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Nothing Like the Sun: Why we can't help but love flawed games



The gaming press is no stranger to cock-waving, but this week most of it has been coming not from the console manufacturers as usual, but Crytek CEO Cevat Yerli, speaking at the release of the first details of his company's upcoming game Crysis 2. Unsurprisingly, considering how the original game was known for its highly advanced visuals, Yerli has been emphasizing his view that one of the most important factors in making a quality game is putting the best technology on show.

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 recent 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 (there's a list in my 'about me' column if you're curious), 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 from this very site 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 (although anyone who enjoys Trespasser is clearly a little nuts).

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.


The Accidental Death of a Plumber

The New Politics of Gaming

Do We Really Want Difficult Games?

Can Motion Controls Overcome The Hurdles of Gaming Logic?

Can Traditional Third-Party Games Ever Succeed On The Wii?

I Want Your Love And I Want Your Revenge: No More Heroes Series Analysis

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About Xander Markhamone of us since 3:08 PM on 02.07.2010

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I'm a 26-year old English writer, formerly known on the CBlogs as Xandaça. I've been an avid gamer since I was a wee lad, gripping a NES controller in my hands and comprehensively failing to get past those infuriating Hammer Bros on Level 8-3 of Super Mario Bros. I've stuck with Nintendo since then (not for any animosity towards the other console makers of course - Nintendo just make games I enjoy and have grown up with), apart from a brief sojourn with a Sony PlayStation, several woeful attempts to play Half-Life 2 using a laptop touchpad and sporadically wrangling a turn on my sister's beloved Sega Saturn.

In addition to burping out the occasional novel, I'm a passionate critic, writing reviews and articles of films, book and games for my school magazine and university newspaper, for which I created and edited its film section. In addition to starting up my own blog, covering television, games and movies, I am also a writer for Destructoid's cine-geek sister Flixist. While primarily a film geek, the evolution of the games industry over the course of its short lifetime has fascinated me and provided vast quantities of content for some incendiary pieces of work - perhaps a few more might spring up on here?

My Favourite Games of All Time (because who doesn't love having a few Of All Time lists?) are GoldenEye 007 (which I still play through at least once a year to remind me of its glories), Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, Gunstar Heroes, Super Mario Bros 3 (I don't know who told Shigsy Miyamoto-san that raccoons could fly, but I'll love them forever) and No More Heroes.

I hope you find great enjoyment in my many scribings, and please keep an eye out for upcoming news on my novel(s) and do pay a visit to my blog sometime. And yes, the Dtoid community's 'no copy and paste' rule will be fully respected!

Good gaming, everyone!