In Defense of Bad Games

Kuon: a terrible game.

I know that I can be pretty harsh when it comes to bad games. I mean, this is a research blog and I am interested in why bad games are bad, but I’m also a gamer, and being frustrated by a bad game that I’m playing for research is just as annoying as when it’s just for fun. Sometimes I really dislike a game that a lot of other people enjoyed: recent posts about Rule of Rose and Cold Fear have garnered more responses from you guys than almost any other topic in the five year history of this site.

So I want to talk a little about why playing and critiquing bad games is so important. My goal is not to take the development teams to task; in my career as a game developer, I’ve worked on some pretty poor games myself, and I know first hand that bad games are almost always the result of factors outside of the development team’s immediate control rather than incompetence. So while I may bitch about how certain games are badly balanced, or too tricky for their own good, or fatally flawed, I am blasting the game experience, not the people who made it.

In fact, I think that my experience working on games that turned out to be less than stellar has a lot to do with my rationale for running this site. You can’t help but wonder what the hell happened when you play something like The Ring for the first time; everything is so amazingly broken that it’s almost hard to pin down which of the game’s failures is the most glaring. I think that one of the big reasons that bad games get made is that people experiment with ideas but do not have time to change or refine them if they don’t work out; the Ring might have sounded good on paper, but the development cycle was probably so short that even if the development team realized that they had just created the worst thing ever in the history of things, they probably didn’t have any time to go back and make fixes. I’ve been there, and it’s a sucky situation to be in.

So one of the reasons for me to run this site is to find out what ideas really don’t work so well so that maybe other developers can avoid them in the future. Given that game development time is limited and a lot of things have already been tried, I’d like to provide a resource for game designers (or anybody interested in design, even if they are not a professional) to examine what has been done in the past within the horror genre, and which of those ideas have failed.

To that end, playing bad games is much more enlightening than playing good games. So often a game works very well because many aspects of the game design work together to produce an excellent experience. It’s hard to tell, then, which of those aspects might work outside of its original context; it’s hard to divine which parts of a good game are intrinsically good, and which parts are good because they’ve been combined with other design ideas. But by playing bad games, you can quickly and easily get a feel for ideas that do not work. If these are ideas that have been successfully employed elsewhere, that tells you that the idea isn’t robust enough to stand up on its own, but it can work when combined with something else. Playing bad games also helps me appreciate the quality with which good games are developed; after playing Kuon, I have new respect for the highly superior (and somewhat thematically similar) Fatal Frame series.

So I love bad games. I started this site to learn about why good horror games are good, and that means I also need to understand why bad horror games are terrible. Even though it can be a chore to play them, and any enjoyment I get may be in spite of the game rather than because of it, bad games are an invaluable resource.

18 thoughts on “In Defense of Bad Games

  1. To know the bad ones you’d have top ask what actually constitutes the “feeling” of a good horror game and how was that first generated for the gamer? Do we have a set of boxes which need to be internally ticked to get that feeling, and have those boxes been set down by our very first experiences of the genre or are they rooted in our own personal psyche?
    We all know what makes us scared as individuals, but do those fears actually come into play that much when we rate a game; personally, I’m not inclined to think so, though of course they are a factor. Looking at the expectation factor created by past horror games is more relevant to how we perceive new ones. Don’t we judge the current crop by the classics which made us shiver? We look again and again at the triggers in resi, silent hill and so on to once more grab that same sensation of fear we took from those games. Again, this in itself is not a specific reason we find fault and ultimately disappointment in horror games.
    That “feeling” of the awful horror game we get comes in various waves which for me begins with the characters. You can get past a bad first scene and slow pace but if the characters are purest cardboard with dialogue to match then the thin veneer of feeling peril for your character is gone, to be replaced by laughter (add the game of your choice here) Next would be atmosphere, music and ambient mood of the playing space, this is key to generate that mood and feeling of dread which the player can quickly soak up, without it, many games are dead in the water. The mood, music and sound affects are the overall canvas which the game is painted across. Get this wrong and you have nowhere else to go but to the back of the game box. TTA, Time To Action. Now a good game can meander its way to the point and keep you there with atmosphere but if you don’t have that, then TTA kicks in. If the game fails in others areas then at least distract the player with a plentiful supply of various beasties (insert game of your choice here) Lastly for me, is playing area. Stuck in a samey, singular place is always a turn off. Smaller, diverse areas of atmospheric instances are always best to my mind, and serves to help other areas of a game which might not be up to par as mentioned above.
    The points above make up some the key factors for myself why certain horror games don’t step up to the plate. Once the initial feeling of doubt upon the game’s actual ability to generate fear has kicked in, then it’s all downhill from there.

