Guilty Pleasures

Guilty Pleasures
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Superman 64

Steven Croop | 16 Dec 2008 13:00
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There is hardly a greater contradiction of terms to which we give less thought than the judgment that something is "so bad it's good." We reserve the phrase for entertainment that we enjoy in spite of an overwhelming abundance of flaws, but we take for granted this unique breed of entertainment and the phrase that defines it.

Movies are most commonly so bad that they're good; the acting is so awful, the action so over the top that we can't help but smile. Watching a movie is passive, though - games necessitate action. What's the point of playing a game with great storytelling if you can't make any progress because the camera is a worse foe than any boss? This fact muddles the perception of what makes a game so bad it's good. Which, if any, poorly construed game mechanics will entertain, and which ones will just infinitely frustrate?

There are a deluge of games we don't consider worthy of our time. "Real gamers" rarely give them a second thought - our definition of a game doesn't include these obvious mockeries of the medium. But while any movie is technically watchable, not every game is playable. For us, a game's legitimacy lies in its playability. You might be all right with watching a bad movie and feeling like you wasted 90 minutes of your life, but you can't in good conscience play a bad game for the hours it demands. That second-, third-, fourth-rate shovelware that squeezes a bone-dry license for the last dollar - that's for unwitting grandparents at Christmastime. But there is a temptation there, and glee just beyond it.

These graphics make me gag, this control scheme is terrible, and who the hell wrote this dialogue?! My God, I'm glad I'm not playing this game seriously.

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Yet we take some kind of masochistic pleasure in playing these games precisely because they are so awful. It's the same pleasure that draws snickering friends together to ogle Ultraviolet or Commando's outrageousness - a pleasure bereft of any respect for the game.

We can't judge a game's worth based only on its ratio of quality to intended profit, since all but the most hardcore independent games are for profit in one way or another. However, gamers can base their expectations on a game's production values, just as we expect better quality from a summer blockbuster than a B movie. We expect high quality and unquestionable playability from a mainstream, big name game, and we voice our discontent if our expectations are not met, even if the game is still playable. Our standards are understandably lower for games with less reputation and monetary weight behind them, and we tend to praise them for surpassing our assumptions.

"So bad it's good" is a case-by-case judgment, not a hard and fast formula. Any misguided, overrated, or just plain bad game has the potential to develop an ironic following that appreciates the game for its flaws instead of its perfections. These games form a bond between gamers in their shared acknowledgment of its horribleness. We can share a moment of mirth over Superman 64's "Kryptonite fog" or Star Wars Galaxies' totally broken Combat Medic class, but we don't necessarily want to experience either of them. Instead, we are content to laugh at these pitiable attempts at games.

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