I played a really bad game recently. A game so bad, in fact, that I ended up enjoying it in spite of myself. It’s called Magus, and it’s a train wreck. A stupid, beautiful train wreck.
When it came time to sit down and write a review, I had no idea what to do. Magus falls into the category of “so bad it’s good,” like the crap they play on late night cable television. You know what I’m talking about. Low-budget B movies that somehow manage to draw a cult following, movies so dreadful you can’t look away. I absolutely love this shit, and that’s probably why I had such a hard time reviewing Magus.
It reminded me of Troll 2, which I’ve seen more times than I care to admit. It’s one of my favorite movies, but not because it’s “good” in the traditional sense. Written by a couple who barely spoke English, starring non-actors from Utah, and directed by a man who to this day insists it’s a masterpiece, Troll 2 is a spectacular disaster.
I’m not the only one who thinks so. Nearly two decades later, Troll 2 has earned a cult following, much to the surprise of its child star, Michael Stephenson. His documentary, Best Worst Movie, is a loving investigation into Troll 2’s ironic appeal.
Likewise Mystery Science Theater 3000 (a.k.a. the best TV show ever), showcases some of the worst atrocities ever committed to celluloid. These movies are bad, nigh unwatchable, and that’s the fun of it. I dare you not to laugh as the MST3K guys crack jokes at their expense.
But how do you review something “so bad it’s good?” On one hand, it makes sense to take the humorless, pseudo-objective approach: this is a bad movie, I’ll review it as such. On the other hand, it can be said that a movie is good so long as it succeeds in entertaining its audience, regardless of irony.
So which is it? I tend to agree with the latter. Troll 2 and Magus aren’t “so bad they’re good.” They’re just a different kind of good.
Videogame critics faced a similar predicament when Deadly Premonition was first released. They weren’t sure what to make of it, let alone how to score it. The game’s jenky controls and laughably low production value inspired many negative reviews.
But as time went on, critics began to understand Deadly Premonition’s unique charm. From its vibrant open-world, populated by wonderfully weird characters, to its endearing and strange protagonist, here was a game that straddled the fine line between scary and campy.
Suddenly, this homage to David Lynch’s Twin Peaks was being championed as “game of the year.” To date, Deadly Premonition holds the Guinness World Record for “Most Critically Polarizing Survival Horror Game.” It also happens to be one of my favorite games, so I’m clearly biased, but I think it’s relevant to this discussion.
Movies and videogames that are typically thought of as “good” have a few things in common: a compelling narrative, engaging characters, an emotional experience. And in the case of videogames, they utilize the interactivity of the unique medium to enhance said experience.
But let’s be honest: we’re animals, we seek pleasure and we avoid that which causes pain. Pleasure can take different forms. Sometimes I want to have a deep, powerful, moving experience, sometimes that’s what gives me pleasure. And sometimes I just want to have fun.
What we’re really talking about here is the age-old cultural divide between what’s considered “art” as opposed to what’s just “entertainment” for us plebeian masses. The distinction between “highbrow” and “lowbrow” to me, is elitist bullshit. Why can’t something that’s entertaining still be art?
Let me give you an example. Last Sunday was the Oscars, a celebration of the “best” (according to whom, exactly?) films in the industry. Now, I consider myself to be an amateur film buff, Metropolis and Eraserhead are two of my favorite films. But are they fun to watch? Not really. If you want to have a good time, watch Troll 2!
Or, in game-speak, I love “art” games like Braid and Every Day the Same Dream. But sometimes I don’t want to feel so hard, I have too many feels going on as it is. Sometimes, I’d rather play something like Magus. Something stupid that makes me laugh.