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I Play Bad Games (On Purpose)

Rus McLaughlin | 27 Jul 2012 14:00
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Hey, I knew what I was doing. I can't claim ignorance, and I'll never claim innocence. Someone offered me a preview copy of Ninja Gaiden 3, so I took it, fully aware that it sucked. I played the demo at E3. I spoke to people whose opinions I trusted. I listened to my razor-sharp instincts and my not-so-sharp gut. Lo and behold, every single warning sign turned out to be dead on. Ninja Gaiden 3 is a travesty.

I play bad videogames. On purpose. And so should you.

But I don't regret playing it for a moment, because I occasionally play bad videogames. On purpose. And so should you.

To be clear, I'm not talking about a game you dislike contrary to popular opinion. If you have issues with Halo, BioShock, Call of Duty, or Uncharted, that's fine, but you're looking way too high up on the list. This requires a degree of premeditation, so anything that invokes a sense of crushing disappointment doesn't count. Instead, gravitate towards the negative hype. Find something that couldn't break a 60 on MetaCritic. Locate a game that made people abandon God. Know exactly what you're getting into, and throw that sucker on with your low expectations locked and loaded.

Normally, as a critic, I spend a lot of time steering people away from such things. Now I'm aiming you straight at the garbage heap and telling you it's vital to your education as a human and a gamer. Here's why: You don't know what you're missing.

I mean that literally. Without a proper frame of reference, odds are you don't see certain details, and you should.

Back in 2010, I snapped up a dreary little downloadable called Hydrophobia and found out just how many bad decisions you can crowbar into a seven-hour cliché. Developer Dark Energy Digital essentially created an engine that realistically modeled fluid dynamics, and then built a game around it ... minus any other good ideas or, apparently, a working knowledge of modern game design. The consistency was hypnotic. Everything felt off, including (but not limited to) a curiously vague HUD, mandatory fetch-quests to find invisible clues, and ineffective stun-gun combat that made me want to shoot myself.

My personal favorite? A control map best described as the kind of experiment that disproves a theory, with in-game actions haphazardly assigned to random buttons. As an added bonus, pressing anything gave you a stuck-in-glue level of response.

But here's the thing: If that exact same game had released back in the early '90s - say, on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System - it would've been a groundbreaking title, 10 out of 10 on its technical achievements alone. Not because 20 years' difference would've magically fixed all Hydrophobia's problems, but because nobody would've recognized them as problems.

As-is, it came out the same month as Halo: Reach. The month after, I played Enslaved: Odyssey to the West. Experience with better games instantly exposed all Hydrophobia's flaws, but its mistakes also informed what those other games did right with far more clarity than if I'd spent all my time playing top-rated titles.

We judge games on a lot of criteria: graphics, controls, gameplay design, level design, mission design, story, writing, acting, and setting, balance, length, replayability, general awesomeness. When the action flows just right, we're generally too busy ripping through the zombie apocalypse or rescuing princesses to recognize small elements working together to entertain us as one amazing whole. No, we focus on enemies to destroy, puzzles to solve, environments to navigate. We don't often spend a lot of time dwelling on why we're enjoying ourselves.

But when something goes wrong, we definitely notice.

That's one reason you see you see a lot of opinions polarized between gushing "It's so awesome!" praise and flat "It sucks!" denouncements. Small wonder the industry regards a 7.5 review score as a failure; a fun/no fun response simply doesn't allow for a lot of nuanced middle ground. But that's exactly what we need more of.

How many times have you seen someone say "The shooting's great!" as the first and last word on a first-person shooter? Do you even know what that actually means? Because absent any explanations beyond "great," I sure as hell don't. I do believe that's their honest opinion, but I also tend wonder if maybe they're guessing a little. They liked it, but they can't nail down any specifics.

So play a bad game. On purpose. They really aren't tough to find.

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