The Case For Playing Terrible Games

The Case For Playing Terrible Games

Sometimes I review bad games. In fact, sometimes I wonder if I should just make a career out of only reviewing games that are plagued with development issues, delayed releases, development team shake-ups, early releases, yearly development cycles, and all the other symptoms that might point to a real stinker.

I've been thinking about bad games a lot because of some of the reviews I've had to write over the last several months. The thing is, when it comes to reviewing a game, bad ones are the easiest to writer about, and the worse the game is, the easier it is to point to the flaws that make it so bad. The challenge often becomes putting up with the game long enough to formulate a thorough opinion of it.

But the more time I've spent with games that have been given universally bad scores, the more I find myself enjoying bits of them. Sure, the game may be directionless and unhelpful and broken, but even that hasn't stopped me from deriving some pleasure from the experience. I have a few theories about bad games and why we play them (or why playing them is an important use of time).

1. Bad games teach us what goes into making a good game

I am convinced that nothing will teach good design practices like bad design. The thing is, everyone has played good polished games in the past. For the casual player, they may pick up a few big budget AAA games in a given year and play those. Most people have spent countless hours in their childhood playing games with a high level of polish that were released for console. The design principles that we are used to are so natural and well implemented that only when we see them done poorly do we notice them.

Subconsciously we know the best practices for how a particular game or genre should be designed. First-Person Shooters on PC will map weapon reloading to the R key, use WASD to move, and Q/E to lean left and right. RTS games will have attack-move features, flying units will have different visual ranges than ground units. Resources will be gathered at different rates and have different values and uses. These very basic design principles are almost universal. Are there exceptions? Sure, but most games will only abandon these with good reason and alternatives that make sense.

It's when we encounter something bad that we realize how much we rely on good design to dictate our game experiences. The more you play games, the more apparent this fact becomes.

2. Bad games are not bad?

The problem with bad game design is that it always takes players out of the game. When something happens that doesn't make sense or doesn't mesh with the world that has been created, players are no longer thinking about the world they are in or the stories they are creating, but the limitations and restrictions of the game. Pulling players out of a game with poor design is never great, but in my time reviewing games, I've come to realize there's no game I've played that hasn't done something at least decently. I've played lots of bad games, and every time I start by listing everything terrible the game does as I'm playing. Every time I'm brought out of the game by some bit of poor game design I make a note. Every time I think "Why is this part of the game like this and not like that other thing I'd rather have it be?" I make note. This is a good way to list and then group issues you have with the game and see if you can discern some overarching issue. Sometimes a series of issues can be chalked up to bad game localization, or poor map design, or just unhelpful, frustrating UI. For some games, all of these things are issues, but in every case, as I've hunted for problems that people should know about I find things that the game does well. Sometimes these are the tiniest of design features that will never make up for the long list of higher-order issues the game has, but the fact remains that even bad games aren't all bad. After all, most games are made with the imput of large teams--teams that are filled with talented people doing the work they love. Sometimes that work doesn't add up to a decent game, but one can find the decent bits of just about any game. Sometimes it takes a lot of digging, but I have yet to come across a serious game that is without any redeeming quality.

And so while I am often frustrated with having to slog through games that aren't very good, I still think they have value. First, my opinion is just that: my opinion. There may be people who really get into a game that doesn't land for me. Second, bad games are good instructional tools. If I were to teach a class in design I would probably have students play a dozen hours of a bad RPG and come to class ready to discuss their experiences. 

And so I'm left with the conclusion that despite the fact that there are many terrific games that I may never play, I'm totally fine with picking up a game, playing it, and realizing that it is, at least on some levels, bad. I'm okay with owning and playing bad games, with talking about why games are bad, with sharing my favorite bad games. In my house even bad games will get a chance. After all, this is America, the land of opportunity, and even the most meager of games can find an audience. And so I leave you with this poem, with all apologies to Emma Lazarus, it being neither a sonnet nor particularly sonorous:

Give me your tired ideas, your poorly thought out,

Your huddled masses of AI clipping,

The wretched refuse of teeming script bugs.

Send these, the untested, the poorly-paced to me,

By screenlight I shall guide them to their place of rest.

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