Happy New Year lovely people! I am most excited for the glory that will be 2018. Before we dive into this fortnight's post I have to apologise for the tone (oh man, starting off the year strong). Given the nature of the content I want to discuss, things get a little vulgar. You have been warned.
I mentioned the other week that I made the claim that I'd play any game if someone bought it for me. Although I stand by this claim, I acknowledge that it is somewhat foolish and open to abuse. I guess I just have faith in my friends. Turns out my friends are s****y people.
I had a conversation with an old design friend regarding the nature of bad games and something he said I found very agreeable. As a game designer, it is important to play games of all sorts; the good, the bad and the outright godawful. Whether I enjoy it or not.
In this article I want to draw your attention to two separate games, both of which can fall into the category of "bad games." The word "bad" is incredibly two-dimensional and subjective so I want to unpack them a little. As the title of the article says; the main difference between these two games is one is trashy, the other is trash.
Let's get the easy one out of the way first. With the rise of Trump and 'alternative facts,' there are few things we can know for certain. That Bad Rats is an objectively horrible game is one of them.
In writing this article I've rediscovered how difficult it is to be critical of something that has no redeeming features. At least when I was a tutor and had to mark work with a failing grade, there would be positive elements you could focus on. The s*** sandwich approach of positive opening; honest critique; positive conclusion.
Not Bad Rats. It's not even a game, it's a f***ing meme. Sending this game to your friends as a joke is more fun than the game itself and enough people did it that the developers made enough money to regurgitate a sequel. That's right; we have only one Bloodborne but THERE ARE TWO BAD RATS!
So apart from literally everything, what's wrong with this game? Let's start with the concept. Bad Rats is a level-based physics puzzle game. The rats' 'revenge' refers to each level requiring the player to navigate a ball through the level's obstacles to trigger a trap that murders a cat. Each kill is gratuitous to the point of comedic. Overall the game is very juvenile, but that would be okay.
Would being the operative.
'Juvenile' is perfectly acceptable as a tone. Super Meat Boy and Castle Crashers are juvenile games but well-made and comedic in a low-brow way. Bad Rats is so inconsistent that it's hard to say that it has an "aesthetic" at all. To be honest I don't think Invent4 Entertainment has ever heard the word, let alone understands it. The gore is one of the main focuses of the game, to the point where they claim it as a major selling point, yet the blood effects and animations are so poorly made that they transcend macabre and melodramatic to become something else entirely. Cringe-worthy.
The sound design is awkward at best. The voice lines are actually pretty authentic though; they 100% sound like some guy trying to sound like a rat. The music fluctuates between banjo country music and generic rock, which to be honest is kind of a relief. If it had been anything more creative I might have started to think the game was satirical and I'm not prepared for that kind of mindf***ery, not after Doki Doki.
Lastly, painfully, the gameplay (and I call it that through gritted teeth). Bad Rats is a confused 2D physics puzzle game that uses semi-randomized 3D physics and assets. I'll just let that sink in while the puzzle enthusiasts commit sudoku. Culturally insensitive puns aside, when you press the same button five times in a physics game and get five different results without changing anything, you've replaced forward planning and understanding with luck. This does not increase difficulty, only the amount of time the game wastes. It is possible in Bad Rats to hit the ball you need to finish the level offscreen along the z-axis where the only way to recover it is to restart. Then the game has the audacity to score you based on how many tries you took to finish the level, not that the rest of the scoring system makes any sense (or any written text for that matter - the garbled English as much of a puzzle as any part of Bad Rats).
Urrrrgh. It physically pains me that this game exist in my Steam library. I never thought it but it'll be a relief to talk about HuniePop.
So what is HuniePop anyway? Weird as hell.
On the surface it's a hybrid puzzle game and dating simulator. Beneath that it's a misogynistic wank-bank. The goal of the game is to date and eventually sleep with every girl in a roster of nine. The weirdest part is, as a game, HuniePop is actually well-made. It's been well-received online with positive reviews and a solid fan-base. What I can't figure out is if it's a good game that I don't respect for being sexist, or a bad game that I begrudgingly respect for its execution.
The gameplay alternates between two core components, the first of which is a dating sim. During this phase you interact with each member of the cast by loitering in specific areas or stalking those they already have the contact of. These interactions consist of talking with them to find out information to a fetishistic level of detail. Favourite colour, favourite season and birthday I get, but when it's normal to ask a girl her exact height in inches, exact weight in pounds and her cup size I still don't know. Throughout these conversations the girls will ask your opinion on things and you're given points based on how close your answer matches the one they want to hear. What this means is you'll be preaching about saving your purity for marriage to one lady in the morning and boasting about your sexual experience to another later by the afternoon. And you best be paying attention while you take obsessive notes about these girls because they'll quiz you randomly while you talk to them. If you forget one or two answers though, that's okay; you can always win their heart by showering them with gifts (because there's nothing creepy about a complete stranger buying you drugs and workout gear) and force feeding them food because for some reason they're all incapable of feeding themselves. I'm not even kidding when I say there is an achievement for getting one of the girls into bed with you without speaking a word to her...
