Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Games - Why We Can't Help But Love Flawed Games

My knowledge of philosophy is not particularly deep, but there's a wonderful concept in Japanese culture called 'wabi-sabi'. (Another is that of 'bakku-shan', but that's not for this blog). Wabi-sabi is the idea that true beauty comes from a reflection of transience, in the parts of a design which Western eyes might see as flaws but are instead evocations of the ever-shifting nature of life. I'm sure there are many people who can offer a better description, but the gist (as I understand it) is that the things we find most beautiful and form the deepest connections to are those reflecting the imperfect, transient nature of our own existence. In a strange way, this is true of gaming as well.

Of my all-time favourite games, the only one to be released in the post-N64 era is No More Heroes. Even sticking with my Wii and PC for gaming, I've managed to play almost all the major big-budget releases of this generation. Yet despite their obvious merits and impressive technology, none have connected in a way that comes close to my adoration for Suda's game.
By any logical standard, this shouldn't be the case: No More Heroes is packed full of flaws. Even if intended ironically or as part of a supposed thematic meaning, the side-jobs are labourious, the Schpeltiger motorbike handles atrociously, the graphics are fuzzy and there's no shortage of repetition, no matter how phenomenal the combat system.

These are all things I love about the game, though, despite technically being faults. The archaic graphics feel in tune with the punk aesthetic, engaging my imagination and conveying a certain underdog appeal. Controlling the bike might feel like trying to get an elephant to perform ballet on a tightrope, but makes a more satisfying achievement when finally mastered. While the sequel received higher review scores for ironing out many of those 'issues', there was an outcry from some players who believed that the game lost much of what made the original so special.

The unusual and the unpredictable is often far more enticing than the pristine, though, as they give us experiences which feel genuinely new and surprising, scratching a deeply ingrained curiosity that keeps us growing as individuals. The controversy surrounding Jim Sterling's full-marks review of Deadly Premonition on Destructoid raised a great deal of interest at the time amongst players keen to try out this eccentric release, which even Sterling admits is far from the polished, well-balanced experience we've come to expect.

That Deadly Premonition sounds hysterically funny - I can't say I've played it, but it's one of the few 360 games I would really, really like to - only makes it more compelling: while all those mainstream sitcoms with their canned laughter and 'joke every ten seconds' formula are fine, it's rare that they offer the same gut-laugh pleasure as something completely off-the-wall, where we're at a disadvantage because we can't predict what will happen next.

In the same way we take pleasure from making new discoveries, much joy is to be found at the mercy of a situation completely at odds with everything we'd trained ourselves to expect, being forced to watch events unfold in bafflement and fits of laughter. When it's the blockbuster games that accidentally collapse into absurdity, the pleasures are only multiplied ("Solve my maze!", anyone?).

Perhaps this is why so many of us have 'guilty pleasure' games - or anything else: as a film geek, people I talk to are often totally stumped at how I can recommend Lawrence of Arabia and Shogun Assassin with the same enthusiasm. We know we shouldn't like them as much as we do, but just can't help it. With blockbusters, we can enjoy familiar experiences, slightly tweaked and made shinier to give the impression. What their dry refinement cannot offer is the pleasure of loading up a game like Deadly Premonition or No More Heroes, where the rough edges and diabolically overspun dialogue add a surprising and personal flavour, as though we're deriving a private pleasure from something we know we shouldn't.

When Jurassic Park: Trespasser was cited in my Deus Ex retrospective as an example of the late '90s experimental period in gaming gone wrong, I was stunned when someone got back to me saying they loved the game for its wildly overambitious design, despite the plethora of near game-breaking bugs. I might not agree with him, but he found something special amidst the wreckage that make a connection with him personally and that's something I both recognise and admire (although anyone who enjoys Trespasser is clearly a little nuts).

Why am I thinking about this? There's a new console generation on the horizon, and discussion is once again being monopolised by how great the power increase will be from this set of hardware to the next. For all its faults, the Wii offered developers a low-cost platform to host their weird little games, which would not have been commercially viable for development on more modern hardware. (Deadly Premonition was created for the PS2 and subsequently ported to the 360). Game budgets are only going to increase in line with the demands of more powerful technology, surely putting a squeeze on the number of delightfully bonkers, charmingly imperfect games making it to retail. Digital distribution offers many exciting possibilities for such games, but few developers have managed to achieve success with full-priced, download-only titles, especially when game size and variable download speeds are a concern.

Technology-pushing blockbusters are unquestionably an important part of the gaming industry and responsible for giving a great deal of enjoyment to a vast number of people, myself included - after two hours of MW3 multiplayer last night, I don't want to be hypocritical. The idea that all games end up following this path, though, or that creative fulfilment can only be achieved with the most advanced technology, seems a narrow view of what people find enjoyable. In a choice between finding F-K in the coffee or watching New York being blown up for the umpteenth time – this generation alone seen the poor city come under assault in both Crysis 2 and Modern Warfare 3 sometimes the answer is as clear as a crisp spring morning.


1 comment:

Lers said...

I have a lot of guilty pleasure things... For one thing I have a total soft spot for animal games. (YES! It's true! It feels so good to finally admit it!) Sometimes I feel self conscious about liking animal games so much, because I'm afraid that since people will think that since I'm a girl, that I must only like casual games, or even worse, "gamez 4 gurlz". Nothing could be further from the truth! The truth is just that I really like animals! Haha! In anything! It's kind of embarrassing just how many animal related games I have on my phone though...

I also have a lot of guilty pleasure movies - DOLEMITE!!! - and TV shows, like Glee!

What draws different people to these flawed experiences can be any number of things, but we all have them!