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We’re all busy people, and it’s no surprise that we don’t tolerate a lot of the bullsh*t that games feed us. Recently, one writer for a popular game site refused to review Nier because he couldn’t figure out a fishing minigame, citing that “you shouldn’t tolerate games that waste your time.” Well, that makes sense, doesn’t it?
Aside from his inability to fish in the correct spot, his argument isn’t quite as straightforward as it may seem. While I didn’t exactly love my 20-hour affair with Nier either, and while I agree that games have no right to waste our time, the reality is that even a bad game can be worth our time.
“Bad” is a problematic term, since people tend to assign the term to games that score a six (or seven, or sometimes even eight) or lower in a review. So rather than try to define exactly what bad is, for the sake of this article, I’ll touch on a game that a few reviewers called bad or awful: Alpha Protocol.
I have no idea what term is most appropriate for a game like Alpha Protocol, which dabbles in the realm of the awful as much as it does the world of genuine player excitement. For every embarrassing character animation, there’s a deeply developed character. For every terrible combat situation, there’s a tense and innovative plot development.
Nothing about the actual gameplay of Alpha Protocol is something that I could honestly call fun. Even playing as a stealth-based character with hand-to-hand and pistol specializations (which is apparently the only way to have any fun with the combat), defeating your enemies just doesn’t feel good. Sneak up awkwardly behind your enemy and perform an awkward takedown, or awkwardly move into cover and try to use the game’s awkward aiming to line up a shot. The word of the day? Awkward.
Yet I pressed on, and despite the combat in the game actually getting worse later on, I am immensely thankful that I possessed the intestinal fortitude to make my way to the credits. By some miracle, the game’s strengths, which are far outnumbered by its weaknesses, carried me through to the end. I don’t want this to turn into a defense of Alpha Protocol, so I’ll keep my praise brief: the tale that the game weaves is far more intricate than that of a vast number of higher-scored games, and while the conversation system isn’t perfect, it does lead to some quick decisions that may not always turn out as you hope they would.
Both Nier and Alpha Protocol have forced me to ask myself if such games, that aren’t high-quality by any means, can still provide us with enough substance to make them worth our precious time, of which most of us already possess too little. Perhaps you’ve already guessed my answer by now, but the answer is a resounding yes.
The problem as I see it is that many players are quick to label a game with sub-par gameplay as a complete waste of time, ignoring all of its other qualities. We often give high scores to games with good gameplay yet trite stories despite the fact that those stories waste our time, so shouldn’t we treat games similarly when the reverse is true?
I don’t mean to argue that gameplay is less important than stories, or even that they are on equal footing; these are still videogame involved. However, it’s foolish to believe that we aren’t approaching (or perhaps that we haven’t already reached) a point where some people play games as much or more for the narratives than for the gameplay.
Knowing exactly what you want out of a game is becoming increasingly important in purchasing decisions, as we aren’t all going into games now solely because we want to be entertained by a toy for a couple of hours. I look to games to find new narrative strategies, as I found in Nier, and I feel personally enriched by my time with that game. Similarly, I found that the plot in Alpha Protocol opened new paths in the future of game storytelling, even if those systems weren’t always utilized as well as they could have been. Both of these games offered a measure of brilliance that I could not find anywhere else, even if that brilliance was often only a speck on a vast, burning horizon.
If you’ve played a bad game that offered you some unique, personal value, I’d like to hear about it. It may feel a little dirty to support a bad videogame with your time and money, but it’s time to stop associating words like “mediocre” and “poor” with “worthless.” Games are far too multifaceted for one-word descriptions, and we’re better than allowing those descriptions to rob us of the enjoyment that we want to find in games, even if that value takes some work to reveal.