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Flawed Masterpieces

There's a certain class of game that I absolutely adore, a type of game I spend years thinking about after I've finished playing it, even if I never made it all of the way through. It's a kind of game that shoots for the stars and fails so miserably that it is almost unplayable by modern standards--but the thing about these games is that if you really get to know them, to truly see the ambition of their creators, you can't help but fall in love with them.

Not all of these games have the same kinds of problems. Some were buggy and broken at launch and only became properly playable long after public awareness of them had passed. Others are marred by one badly designed system that detracts form an otherwise brilliant and innovative package.

A few of these games are genuinely despised for their flaws, some have been forgotten or only remembered as a joke, but many of them have retained seriously dedicated groups of fans who still appreciate their quirks and peculiarities.

At the least, even if you can't stand playing these games for 5 minutes, it's not hard to recognize the ambitions of the people who made them and it would be difficult to deny that they all deliver unique gaming experiences that have barely been replicated since.

List items

  • This game is probably the perfect example of what I'm talking about. Even if you can get past the terrible translation (or if you're lucky enough to have played it in Russian), it's unforgiving, cryptic, unrelentingly bleak and might as well be used as the textbook definition of no fun. Even its creators will sometimes refer to it as a kind of stress simulator instead of calling it a game. In spite of its many technical problems (and even because of them in some cases) it manages to create a sense of atmosphere and dread that has never been seen in another game.

    In addition, it attempts to use literary themes, visual metaphors and theatrical motifs to raise its content to a level of art and expression that is still rare in gaming. I'm not saying this is the mythical "Citizen Kane of Games", but it's a genuine, deliberate attempt to make a work of interactive media that serves as an object of art more than a piece of entertainment. Even in today's thriving environment of independent game development, it's still pretty hard to say that about more than a handful of titles.

    I don't know if these guys will be able to recapture the magic of the original while trying to remake this game, but I'm interested to see where they take it (enough to contribute a little to their Kickstarter campaign). Hopefully, with a better game engine (Unity) to start from and a decade of experience making games since, they will be able to come even closer to their original vision and make something even more impressive and unique. I wish them luck.

  • I'm a fan of stealth games. I loved Black Isle's work, especially the Fallout games. I also really enjoyed Mass Effect 1 & 2. Here, some ex-Black Isle employees, reformed as Obsidian, attempted to take the "guns + conversation" formula of Mass Effect and apply it to an espionage RPG.

    There are huge problems with this game. There are problems with the weapons. There are whole branches of the upgrade tree that are almost entirely useless, the hacking/lockpicking minigame is kind of confusing and the boss fights are generally terrible. Some of these things may be the fault of SEGA who forced them to rush the game to market. Some may be the result of fundamental flaws in its design or poor planning. I have no idea.

    Regardless, with this game Obsidian tried to do something more nuanced with its Dialogue Stance system than the black & white paragon/renegade system in Mass Effect (with three dialogue stances based on Bond, Bourne and 24's Bauer) while also trying to make conversation more urgent and engaging by adding a timer. They also allowed you to fill out dossiers on the major players and locations involved in your missions, created a fairly deep reputation system, and attempted to communicate a real sense of consequences for your actions and decisions.

    There is a ton of great stuff going on in this game that could make an incredible sequel. These days, Obsidian seems mostly focused on working on crowdfunded games like ones they made back at Black Isle. Ideally, someday they can get the full rights to AP from SEGA and try to Kickstart a new one. Who knows if the fanbase for this title is big enough to pull it off? I doubt that it compares to the ones for the Fallouts and Planescape: Torment anyway but it might be worth a try.

  • Similar in some ways to Pathologic, this PSX & Windows game from Psygnosis had you playing a Medic in a first-person simulation of a space station dealing with an outbreak of radiation sickness while trapped on a collision course with the Sun.

    You begin the game by crawling out of a shuttle crash in the station's landing bay and trying to revive an injured engineer to gain access to the airlock. Except for the need to gain security access to certain sections of the station, the entire environment is open for you to explore as soon as you make it out of sickbay.