As you get to know the girls and buy them enough gifts they'll eventually date you, which leads to the second component of the game. MATCH THREEEEEEEEE!!! That's right folks; HuniePop is pornographic Candy Crush... delicious...
If I'm 100% honest the dates are actually really fun. They are also the part of HuniePop that I find fascinating because from a game design perspective they are really well done. Each date consists of a match-three puzzle where the girl sits on the sidelines complimenting (or cursing) the player while they rearrange little tokens on the board to meet a set score for the level. The mechanics follow a standard match-three structure of combos and multipliers; everything that's par for the course. What makes these puzzles interesting is the preference each girl has for certain types of tokens (talent, seduction, flirtation, affection etc.), disapproval of others and the support items you can bring with you. Holding up to six items on a date, these miscellaneous 'romantic' objects have in-game effects like wiping out all tokens of a specific type, converting one type of token to another or getting points directly from special actions. I find it fascinating because in a game as simple as a match-three I was genuinely able to strategise. The basic tricks I learned during the first few dates gradually evolved as I found more and more interesting items. By the end of the game I had devised a combination of maneuvers that fed into one another depending on how the level played out. In discussing this with the friend who bought me HuniePop in the first place, I discovered they had a completely different approach. If there was one thing HuniePop had that I wasn't expecting, it was depth in gameplay.
I would like to say it was the puzzle aspect and that alone that got me to actually finish HuniePop but if I'm going to preach honesty a paragraph ago, I should be so here as well. The reward scheme of HuniePop is very well, if not insidiously, designed. Like all games that want you coming back for more (I'm looking at you XCOM you saucy minx) the rewards cascade up throughout, constantly reinforcing the player's actions with positivity for desired behaviour. The lowest (most frequent) tier are the comments made by the girls as you land combos during date puzzles, laughing and saying thing's like "impressive" or "you're good." It's corny and it's like training a dog, but it works. Each completed date unlocks different costumes and hair styles for the girls (for the collectors out there), so you can pick your favourite outfit when they meet with you (because if a guy you barely know tells you to wear a swimsuit to the ice rink the only question you should be asking yourself is "should I bring a towel?"). Combine that with some very racy photos (pinups) that the girls send between dates which steadily more and more explicit and you have your middle tier 'rewards.' Each of these photos are added to a gallery that can be accessed from the opening menu screen which leaves an impression that is tragically reminiscent of Pokémon. But that's effectively what we're trying to do here, right? Gotta seduce 'em all... Which lead to the final tier of 'rewards' for the player. Lovingly-painted, fully audio-supported, match-three powered SEX.
Hoo-boy! I wish I could go back and watch my face when I reached this stage for the first time. I immediately closed my laptop when I realised what was about to happen. Digital sex with an animé chick is not something you want your landlords to walk in on. I was so embarrassed to be playing this game I had to wait until I was the only person left awake in the flat before I even dared to load it up. I'm not going to deny that this is effectively a public declaration of engaging with a weird form of interactive porn. The best I can hope for is that you find some amusement in all of it. When I think about it though, the sex isn't all that explicit. Pretty much what happens is your lady of the evening gets her top off and has a grand ol' time while you're busy focusing on playing your match-three game thinking "not now honey, I'm busy..."
As awkward as playing HuniePop made me feel, the completionist in me was determined to see the game through to the end (all 14 hours of it - go to my Steam profile, it's there on record). It's the same part of me that put 400 hours into Final Fantasy X and seek out every achievement for every Devil May Cry game released on Xbox 360. I think this is the significant point of difference between HuniePop and Bad Rats. Despite both games being incredibly awkward, the polish of HuniePop makes it deviously playable.
During my HuniePop playthrough a couple of the characters made comments like "I have to take a photo of this" and "my friends are going to be so jealous" and I found myself hoping that maybe one of the other characters would find out I was dating every other woman they know. Perhaps the game was setting me up, expecting me to be a good little pervert and play along. Maybe I'd get publicly shamed. Maybe I'd get cast out of town. Maybe one of them would come at me with a broken bottle shank I don't know! Give me some moral repercussions! Give me some Doki Doki subversion of established gameplay! Give me an STD! Anything! But sadly no. Despite its solid aesthetic, sound design and mechanical depth, HuniePop is as shallow as I first thought it to be. A stain on my gameplay history and nothing more.
Thinking back on the conversation that prompted this whole endeavour, I do not regret following through. Playing Bad Rats may have been the gaming equivalent of receiving dental surgery with an ice-pick but at least now I can say I've given it a go. In my foolhardy claim to play any game my friends bought for me I left room for two 'escapes.' I never said when I would play it, nor did I say I would finish it. And if nothing else, Bad Rats stands as a great example of everything that can go wrong with a game. Like a war memorial that says "never again."
My final remarks on HuniePop are on the contrary. It made me realise that no matter how low-brow your game's idea is, if it is executed well enough people will like it. The whole reason I told my friends I'd play anything is because I love new experiences. I also think that's why talking about HuniePop feels so weird. In terms of game design it did a lot of things right and I feel like I should like it. We just happen to disagree on a core point. I see women as people and HuniePop sees them baseball cards you can f***.