Monday, October 28, 2013

The Fun of Being Bad. The Fun of Fun.

I've been writing a lot lately about video games that are really well designed and written. Games like Spec Ops: The Line and The Last of Us. First-rate, intelligent titles that are only held back by the fact that, let's face it, they are gigantic bummers.

Let us never forget that video games are games. They are supposed to be fun. They are capable of, in rare, magical moments, providing genuine joy.

I wanted my last article in this little series to be about Saints Row IV, the most efficient joy-production machine I have experienced in many a year.

But I need to make the topic a little broader than that. I want to talk about the most delightful, unique, transgressive pleasure that our young art form can provide: The fun of being bad.

This was controversial once. Simpler time.
The Justifiable Fun of Being Bad

In 1976, a company called Exidy released a video game called Death Race. In it, you control a car and run over little people. You try to crush as many as you can inside of a time limit. When you hit them, they made an adorable little squeak. I played the heck out of it. Yes, I am comically old.

See, the genre of Having Fun Doing Horrible Things is almost as old as video games themselves. There have always been and always will be games that let you have fun being bad. Robbing shops. Running over pedestrians. Generally being a reprobate.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. Video games are imaginary. They are places where we enact our fantasies. Sometimes, our fantasies are bad. That is why they are just fantasies.

In real life, I am snappish but basically mild and entirely non-violent person. I have played four Grand Theft Auto games front to back, and I always ended each session with a crazed kill-rampage. No apology is forthcoming.

This Is a Hard Trick To Pull Off

Making a game that makes doing evil things funny and fun is really difficult. Players don't seem to realize how tricky this is. Most people are feeling, empathic creatures. If you get the tone just a little bit off, if you make the suffering just a tiny bit real, if you let the player think for one moment about what the thing they are doing on the screen actually means, the spell is broken.

This is why, no matter how big the world of Grand Theft Auto V or Saints Row IV is, no matter how much you wander, you will never see a child running free. This is why these games, for all of the horrible crimes you can commit, will never depict a rape.

It's a delicate bit of alchemy. One of my favorite Grand Theft Auto missions ever involves repeatedly shooting a guy in a full body cast with a rocket launcher. It was just the right level of ludicrous to be hilarious.

If you can't possibly see how this could be funny, please, I beg you, never watch a Road Runner cartoon. The things that poor coyote goes through will break your heart. All he ever wanted to do was eat.

And then I turned off the Playstation and didn't turn it on again for a week.
So Don't Miss the Point

I have been a huge Grand Theft Auto fan for a long time, so the way the designers have completely lost the thread of what they're trying to do pains me greatly. The most discussed scene in the game involves the long, slow, graphic torture of a prisoner with jumper cables, pliers, a wrench, and gasoline. Here's a video of it! Enjoy! (Skip to 6:50 to really get the good stuff.)

Did you watch it? Of course you didn't. Why on earth would you?

And yet, why wouldn't you? Didn't you hear? Grand Theft Auto V has a 97 on Metacritic. That is basically perfection. It made a billion dollars in like a day. It is, critically and financially, the absolute pinnacle of the art form. Don't you like video games? Why would you not want to see the pinnacle of the art form?

But Anyway

Of course, this scene (and so much of the rest of the game) has been criticized for just general horribleness, to which people who don't get it respond, "But Grand Theft Auto is about having fun being bad."

This misses the point. If you want people to get that jolt of transgressive joy, you have to be more careful about what you make them do, not less. I don't know who, beyond adolescent boys, could ever have actual fun playing that scene. Game-design-wise, it's simply an unforced error.

Video games are maturing as an art form. The stuff you can't get away with in movies and TV? Soon, they won't be permissible in video games either. Civilization inflicts its requirements.

On the other hand...

Yeah, things get a little weird.
It's All In the Little Things
"Like all good stories, the second act begins with a call to action and the building of a robot." - Narrator, Saints Row IV.
Saints Row IV is a rare pleasure. It's a game that knows exactly what it is. It's not about internal consistency or artistic statements. It's about packing as much simple, senseless joy, lowbrow and high, into a game as they it possibly can.

(Disclaimer: It is the only Saints Row game I have ever played.)

It is a game that features:

The protagonist riding a nuclear missile, Dr. Strangelove style, ripping out components to disable it while your friends eulogize you on the radio and the theme song from Armageddon plays. It's pure, ridiculous genius.

A gun that shoots black holes. I can image how balancing Saints Row IV went. The designers sat down at a table, gave it some quiet reflection, and went, "Wait a second. Never mind. Our game has a BLACK HOLE GUN."

Also, the dubstep gun.

In a scene almost impossibly sweet for a game like this, you and one of your friends drive to a mission together while singing Opposites Attract. I've played a lot of games like this, but this is the only time I ever drove more slowly to hear all of the dialogue.

Zipping through the Matrix on Tron light cycles while the evil alien overlord Zinyak recites the Tomorrow and Tomorrow monologue from Macbeth. ("I don't listen to Scottish hip-hop.")

And if none of this makes Saints Row IV sound like a game you'd want to play, that's cool. Tastes legitimately differ. But can't you see how it's the sort of game a LOT of people would want to play? (Excellent pacing, satisfying super-powers, crisp writing, and an overwhelming sense of just-plain-fun help a lot.)

It's a big art form. There's room for drama and humor, tragedy and mystery. But if you want to go silly, and if you want to make a game in which players can pretend to be horrible crazy criminals and still be able to look at themselves in the mirror, this is how it is done.

And, as a special bonus for old people like me who have developed actual human empathy, almost all of the game takes place in the Matrix, so I don't have to feel guilty about running people over in the street.

