any situation where occasionally referring to something by name might accidentally clear a few things up.
United we stand, once there aren't enough of us left to be divided: Any situation involving one big group taking on several smaller ones involves the smaller ones getting beaten to hell and back, only to merge into one large megagroup to fight back. This device populates the Suikoden games in one form or another, but rarely does it again reach the ridiculous extremes set in Suikoden 2, which clearly points out that a big, monolithic monster of an invading nation can only be knocked off its high horse by creating a bigger, more monolithic monster of a defending nation. Deus Ex does something similar, in which evil fascist one-worlders are countered by good anarchist one-worlders who have aligned with good fascist one-worlders.
Racism is only bad if humans are doing it: Sure, humans do bad, bad things like clear-cut a forest with stolen technology or pollute the air, so we all bear the burden of guilt by association and are arrogantly thought of as an immature species; but noooo, when the ancient alien race develops a device capable of exterminating all life in the universe, or when the elves set themselves up as the Undisputed Rulers of All, we don't get to judge all of THEM by their race's assholes. Star Ocean 2 and Arcanum, I'm looking right freaking at you.
The Old Way is the Right Way: Anytime there is an Old anything, it will (sometimes immediately) be necessary to use this Old thing because the New thing is not accessible to peons like you and I. There's an Old Passage into the castle, an Old Section of the sewers, an Old Factory on the edge of town, an Old Mine leading into the fortress. It doesn't matter how impenetrable the bad guy's base is, or how thoroughly the road ahead is blocked, there is always some super-secret Old Way through it that the New Guys didn't think about. Nine times out of ten it's through some dank/volcanic hellhole nobody in their right mind would use, which of course, is why all self-respecting heroes have to do just that. This is present in pretty much every RPG ever made.
And so on, you get the idea. Now, far be it from me to simply knock these ideas - recycled, cliche, or simply awkward though they might be - without adding the caveat that they can be done right. Having said that, these aren't simply overdone, they often don't make sense. Why would a man write down that he is about to die? How do bad guys not get confused by referring to everyone as he, she, or it? Is it really a victory, if to beat your enemy, you must become them? Why do only humans catch flack for racism in RPGs, while imperialist maneuvers by other races go largely unquestioned? And why, oh why, oh WHY does the bad guy never know about the Old Way?
I'm not asking for RPGs to be super-realistic, with bad guys and good guys that never make mistakes or never do unusual things; people do unusual things, they aren't always entirely on the ball, or entirely off it, and sometimes making sense has to be secondary to make a game fun to play. However, I don't think internal consistency or a dash of logic here and there is too much to ask for, nor do I think a fresh idea or two - or at least, less repetition of such gimmicks - would be a bad idea at all.