Expert Opinion

What makes a terrible video game?

In this blog, Gamer and Senior Lecturer Lee Stocks, Course Leader of Games Design in the School of Computing, Creative Technologies and Engineering, looks at what makes a video game terrible.

Back in 2011 the worst video game I played was Dark Souls. It was around November time when I bought this thing and played it for around an hour - and I just couldn't get my head around what the point of the game was.

An ‘action role-playing fantasy game’, with ‘weighty combat’ and ‘in a medieval fantasy world setting’. It all sounded great.

But I couldn't get out of this dank, dark prison, and I kept constantly getting brought back to this bonfire checkpoint every time I died. It was getting on my nerves, so I sold the game the very next day.

I didn't stop thinking about it for the next week, about how oppressive and visceral the environment of the game world felt and how slowly the character moved, but how good the combat felt.

So I went out and bought it again.

I managed to get out of this dark enclosed environment after a few more deaths and a boss fight, and got transported via a crow to a bigger hub world filled with character.

There were a few areas to explore here; a graveyard filled with skeletons (that killed me), an area beneath a tower with ghost-wraith things (that my sword passed straight through), and an area leading towards a huge castle with enemies that also killed me – but not as quickly as in the other areas.

I quickly realised that this slightly less brutal area was the way I should be heading.

However, more oppression and abuse was waiting for me, as I struggled to the next bonfire checkpoint.

By this point I was exhausted every time I picked up the game, so I did what any sane person would do and sold it again.

At around this time Skyrim was released. A similar setting but with all the gameplay tropes I was familiar with; a clearly spelled out story, an in your face levelling system and a mini map - and I liked it.

Playstation controller

I was killing enemies, levelling up and making great progress. However, I couldn’t help but thinking: why couldn’t I do this with Dark Souls?

It took me a few weeks of Skyrim playing to figure it out. Dark Souls was withholding basic information from me - no mini map, no quests, no hand holding. I figured out the game didn't hate the player as I thought. It just didn't care. It was on the player to figure it out. An experience I hadn't had since the early days of the Nintendo Entertainment System.

At this point I once again bought another copy of the game - the one I still own today - and I quickly realised that this was probably the most satisfying game I have ever played.

I died a lot and I had to pay attention to every part of the game; the oppressive and expressive environment, monsters attack patterns and non-player characters for clues as to what was going on in this world.

This hard work made me feel like I was part of this world that FromSoftware had crafted.

A community of YouTubers sprang up revealing even more stories within stories and the brutal combat was a challenge, that rewarded the player for paying attention to what the game was telling them.

There are so many other parts to this game that I could talk about, but the point was: it changed the way I thought about games, in the same way that my first Stanley Kubrick movie changed the way I thought about films.

So what makes a bad game? In my case, it’s the player.

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