In the process of looking over various iterations of Breaking Backlog, I realise that I am very moderate in my discussions of new games. The process is easy: I find the things the work, the things that don’t and the things that make no sense, and I bring it all together in order to form a moderate impression of a game I have never played before. It has been a very long time since I have been openly caustic towards a game, as I really believe that there is something to be pulled from every game, even if it is in the school of how not to make games. I endeavor in this project – the act of clearing out the backlog of games I have accumulated, if the title didn’t spell it out for you – to broaden my own knowledge in the most positive way possible.
This is not one of those times. Damnation is a relatively obscure game developed by Blue Omega Games and published by Codemasters in the wake of the growing trend of third person, cover-based shooters like Gears Of War and its doppelgangers. It has a steam-punk aesthetic set in an alternative history of America after the Civil War, and it broadens this aesthetic with platforming sections that would not seem out of place in a game like Assassin’s Creed. The game sells itself well on the box art, and it is a very good thing that it does, because the game is, to put it mildly, absolutely terrible. It could possibly be the worst game I have ever played and I have no idea when I came to acquire it, but I distinctly remember playing it once when I bought it some seven years ago and only stomaching it for about ten minutes. I managed to beat that on this go-around, but only barely.
Playing this game got me thinking. The game is unreservedly, irrevocably bad. The movement is awful, the story is lifeless, the gun controls are buggy and mercurial, the voice actors sound like they fell out of a tree, and the game looks ugly by 2007 standards. Each of these factors independently could draw me out of the game, but I’ve played games with these individual attributes on multiple occasions, and yet have survived their shortcomings and be adequate, albeit with some serious issues. Therefore, there must be something that Damnation in particular does that makes it as bad as it is. So what is it? Is there a special parasitic something that makes a game objectively bad?
It looks alright, though, what could go wrong?
I mentioned the controls and the aiming, and they are notably bad in Damnation. The controls themselves are basic fare for baby’s first shooter, such as clicking the right stick to aim, changing weapons with the D-Pad, and firing with the right trigger. It is their translation into in game action that is troublesome. Guns will fire but have no impact and no oomph to them, to the point where the sound implies a shotgun when I fell like I am firing a BB gun. Enemies will not perceptively react to being hit with bullets until finally flailing to the ground after losing their last hit point, or simply pass straight through the models at arbitrary and inopportune moments. When your games relies on gunplay, and the gunplay does not satisfy, you have already set yourself up for a game that fails in what it sets out to do; especially when you omit a ‘snap-to-cover’ function in a cover based shooter, which is a cardinal sin in and of itself.
While we are on the subject of the models, it may surprise you to know that the character models themselves aren’t bad. The dimensions of faces and the overall model quality are a bit lackluster, but in relation to the aesthetic the game is going for, the character design works very well. The real issue in all of this is how everyone moves. Characters will stand stock still if nothing of note is happening, with no idle animation to speak of that suggests they are not mannequins that move when you do. Enemies will stand stock still taking fire from your companions, and when they do respond it is in a hurried “oh shit I forgot my line” manner. Even physical reactions to gunplay do not make sense; the best I could conjure up, after finally hitting an enemy in the head after all the phantom bullets flung in their direction, is a simple head nod of acknowledgment as the BB pellet tapped him on the forehead like a gentle kiss from his mother.
The biggest strength of the game, if one can find such a thing, is that the premise itself is really good. Alternative history is a particularly interesting subgenre that I would like to explore at some point in the near future, and discuss just what it is about re-imagining history that makes it so fun, particularly the creative answers to the question of “what if?”. In Damnation‘s case, the idea that technology has overshot its purpose to win the Civil War for one side or another and transformed the idea of what America would have become is a fascinating question. After all, ideas of the frontiersman, the Wild West, the steady insertion of industrialization and the rise of the American Empire are fundamental to how we construct the American identity. The question asked by the alternative history, even accidentally, wonders what would have happened if all of this technology happened all at once. The answer, if put into context of the fracturing of the United States, becomes greed, consolidation of power, and an authoritarian stranglehold on the country based on profit and self-defense against such a thing happening again.
I’ll take crazy cyborg Georgians for 100, Alex.
With this concession you might suppose that this makes Damnation more disappointing than truly terrible, but I would disagree. The idea of any text – be it film, literature, music or video games – is to disengage from the real world, at least for a time. When one returns to the realm of the real, they have experienced something that can either act as a distraction from real world problems, or bring them back with questions that they can ask of the public sphere. The most infuriating thing a text can do is render itself inaccessible due to clumsiness and an inability to adequately express what it wants to do. The potential of what a text could be is all well and good, but if a text fails to do what it sets out to do, then it is not a good text. Compare Batman And Robin to The Avengers: they are both ensemble superhero pieces that attempt to bring to the superhero genre a level of levity that movies before them lacked. Yet only one is remembered by history as the Batman with the Bat-Nipple™. The film is still fun but, unlike the latter, not for the reasons it wanted to be.
This inevitably funnels into the question of whether or not there is such a thing as an objectively bad game, or if any texts can be objectively bad. I am not going to give you the airy fairy answer of “who knows, maybe we all have opinions”, because there are very obvious examples that are poorly made. There would have to be, to even have the job description of “critic” in your respective field. Where the conversation continues, however, is in the calibre of awfulness. Texts can be awful enough to boomerang back into the realm of entertainment, where the entertainment comes from how phenomenally bad something can be. This is why games like Big Rigs: Over The Road Racing and Pac-Man for the Atari 2600 remain in the video game lexicon: as hyperbole for how bad something can be. There is, however, a grey space in this spectrum, and it is in this space where we find games that are simply poorly made. Not bad enough to laugh at, but not good enough to enjoy – games like The Conduit, Rogue Warrior or Mindjack. They are bad, certainly, but I will bet that, even if you had heard of these games before, you would have forgot about them until just now.
What makes a game bad is a failure to express what it wants to do. Whether it be a failing of narrative presentation, mechanical functionality or graphical inadequacy, the game must exist in such a way that it is frustrating and antagonizing to play, while still being somehow complete. It must also be forgettable in some way, which seems like a perfect storm of inadequacy. Yet for all the games that sit on both ends of the quality scale, there are some that sit quietly in the middle, fading into obscurity. Damnation is one of those games. It is a game that you knew nothing about going into this piece, and you might try for yourself, but eventually, just like I did some seven years ago, you will have forgotten about the whole thing in the first place.
Same here, man. Same.
Image credits go to CheatCC.com, WallpaperClicker and MakeAMeme.org, and banner credits go to Inside-Gaming and BusinessInsider.