In Praise of Good Bad Games

I love great videogames. Who doesn't? There's nothing like being sucked into the polished experience provided by a triple A game where everything went right in production and the gameplay experience is even better than the image in your head produced by the back of the box. I recently beat Batman: Arkham Asylum (Yes I'm behind the times) and it lived up to every expectation. Sure there were a couple rough edges (Killer Croc, Poison Ivy's annoying minions) but overall it was immersive and enthralling.

And that was the problem. Arkham Asylum was a game with a great atmosphere and addictive gameplay. When I started playing it I knew I wouldn't put it down until a natural break, and even then the story frequently compelled me on. Which meant I didn't want to play it if I was exhausted, or drained, or only had a little time. That meant it sat in my Xbox for almost 3 weeks as I tried to carve out convenient play sessions.

The truth is that what I frequently want from a videogame is not full immersion but a way to blow off a little steam before bed, or while talking on the phone to a relative, or whatever. I want something I can turn my brain off to and just play for awhile. We all know the concept of the good bad movie. Hollywood is built on them. Critics often shake their heads that audiences flock to crappy movies like Transformers: Dark of the Moon, while ignoring great films like Beginners. It's not just because dumb people like to see things go boom. It's because good films, like good games, demand attention and engagement, and those are in limited supply for busy tired folks. Sometimes a movie will be both great and easy (Die Hard) but even when an easy movie's bad, at least it's easy.

The same can be said for games. There are, in my opinion, two kinds of good bad games. The AAA title that falls short, and the B-game. A good example of the AAA game fallen short is the latest game I've been killing some time with in between studying for finals. Dark Void. I remember the publicity push behind this game, which was going to be a big new franchise for Capcom, and I remember it arriving as a big disappointment (though Giant Bomb did not hate it.) When I saw it on Amazon prime for $8.00 (It's now $6.00, and more than worth it) I got all excited, since I thought it would be the perfect turn your brain off and shoot things for awhile game. And it is. It's a mix between the Crimson Skies (one of my favorite Xbox games), the Rockateer, and Gears of War, but with all kinds of bugs and flaws. The story is choppy and cliched, the only ammo you find around is for the least exciting weapons, which makes the alien assault rifle and shotgunny gun a better base load out than the awesome magnet gun and the lightning blaster, and the base gameplay has all kinds of problems, from overpowered melee attacks to problematic level layouts that often leave you hunting for enemies (some of whom may be glitched into a wall.) to trigger the next cut scene. There are also big problems with the game's plot, which, at one stretch, has you defending a giant base down a long canyon and against a big boss ship (pretty much the first boss fight you've had), then immediately fighting another boss that appears basically out of nowhere, only to be captured by the badguys. It's as if the designers never even heard of pacing.

Nonetheless the game is just fun enough to be engaging, while easy to quit out of (despite its weird checkpointing, where some checkpoints apply to your save game and some just during a single session) after playing for a little while. Because it has enough rough edges to avoid being immersive it's also relaxing in a way that Batman wasn't to me.

The other type of good-bad is the B-game. The best recent example of this I can think of was Driver: San Francisco. Unlike Dark Void, Driver never tried to be more than a B level product. It came without much hype, was a ton of fun, and embraced its flaws with an intentionally dumb plot and game design that relentlessly focuses on making things easy on the player. Like Dark Void it also has a twist (Dark Void has the jetpack, Driver has the car switching powers) and plenty of flaws. Driver is definitely the better game when compared to Dark Void, but when put up against something like Forza Motorsports, or other open world games, its weirdly slidey car physics and repetitive missions make it clear that the designers were not shooting for the moon. But what they were shooting for they hit. Driver is a really fun game with some surprisingly decent multiplayer, and while it's probably not worth checking out considering the recent flurry of holiday releases, it'll definitely be worth $20 during the gaming doldrums next summer.

Not every game that's not triple A fits the definition of a good bad game obviously. Dead to Rights: Retribution was just sort of mediocre, not terrible but kind of a chore to slog through and without any of Dark Void's attempts at polish or Driver's sense of fun. Prototype, meanwhile, falls short of the polished experience that something like Batman:AA or inFamous had, but has enough going for it to be immersive most of the time and be a definite cut above the type of game I'm talking about. I'm talking about games like Spider Man: Shattered Dimensions or James Bond 007: Bloodstone. Games that are fun the way a movie like Out Cold or Universal Soldier is fun.

The thing about good bad games is that it's often difficult to tell from reviews whether a game is good-bad or just mediocre. Game reviewers, like movie critics, frequently seem to assume that people play under near ideal circumstances, and of course they tend to be the kind of people who can game for long periods without getting worn down. That being said there are some ways to identify what might be a good bad game. Review scores tend to be between 7 and 8 (or 3 and 4 on the Giantbomb scale) indicating a flawed but still playable game. There is usually some sort of twist on an established genre or idea. Often a game that has the violence turned up all the way to 11 will be good bad. Big variances in review scores can also be a sign, since they indicate unbalanced quality that plays to specific tastes. Obscure games that keep getting mentioned on forums or blogs or whatever can also be a sign that a game that wasn't great struck a nerve and is worth checking out.

I have a copy of Skyrim on the table in front of my Xbox and a copy of Warhammer: Space Marine I'm excited to chainsaw sword my way into after exams are over, but in the mean time when I need a study break (other than coming on Giant Bomb, of course) I've got Dark Void sitting in the Xbox and Split/Second and Crackdown 2 ready to go if I run out of void before I run out of stress. Videogame writers often hurry to praise the best of the medium. Art games like Limbo and Braid. Triple A titles like Skyrim and Uncharted 3. But sometimes you just want a videogame that you can turn your brain off and just play. Hey! Videogames! That's when the good bad game is better than any great game could hope to be.