    The staff roam the hallways and rooms of the station on their own schedules checking in on the rooms related to their work and doing their jobs. They carry on what seem like spontaneous conversations with other staff and answer your questions through a somewhat convoluted, though occasionally deep, dialogue system.

    There are also a few interesting situations where if you fail at a task, the scenario just branches in a different direction instead of failing out.

    Sounds pretty cool so far, right? The reality is that it's difficult to get any feedback from the game to know if you're making progress and it can be hard to find your way around and to know what you're supposed to be doing at any given moment. There are also a number of alternate endings, but it's almost impossible to get any of the good ones without resorting to a walktrough.

    Another major problem is that they let you roam freely and give you lots of options in the dialogue system and then the time before falling into the sun runs out so fast that you aren't really given any time to enjoy any of that freedom.

    It's really too bad, because this is an incredible idea for a game and it's pretty impressive for a PSX game to be so open.

  • Sure. I know you heard this game was terrible. I agree, for the most part. But it's also really not terrible at all.

    But what about that dumb looking arm? That was really stupid right? Well, actually it's kind of neat and it actually works OK in a lot of situations. I think something similar could be done now with current game engines and, with a little AI coding, physics and kinematic armature rigging, be pretty impressive.

    I will admit that this is probably the biggest failure on this list, but it was really just trying to bite off way, way more than the tech at the time could chew. Of course the other big failing wasn't in the game itself, but in all of the hype and pie-in-the-sky talk the developers engaged in when talking to the press before it launched.

    Regardless, I can boot up this game, wander around the island and not have a terrible time. Sure, it's too bad the physics system was more like Half-Life 2 or that they could have had more dinosaurs on screen at a time or if the island could have been more detailed and open like in Far Cry & Crysis, but all of that is really easy to say in hindsight.

    Even today, there is still a dedicated group of fans of this game still reverse engineering it and modding in new dinosaurs. There's even a guy who has been rebuilding it in both Unity and Cryengine for a few years and while it looks great, he only seems to have made a more detailed version of the island itself and hasn't even started on any of the actual systems like the dinosaur AI and the arm.

  • Outside of Nosferatu (Both the Murnau and Herzog versions), I never really liked anything about vampires. I like a couple of obscure vampire movies here and there, but I don't like Anne Rice or anything like True Blood or Twilight. Even though I let a few friends talk me into playing the Vampire RPG back in high school, I never got into it and never thought a video game based on it would ever be ONE OF MY FAVORITE GAMES EVER MADE.

    After years of ignoring this game's existence (because I was a fan of Black Isle and Troika games and heard a game by them had been done in the Source engine) I finally broke down and bought it on a Steam sale. Activision had been charging too much for it for years and when it finally dropped below $10 for the first time, I snatched it up.

    Why do I say they were charging too much? Isn't a game I love this much worth paying for? The problem is that Activision launched the game with so many bugs that the game was barely even playable and after years, they still hadn't even bothered to issue an official patch to fix it--so I wasn't about to pay that much for a 6 or 7 year old, broken game I wasn't even sure I'd like yet.

    10 years later, it's still only thanks to the game's dedicated fanbase and modding community that this game is even playable today.

    So what's so great about this game? It's a 3D, polygonal RPG by one of the main creators of Fallout and a writing staff of other highly talented Troika people made with Half-Life 2's Source Engine with 4 large, open hub areas like in Deus-Ex, connected by an underground sewer system and taxi fast travel.

    It has stealth elements, a rich dialogue system with some great writing and a lot of really good voice acting, interesting missions, a pretty powerful magic system and a clan-based character and skill system that matters in almost every action you take and line of dialogue you choose

    The Nosferatu and Malkavian clans are so unique playing them is almost like playing a different game. There's also pretty great haunted mansion mission that's well regarded by horror fans.

    Even with the unofficial patches though, it's still not a perfect game. Some of the blood magics are interesting, but overall, the combat system, especially the melee stuff, is really bad. Also, as good as the rest of the writing and gameplay are, everything starts to fall apart toward the end in the Chinatown areas and the final "boss battles" are pretty disappointing.

