We love bad films. We love them because they’re bad. The likes of American Pie, Planet Terror, Flash Gordon, Showgirls, The Expendables, and too many films from the 80s to mention are celebrated for qualities that would usually cause us to turn our noses up and look the other way. All of these feature some or all of the following: bad acting, bad writing, bad direction, predictable plots, and Sylvester Stallone. They’re so bloated with clichés they make using a Macbook Pro in Starbucks look original. Those traditionally bad elements are what make them so great.
The abundance of predictability and the lack of an intellectual script/plot makes them easy to consume and prevents us from having to think too hard. This makes them a safe prospect for those evenings and afternoons when we’re in the mood for stimulation on a level equal to discussing foreign policy with Channing Tatum. Furthermore, such films are self-referential and often highly satirical, using the bad acting/scripting etc to highlight and mock norms and ideas prevalent throughout the rest of the industry. This, in turn, not only allows us to enjoy such experiences guilt free, telling ourselves we’re actually watching something smart, but actually serves to reinforce what a typical good movie is.
Why, then, does the phenomenon of ‘so bad it’s good’ not carry over to the realm of videogames?
Starship Troopers is a brilliant example of this, Paul Verhoeven using the good looks and bland acting talent of Denise Richards and Casper Van Dien to poke fun at Hollywood casting practices. The entire movie is a parody, albeit one that is generally misunderstood and, as such, grossly underappreciated. Starship Troopers knowingly blends together so many perceived inadequate elements that it actually becomes a masterpiece. It achieves exactly what it set out to do.
Why, then, does the phenomenon of ‘so bad it’s good’ not carry over to the realm of videogames? Popular opinion on the matter is that the interactive nature of a videogame means less-than-stellar elements are more difficult to overlook. Movies are, for most of us, a passive medium. Watching a bad film can be done with the same level of concentration as watching a good one. Videogames are different. An active medium to begin with, bad gameplay forces us to concentrate even harder to try and overcome the failings. That extra concentration predominantly highlights any more shortcomings.
Popular opinion is wrong. There is such a thing as a ‘so bad it’s good’ videogame and, like with movies, there are games that set out to be exactly that. Perhaps the master of this area is Goichi Suda, better known as Suda51, CEO of Grasshopper Manufacture and mastermind behind the likes of Shadows of the Damned, No More Heroes and Lollipop Chainsaw.
The bulk of Suda51’s work is defined by shameless over-the-top scenarios, gameplay and characterisation. And an unwillingness to be influenced by popular trends or accepted norms. Pull up a list of review scores for any of Suda51’s games and you’ll be hard pushed to find a general consensus. Similar way to Starship Troopers and The Expendables, you either love them because you understand that the ‘bad’ parts are not really bad at all, or you hate them because of how crude and childish they seem.
It may be a stretch to say that Suda51 is the Verhoeven of videogames, but the two certainly share some similarities when it comes to their ability to satirize, to be unique, and to be misunderstood.
Lollipop Chainsaw, the recent major release from the b-game auteur, is perhaps the epitome of the bad-but-good videogame. Loved by some, hated by more, here is a work of brazen indulgence par excellence. One that defies the idea that sub-par gameplay automatically equates to a negative experience.
If it sounds ridiculous, that’s because it is.
For those without firsthand experience of the game, Lollipop Chainsaw‘s plot revolves around the adventures of zombie-hunting American blonde teenager Juliet Starling. Part of a family of zombie hunters, Juliet saves her high-school from the undead and returns things to normal so that she can live her life in peace with her boyfriend, Nick. Nick, by the way, takes the form of a severed head that dangles from Juliet’s size zero waist.
If it sounds ridiculous, that’s because it is. Rest assured, though, no matter how bizarre the description, nothing is as crazy as actually taking the game for a spin yourself. This exact dedication to being whacked-out crazy is the basis that many have used to attack the game, calling it misogynist, inane, thoughtless and insensitive. Combine such descriptions with ‘underwhelming combat’ and you’ve got yourself an accurate summary of many Lollipop Chainsaw reviews.
What such opinions seem to forget, however, is that on the surface this is a game that sets out to be exactly that. Yes, it seems misogynist and thoughtless, but that it is this way by design transfers it from failure to satirical greatness. And I do mean greatness.
It becomes parody
Juliet is every bit the embodiment of a crude American sex icon. She is leggy, blonde, incredibly short on waist, and incredibly big on bust. She has a penchant for short skirts and flirtatious winks to the camera… a camera that wastes no opportunity in filling the screen with boobs and ass.
However, the downright ridiculous nature of Juliet’s sexualisation prevents it from being sexual at all. It becomes parody, a satire on the media’s image of the American blonde cheerleader and its role in popular culture. The knowing winks to camera letting everyone know just how big a joke this whole thing is supposed to be. Juliet’s image highlights the genuine misogyny prevalent in other games featuring female characters – games that promote their characters as sex objects without any sense of lampooning.
Then there’s Lollipop Chainsaw‘s gameplay. Yes, it’s repetitive. Yes, it lacks originality. That’s exactly the point. While not as complex or challenging as other third-person brawlers (think Bayonetta, Devil May Cry, et al), Lollipop Chainsaw’s blend of cheerleader-inspired kicks, punches and chainsaw attacks is precisely as engaging and mindless as it needs to be. It’s not clever, but it works, and it looks wonderfully weird.
Precisely as engaging and mindless as it needs to be
In the same way as watching a bad movie, the gameplay is just mindless enough to prevent you from having to think too much, but not so bad that it’s unplayable. This allows you to very quickly settle into a comfort zone. You’re safe in the knowledge that you’re not going to be asked to master too many new skills, allowing you to apply more attention to the bat-shit happenings going on with the characters, the plot, and the imagery.
That’s not to say the gameplay is bad, because it’s not. It’s just about good enough to stop things getting frustrating, but not unique enough to intimidate.
It’s a shame that games like Lollipop Chainsaw, those dedicated simply to shamelessly indulgent fun, are ridiculed and rejected by such a large proportion of the videogame community. Perhaps as a result of the inferiority complex prevalent within the videogame industry – its continual battle to be considered the narrative equal of other mediums – it seems that it is unable, or unwilling, to fully embrace the idea that it is okay to make fun of itself.
That’s not to say that everyone out there who has ever touched a control pad should adore and praise the likes of Lollipop Chainsaw, but they should at least begin judging such games in ways that do justice and show respect to the initial intentions of the project.
When a game is being dumb, crude and inane in a self-aware and satirical manner, is it really dumb, crude and inane at all?
Throwaway, Sunday afternoon pulp is an accepted part of cinema, music and literature. It exists in droves in those mediums. It is starting to exist in videogames, too, and it’s time we started embracing it and respecting it for what it is and what it’s trying to achieve. The industry needs to make fun of itself to stay sane, and we need to welcome that.
Games can be satire, and are. Games can be so ‘bad’ that they’re brilliant, let’s not convince ourselves otherwise.
John Robertson is a freelance writer and the real-world embodiment of Garcia Hotspur. He is currently travelling through Asia, writing as a means to fund the adventure. You can follow him on Twitter @Robertson_John.