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Posted by BigSocrates

I love great videogames. Who doesn't? There's nothing like being sucked into the polished experience provided by a triple A game where everything went right in production and the gameplay experience is even better than the image in your head produced by the back of the box. I recently beat Batman: Arkham Asylum (Yes I'm behind the times) and it lived up to every expectation. Sure there were a couple rough edges (Killer Croc, Poison Ivy's annoying minions) but overall it was immersive and enthralling.

And that was the problem. Arkham Asylum was a game with a great atmosphere and addictive gameplay. When I started playing it I knew I wouldn't put it down until a natural break, and even then the story frequently compelled me on. Which meant I didn't want to play it if I was exhausted, or drained, or only had a little time. That meant it sat in my Xbox for almost 3 weeks as I tried to carve out convenient play sessions.

The truth is that what I frequently want from a videogame is not full immersion but a way to blow off a little steam before bed, or while talking on the phone to a relative, or whatever. I want something I can turn my brain off to and just play for awhile. We all know the concept of the good bad movie. Hollywood is built on them. Critics often shake their heads that audiences flock to crappy movies like Transformers: Dark of the Moon, while ignoring great films like Beginners. It's not just because dumb people like to see things go boom. It's because good films, like good games, demand attention and engagement, and those are in limited supply for busy tired folks. Sometimes a movie will be both great and easy (Die Hard) but even when an easy movie's bad, at least it's easy.

The same can be said for games. There are, in my opinion, two kinds of good bad games. The AAA title that falls short, and the B-game. A good example of the AAA game fallen short is the latest game I've been killing some time with in between studying for finals. Dark Void. I remember the publicity push behind this game, which was going to be a big new franchise for Capcom, and I remember it arriving as a big disappointment (though Giant Bomb did not hate it.) When I saw it on Amazon prime for $8.00 (It's now $6.00, and more than worth it) I got all excited, since I thought it would be the perfect turn your brain off and shoot things for awhile game. And it is. It's a mix between the Crimson Skies (one of my favorite Xbox games), the Rockateer, and Gears of War, but with all kinds of bugs and flaws. The story is choppy and cliched, the only ammo you find around is for the least exciting weapons, which makes the alien assault rifle and shotgunny gun a better base load out than the awesome magnet gun and the lightning blaster, and the base gameplay has all kinds of problems, from overpowered melee attacks to problematic level layouts that often leave you hunting for enemies (some of whom may be glitched into a wall.) to trigger the next cut scene. There are also big problems with the game's plot, which, at one stretch, has you defending a giant base down a long canyon and against a big boss ship (pretty much the first boss fight you've had), then immediately fighting another boss that appears basically out of nowhere, only to be captured by the badguys. It's as if the designers never even heard of pacing.

Nonetheless the game is just fun enough to be engaging, while easy to quit out of (despite its weird checkpointing, where some checkpoints apply to your save game and some just during a single session) after playing for a little while. Because it has enough rough edges to avoid being immersive it's also relaxing in a way that Batman wasn't to me.

The other type of good-bad is the B-game. The best recent example of this I can think of was Driver: San Francisco. Unlike Dark Void, Driver never tried to be more than a B level product. It came without much hype, was a ton of fun, and embraced its flaws with an intentionally dumb plot and game design that relentlessly focuses on making things easy on the player. Like Dark Void it also has a twist (Dark Void has the jetpack, Driver has the car switching powers) and plenty of flaws. Driver is definitely the better game when compared to Dark Void, but when put up against something like Forza Motorsports, or other open world games, its weirdly slidey car physics and repetitive missions make it clear that the designers were not shooting for the moon. But what they were shooting for they hit. Driver is a really fun game with some surprisingly decent multiplayer, and while it's probably not worth checking out considering the recent flurry of holiday releases, it'll definitely be worth $20 during the gaming doldrums next summer.

Not every game that's not triple A fits the definition of a good bad game obviously. Dead to Rights: Retribution was just sort of mediocre, not terrible but kind of a chore to slog through and without any of Dark Void's attempts at polish or Driver's sense of fun. Prototype, meanwhile, falls short of the polished experience that something like Batman:AA or inFamous had, but has enough going for it to be immersive most of the time and be a definite cut above the type of game I'm talking about. I'm talking about games like Spider Man: Shattered Dimensions or James Bond 007: Bloodstone. Games that are fun the way a movie like Out Cold or Universal Soldier is fun.

The thing about good bad games is that it's often difficult to tell from reviews whether a game is good-bad or just mediocre. Game reviewers, like movie critics, frequently seem to assume that people play under near ideal circumstances, and of course they tend to be the kind of people who can game for long periods without getting worn down. That being said there are some ways to identify what might be a good bad game. Review scores tend to be between 7 and 8 (or 3 and 4 on the Giantbomb scale) indicating a flawed but still playable game. There is usually some sort of twist on an established genre or idea. Often a game that has the violence turned up all the way to 11 will be good bad. Big variances in review scores can also be a sign, since they indicate unbalanced quality that plays to specific tastes. Obscure games that keep getting mentioned on forums or blogs or whatever can also be a sign that a game that wasn't great struck a nerve and is worth checking out.

I have a copy of Skyrim on the table in front of my Xbox and a copy of Warhammer: Space Marine I'm excited to chainsaw sword my way into after exams are over, but in the mean time when I need a study break (other than coming on Giant Bomb, of course) I've got Dark Void sitting in the Xbox and Split/Second and Crackdown 2 ready to go if I run out of void before I run out of stress. Videogame writers often hurry to praise the best of the medium. Art games like Limbo and Braid. Triple A titles like Skyrim and Uncharted 3. But sometimes you just want a videogame that you can turn your brain off and just play. Hey! Videogames! That's when the good bad game is better than any great game could hope to be.