Epic Fail! Games Gone Bad and the People Who Love Them
Remember China Miner?
Probably not. This forgettable piece of Commodore 64 software knocked off the classic Manic Miner and did it badly. Very badly.
And that's why Jesper Juul loves it.
As an assistant arts professor at NYU's Game Center, Juul makes his living by teaching, programming, and researching what makes games work. But when he has time, he fosters a secret love of bad games.
"As games become more and more acceptable (with professors, university programs and so on), the bigger the need for flaunting 'good taste' and enjoying all the games that your professor told you were bad. I see a glorious future for bad games!"
During the Digital Games Research Association meeting held this past fall in London, Juul organized a panel to try and explain just how good bad games could be, starting with China Miner.
Don't let those cute, retro graphics fool you. This game is a killer!
With academic precision, Juul demonstrated how unlikely it was that the owner of a brand-new copy of China Miner would complete the first level, much less the entire game. For him, this game is an archetype of just how bad a game can be:
Start up China Miner and try to jump over the oncoming enemy. And you can't!
"This possibly the only game ever where jumping requires pressing up and pressing fire," Juul notes.
So, your first experience of the game is death. Learn to jump and you hit spikes embedded in the ceiling and you die. Figure out how to make it through the next few seconds of gameplay and you find more ways to die. And that assumes you can figure out anything. All the while, a jarring ragtime tune grinds through a repetitive loop that makes you think killing yourself in the game isn't such a bad idea after all.
And that's just the beginning of what makes China Miner bad.
"Tolstoy says that 'All happy families are the same, but all unhappy families are different.' Games are quite similar in that it is easier to identify your quality criteria when they are broken (a game is bad) than it is to list them all ahead of time," says Juul.
Stare into the face of the Water Strafer!
In other words, sometimes talking about what makes games good just isn't as much fun as thinking about what makes them bad.
"Videogames tend to be considered 'bad' due to technical problems or design problems. Technical-bad games are often broken such that you cannot play them as intended, while design-bad games will run fine and look fine but are frustratingly bad, hard to control, break design conventions for no reason, or are just way too derivative," says Jason Begy, a co-presenter on Juul's panel.
As a masters student in Comparative Media Studies at MIT, and research assistant in the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab, Begy ought to know better. But he too finds perverse joy in bad games.
"There is certainly a sweet spot between bad and broken. I find most of the enjoyably bad games are playable in that they are not technically broken, but have some very odd elements, design choices or interactions," he says.
For example, New Legends.
This Xbox game takes place in ancient China where, for some reason, everyone carries a cell phone with video chat; and features graphic glitches and a peculiar move Begy calls "underwater strafing" that makes it a favorite.
"Strafing while walking is definitely an odd concept, but in water it becomes ludicrous, even more because your character is always doing a front-breaststroke animation, even while moving backwards. When you combine the awful setting with the odd gameplay elements, the game becomes pretty entertaining in a bad way."
Seriously, I'll care about downloadable content once Rock Band offers this.
If this bad love sounds familiar, that's because a highbrow appreciation of low culture has a storied history. The reverence for Russ Meyer, Ed Wood and Roger Corman followed long after they were making their B-grade masterpieces, and it wasn't until John Waters' "Pink Flamingos" that the whole idea that bad film could be good art really took hold.
Or who could forget the Shaggs, a trio of rocking sisters so out of tune musically and so out of it culturally that they remain a shining icon of really good bad music?
Besides, fans have celebrated bad taste in gaming for years. All your base are belong to us, remember?
And this is where traditional aesthetics runs into the new reality of interactive beauty. While the whole idea of art has been obsessed with the perfection of the object, appreciating "bad" twists the whole art thing into a performance where you decide what to like and why to like it.
Or, as the academics on Juul's panel labled it: paragaming.
"Which to me is more about resistance, about playing games for different or unexpected reasons," says Begy.
Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but enjoying the awful takes a certain kind of sensibility. In a world increasingly filled with well-crafted, top-selling games, sometimes it's more fun to pick something no one likes and raise it up it in tribute.
On your marks! Get set! Oh, never mind. This game just sucks.
Which is why Juul, Begy and fellow DiGRA panelist and lead game designer for the GAMBIT Game Lab Matthew Weise find such fun in a game like Big Rigs: Over the Road Racing. How bad was Big Rigs? In a 2004 review, GameSpot gasped, horrified:
"Big Rigs is a game so astoundingly bad that it manages to transcend nearly every boundary put forth by some of gaming's absolute worst of the worst and easily makes it into that dubiously extraordinary category of being one of the most atrocious games ever published."
But as Begy demonstrated the game, showing how, lacking any collision detection in objects, you could effectively accelerate your truck toward infinite speed; you know that Big Rigs is special. When the graphics engine finally gives up and the visuals explode into a screen filled with vibrating pieces of shimmering geometry, you just wonder if down the bad games rabbit hole you actually might find real art.
Or maybe you can just chuckle and shake your head at good intentions gone wrong.
"Earth Defense Force 2017 is an interesting one, because it combines bad playability and bad content rather seamlessly, "says Weise.
"In some ways it is a very poorly designed game, with awkward controls, broken artificial intelligence and a game world rife with graphical errors. On the other hand, it also has a horrid story, involving little more than giant ants rampaging through cities, told with terrible acting and writing. In a way it feels like the game makers failing to bother with playability details because the story was so stupid, which makes Earth Defense Force 2017 feel like it achieves a meaningful synthesis of badness between playability and content that few games do."
Giant ants! Are you kidding me? This game looks AWESOME.
Which means, Weiss likes the game for all the reasons most of us would hate it. And that's what makes it fun.
And the future of bad games?
"Well, as long as there are people with bad ideas, and/or insufficient resources, I think there will be plenty of entertainingly bad games to go around," Begy observes, noting that developers sometimes just fail to meet even their own expectations. "But the fact is that many awful games are produced each year."
"The Wii promises to be a goldmine in this respect."
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