We don’t often get games that are unapologetically stupid anymore. Games tend to take themselves seriously — even Bugsnax, though conceptually absurd, is earnest. That’s a good thing. It means that developers want their creations to be more than vapid entertainment. That desire is how the medium moves forward in its capacity for emotional resonance and player freedom.
Serious Sam 4 is a brash “heck off” to that kind of high-mindedness. The game has moments of self-awareness and threats of meta-commentary, but they are fleeting in this schlockiest of D-grade-Steven-Seagal-action-movie wannabes. I mean, the storyline is that Sam and co. are trying to find the Holy Grail because it’s secretly a weapon that will push back the alien hordes. Or something. The dialogue is 50% crappy one-liners, and the gameplay is 80% “hold down the trigger and strafe until everything stops moving.”
It’s terrible. The gameplay is too simple. The story isn’t worth fighting for. And there’s no real sense of reward, no satisfaction for bringing down a particularly tough enemy or overcoming a psychological challenge. Serious Sam 4 is eight or nine hours of white noise. It’s militaristic, overly macho garbage with almost no intrinsic value.
But sometimes, that white noise is exactly what we need. Isn’t that why we watch rom-coms and Netflix chaff? Even though these types of games are retrograde, they play a worthwhile role in balancing out the more moderate humor and attitude that proliferates in gaming. And they do it without the jarring tonal inconsistencies that sometimes crop up when this kind of unfiltered nonsense finds its way into more earnest games.
Serious Sam 4 is a perfect circuit breaker.
And I’d known what I was getting into when I started the game. I’d watched videos and read reviews and knew that Serious Sam 4 was, with the possible exception of Destroy All Humans!, the stupidest game of 2020. However, there is a difference between those two stupid games. I finished Serious Sam 4. I didn’t finish Destroy All Humans! earlier this year.
The reason for the different results isn’t context but content. As cataclysmically dumb as Serious Sam 4 is, it’s also a little bit responsible. For example, the female members of Sam’s team are not overtly sexualized, and the goofy characters, though often stereotypical, are not offensively so. In short, it doesn’t punch down.
In contrast, Destroy All Humans! is the product of a bygone era. It is a remaster advertised as a remake, and that dated humor totally misses the mark in 2020. There’s a whole bunch of farmers and small-town folk who are portrayed as total morons. Then, when Crypto-137 reaches the suburbs, there’s a different vibe to the population, and Crypto has to manipulate the media rather than the mayor. I may be reading too much into it, but I see in this series of events the pervasive idea that people in remote, rural, regional, and metropolitan areas exist on a sliding scale of inherent value or intelligence.
I’m not “offended,” but I grew up in a small, regional town in Australia where the primary industries are farming and tourism created by backpackers coming to work on the farms. I grew up with this idea that if you want to make something of yourself or if you want an education or if you want a career, you move to the city. And I still see that rhetoric making the rounds, even as the media and government realize that the bans on tourism are killing our regions and agricultural productivity because of that rhetoric.
It’s a kind of class warfare, and things like Destroy All Humans! serve only to reinforce it. The game isn’t offensive — it’s ignorant. The whole idea is imposed by people with power, and those same people then claim that blue-collar workers disdain the “inner-city elites” and their progressive ideologies. To some extent that may be true, but to what extent is it a self-fulfilling prophecy? If people are told what to think — if people are told through The Big Lie that a particular policy will negatively affect them — what does that mean for their agency?
Media, in all its forms, has a responsibility. Creators don’t get to absolve themselves of social responsibility just because they’re making a product that’s “funny.” Considering that Destroy All Humans! reportedly sold better than THQ Nordic had expected and players apparently love it, we can probably expect to see the publisher go all-in with another rema/ke/ster, if not a whole new entry.
That’s fine. The other-side-of-an-alien-invasion premise is fertile ground for novel gameplay and silly stories. I’m annoyed at Destroy All Humans! specifically, and I hope that a follow-up doesn’t pull the same nonsense.
But this kind of silliness shouldn’t go away. Mainstream games feel increasingly homogeneous, so when you get a big game that is wholly and intentionally stupid, it’s a reminder that games can be absolutely anything that a publisher is brave enough to fund.
Just, please, don’t punch down.