[Everyone knows low-budget, clumsy, charming B movies -- but can the industry make a 'B game'? Gamasutra's Christian Nutt examines the efforts -- and the key obstacles.]
If there's one conversation I've had several times over the years with other gamers that never ends with anybody satisfied, it's the B game conversation. Everybody knows (and many people adore) B movies -- whether they're intentional or not, they're films that tend to be low-budget, clumsy, and charming.
Sometimes they shoot for the bottom of the barrel; sometimes, they just land there. The best B movies have some intrinsic charm that elevates them in the eyes of their fans. They may do everything incompetently, but somehow there's just a certain something that makes them so much more enjoyable than they have any right to be.
Can our industry make a 'B game'?
The reason this came up again is because of last week's release of Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard, from Vicious Cycle and D3Publisher, for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. The game, for the uninformed, is a shooter with an elaborate back-story.
The marketing has been jokingly pretending -- for months -- that it's a re-envisioning of an (actually nonexistent) classic franchise from the '80s (compare to what Capcom is actually doing with its soon-to-be-released Bionic Commando.) The game features comedian Will Arnett in the lead voice role of a (parody of a) Duke Nukem-style action hero.
The result? As of this writing, a 56 on Metacritic for the Xbox 360 version. 1UP's Justin Haywald is particularly scathing, but his writing gets to the heart of why this is a dicey proposition:
"The only real laugh in this game comes in the opening introduction... The rest of the game is a plodding, boring mess that that forces you to play through the worst shooter genre clichés, and then asks you to laugh simply because the game's creators self-referentially point out how annoying those tropes are."
If ever there were a time where the gulf between games and movies were more obvious, it's hard to think of one. Put simply: playing an annoyingly bad game for 10 hours is too much to ask. The line between intentionally bad and unintentionally bad is probably too fuzzy in games.
Intentionally bad, even done with no subtlety whatsoever, is usually good for a chuckle in the right context. Scary Movie 4 may be a much worse film than Eat Lead is a game, but it at least functions as intended. And at least you can surf on by it when it gets boring, on cable.
The truth is, writing effective satire is extremely difficult. It's much more difficult than writing convincingly serious dialogue for all of the un-ironic bald space marines in gaming to grimly belch.
The Opposite Result
Perhaps the polar opposite of Eat Lead, and another good candidate for an intentional B game, is Indies Zero and XSeed's Retro Game Challenge, which came to the Nintendo DS about a month ago.
It's a jokey compilation of brand new faux 8-bit Nintendo NES-like games wrapped in a very silly story. You've been turned into a child and sent to '80s by a demonic digital incarnation of a gamer so frustrated he wanted to punish everyone with a Nintendo DS.
In stark contrast to Eat Lead, it has a very healthy 81 on Metacritic as of this writing. Why? Says IGN's Daemon Hatfield, "The developers of Retro Game Challenge didn't just accurately recreate 8-bit gaming -- they made a bunch of really good games."
Sure, the game is an intentional joke, and is filled with stuff that's actually bad in the real world -- poor translations, at-times frustrating or tedious gameplay. But that all evens out, because the whole package is creative, clever, and well-executed. It's aware of its limitations and finds ways to counteract them before they overwhelm the whole package.
To that end, it doesn't really succeed as a B game either.
Here's the Problem
Here's the problem with setting out to make a B game. Your game turns out to be a good game, or it doesn't, and that's the level on which it is judged, honestly and genuinely. Sure, gamers experience the whole of what's packed into a game experience -- but a game lives or dies by the quality of its gameplay.
Getting back to Duke Nukem, the character was an obvious parody of the over-muscled steroid supermen of '80s action movies. But the series has been taken purely seriously by fans on the merits of its core gameplay. They may enjoy the tawdry humor, and it definitely adds to the series' notoriety, but that's not the primary draw.
Think about Resident Evil. The first game had voice acting that was widely derided even in 1996 when it came out -- "Jill sandwich"? -- but the game was an instant classic regardless of this. And the games in the series have largely continued to have risible dialogue and bizarre and grotesque storylines that wouldn't make for compelling (or even comprehensible) films. Yet the series is continually lauded, and lauded even by people who will openly admit that they can't take its storytelling seriously.
Though it's more rare, this can even work in reverse. Consider Resident Evil's obverse, Silent Hill. The series has long been infamous for its weak and plodding gameplay, but the story, characters, and out-and-out scares are so compelling that its fans overlook its tedious combat. The games are simply that gripping.
The Old-Fashioned Way: By Accident
But what about the best kind of B movie -- the earnest failure? The B movie that sets out with big dreams but its cut down by a lack of talent, time, money, or expertise? Are there games like that -- ones that can exceed their boundaries and become B games by accident?
This is where things get really tough. Sure, there are niche games and genre games that do one thing well (or mine one specific fan base effectively, even if they do nothing with particularly remarkable quality). But there are very few games you can laugh at and still enjoy despite the derision.
Racking my brain, the closest I can come in recent memory is 2006's Wild Arms 4 -- a game that has a dreadful script and a host of annoying characters. But it somehow strikes enough of a balance gameplay-wise to remain engrossing -- and score a better-than-Matt Hazard69 on Metacritic.
But no. When Wild Arms 4 is not being legitimately fun, it's just grating. The developers rolled back many of the gameplay innovations in WA4 for WA5; without them, I hated it, despite a mild uptick in both production values and storytelling.
Wild Arms 4 has the obvious low budget of a "true" B game, but the story of an F game. (You can see both here.) The result is confused; it's unable to be laughed with and too tedious to be laughed at, yet somehow still engrossing anyway.
A group of filmmakers can set out to make an intentionally terrible film. They can even force themselves to work within the limitations that were just happenstance for the last generation's unlucky filmmakers, and wind up with something that's still a good laugh. Anybody seen The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra?
But game developers don't have that luxury. Games are judged primarily by gameplay, and how you succeed or fail there determines your fate. Even a game with an overt grindhouse subtitle like Bikini Samurai Squadcan't catch a break, at least not reviewer-wise.
Can we make a 'B game'? The question nags me. It seems that by either accident or intention, it's a very tough place to get to.