    In the end, it really doesn't matter because the game had already done so much to win me over long before I ever got there.

  • The only direct comparison one could make between Arcanum and anything else on this list is that it was made by the same studio as Bloodlines. Other than that, it's the only 2D game on here and is generally a traditional, isometric, CRPG--but it isn't simply a linear one since it features a pretty large open world you can travel around at will.

    It also has a great, reactive dialogue system (an expansion of the one from Fallout) that capitalizes on intelligence and charisma stats to allow you to outsmart enemies and talk your way to discounts from merchants. Also, like Bloodlines, the class and race decisions you make during character creation can have a significant impact on your game. Arcanum also has is a deep companion system that even has members of your party reacting to the morality of your decisions throughout the game in sometimes surprising ways.

    On top of all of that, I love the setting. It's like jumping 1000 years into the future of Tolkien's Middle Earth and witnessing the height of its industrial revolution. People still wear suits of armor but have guns. There are orcs, elves and halflings, but they dress like they're in Edwardian England and ride around in zeppelins. Magic and technology coexist, but they conflict with each other. It's great. The weird thing about it is that I generally don't like fantasy or steampunk, but I love the world of Arcanum. Also, it has some really nice string quartet music instead of the kind of orchestration you usually expect from fantasy.

    Actually, I can't see any reason (other than popularity and some crossover with Elder Scrolls on setting) that Bethesda couldn't pick up this license and make a game in this world, just like they did with Fallout 3.

    So what's wrong with this game? It had some pretty bad bugs at launch concerning certain video cards, but my main problem is that I can't stand the combat systems. Yes. It has three combat systems and they are all terrible. Apparently Troika finally got this kind of combat right later with Temple of Elemental Evil, but I still have never tried it, and it doesn't do anything to improve the system here.

  • Here we have a first-person game based on H. P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos that surprisingly did a decent job of capturing the feel of the original stories.

    Compared to the rest of this list, it's also probably the most linear, level-based one, but don't go mistaking it for a traditional FPS. It's more of a survival horror game with stealth elements--similar to Frictional's Penumbra and Amnesia games. Drawing more from adventure games than action, it doesn't even allow you to have a gun for most of what seems like the first half of the game.

    Dark Corners was innovative in other ways. Like Trespasser, it does away with the traditional HUD altogether, but goes further with better feedback like limping & heavy breathing to communicate the player's health state. It also employed a sanity system that caused increasing auditory hallucinations and visual distortions as the player character's sanity eroded. The system was similar to the one used earlier in Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem but was likely in development before that game's release.

    Like VTM: Bloodlines, the game does feature some nice, open levels and a main hub area that can be freely explored. Also like Bloodlines, it was a nearly unplayable, buggy mess at launch that is now far more accessible thanks to unofficial patches released by its fan community.

    As ambitious as this game ended up, it was originally planned to have far more content with a much less linear story and even a multiplayer mode, but as development dragged on, the multiplayer was dropped and the planned story was split into a trilogy. Sadly, the subsequent chapters were never completed due to its dev studio's bankruptcy and closing a year later.

  • If you know anything about this game, you know it was made by Prince of Persia creator, Jordan Mechner. If you don't already know about it, that isn't going to do anything to help you understand what this game is like. Both games use rotoscoped animation and both have history as a theme, but the comparisons quickly end there.

    The entire game happens on the Orient Express on the day of its final trip. You play an American Doctor running from French police who suspect you of a murder. You have boarded the train to meet a friend who wants to help you escape but you immediately find that he has been killed. You quickly dispose of his body and assume his identity for the rest of the trip.

    Passengers freely roam the train's halls, visit each others' rooms and hang out in the club and dining cars. You can have conversations with them, eavesdrop and get their reactions to items in your inventory. There's a lot of fairly standard adventure game business to be done, but what really sets the game apart from the other adventure games of its time is that its characters all follow strict schedules, changing locations at regular intervals and genuinely creating the impression of living people going about their day.

    You move through the pseudo-3D space of the train in a manner similar to Myst. The people are filmed actors like an FMV game, but makeup and graphical filters have been used to make them look more like drawings in a traditional animation style.

