Spelunkoetry

The first in a series, closer examination of the epigraphs themselves will follow in later articles…

Nearly every part of Spelunky is procedurally generated. Not only the levels, but the positioning of the desert rocks and trees Spelunky Guy treks past when you boot the game, and the little epigraph that appears over this scene.

These three lines are the closest the game comes to having a plot. The camera pans down from the blazing desert sun, and as sand-laden winds whisper and rustle the palm fronds a diminutive adventurer, insignificant to the vastness of the desert, strides purposefully among the dunes:

With the desert stretching behind me,

I squeezed the whip at my side,

And felt the gods smiling upon me.

Continue reading

On Nottinghamshire Naming

Nottinghamshire is the kind of a place where a lingerie store and a chip-shop-come-takeaway can both be called ‘Maid Marian’s’.

Alas. ‘Maid Marian’s Secrets’, or whatever the Edwinstowe lingerie shop was called, has closed now; but at least the Mansfield takeaway is one of the better and more reliable ones.

So yeah, everything has ‘Sherwood’ or the name of a Robin Hood character in it somewhere. It’s also likely the only reason the city of Nottingham retains the archaic and now ceremonial post of Sheriff.

Everywhere does this shit though. Whitby won’t shut up about Captain Cook and Dracula. It even has an entire goth-themed & decorated B&B, which assumedly gets enough visitors to keep running. In Coventry, everything is Lady Godiva.

You can’t really blame them. The tourist pull is self-explanatory, but even in places like the parts of Nottinghamshire where the likelihood of tourists is very-low-to-none calling your business ‘Sherwood this’ or ‘Little John’s that’ helps give it a sense of local identity and is much more interesting than just putting your own boring-ass name on it.

If anyone from Coventry is reading, by the way, firstly: you have my condolences. Secondly, Lady Godiva’s would be a terrible name for a lingerie store. The whole point is that she didn’t wear anything, and you don’t have to pay for no clothes.

It’s always historical figures too. Again, makes sense. You don’t want to end up with the ‘Sir Jimmy Saville Children’s Centre’ or owt. I mean building and street names can be changed, but it’s embarrassing for the owners and the council. Besides we don’t really know if our current famous residents are worth it yet. In Mansfield for example renamed a swimming pool & gym complex after double Olympic gold winner Rebecca Adlington, which is fair enough, but I don’t think anyone’s clamouring for a greasy spoon called Richard’s Bacon’s.

Or a lingerie store for that matter.

But I think maybe there’s merit to digging up lesser known old names to use if they’re awesome.

For example, we discovered that in the ‘30s my school was attended by one Burly Higgins who went on to become a fighter pilot in World War II.

Now with a name that badass and the whole fighter pilot thing going on, I reckon you could clean up with a shop called summat like “Burly Higgins’ Manliness Emporium” selling the beer/bacon/bears/beards/bourbon paraphernalia that half the internet seems to think constitutes modern masculinity. Not that I’m criticizing. I enjoy bacon and whiskey, and it’s one of my biggest on-going disappointments that my genes mean most of my thickest and darkest facial hair is on my neck. Thanks dad.

I guess what I’m saying is the world would be a better place if more shops/brothels/solicitors firms should sound like they’re named after periphery Indiana Jones characters from The Mummy.

Image: Planetware

We’re the Millers; or, Damn it Hollywood you can’t always have it both ways!

It’s been a while since I saw We’re the Meet the Millers, so I apologise if I get anything wrong, but now is when I feel like writing about it. It’s also why I go on about the spider/testes situation so much, as the film was so middling (originally this was going to be a Mediocri-City article) that though I remember the plot I don’t remember too many specific scenes or jokes beyond that one.

You can’t have it both ways, Hollywood. No, put that wallet away. Money won’t help. It’s not that kind of problem. Yes. No, there are some problems you can’t just throw money at. Continue reading

So-Bad-It’s-Good and Video Games, Part Two

In part one we discussed why really bad media can sometimes be enjoyable and why watching Let’s Plays of bad games ticks many of the same boxes as watching a good-bad film, without the frustrations that would come with actually playing a bad game. Now we’ll consider whether playing is even necessary at all to get the heart of the good-bad experience.

