I could have played any number of different video games last week, but I chose to spend my hours with the decidedly mediocre ReCore, a garbled mess of wasted potential (the details of which are elaborated on here). There's just enough to enjoy and appreciate about it to keep me coming back, but there's a larger reason I'm hoping to see it through to the end: it's instructive to play a bad video game.
Look, I understand there's only so many hours in the day, and it makes sense to spend your free time with things that make you happy. But I also want to learn, study and appreciate what makes them work. And one can only appreciate great things by understanding what actually makes them great. There's nothing more illuminating than a deep dive into a flawed game to help make that crystal clear.
When ReCore came out, I tweeted: "ReCoreis the most PlayStation 2 video game I've played in years. That's both a compliment and a problem." It's a compliment because we live in an age where game companies are dreadfully risk averse, emulating the Hollywood approach: blockbuster or bust. ReCore has the trappings and ambitions of a big-budget game without the flair and polish you'd usually expect. The PlayStation 2, Xbox and GameCube era was full of weird games best treated as curiosities to be purchased from a bargain bin. ReCore is one of those: not especially good but definitely interesting.
When I'm playing a game like ReCore, it's an exercise in understanding good design. If I'm frustrated, what was the tipping point where it became upsetting? If I've died in the same area a bunch of times, what's causing that to happen? If something's become tired and repetitive, was there a specific moment where it jumped from pleasurable to insufferable? The difference between a good game and a great game is often a series of fine lines, while the difference between a bad game and a great game can be oceans apart. Identifying those gaps helps you appreciate what goes into making everything click when you're playing something exceptional.
It's not meant to be a sheer exercise in masochism. In many big-budget games, the desire to spit, shine and polish removes the rough edges, the raw ideas that might not be fully formed but are interesting enough to be worth exploring. I'm not trying to justify why ReCore isn't good—that seems rooted in the game feeling as though it needed another six months of development—or that you should be excited to spend £30 in order to have a crappy time with a video game. It's realising there's meaning to be mined from games for different reasons.
It's a deeply flawed game with incredible promise, but even ignoring the game's many glitches, it's a masterclass in failing to stick the landing. Besides an abrupt ending that suggests chunks of the game were removed at the last second, the game pads its length by demanding players scour the world for extra items in order to unlock the final dungeon. It's unnecessary, annoying, and only serves to underscore the game's weakest elements, rather than celebrating its best.
One of my favourite "underrated" games is 2010's Singularity, the last original game released by Raven Software, a studio now focused on supporting Activision's annual Call of Duty releases. It's a mediocre shooter with a few smart ideas related to time manipulation; the main hook was a weapon to send the environment sailing forward and backward in time. And that was enough.
'Singularity' image courtesy of Activision
I played Deadly Premonition because of the charming story and characters, despite the dreadful combat. I played Duke Nukem Forever because I had to know what took 15 years, even if it was a heap of sexist, boring trash. I played Aliens: Colonial Marines because I needed to understand how a game could look so amazing ahead of release, only to arrive like a tire fire. I played Friday the 13th on NES because... well, okay, maybe I don't have a good reason for that one. A terrible Jason Voorhees game aside, these "bad" games had qualities that meaningfully contributed to my broader understanding of the medium, and why some of these projects turn out better than others—even if some are destined for lists exclusively compiling the worst games ever made.
Some (most?) of these games are best played with a six-pack of beer at your side, rather than a notebook with detailed observations. Games likeDuke Nukem Forever, whatever they have to teach us about game design, are suited for group of friends who can help you through the pain. But the next time you're looking for something to play, consider a game with terrible review scores, not the greatest. Because even bad games can have something interesting to say.