But You're Not Really Doing It, So Why Does It Matter?

Another point I see made a lot, which I find overly simple and not really thought out.

Yes, on one level, your conscious brain knows it's just an illusion. You "know" it's fake. In one part of your brain. Only one.

You're still controlling it. You're still seeing it. It still makes you feel. I mean, fiction can have incredibly powerful effects on people, and we all know it's not real. Controlling it yourself only increases this effect.

This is why so many people, myself included, could not possible bring themselves to shoot the giraffes in The Last of Us, as desperately tempting as it was. This is why fiction works at all. Yes, part of our brain knows it's not real. That part is the minority.

It's Too Easy? I Don't Even Know What That Means.

The main criticism I've seen leveled against Saints Row IV is that it gets too easy. This is half right. As you develop your incredible arsenal of magic Matrix powers, you become a god pretty quick. However, I really don't like criticizing a game for this.

Difficulty is only one of many things a designer has to set, and there is no right answer. Some games, like Super Meat Boy and Demon's Souls, are selling extreme challenge. Others, like most casual games, are selling a friendlier, more casual experience. There is no right answer! I hate it when reviewers pretend there is one.

Saints Row IV is a crazy, silly game that feeds power fantasies and lets you throw enemy hordes around with awesome brain power. Making it a difficult game would just be wrong for the tone. (And, if you want it to be tough, play it on the hardest difficulty level. There. Was that so hard?)

You want to fail a lot? Fine. Go play Grand Theft Auto V and die ten times trying to land the plane. We'll see who has more fun.

Oh, and one other thing. Trust me. Gamers are far more likely to forgive a game for being too easy than too hard. Most people have only a limited appetite for being told how dumb they are.

The Pleasure of Video Games is the Pleasure of Doing

And sometimes, the things you want to do are bad. Again, nobody is going to apologize for this, nor should they need to. Yes, it feels real, but no, it's not real.

It's one of the hardest things to do right. Some people are better at it than others. Now, if you will excuse me, the new Saints Row IV DLC is out. It's called "Enter The Dominatrix". That is the sum total of all I know about it. Sold. Crass fun is still fun.


  1. Liked the article. I'm one of those who has have to have a very goofy game or well-obscured consequences to enjoy a game about being bad.

  2. I agree. There were definitely some moments during the game where I remembered how much fun it's possible to have playing a video game. I didn't find it too easy, either. The sandbox let's you do pretty much whatever you want, but some of the missions were fairly challenging, I thought, though not harder than they needed to be. I swore off GTA after the previous game took itself way too seriously, to the point where I would roll my eyes every time Niko complains about his troubled past, in between bouts of mass murder. Also, it seems ironic that Saints Row is the one that's not afraid to be childish and silly, but is still better written than it's 'edgy' cousin.

  3. As an employee of Volition, Thanks (again!) for sharing your unabashed appreciation for our game.

    I also wanted to let you know your hypothetical balancing meeting was probably not far off the mark. ;)

  4. Great read, Jeff. I agree with every word of this post.

  5. "Excellent pacing, satisfying super-powers, crisp writing, and an overwhelming sense of just-plain-fun help a lot."

    Which, been wanting to say, is exactly what I'm finding in Avadon 1, lately. So good on you for doing that stuff.

  6. Is it wrong that I enjoyed both games? While the torture scene was my least favourite moment of GTA V I did enjoy the game...a lot. There were some fantastic moments and it is one of the few games I completed within the last two years (other than Saints Row IV). I like both games but for entirely different reasons.

    The torture scene worked with Trevor in as much as it was within his unstable character...anyone else and it wouldn't have worked at all...and even after saying that I still didn't feel comfortable playing through it but I did get through it.

    1. As I said in an earlier comment section, I think that GTA V being so blunt about how despicable their protagonists are comes from he fact that they tried to do it subtly in GTA IV, which led to too many players ignoring all the hints pointing toward Niko Bellic being a war criminal on the run, (that scene when he talks about souless people chopping off kids's hands: he's most probably talking about Himself) and treating him like sympathetic character.

    2. Bang on...For me the torture scene made me uncomfortable but it contrasted so sharply with Trevor's love interest that it immediately humanized him...and what i mean by that is even the most terrible people have some shred of humanity. You ask relatives of some known serial killers and you hear a completely different side of them.

      It DOESN'T excuse anything they are still monsters but what it does highlight is how complex even a monster can be.

  7. Good article, Jeff. I agree with what you say - I love it in Borderlands 2 when I kill a Bruiser with a fire weapon and he yells out "why am I on fire?". I laugh when they run around screaming while they burn. In real life it's horrible, but it's so much fun in the game.

  8. One of my favourite things to do in Exile 3 was to build forts out of magic barriers in towns. Then, I would release Quickfire outside of the fort, killing off all the townspeople. I became the ruler of the town.

  9. I absolutely agree about difficulty - as far as I'm concerned, it is nearly impossible to be too easy, but it's very easy to be too hard. If I can't change difficulties midstream I will opt for the easiest difficulty setting that exists because that way I will have the best possible chance of actually seeing the end. And while an expertly tuned challenge that I just barely surmount is indeed a great experience, there's also something to be said for power fantasies. I mean, I could turn up the difficulty on Avadon if I really wanted, but...on the other hand, I really like having my Blademaster walk into an entire bandit encampment that has dared fuck with a Hand of Avadon and unilaterally butcher the lot of them, sometimes three or four a turn, while never dipping below 50% health. I mean, that's a pretty good reason to fear Avadon, right?

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