Challenging Conventions 13: Graphics So Bad They’re Good

Challenging Conventions is a biweekly column by Jeffrey Matulef that discusses the conventions of games design, whether regards the games that subscribe to these conventions or those that try to overcome them.

Lately I’ve been on sort of a guilty pleasure kick. I think it was God of War 3 with its gorgeous visuals and insipid story that made me realize how much I love a good, cheesy action game, regardless of what it’s about. So I decided to revisit one of my all-time fave brawlers: God Hand.

Here are my two main thoughts after returning to Shinji Mikami’s late PS2-era release:

1. Holy moly, is this game ugly!

2. Holy moly, is this game fun!

I’m not convinced that these two are mutually exclusive. It’s God Hand’s blatant disregard for modern graphical standards (even for its time) that many would consider flaws, yet I believe to be inspired.

God Hand is no oil painting…

You can’t play the game for more than 30 seconds before you notice that it’s riddled with clipping errors. Walls disappear completely any time the camera gets near them, often revealing a black abyss beyond. In any other game this would be a flaw, but here it adds to the B-movie charm. The world isn’t meant to be cohesive, but rather a cardboard backdrop for the action. Indeed, there’s even a studio audience that applauds good plays and boos poor ones, adding to the feeling that the game’s world is just a prop. It’s my belief that the incessant camera clipping is a conscious design decision that serves two purposes: it can be exploited to peak behind walls, and it prevents the camera from wigging out on the player. This second one is important as so many games try to make their graphics so realistic that it can hinder gameplay when the camera gets stuck behind walls. God Hand argues that games needn’t strive for realism.

I can get behind this mentality. Even the fantastic Uncharted 2 with its cutting edge motion-capture, lovable cast, amazing graphics, and witty dialogue requires players to suspend their disbelief when Drake can get shot in-game hundreds of times, only to heal seconds later – whereas getting shot in a cut scene is a huge hurdle for the man. God Hand simply acknowledges that it’s just a game and makes no attempt to be anything but.

Another game that follows this philosophy is the wonderful Earth Defense Force 2017. It’s a third-person shooter about defending the world from giant bugs and robots. You start out with an unlimited ammo rocket launcher, and your tools of destruction only escalate from there. What’s great about the game is that you can destroy any building with one measly rocket. They’ll ungracefully crumble into a giant pile of transparent rubble which you can then walk through before they disappear altogether. It makes absolutely no sense but who cares? It’s fun and better yet it adds to the gameplay since clearing out those pesky buildings is actually a vital strategy towards winning.

The same applies to the campy No More Heroes. Its open world was among the ugliest eyesores of this generation, yet it fit the retro tone of the game perfectly. Had it been prettier, people would have criticized it for being on the Wii thus squandering its graphical potential. So instead it went in the opposite direction and looked bad on purpose. Since it’s a game about a gamer who is in a game himself (a contest to be the number one assassin in the nation), the dated aesthetic works brilliantly. Though I fear people didn’t quite get it, since by the time its sequel came around the open world was cut and the retro bits were made even more ostensible with 8-bit 2D mini-games, lest people accuse the 3D graphics of not being up to par.

So bad it’s good…

As much as I love good graphics, I find it troubling when games start jeopardizing their mechanics to achieve this. I found the recent bout of 2D games lavished with 3D/2.5D/whatever graphics like New Super Mario Bros Wii, LittleBigPlanet, and Shadow Complex to not control as well as their 16-bit Super Nintendo forbears. Game designers have been trying so hard to make their games immersive that they often forget to make them fun too.

I don’t believe God Hand, NMH, and EDF 2017’s take on fun over realism is inherently better than the other way around. Demon’s Souls, for example, won’t allow you to swing a large weapon in a narrow tunnel without hitting the walls, which works splendidly for that type of game because it’s all about dealing with consequences.

Nonetheless, as much as I’m generally a big fan of immersion, there’s definitely a level of charm that comes with the self-awareness to not bother. It helps that the games mentioned above are largely comedic. If these graphical errors were in anything attempting to be serious, they would be counterproductive to engaging with the story. When story isn’t important, however, and the only goal is to engage the player in kicking ass, this kind of honesty is a breath of fresh air.

Author: Jeffrey Matulef