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Comfort Food: Why I’ll Love the Occasional Mediocre Game
On a whim, I picked up James Bond 007: Blood Stone a few weeks ago. It is not a great game. It combines the cover based shooting of Gears of War or Uncharted (minus the harrowing atmosphere or strategic level design) with the quick moving, melee-focused stealth of Splinter Cell: Conviction (minus the empowering speed, brutality and freedom). Everything it does well it apes from better games, and it stumbles through the necessary beats of a James Bond story in just under 7 hours, but I enjoyed every minute.
This isn’t a matter of Blood Stone being a good game or even one I’d recommend playing, but a matter of my perfectly adjusted expectations. I knew that Blood Stone would be unpolished and forgettable, and because of that I was able to enjoy the terrible one-liners, the obvious attempts to ape more memorable Bond stories and, most of all, the sheer amount of Judy Dench throughout. I knew exactly what I wanted out of Blood Stone, and as a result I enjoyed it more than several objectively better games.
Oftentimes, a game I recognize as great fails to grab me. Sometimes I lose interest during a slow section of gameplay, or a lengthy plot sequence. Sometimes I am overwhelmed by my backlog, and drop a game for later, never picking it up. Sometimes I’m enjoying myself and I just…stop. Blood Stone is average in every way, but clean and fun. I know somebody who gladly played through most of Battletoads, a game that becomes less and less playable every minute, but dismissed the excellent Catherine because it started with a quotation. I’ve probably done worse.
A single bad feature can sometimes ruin an otherwise great game. I gave Blackguards, a game with great characters, an extremely fleshed out world and an absurd amount of variety a 6/10 because certain parts of its core gameplay bothered me so much. Blackguards made me care about every one of its major characters and I found some of the later chapters riveting, but I’d prefer the linear corridors and awkward flirting of Blood Stone to another minute of that game.
Then there are times when an extremely polished, satisfying to play and well balanced game completely fails to grab me. Far Cry 3 is still sitting on my hard drive, played twice. I’ve enjoyed both times I played it, but wasn’t quite in the mood to dig in. Combine that with its uPlay features (keeping it well out of my everyday view) and I have a game that I enjoyed immensely, that I have no quibbles with and that I have played for three hours. Meanwhile, I’ve finished Ys I Chronicles+, a remake of an unapologetically dated 80s action RPG with mazelike dungeon design, bizarre button-free combat and an absurd cliffhanger ending, six times now (along with another four runs of other versions of Ys I). Why do I have more fun with Ys I‘s clever but undeniably obtuse dungeon design than with Far Cry 3‘s open design and exhilarating combat?
I feel like a game’s polish is perhaps secondary to what sort of experience the player would like to have at the moment. Playing games is such an active exercise that I sometimes connect more with a core mechanic or a certain sense of atmosphere than the cohesive whole. I sometimes find myself craving Spiderman 2‘s swinging mechanics more than the many more satisfying games I have in my collection, though the lack of any interesting content to drive that swinging means I rarely play for more than a half an hour at a time. Ys I’s combat, which involves running into enemies off-center until they explode in a shower of pixelated limbs, is so strange and unique that I often specifically crave the experience grinding through its odd dungeons and solving its arbitrary but clever puzzles.
Maybe we’re sometimes just in the mood for flawed games. It took me five years to finish Persona 3. Persona 3 is a fascinatingly designed game with some uneven pacing and an easily breakable combat system, and I feel like my inability to enjoy it combined with my desire to finish it anyway made every other RPG I played during that period felt a bit like a waste of my gaming time, including the far smoother, more enjoyable Persona 4. I knew that Persona 3‘s payoff would eventually be worth the occasional lack of structure (and it certainly was), but I think that it was the interesting flaws that kept me coming back
I play so many good games in a week that sometimes it’s nice to play something that is unapologetically flawed and accept those flaws, letting them add to the experience. I free myself from the need to constantly over-analyze, and suddenly I can see how bad mechanics and flawed systems play off of each other. When a game is free to be bad, it’s free to do quite a bit else. Some of my favorite games are deeply flawed, like the clunky to play and obscenely verbose Metal Gear Solid 3 and dozens of needlessly difficult to learn fighting games. But I don’t let those flaws bother me, and when I don’t, are they even flaws at all? When is a flaw just a step away from more traditional game design? When will we be free to appreciate a game for what it is, not for what we think it should be?