    Throughout the game, you have access to most of the train. You can hang out of windows, get on top of the cars, sneak into the luggage cars and even gain access to vacant passenger rooms to go through their personal items. If you're ever unhappy with the way things are going, you can pause and rewind the game to any checkpoint on the train's route to play everything from there differently. It's similar to PoP: the Sands of Time, but your ability to reverse time stretches all the way back to the beginning of the game.

    My complaints about this game are pretty minor. I don't personally hate the point & click interface--it's hard to fault a game from 1997 for not using a 3D engine--but I can also see it as an annoyance for anyone trying the game today. While I noticed some glitches with the inventory here and there, reviews from its release mention nothing about technical problems or having issues with the interface. It could be simply that the game's lack of popularity had more to do with bad timing and bad luck in the market than anything technically wrong with the game itself but today its dated systems make it harder to appreciate everything else this game has going for it.

  • Even though it was mostly developed outside of mainstream, western system of game publishing, I don't know if Pathologic truly qualifies as an indie game. It's like when the Independent Film Channel runs studio-produced Japanese movies just because they were filmed outside of the US movie system--It seems to defy the accepted definition of indie. Because of that, I consider Miasmata to be the sole indie game on this list. It's also probably the least flawed. Unlike Trespasser, Miasmata keeps things simple (and its creators never built up unrealistic expectations before its launch).

    Developed by two brothers and released through Steam Greenlight, Miasmata is another first-person game that isn't about shooting. You play a medical researcher who has come to a mostly uninhabited island looking to discover a cure for a rare, fatal disease he has contracted before it can overtake him.

    There are three main things going on in the game. The primary objective is to collect & research the unique flora of the island to determine its medicinal properties and attempt to synthesize remedies for your symptoms out of them while also visiting the research sites left by a group of previous scientists on the same mission who failed to survive. To find your way around the island, you have to create a map using a compass and a system of triangulation. Both the plant research and cartography systems are truly novel gaming experiences. Additionally, you are being stalked by a bizarre, chimera-like beast, forced to hide until it passes to survive and continue your research.

    Other than some major framerate issues, its homemade engine is pretty impressive for an indie game. So why is it on this list? Maybe it doesn't belong here. Maybe it just seems to belong here because, like Trespasser, you're on a deserted island or, like Pathologic, it's about a searching for a cure to a mysterious disease and seems to care very little about entertaining the player or, like Dark Corners of the Earth, it looks at first blush like just another FPS, but does everything it can to subvert the conventions of that genre. Maybe it's unfair for me to put this game on this list but hopefully calling it a masterpiece makes up for that a little.

  • OK, I understand that you are probably sensing a pattern here. The main character in this game has malaria, right? How many of these games star a character who is trying to cure either their own debilitating disease in themselves or a rapidly spreading virus in their environment? Even being a vampire is a kind of disease or can at least be a metaphor for it. Really, I think that is just a coincidence, but it is interesting to point out.

    Far Cry 2 is the only traditional shooter on this list and might just be the biggest success, but it isn't without flaws--the worst being the infuriatingly broken enemy spawning system.

    Overall, I think it would have been better if you could have been given the option to bluff your way through through the checkpoints and to only have them go nuts on you if you failed, but the way it goes in the game, it seems like--if you get within 50 yards of one--everyone there is aware of you and is instantly out to kill. You can wipe out every one of them, drive another 50 yards, turn around to go back and the whole checkpoint will be reset and again the shooting will commence.

    If it wasn't for that one problem--and it's a big, persistent problem--I think I could love everything about this game. I really like the AI buddy stuff, the fire propagation is amazing, even the healing system was pretty cool. I didn't even hate the need to take pills all of the time or the constant weapon breaking and jamming like a lot of people did.

    On the technical side, this game didn't have a ton of bugs, but it did have one huge one that deleted my save the first time through. That was also pretty terrible, but was apparantly patched out later in an update.

    A few minor gripes of mine, like the fact that they had some really nice wildlife in the game, but no predators, were addressed in the sequel, but a lot of the other elements that made this game so great were scaled back for that entry.