So for cheap, short, throwaway games it might be worth experiencing the badness for yourself, we concluded. For longer, more expensive examples, perhaps not. But there are actually theories that seeing or playing a good-bad game/film are not even necessary for participation in the phenomenon of it:

The social aspect […] is really key. I think, if we’re being honest, they’re not so much movies to be watched as they are movies to be known about, to be shared, and to share in the complete disbelief of. Watching is not the primary experience […]; celebrating is.” – Mike Rugnetta, PBS Idea channel.

In gaming the Zelda games on the Phillips CDi are the perfect example of this: they are hugely ‘popular’ yet being rare, expensive games on a rare, expensive and temperamental console almost no-one has played them; most people’s exposure to them was first through YouTube poop and then through reviewers like the Angry Video Game Nerd and PeanutButterGamer. Furthermore every youtuber who does play them usually comments that the controls and design choices mean that they are no fun at all to play.

Emulation may fix some of the control issues, but this itself presents two problems: Firstly, you are not experiencing the ‘true badness’ that made the games legendary in the first place; and secondly the design issues (lamp oil and rope requiring rupee farming, darkness, enemies too short to stab) are still bad enough to make everything between the hilarious cut-scenes you’re probably playing it for a painful experience.

Hence, it could be argued it is the viewer – either of a review, a Let’s Play or the cut-scenes in isolation – who is getting the best experience.

The idea of good-bads to be ‘celebrated’ rather than watched/played brings us on to ‘manufactured’ examples, things designed to hit those notes of silliness on purpose. In movies, this is Sharknado, Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus and the like. By some reports, Sharknado did better on twitter than it did on television. People were so enthralled with the idea they skipped watching and went straight to celebrating.

However, the movie itself is by The Asylum, who also produced the aforementioned Mega Shark Vs Giant Octopus and Snakes on a Train. They are competent cheesemongers who know what they’re doing, and their productions lack the necessary grand pathos of a Birdemic or a Sonic ’06.

In video games we have Goat Simulator. Every physics glitch short of game-breaking has been diligently not fixed, and some (the way the goat climbs ladders) it’s hard to believe were not put in on purpose. What’s more it has reasonable controls, is quite cheap, and everything is pretty much instantly accessible. Thus it sidesteps most of the issues that put people off true good-bad games.

On his first impressions video, John ‘Totalbiscuit’ Bain commented that the game—amusingly buggy by intent and highly focused on emergent interactions—seemed more designed for Let’s Players  than a general audience. Indeed, the Game Grumps and PewDiePie have both played Goat Simulator multiple times, nearly always garnering many more views than their average. Though still apt, this criticism seems addressed somewhat by the update adding a much larger second map and multiplayer functionality, though these things of course benefit the Let’s Players as well as the general ones.

As of August 2014 Goat Simulator has “almost 1 million” sales. This is a hell of a lot. It has been proven that Let’s Plays increase sales so it was a shrewd move by the developer to make a game so perfect for them, as this will have shifted a lot of copies. Still, PewDiePie’s first Goat Simulator video has over 9 million views (he averages around 3-5 million), some subsequent ones have over 6, 7 and 8 million views respectively. It seems Bain was right on at least some level, many more people would rather watch the game than play it.

Perhaps, if we go by the above Ideas Channel quote, this is all that’s necessary. A Let’s Play or even a 20 minute ‘review’ are enough to show us the game’s most egregious aspects.

Whether good-bad games (for playing) will ever take off is a question that’s hard to give a sweeping answer to. There are too many variables; the situation will be different for each game. Yahtzee (him from the beginning of part one) said of Ride to Hell: Retribution “It’s bad. It’s explosively apocalyptically bad and you should totally buy it. I’m serious; you have to see this shit […] this could be our Plan 9 from Outer Space.” though he does admit at one point that ‘adorably bad’ sometimes starts to stray into testing the patience. Ride to Hell (metascore 13-19) is £8 on Steam, less if it’s on sale.

