Bad Games are Great Games Too

[Originally published June 27, 2016]

Hey hi hello my name is Tom “Hot Takes” Loughney, and I’m here to tell you that you’ve been wrong about:

Sonic 2006

– Ride to Hell: Retribution

– Shadow the Hedgehog

– Arctic Alive

– Sonic Boom

– Wow, lotta Sonic games on this list, huh?

– Dark

– Hey it’s your boy, Tom. Just wanted to check in, say hi. How are you today? Doing good? Love ya.

– Overblood

– And others

This whole time.

You know the games I’m talking about. They’re part of gaming’s cultural zeitgeist: the Annals of Things That Are Notably Bad – analogous to Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, or Neil Breen’s entire catalogue. Hell, take a look at GI’s current Super Replay of Tex Murphy: Under a Killing Moon. There’s something truly appealing about these titles that elevates them beyond being objects of ridicule.

Bad stories are bad (woah, bold statement there buddy), but they can teach us a lot. The best bad stories fly in the face of everything we unconsciously absorb as audience members: pacing, cinematography, structure – the list goes on. What’s so bad about Art X, and how does it inform what makes Art Y good? For me, that’s part of the fun – identifying what’s gone wrong. That’s why I find myself so engaged by sloppy stories – there’s something so compelling about the way they abandon convention. It’s rarely – if ever – intentional, but that doesn’t deprive it of critical merit. Art is made up of the grand collective – the Lovecrafts, the Hubbards, the Faulkners, the Stowes – and, while each offers a varied quality of output, they all contribute to the overall context of artistic critical canon. What’s good is good because it avoids implementing what’s bad, and what’s bad is bad because it fails to achieve what’s good. Each informs the other, like yin/yang, sweet/sour, and Amy Hennig/David Cage.

Obviously, however, games are not purely narrative. They are also pieces of play, and this is where I see the cultural split between ‘bad game’ and ‘guilty pleasure.’

Now, let me say something.

‘Guilty pleasures’ do not exist. It is a term made up by people who lacked the courage and conviction to argue why they like something. It is a cheap cop-out for people who were afraid to confront their own interests and debate their merit in a larger discussion.

Many of these ‘guilty pleasures,’ however, are largely functional games. They’re mechanically sound works – for the most part – and that’s often where this schism originates. “Army of Two isn’t a ‘bad game,’ it’s just a guilty pleasure!” they cry.

Hey listen.

I love Army of Two. Both of them, if you can believe it. But I don’t feel the need to justify it through meaningless jargon. You like what you like! That’s fine! Take ownership of it! It doesn’t make you better or lesser! They’re clumsy games with clumsy stories and clumsy mechanics, and you love them. Don’t hide your shame behind the modicum of protection offered by jargon. Bad games are great, own it. Learn it. Live it. Love it.

I’ve flown the freak flag for a while here, but I’d like to say this – it’s also totally normal to dislike these garbage video games. Totally fine. Games are a – occasionally – a horrible mechanical rollercoaster you never wish to set foot in again. Disliking a game’s mechanics is a fine, physiological reaction to have. I hate GTAV, personally. Think it’s an absolute load of horse garbage – brow-to-bunion. Now, we can have that argument all the live-long day, BUT my point isn’t about GTAV – it’s about bad games. We like what we like, and we like what we don’t like.

This is one of the disadvantages games have – they’re not strictly narrative. They can be brought down by poor mechanics and feel. That being said, I don’t know if certain games would fit the qualifier of ‘terribad’ if they didn’t fail in every regard. Part of being The Best of the Worst – again, I invoke Neil Breen – is through failing in every regard. If a game was a Good Play but a janky mess, I don’t think it would work. In fact, there are several examples of this ‘middling’ phenomenon. Remember the Bionic Commando game? Where your dead wife was your arm? Great game – horrible story. Somehow, these two pieces managed to cancel each other out, effectively erasing it from remembrance. Sonic 06 – a game that was, by far, much less cohesive – is somehow a standout hit, despite its inferior quality. It is a giant in comparison, and I truly believe that’s thanks to the dynamic duo of poor story and mechanics. It’s a beautiful thing when it all comes together – or when it doesn’t.

But that’s what I really want to talk about.

When it all comes down to it, it doesn’t matter if you like these games or not. Who cares? We live in a world of millions of disparate opinions. Criticism is practically obsolete. But, like criticism, I believe in bad games. I think they’re important, even if that’s a completely ludicrous opinion to hold. Ultimately, every opinion matters – even the bad ones. Everything informs everything – that’s what context is, when boiled down to its core. So, the next time you choose to discuss/write/talk about something you dislike, I implore you to consider the following dichotomy: your opinion is valid, but so is the art. Some things are good, others are bad. Not all can be one or the other. There’s a lot of vitriol on the internet concerning bad games, and most of it is negative. Lots of outright hateful critiques. People worked hard on these games, and – while they failed to deliver a perfect product – they created something that’s equally important as a ‘good’ game. Its critical merit justifies its existence – always.

I understand this is an easy thing for me to say. I love criticism more than anything else in the world – more than games, even. But, much in the same way that I weigh good and bad games equally, I think art is just as important as criticism. We can’t have one without the other, and I think we should love it all – every failure and triumph.

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