  2. In pen & paper RPG criticism they talk a lot about “heartbreakers” which, to use the loosest definition, are games that have some spark of brilliance, some new and great creative idea, but that are ruined by technical flaws. I’d divide SH games into 4 categories:
    -The Suck: Have no spark of brilliance and have major flaws.
    -Competent But Boring: Technically, there are no major flaws, and moderately fun, but there’s nothing creative or new that makes you remember the game after you’re done playing it.
    -Heartbreaker: It has something new and brilliant or compelling that makes you want to like it, but you can’t because of all the flaws.
    -Perfect: Has both brilliance and no major flaws.

    They all have something to teach game designers, but I think heartbreakers probably have the most to teach because they are so close to being perfect.

  3. You should be a politician. I mean, if only people in power thought about things with this kind of open mind and will to approach and analyse the good as well as bad then perhaps we would have less conflict and strife at a national level, then eventually on an international one.

    But as I have read, the person who should be president is that person who has to be forced into the office.

    On the horror game note, one old saying springs to mind, “the man who made no mistakes, made nothing”. I guess that is why the flaws in horror games make them important to analyse.



  4. I’m not going to claim Kuon is an amazing game, but I’d have to say I think you judge it too harshly by labeling it “terrible”. I played the game after I read your review and a lot of your complaints seemed like valid technical issues, but it also seemed like they became exaggerated from frustration.

    For one thing, you mentioned the lack of auto-aim as a flaw and the fact that melee attacks weapons did more damage (that’s true of the fire-ball spell you mentioned, but not for all of the spells), and said that the combat system “blows”. That seems like a rather harsh judgment when the game doesn’t even require that you learn how to aim to make it through, and it hands you plenty of spells that do auto-aim for people that maybe can’t seem to get the hang of melee fighting. It’s not rocket science but it’s not necessarily extremely easy, either- more average than particularly bad.

    Really the biggest flaw to me seemed to be the beginning of each perspective. As you mentioned they were handled very badly- the duplicated puzzles as well as the fact that both girls go through some of the exact-same events when logically they couldn’t possibly have both witnessed those events. But once you finish the mansion the paths do differ significantly- you explore the same basic areas, but not in the ridiculously repetitious pattern and certain areas aren’t actually crossed by both Sakuya and Utsuki. In the end their missions are unfortunately very similar, but “exactly the same”is still a fairly big stretch.

    Or maybe I’m just easy to please. I know in the end this really comes down to personal preference, but I just wanted to point some things out for thought.

  5. I’m surprised to find anybody defending Kuon! I thought that would be a selection that everybody could agree upon.

    I stand by my assessment that the game is terrible, though. There are a few nice moments and I liked some of the art, but the game was drudgery to play through (twice; thankfully it’s not that long). As for the two characters having different paths, I remember there being maybe 10 minutes of unique content for each character; Sakuya fights that awful ape boss, which I mentioned in the review.

    The thing about the combat is, all games must have competent player control. It’s a all-or-nothing requirement. Rule of Rose fails that requirement in a huge way, which is too bad because the rest of the content is actually interesting. Kuon is much less of a failure in this respect, but it was still pretty bad.

  6. As far as I remember the short unique part of Sakuya had a logical hole. It’s before you meet that ape monster, I guess, when Sakuya meets Utsuki. Utsuki talks to Sakuya on the verge of a cliff that Sakuya is not able to reach. When I saw that cutscene I immediately thought to myself that this never happened in Utsuki’s scenario. Correct me if I’m wrong though.

