We’ve all experienced it; someone, somewhere, starts tearing apart a game you love and calling it “crap”. Nothing is more heartbreaking and infuriating – and yet, just as sure as I am that we’ve all gone through it, I know we’ve also all done the same thing to someone else’s beloved title. This is, of course, just the subjective nature of any art, but it brings up a simple question: When is a game just bad?
For starters, any game can be broken down to the basics of gameplay, level design, player feedback, and then the more cursory story element. For some, a game’s story is the driving force of what makes a game “good” or “bad”. In the case of games like TellTale’s The Walking Dead, Supermassive Games’ Until Dawn, or Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain, in which these games’ base concepts are to be interactive stories, I would agree to this point. However, the vast majority of games are fairly lacking in story and can still be phenomenal – thus, for the sake of this article, I’m going to leave the deconstruction of a game’s story for another piece.
As for the rest of it, I’m going to dig in deep to one of the worst games I’ve ever come across. If you don’t know it, or at least of it, count yourself lucky and just stop reading at this point.
Duke Nukem Forever was released in 2011 as the long-awaited sequel to the 1996 Duke Nukem 3D. The project had died alongside developer Triptych Games, but was half-heartedly revived by Gearbox Software and 2K publishing. Normally the Gearbox/2K combo spells good news – just look at the Borderlands franchise. But the result of DNF was a game that would have been laughed at and forgotten in the late 90s, and instead became a complete disaster that will live on in gaming history as a big pile of burning shit.
I bought this game for $3 knowing it was terrible back in 2012, and for whatever reason I never got rid of it. I had heard it was bad; I read the reviews, I was aware of the scandal. I just sort of assumed that it would be the kind of laughably bad that I’d get $3 worth of entertainment out of – not so. Instead it has been a badge of shame, and any time someone new comes by and sees it on my shelf, I have to relive the terror. Everyone who hasn’t played it always wants to try it for themselves.
The gameplay isn’t awful. It’s not particularly good – your usual Press-X-to-do-anything sort of game, triggers to hit stuff/fire weapon, thumbsticks to move about and look at things. The problem with the gameplay is simply how it relates to player feedback. The camera seems to be about right in sensitivity, but movement is jumpy at best. It’s easy to overshoot your mark, and interacting with anything requires standing and looking at just the right angle, which is an unbelievable pain. Weapons work ok in terms of accuracy, but they feel ridiculously overpowered, and not in the cool way. The enemy AI get hit and just sort of slump over or shoot across the room or a variety of other semi-comical, but mostly just sad looking deaths. Not to mention the fact that these things are just plain stupid. I found one just kind of aimlessly walking into a support beam making weird grunting noises. Another walked right by me, possibly even through my right shoulder, without making any kind of reaction to my presence.
It’s a painful experience. And crappy gameplay isn’t the end of it. The first level is so bizarrely laid out that it takes about an hour just to figure out where you’re going and what the hell is happening. Essentially you start off at a stadium where you’re going to kill a giant monster for spectators, then go to your apartment/shrine/throne room, go onto a talk show, and end up killing a bunch of aliens that are invading. Nothing in the world that’s built gives you any indication of where to go, or really why you’re going there. When you first boot up the game, you seem to inevitably find yourself in the bathroom to pee, and just as inevitably picking up a piece of shit from a nearby stall and throwing it at random people, walls, whatever, just because you can. Almost by chance, you’ll finally come across the double-doors that indicate your way out onto the field, and from there it’s just pick up a gun and shoot at stuff that dies really fast and leaves you with absolutely no satisfaction. You can’t even take that piece of shit from the start out onto the field – it vanishes the second you step outside! *
Everything after that point is just more of the same. Series of hallways that could possibly be where you’re supposed to go; luckily this isn’t anything slightly open-world, so when the doors don’t open, you know you’re at the wrong place. Except for that whole problem of not always being able to open the doors you’re supposed to be able to open because you’re not standing in, or looking at, just the right spot.
So what does this all boil down to in the generic sense? How can we apply what we’ve learned from this shit-storm of a game to other games to determine if they’re clunky but salvageable, or just bad?
Simple. Poor gameplay is unintuitive and makes you work for the simplest of tasks, like opening a door. Other examples include nearly any Xbox 360 Kinect game, and the original Assassin’s Creed. Player feedback is obviously linked very closely to gameplay; knowing when you’re doing something right or wrong, such as “this hurts”, is the keystone of any game. Plus, not having clear signs of punishment (challenge) or reward (feeling of achievement), means you’re left mostly just feeling like you’re wasting time pressing buttons and staring at a screen rather than doing something enjoyable. Muddled feedback leads to boredom. Finally, a bad level is one that has unclear goals, confusing structure, and is overly difficult (potentially due to bad gameplay/feedback). My favorite example of a terrible piece of level design is the all-famous Meat Circus level in Psychonauts – great game, god-awful level.
Having one of these elements go sour may lead to a clunky, boring, or just plain difficult game experience, but if the other two elements are good and you’ve got a decent story to support it, your game may be a passable personal treasure. All three? You’ve hit DNF levels of bad, and your game is just trash.
* After writing this, it was pointed out to me that you could, in fact, take the poop outside, although once again, it’s fairly unintuitive and glitchy.