I sure as hell don’t know if it’s worth the time, money and frustration. But maybe it doesn’t need to be when it gives sixty-six thousand results on YouTube, and every video on the first page has over a hundred thousand views…

Image: Coffee Stain Studios

Can So-Bad-It’s-Good Work for Games?

Realistically, everyone knows that its infamous reputation is the only reason this game is on Steam and the blurb should have read ‘Roll up, roll up, everyone come and see the freak.’” – Critic Yahtzee Croshaw.

So John Romero’s notorious ‘misstep’ (to put it politely) Daikatana is now on Steam. Which leads us to ask, can what has for a long time worked for movies work for games? Can ‘bad’ games be enjoyable?

Certainly, we enjoy watching others suffer these games. Since the Angry Video Game Nerd began it, watching people talk about bad (or sometimes just downright weird) games for ten to twenty minutes is now so popular a genre that multiple practitioners make their living from it, even discounting Let’s Players.

But playing them, perhaps less so. One key factor is time. A movie takes a couple of hours to watch. Even short games are usually longer than this. How long before the mistakes stop being funny and become painful?

How then do we explain Game Grumps Sonic ’06 play-through being both their most popular series and clocking in at over 20 hours total run-time (longer than it would take to play through many games yourself)?

So-bad-it’s-good relies on the gap between what something is trying to be and what it actually is: the bad acting, writing, and general oddity (tux football?) of intended tragedy The Room for example. This is also why comedies are rarely so-bad-they’re-good, a failed joke is just either sad or painful. Movie 43 isn’t so bad it’s good, it’s so bad somebody should be prosecuted.

Of course, being bad is not enough alone; it is also how often and how passionately often a movie is intriguingly bad.

Further, if no-one cares, we don’t care. A good-bad must have delusions of not necessarily grandeur but at least competence, relevance or importance. It must, in short, be earnest. This heartfelt earnestness makes just how hard the thing fails a little tragic, and the schadenfreude resulting from this has in some cases been enough to spawn cult followings and packed screenings.

At least he isn’t folding his arms

Sonic The Hedgehog 2006 certainly fits the ‘ambitions of grandeur’ requirement. The grandiose CG opening and closing cut-scenes, the ambitious multi-character gameplay, the epic scale of the final boss – and fails to deliver on all but the last. Is all this enough to keep us engaged for the whole game?

It is if someone else plays it. Sonic 06 certainly has enough badness spread throughout it: whether it’s the next act in the fate-of-the-world drama about an awakening god of destruction that is its plot being played out by short, big-headed furries; bizarre NPC quests that contrast that story’s tone; questionable vehicle sections, physics powers or level design; Sonic 06 keeps delivering.

But games are active, and so are their frustrations. Watching rather than playing glosses over anything unpleasant. The Grumps’ pain is not ours, in fact we enjoy it. We don’t have to deal with awful controls, poorly explained mechanics or having to repeat the same sections over and over, sometimes because of unfair deaths. While the run time of the Grumps’ Sonic 06 is over 20 hours, they often fast-forwarded when they were stuck and skipped some bits entirely, things the player would not be able to do. What would be repetitive for the player is less so for the viewer as the commentary changes, unlike the gameplay. Badness that may raise a brief chuckle for the lone player provides multiple laughs as it is disbelieved, discussed and mocked.

Besides time two other factors limit the entertainment value of bad games for the player – cost and effort. Is it really worth slogging through hours of poor controls and difficulty spikes to experience for yourself the few entertainingly laughable bits when you could just watch them? In the case of Sonic 06 – is it worth £12 (around $20), the price at Cex and seemingly on eBay too, to do this?

Sometimes this is less of an issue. With its 79p price tag (frequently on sale for under 20p) Bad Rats almost invites you to see for yourself just how bad it is. In rare cases like this, good-bad perhaps can work for the player: most of Bad Rats’ badness is evident right from the start (or shortly after) – they player has to invest little time or money to experience it.

But do good-bad games even need to be played, or do they reach the same potential as good-bad films just by watching?

Continued in Part Two.

Image from sonicgifs tumblr. Copyright Sega I assume.