[Game budgets are rising and blockbusters like Crysis 2 are putting all the money on-screen. But the games attracting real cult adoration are flawed gems like No More Heroes and Deadly Premonition. What is it that makes us love these games we shouldn't?]
It's not an uncommon view in an industry which more than any other has defined progress by technical rather than creative achievements. When asked what it was that was most important in a blockbuster game on his Jimmy Fallon appearance to promote Gear of War 3, Cliff Bleszinski instantly responded that it was graphics. It would be unfair to suggest that the point is entirely without merit. As the technology powering games grows stronger, the ability of the medium to build fuller and more interactive worlds increases. I've long been calling for games to become less linear and more built around design which reacts to player decisions as opposed to the other way around, which is something that becomes more and more likely as better tech gives designers more tools to work with. But Yerli's comments also got me thinking about how many big-budget games have really utilised that potential for anything other than increased spectacle or visual splendour and whether there has ever been a game I have enjoyed purely for its technology (other than Wii Sports, an answer which would probably make Mr. Yerli break down in tears). Spectacle can certain add a lot to a game – one of the few disappointments with the new Red Steel game is that it doesn't offer anywhere near the same degree of eye-popping destruction as the original – but I can't honestly think of a single game where I've been able to overlook poor design thanks to being wooed by the technology powering it. In fact, I realised something quite different.
While I have no great knowledge of philosophy, an idea I find very meaningful in Japanese culture is that of '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 rather are evocations of the ever-moving nature of life. I'm sure there are many people here who can describe the concept better than I can, but the gist as I understand it is that the things we find most beautiful and form the deepest connections to in life are those which reflect the imperfect, transient nature of our own existences. 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 and most acclaimed releases of recent times, from Half-Life 2 to BioShock, Heavy Rain and Uncharted 2. Yet despite their obvious merits and impressive technology, I haven't felt a connection with any of them in a way that even comes close to how much I adore Suda's game. The strange thing is that I know this shouldn't be the case: by any objective measure, No More Heroes is packed full of flaws. Even if meant ironically or as part of the game's greater meaning, the side-jobs are pretty labourious, the Schpeltiger handles atrociously, the graphics are decidedly fuzzy and there's no shortage of repetition no matter how outstanding the combat system is. But in a strange way, these are all things I love about the game as much as its many clear qualities. Not only do the archaic graphics feel in tune with the punk aesthetic, but they make me engage my imagination and carry a spirited underdog appeal. Controlling the bike might feel like trying to get an elephant to do a ballet routine on a tightrope, but it made it a more satisfying and personal achievement when I finally mastered it. While the sequel has been better reviewed for ironing out many of the issues that were complained about in the original, there has been a distinct voice amongst players that in doing so, the game has lost a lot of what made its predecessor so special.
Jim Sterling's full-marks review of Deadly Premonition on Destructoid has also passed into legend (via the dear fellow's usual controversial routes) and raised large amounts in interest amongst players keen to try out this odd release which even Sterling admits is far from the kind of polished, well-balanced gaming experience we've come to expect in this generation. But as humans we're compelled towards the unusual and the unpredictable, as it is these things which give us experiences that feel genuinely new and surprising, scratching that deeply ingrained curiosity that keeps us growing and evolving as individuals and as a species.
That Deadly Premonition sounds hysterically funny (I can't say I've played it, but it's one of the few 360 games that I really, really want 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 that we take pleasure from making new discoveries, there's great joy to be found in being at the mercy of a situation that is completely at odds with everything we'd trained ourselves to expect and being forced to just watch events unfold in bafflement, amazement and often fits of laughter. And when it's the blockbuster games that accidentally collapse into absurdity, the pleasures are only multiplied ("Solve my maze!", anyone?)
To me, 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) that we know we shouldn't like as much as we do, but just can't help it. With blockbusters, we can enjoy essentially familiar experiences that are slightly tweaked or shinier to seem fresh. But they are essentially impersonal, a little too dry in their refinement. Boot up Deadly Premonition on the other hand and all those rough edges and diabolically overspun dialogue seem so wrong and yet so special, like we're deriving a private pleasure from something we know we shouldn't. When Jurassic Park: Trespasser was cited in my Deus Ex blog post as one of the worst results of the late '90s experimental period in gaming, I was stunned when someone got back to me saying that 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.
The technology-pushing blockbusters that Cevat Yerli specialises in are unquestionably a hugely important part of the gaming industry and responsible for a lot of enjoyment for a vast number of people, myself included (after three hours of Modern Warfare multiplayer this afternoon, I don't want to be too hypocritical). Yet to suggest that all games should follow this path and that creative fulfilment can only be achieved with the most advanced technology seems to be a particularly narrow view of the endless number of ways in which people find pleasure in the most unexpected places. Because while there's no doubt plenty of entertainment to be had in watching New York being blown up for the umpteenth time in ever more detailed ways, in a choice between that or finding F-K in the coffee, lightsabering my way to the top of an assassins' chart or listening to a spectacularly camp man named Dubois tell me how an air-unit is haaaaaaling at the top of its lungs, sometimes the answer seems as clear as a crisp spring morning.