  7. Yeah, that sounds right to me. Although really, a few holes in the plot are the least of the problems in Kuon.

    Cool box art though.

  8. The box art of the American version looks nice indeed. The European one is just a red blurry version of the American cover with the concept art of Utsuki slapped in front of it all, which looks very cheap and makes the game stand out as ‘low budget’. One of the few games I would be ashamed of if somebody else saw it 🙂 There was a time when I thought that European covers were superior to the ones in the other regions.

  9. I guess I’m just easy to please. Or Maybe I’m just mistaking bad controls with a challenge 🙂

    I absolutely agree with you about Rule of Rose, though. The battle system controls were pretty bad, and adding on top of that the fact that many times the enemies would appear infinitely only made it worse. It was pretty disappointing that you could have such a nice variety for your arsenal of weapons, but no real reason to use them.

    And then the fact that the dog seemed to have trouble finding items within the room he’s in first… Sometimes he would wander in the opposite direction to get an item, and then using the same item as before to sniff up another, he would go all the way back to the previous room to locate another item. Did anyone else have this trouble, or was it just bad luck for me?

    And yet oddly enough I sort of like this game for some bizarre reason that I can’t quite figure out. But I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to anyone that hasn’t already started it.

    I’m attending to Game Design College, and I too know how is to see some work sounds great on paper and awful to play. You need time to refine ideas and experience to see what work and what don’t mix well with another things. And some of those, you don’t have any help, you have to do it yourself.
    Also, sometimes you do want to innovate, but you lack the resources and/or time. Or worse: you can’t get the idea right, spoil everything and if you try to correct the concept on another game you can be blocked (“Oh no! But this didn’t worked THAT time!”) or make the same mistakes.
    And, of course, add the fact that most players don’t want new experiences, they don’t like much to think. Give them fancy stuff and they are going to be happy (in my experience with the game testers and my colleges, it worked, unfortunately)

    About Rule of Rose: I THINK some games make controls not that easily to respond to give a title more flavor, like for example Harry in Silent Hill (my favorite horror series, btw) is a lousy gunner, so he misses a LOT. Jennifer is a scared young lady, who doesn’t runs a lot and everything.
    To find stuff with the dog is useful, but you got to have the patience. You first find a item, make, see how many “???” scents the item have and let Brown search until he doesn’t have anything to sniff around. If you do so, early in the game you’re going to have enough healing itens for the entire gameplay. If you don’t do so, you’ll barely have enough if you’re a capable player (making the game harder).
    It may be hard, but the story is worth it. Gets even more stranger before makes sense.

    Carry on! I really enjoy your reviews and comments about game design. They are really insightful. And on a side note: I loved the J-Terror special

  11. Very interesting read. I have to say though that when it comes to bad games I think it’s all relative. One person’s terrible game can be another’s favorite. I can usually work around bad controls once I get the feel for it, and things along that line. For me a terrible game is one that gets so hard I’m to frustrated to finish. Fatal Frame 2 is a perfect example, after about 30 trips down that stupid tunnel and my kids looking at me like “mommy has lost it, she’s mad!” I gave up , another in my unfinished pile. It’s good for developers to try new things, but let us finish the game without having to put more time in one part then in the rest of the game. Love the site and enjoy all your reviews and comments. Thanx.

  12. Ruby, I hear you aon the frustration. My first time playing Fatal Frame 2 (it was on normal mode)I beat the final boss with no problems whatsoever. However, the second time I played I died so many times against that same boss that I thought I would go mad! What I’ve found, though, is that once I overcome a game that while playing it I get frustrated and begin to hate it I no longer feel that way once I’ve beaten it, and most of the time I really like it.

    And I don’t know if anyone else noticed this, but if you go down the tunnel and get to the section with the steps (right before you take the picture of the twins), you can turn around and go back to the save point. It’s still a long walk back to the final boss if you die repeatedly, but that way you atleast don’t have to keep fighting the ghosts down there.

    Ultimecia: “To find stuff with the dog is useful, but you got to have the patience. You first find a item, make, see how many “???” scents the item have and let Brown search until he doesn’t have anything to sniff around. If you do so, early in the game you’re going to have enough healing itens for the entire gameplay. If you don’t do so, you’ll barely have enough if you’re a capable player (making the game harder.

