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.
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.
When I plucked Perfect Dark Zero from a friend’s shelf not too long ago and made a joke about it, however, he demurred. Instead, we wound up waxing nostalgic about the original Perfect Dark and how much better Rare was before Microsoft bought them. This is the same friend I can always count on for an extended tongue-in-cheek discussion of our experiences in Star Wars Galaxies, so why were things different?
The same thing happened a day earlier when I found myself discussing the Matrix trilogy for the umpteenth time. We made some jabs at the second and third installments, but mostly we talked about how well the first one stood on its own and how we wished they’d simply stopped there. There was a much more powerful social mechanic at work – shared disappointment.
Any enjoyment we could have derived from Perfect Dark Zero‘s glitch-ridden unplayability was lost in comparison to its inability to live up to its predecessor. PDZ isn’t even that bad of a game, according to Metacritic.com’s rating of 81. Critics gave it “generally favorable reviews,” but in almost every one of them there is a caveat about how it doesn’t compare to the original. It speaks to the power of the highly social atmosphere surrounding our opinion of games that Perfect Dark Zero has a negative connotation in my mind, even though I’ve never even played it – my reaction to the game is based solely on the disappointment of others.
The example of PDZ shows that the social aspect of a game that is so bad it’s good goes beyond just sharing a joke with some friends at a game’s expense – it also taps into popular opinion. In fact, the paradoxical popularity of a game that is so bad that it is good is almost entirely social – when a game is unplayable, all we often have to go on is the word of others.
We can see now how a game that is so bad that it is good can survive – through legend and sneering fandom – in an entertainment culture that is always demanding the most from their games. We need the best games – the contemporary champions of the medium – to show ourselves and everybody else what games can be, but we also need the games that are just “good” to pass the time in between the gems, average games to show us where the mean of gaming at large lies, mediocre games to see what we need to improve the most, bad games to show us what not to do and absolutely laughably atrocious games to add a bit of self-deprecating humor to the whole equation. Hilariously awful games are a necessary aspect of the gaming compendium, and we implicitly accept – maybe even appreciate – them, even if we don’t really play them.
Steven Croop soul-searches far too much while writing articles for The Escapist. He has also attempted to start a bloggy-type thing over at Open Salon under the name Shmoo Mentality, which has too many unexpected ulterior meanings for his tastes.