Great games are easy to spot. Interesting graphics, alluring stories, captivating soundtracks, or unique game mechanics. Often great games contain a combination of these things, but the quality that all of them share is that they are fun to play. Without that, an experience can be polished and memorable, but it will fundamentally fail in the one area most games aspire to be.
Unfortunately, fun is hard to define and even harder to achieve. Sometimes developers stumble upon it, other times they realise they have hit gold with an idea, but then there are those games that are just awful but somehow work in ways that were unlikely to have been intended.
This could be anything from glitches, unfair mechanics, bottle-necking or weird AI. It rarely feels like there is a rhyme or reason to why bad design can be satisfying. When it works, the results can be more enjoyable than intentionally designed experiences. These moments are often unique to that player or group of people. Spend two minutes on YouTube and you will find an endless stream of videos of weird glitches or ways to break games to gain an unfair advantage.
I first realised this while I was playing South Park 64; a thoroughly underwhelming game but the multiplayer kept drawing me back. Each time I dusted off the cartridge, my friends and I would endure the clunky controls and stretched graphics to develop strategies around the bad gameplay.
Incredibly, we spent weeks revisiting the same multiplayer maps as one of my friends had discovered that while it was easy to find a pocket of space in a high location to snipe the opposition, aiming upwards was a pain in the arse. Each match became a race to reach the highest lookout points such as tunnels or windows, or the tip of the map in the anti-gravity level, making battles a frantic race to not only find the powerful weapons but to reach vantage points. Without these bad controls, the appeal of South Park 64’s multiplayer would have been fleeting.
Yet, it is not just weaker titles, as bad design can exist in good games too. A few years after playing South Park, I discovered a technique to avoid battling Pikachu in Smash Bros N64 by jumping between platforms, confusing the AI and causing the popular Pokemon to fall down a hole. I became fixated on trying to get this to happen, failing multiple times. The glitch was satisfying but hard earned.
People on the internet feel the same way, too. Some of the videos that have ranked up millions of views on YouTube showcase the funniest, weirdest and scariest glitches, and the same can be said about the numerous listicles. There are even tutorial videos demonstrating step-by-step how to achieve the same feats for interested gamers. In popular franchises such as Zelda, speedrunners have devised progressively more cunning ways to break the games, enabling whole sections to be skipped. One of the most famous ones included backflipping into a large boulder in Majora’s Mask so that a time sensitive rule could be ignored.
Even Morrowind, my favourite game, had infuriating moments where you could be flanked by swarms of unshakable flying creatures known as Sky Raiders. Early encounters with these aerial bastards would result in an ungodly amount of dying. The fun part arose as you could experiment with custom made spells such as overpowered large-radius magical spells that could take out all of them in a single shot, or summon lots of units to take them on. The bad design opened the perfect opportunity to use spells that would otherwise be too powerful to use throughout most of the game.
Recently, there have been a handful of titles that have a self-awareness of how bad their concept is, but ran with it knowing the player could get fun out of a subverted convention. Goat Simulator, a 2016 PC title where you control a ragdoll-like goat around levels, works because the focus was on the ridiculous premise of moving an awkward, uncooperative animal across various sandbox environments. The same can be said about Octodad and how the clumsy controls becomes a complex -but rewarding – hurdle to overcome.
Still, those types of games aren’t quite the same, as the element of surprise plays a huge part in the appeal of bad design. While subversion can work well, it is hard to match the appeal of fortuitously stumbling upon an experience unlikely to be known to many players or the developer.
Games will always have bad design choices, glitches and other exploitable mistakes, and there will always be gamers who draw satisfaction from discovering old and new ones. Not all of them are fun and some of them won’t improve a bad game, but it’s hard not to get pleasure from knowing you are breaking the rules and making a game your own.