    I’m assuming that was repsonding to what I wrote? I know what you’re saying because that’s how I got through the game, but that doesn’t help with the problem I brought up: The dog wants to find items that are completely out of the way rather than get all of the items that are in the same room with him. Then, once he’s gotten the out-of-the-way items he will go back to the room he was in before and THEN find the items. If the programs had fixed that I think the frustration of the game could have been eased significantly (atleast for me).

    And as far as fighting goes, I guess I shouldn have elaborated, because I didn’t find Jennifer to be the entire problem most of the time. I found that enemies with shorter-ranged weapons somehow had the ability to hit her from a good distance when she couldn’t even reach that far with the pipe or sword. It was rather inconstistent, and in a way that makes it hard to even “just suck less” to get yourself through. I do like the game, but I admit it can get pretty frustrating.

  13. Yet again, Chris proves his lack of interest in sub-popular horror titles. Kuon was a fantastic game, and I loved it. Along with many other games that are not so popular.

    How much worth can I give this “quest”?

  14. I don’t mean to come off rash or anything to you, Chris, I am just making argument 😉

    Anyway, your ideals for this website and your “research” don’t really speak much for your reviews. I mean, you are basically taking a technical standpoint on these games.

    Silent Hill 2 has a terrible combat system and is often bashed in reviews looking at technicality. You gave this a 9.8

    Well, I’d give it a 10 of course but that is just me, and that has nothing to do with technicality…I’m sure you know my interests by now.

    So, Rule of Rose, awful technical issues abound, and great art direction…yet no love? Make little sense to me. I think you liked SH2’s story and art direction, and this is why you gave it the score you did.

  15. > Brian

    There’s no law saying that you have to agree with me. Please feel free to start your own horror site and write your own reviews. If it’s a good site, I’ll even link to it.

    I think I’ve addressed your complaint in the past, but if you’d still like to discuss it, bring it up in the forum. Silent Hill 2 is an amazing game on so many levels, and unlike Rule of Rose (or, to a lesser extent, Kuon), its game play mechanics work great. I understand that you are willing to overlook bad game play for games that have art direction or narratives that you like, but I am not: a game with bad gameplay is a bad game. They should have written a book or made a short film or something instead. Gameplay is the entire point.

    Post in the forums if you want to argue this further. Otherwise, I look forward to reading your site where you can review everything with TRUTH.

  16. Brian: “I mean, you are basically taking a technical standpoint on these games.”
    That’s very true. But why is that a bad thing? If aesthetics were everything, then why not make it a movie instead of a game? While I don’t always agree with Chris there is a lot of merit to what he’s saying- if it’s terrible game-play that really hurts it from the standpoint of being a game. I don’t personally think the combat system in Kuon is bad, but that’s my opinion and I can see why other people might not like it.

    Brian: “Silent Hill 2 has a terrible combat system and is often bashed in reviews looking at technicality. You gave this a 9.8 “
    Really? That’s quite a generic statement, and from my experience I’ve seen the opposite- that many reviews love the game from a technical standpoint. Whether or not you’re meaning to sound this way, you haven’t given much reason for WHY you think Kuon is good and Silent Hill 2 is bad, and you sound like you’re rating things based on personal bias rather than a real thorough look at the game. Chris’s method of reviewing has to be the most helpful that I’ve seen- it gives a great look at how the game compares aesthetically, how it plays, and how everything works for and against the game.

    You don’t have to agree with Chris, but I don’t think you’re giving him any credit where he deserves a lot.

  17. Siren and Rule of Rose are very similar games in my mind: interesting and atypical story, great soundtrack, wonderful aesthetics, and not even slightly fun to play. I find it strange that one gets about 30% lower scores than the other just because one of them (Siren) is insufferable through conscious design and another through the sheer ineptitude of its makers.

    I recently watched an excellent longplay of Siren that made me appreciate both the artistry of the game and the skill and sheer stamina of the person who drudged through it so I didn’t have to. I only hope somebody does a similar video on RoR.

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