Sugar From Shit

Bad mechanics making great games

By: Rowan Kaiser

Filed Under: Mechanics Psychological

Found Art

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is one of the worst games I’ve ever played, according the logical part of my brain.

The logical part of my brain is wrong, of course. I played San Andreas to completion, and enjoyed it. It’s my second-most-played Steam game. (I’m hardly alone in my enjoyment, it’s the best-selling Playstation 2 game and one which has received rave reviews across the board.) And yet, if I try to use that analytic part of my brain to understand what makes San Andreas work, it seems like a disaster.

Its shooting system is mediocre at best. It’s filled with frustratingly simplistic mini-games, like the most basic rhythm-game sections imaginable. The driving is the best of the oft-used mechanics, but it rarely rises above competent, and several of the cars handle wildly. Flying vehicles, on the other hand, switch between boring and horrifically frustrating, and are often mandatory for quests. The quests themselves range wildly in difficulty and length, and tough, long ones—such as one where, 2/3s of the way through the mission, you have to pilot a completely new kind of airplane—don’t include checkpoints, for maximum frustration. The plot is ludicrous, which can be fun, but it also lacks any sort of depth.

The only component of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas that works for me, without any caveats, is its collection of early-1990s radio stations. The music and DJ chatter set the mood that helps build the entire game world. It makes me want to be part of the game, and explore all the interesting and not-so-interesting parts of the game world. San Andreas and games like it are built in an expansive fashion. Here’s a game that’s trying, and often failing, to let your character steal planes like cars, go on dates, recreate Ocean’s Eleven, go on killing sprees, or race from L.A. to San Francisco, or just dance in a club. It’s experimenting with what can be done with the form of video games, and that often means—demands, really—that some parts are going to be fucked up.

I like this expansiveness. I like the daring, the ambition, the crazy gaps in the story or the world or the gameplay that somehow make things better, not worse.

It’s not just for games, either. One of my all-time favorite albums is Television’s Marquee Moon, a beautiful mess of an album, part punk, part jazz, part prog-rock. Not every song is a winner. I even skip the sixth and seventh tracks, “Prove It” and “Guiding Light,” during most listens to the album. Television’s other album released before breaking up, Adventure, is better all-around when I rate each song in my MP3 player. It doesn’t have the weak tracks, and everything works. But Adventure inspires respect, not love from me (or most other critics and fans).

This applies with television shows, as opposed to bands, as well. Sure, and elegantly constructed drama like The Wire and Game Of Thrones are among my favorites. But I don’t get that feeling of obsession with them like I have the wild experiments in the form like Babylon 5, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, or Community. Which leads me to wonder why. Was the form of the band that made Marquee Moon and Buffy more experimental and interesting? Or does my brain actually prefer media with “bad” bits so that I can focus more easily on the “good” parts?

The same thing drives me away from games that aren’t expansive. When I play Gears Of War or Batman: Arkham City, I have to respect the craft that goes into the games. I even enjoy playing them! But I typically only enjoy them in hour-long sittings, rarely compelled to go back. They’re too slick, too intentional, too controlled. These are games where it feels like the developers had a very good idea of what technology was available, what kinds of games and stories worked within those technological (and market) constraints, and create the best possible product within those constraints. I have to force myself to finish them. On the other side, oh lord do I not have to force myself to sit down with Civilization V for what ends up seeming like days at a time, even though I have a checklist of complaints about that game that rivals my annoyances with GTA: San Andreas.

As I write this, I want to play Mass Effect. I’ve wanted to replay the series since I finished the third game, months ago. I’ve wanted to replay it despite considering the ending a total betrayal. I’ve wanted to replay it despite having huge issues with every single part of it, from overall plot to mechanics to mission structure. But here’s the problem. The Mass Effect series isn’t in the part of my mind that can break things down into component parts. It’s firmly lodged in whatever section of my brain loves science fiction. Just as I can’t necessarily explain why Assassin’s Creed doesn’t do much for me despite liking most of the mechanics, I have difficulties explaining what makes Mass Effect so great when there’s so much wrong with it.

Perhaps psychology has an answer. The phenomenon of “cognitive dissonance” describes what happens when people hold two conflicting beliefs at the same time. When actions reveal this discrepancy, the person must nonconsciously create an explanation for their behavior. In a famous study, two groups of people were given a boring task. One was paid enough for it to be worth their time, another was barely paid. When polled, the latter group described the task as more enjoyable. Why? The theory is that, when confronted with the conflicting thoughts of “I don’t do boring things” with “I just did a boring thing,” the easiest resolution was  “it actually wasn’t that boring!” The other group didn’t have that conflict—they could easy say “I did a boring thing, but for money.”

The lesson here isn’t simply that playing “bad” games long enough helps us think that they’re good—I’ve given up on plenty of outright bad or unappealing games. It’s that our brains are designed to fill in gaps that justify our behavior. And, when it comes to video games, my theory is this: the bigger the gaps, the more the brain has to do to fill them. The more work the brain does for the game, the more love the owner of that brain will have for it.

But, in order to make this process work, the game has to do something well. It has to have great radio stations like San Andreas. It can be a paradise of destruction, like Red Faction: Guerrilla, Far Cry 2 or Just Cause 2, or a paradise of beauty like Skyrim. It doesn’t have to be open-world: Mass Effect isn’t, but it has superb voice acting and occasionally fantastic action. It’s almost guaranteed in the best strategy games, like Civilization or Shogun 2, thanks to their successful action/feedback loop. Or it can just be something fresh, like the original Doom, or in love with its own playfulness, like the best Mario games from Bros. to Galaxy. They’re expansive games, trying to do something interesting more than doing something slick. They’re the games worth falling in love with, damn the flaws.

[art credit]

Filed Under: Mechanics Psychological

About the Author:
Rowan Kaiser is a freelance pop culture critic currently living in the Bay Area. He is a contributing writer at The A.V. Club, covering television and literature. He also writes about video games for several different publications, including Joystiq, Gameranx, and Unwinnable.

11,950 Responses to “Sugar From Shit”

  1. JMZoss

    Nice piece. I’m on the same page with you on many of the games you mentioned. Like you, I respect the polish and precision of the Gears games without actually “liking” them.

    The Dead Space games are both titles that have brought me back despite their flaws. Neither a particularly great action game nor particularly scary. But there’s something about the audio design (oh those zero-G segments) and the universe of the series that just clicks with me.

    • James Hawkins

      Yeah I agree with you about the Dead Space games except I find them both scary and loaded with good action. So I guess they wouldn’t fit in this category.

      I will say that I was absolutely blown away by Metro 2033 — a game I wrote off when it was released and only purchased and played on impulse. There’s a lot of naive level design, but you’re in a world that’s meant to be confusing. It works. The tacit contract between player and game that promises mechanics will work consistently throughout is breached frequently. But it feels designed that way – an unreliable world yields unreliable results. Very, very cool.

  2. M. Joshua Cauller

    This absolutely captures the growing fundamental flaw with the average consumer’s obsession with arbitrary scores within review systems. Even if a game is “perfect,” it doesn’t necessarily capture the flavor you’re hungry for. Nice stuff.

  3. Douglas Scheinberg

    There’s a certain game on the original Game Boy called Great Greed that I have a similar relationship with. The game has absolutely no right to be as enjoyable as it is; in just about every technical aspect, it’s lacking, but it somehow adds up into something so incredibly charming and just plain fun that I can’t help loving it.

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