Friday, May 14, 2010

So bad it's good

Have you ever seen the movie Hard Rock Zombies? Chances are you haven't, as it's not very popular. But given pop culture's current fetish for zombies, debating how to best prepare for zombie attacks, and inserting zombies into classic literature, I'm surprised it hasn't become more popular. Nevertheless, Hard Rock Zombies remains my favorite so-bad-it's-good movie of all time.

The concept of a movie being "so bad it's good" is at the heart of TV shows like "Mystery Science Theater 3000" and purposefully ludicrous films like Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus. No one goes into a film with a title like that expecting greatness. On the contrary, we enjoy it because it's so bad. My personal favorite musician Frank Zappa even paid homage to the genre in a song called "Cheepnis."

When it comes to games, though, the genre of "so-bad-it's-good" is practically nonexistent. Sure I've played plenty of bad games, even really bad games, but they almost never cross that boundary into being so bad that they're enjoyable in a perverted sort of way. More often then not, they're so bad they're terrible. Even when it comes to games being purposefully made bad (a sort of videogame version of Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus), I can name practically none.

I've often wondered why this is. It's not enough to make a game with a ridiculous plot and laughable voice acting. Such games abound, and such traits surrounded by solid gameplay would still be called a good game (like Dynasty Warriors 4, just to throw out an example). But more importantly, bad special effects, bad acting, etc. are the hallmarks of films. If we're talking games, the "so-bad-it's-good" part of it would have to be an inherent part of that medium. The actual game part has to be so-bad-it's-good. And therein lies the rub.

If you, for example, make a racing game and design the car so that it's near impossible to drive without swerving off the road, then certainly you've succeeded in making a bad game. But how do you get from there to making it so-bad-it's-good? As I'm not a videogame designer, I'll leave it up to the men and women of that noble profession to definitively answer the question.

But I do have some good news. I was inspired to write this post by a game I started playing recently, a game that I believe deserves the title of the first ever true so-bad-it's-good game. And that game is Deadly Premonition for the Xbox 360.

Oooh, scary.

The first thing you notice is the graphics. They're truly terrible. Trees are lined with two-dimensional branches. The ground is lined with ugly, blurry textures that are supposed to be grass. Squirrels sound like monkeys. When characters try to emote, it looks like invisible hooks are pulling the corners of their mouths. People do not walk, run, or even move. They contort.

The plot, such as it is, was clearly ripped off of the show "Twin Peaks." A woman in a small town is murdered under mysterious circumstances, and a snarky FBI agent is sent in to crack the case. You play the FBI agent Francis York Morgan, who spends as much time investigating the crime as he does ruminating on cheesy 80s movies. (Perhaps the game hinting that it knows how bad it is?)

Virtually every part of this game reeks of incompetence. You can shoot, but the aiming is haphazard. You can drive, but the car will inexplicably veer off the road at random times. You can talk to the townspeople, but conversations are slow-paced, stilted and . The soundtrack will frequently cue up inappropriate music, such as a folksy ballad during a tense moment, and the same five or six tracks repeat over and over throughout the game.

There are so many small gameplay touches that amount to a thoroughly uniquely bad experience. Every time you pick up an item, you're taken to a separate black screen that says, "You picked up [whatever]" before being dropped back into the action. The game is mainly played from an over-the-shoulder perspective a la Gears of War or Silent Hill, except for certain instances where the camera zooms out to a third-person perspective where suddenly it's like you're playing the original Resident Evil. You earn money for killing enemies, but you also earn money for completely random things like changing your clothes, driving through gates, and peeking in windows.

And yet, despite all this, the game is fucking hilarious. It's bad, to be sure, but it somehow compels you to keep playing so you can see just how bad it gets. I'm only 5 hours in, and I think I've already seen enough to make a comprehensive guide on how not to make a game.

What makes Deadly Premonition truly stand out, though, isn't just that it's bad. It's that no other game I can think of descends to such a level of badness. And I don't mean to say it's the worst game I've ever played, either. Deadly Premonition has somehow managed to reach that golden equilibrium where it's so bad, it becomes good again. I think all Xbox 360 owners should go out and buy it simply because of its uniqueness.

What other games are there that accomplish what Deadly Premonition does? If you think of any, please leave a comment or email me because I'm dying to know. I own over 100 so-bad-they're-good films. I own only one so-bad-it's-good game. This inequality must be addressed.