The Science of the Bad Game
Lately, I have been thinking about the way that bad games tend to fascinate us so much as a gaming culture. There really isn’t a reason that we should like bad games and yet we all stop a gawk at them in awe when they do come up. Just think of the way a game such as Sonic Boom would have merely faded into the mess of mediocre Sonic titles had it not been a bug and glitch riddled mess when it had released. There is just something about these terribly broken or shoddy games that can endear us to them (so long as they were not a big title with a significant amount of excitement, which would more often lead to a backlash).
I know that this is a subject that will vary from person to person, but I sat down and tried to see if I could crack the code of why this is and I think I have found at least few of the reasons why.
The Deadly Premonition Principle
It might be a little unfair for me to name one of the reasons entirely after one game, but it is a standout with respect to it being a bad but beloved game, and emblematic of many reasons why people care for bad titles. Deadly Premonition is one of my favorite “so bad it’s good” games of all time, and there is definitely a reason that it is one of the most well known of this category. That being, Deadly Premonition is playable. It’s not the best gameplay in the world by any stretch, there are a few places where it is somewhat stiff and I personally struggle with the driving controls sometimes, but it’s not horribly broken like some other bad games. The problem with a lot of bad games is that they will be so broken that it’s hard to even enjoy playing them, but that’s not the case here, with Deadly Premonition being a perfectly serviceable game, if a bit odd in places.
The enjoyability of Deadly Premonition and games like it that are playable comes from what surrounds the gameplay: bad music, bad story, and bad dialog that make us laugh. Bad voice acting is a frequent hallmark of games like this and leads to giddy giggles from people like me. Being able to actually play the game allows you to experience these things and I would consider these games to be the closest experience to watching a movie that is so bad that it is good. As long as you don’t have to fight against the game, you can have a laugh at the rest of the presentation. For games like this, they’re bad games but they’re not broken games.
The Streaming/YouTube Experiment
On the other hand, a broken game can be just as fun if you’re not the one playing it. With the rise of both YouTube gaming channels and streaming on sites like Twitch, these utterly broken games have found their own way of being entertaining. Sometimes it can just be fun to watch someone else struggle through a game and see all the brokenness that is has to offer without having to personally fight it yourself. Some of us get vicarious enjoyment out of seeing another player react to the twists and turns of a story, and other times we get that same enjoyment from witnessing the twists and turns of bad gameplay and the eventual joy at overcoming it.
Sometimes, you don’t even need to view the entirety of a game in order to see the comedy in it. There is a cottage industry of YouTube channels that look back on older games from a modern lens and there can be an enjoyment in having the wool lifted from your eyes on a past golden era, even more so when looking back at a game that was poorly received even in its time. In fact, my little sister is the owner of a copy of the terrible Bratz Rock Angelz for PlayStation 2, simply because a of YouTube video looking back on and making fun of the game became a joke between us to the point where we picked up a cheap copy of the game for a laugh several years ago.
The Meme Potential
Going along with the idea of streams and videos helping to get these bad games popularity, social media has seen the rise of another form of making these bad games a shared experience: memes and jokes at the game’s expense. Sometimes this just means using a screenshot from the game as a reaction image, and other times that means just sharing an image or clip and letting that speak for itself. Either way, this form of sharing is what gets some of these bad games the recognition that they need in order to survive in the cultural landscape.
For me, the most prominent example that comes to mind is when people post images or videos of glitches that they experience in games. Most recently, there was the pervasive spread of moments that people were experiencing in Fallout 76, but it’s not a new phenomenon. I’ve never played any of the Assassin’s creed games myself and have not really kept up with the series, but even I knew when Assassin’s Creed: Unity released because images like the one above were everywhere.
The Accessibility Proposition
The fact of the matter is that it’s not that hard to get your hands on a “bad game.” In a lot of cases, they end up being the games that sit in the bargain bin for years after their launch, much like sports titles of years past. Often these games are fairly cheap and if you can get a cheap game just to have something to play, then you’re going to play it, sometimes even if it is absolutely terrible, just to see it though. There are plenty a millennial who were gifted a cheap and bad game by a well meaning relative who didn’t exactly understand the difference but knew the box art looked interesting. When you grow up with a game like that, it’s not that hard to get attached, especially when you’re ten and don’t have enough pocket money to pick up the games you really want without a little help just yet.
For those of us who rented games, there was likely a game or two that was always available for rental because nobody else wanted it, or might have been the only game left for the console that you had. There is that time spent together that can endear you to a game in ways that you might not even realize at the time.
The Nostalgia Corollary
Hand in hand with the accessibility of these games, sometimes we simply just grew up with a game that some people might now consider to be “bad” but we nonetheless have nostalgia of them. For instance, I have a ton of nostalgia for the movie tie in game Scooby-Doo and the Cyber Chase on the original PlayStation, despite how many consider it to be a bad Crash Bandicoot ripoff. That doesn’t stop me from loving the game for what it is and was or from popping it in whenever I remember that I own it. Nostalgia is something that can play a strong role in why we love what we love, as these nostalgic connections are made in our formative years. In fact, an analysis of song preferences based on Spotify data suggest that our music tastes may be set firmly in our early teen years. It’s not that much of a stretch to consider that there might be an influence in what kind of games we prefer set around a similar age.
In fact, I know of someone on staff here at Nintendad who has a nostalgic fondness for playing Sonic the Hedgehog (2006) split screen with their cousin at a young age. I will not disclose their name here for obvious reasons.
The Good Game Supposition
There’s also one more reason that you might like a “bad game.” Plain and simple, it’s not bad.
If you like a game, then it stands to reason that there is something about the game that is inherently “good.” You don’t need to justify your taste in games to anyone but yourself, after all. This is the reason why a lot of us can have such a strong reaction to someone saying that they don’t like our favorite games, because we love them and it can sometimes be hard to articulate this difference in opinion. It’s why we love to compare review scores and complain about them.