How Bad Games Can be Good

[15 April 2014]

By Mark Filipowich

The more that I approach games critically, the less interested that I am in distinguishing good games from bad ones. A major complaint of the last console generation is that games cost too much to develop and that they cost too much to play (Chris Kohler, “Videogames Can’t Afford to Cost This Much”, Wired, 13 April 2012), and there’s no reason to believe that that trend will slow down. Under such circumstances, making a bad game is an unacceptable risk. But with the last console generation winding down and the next one’s library not yet fleshed out, audiences seem somewhat more receptive to what “bad” games can teach. Speaking as somebody who’ is always at least a year behind, it’s refreshing that the previous console generation has wound down and the new one has yet to pick up momentum. It has become a time to explore failures.

I’ve taken this time to examine Th3 Plan, a $2.00 find at a local record store that the owner thanked me for finally taking off his hands. Originally released on the Playstation 2 in 2006, Th3 Plan is a quick, small-budget release passed between a handful of (mostly now defunct) developers and publishers. Th3 Plan is a bad game. It controls awkwardly, its levels are claustrophobic and unimaginative, instructions are seldom clear, and the AI is horrible. There is hardly a corner left uncut. All that said, there’s a good idea behind everything that it does.

Th3 Plan is a stealth-game following a group of art thieves in their quest abscond with some valuable pictures. There’s some business about them trying to get back at a former crew member, but the game’s main thrust is the heist. The player switches between members of the crew to use their distinct abilities to get past security and collect information. There’s an acrobat who can squeeze through tight spaces and climb along walls, a hacker who can take photos of important personnel and hack through locks and terminals, and a woman who can distract guards. None of them carry guns and none of them are much good in a fight. In fact, just being spotted is enough to warrant a game over (though with the AI being what it is, guards need to be poked in the eyes a few times for that to happen).

Th3 Plan goes “small,” a thing that games are seldom willing to go. To avoid being “bad” most games go grand, focusing players on global events, making them mech pilots or supersoldiers or master assassins. Even the latest Thief installment frames Garret in a position of agency in other people’s lives to puff up the player’s importance (Nick Dinicola, “Garret from Thief is Either an Asshole or an Addict”, PopMatters, 7 March 2014.). Th3 Plan is just about people that steal things for money because, well, they want money. Yes, there’s a contrived revenge subplot, but it still comes back to their comparatively small lives and their comparatively small goals.

The crew have very specific skills with very specific uses. In tandem, these abilities become far more varied, but they’re still limited to very specific applications. Again, their interests of the game are small. This crew is just trying to get closer to the gold at the end of the rainbow, they aren’t trying to save the world, and they aren’t trying to stop the evil empire. They’re trying to distract a rent-a-cop and delete camera footage. The game doesn’t get lost in any grandiosity or complexity. It doesn’t try to do too much, and it doesn’t pretend that it is more than it is. The fun is in seeing these relatively small-time crooks profit from their mischief-making.

Ignoring just how much fun Th3 Plan is just as a kind of silly endeavor with no prior expectations to prop it up or to cause it to disappoint, it is useful to look at the game that it could have been. I wonder what Th3 Plan would look like if somebody gave a damn about it, but that becomes a bit of a self-defeating spiral. If levels were larger and characters had more to do, the scope would outgrow the cast, and they’d feel too small for their bigger world. If the cast were composed of “heroes” more interesting than a group of thieves, then they wouldn’t fit with the dishonesty of their profession. Th3 Plan almost wouldn’t work if it weren’t so broken and lazy.

Sure, it’s a good inspiration if an ambitious developer wanted to make it into a more refined heist game (*ahem*) but as it stands it works as just the kernel of a thought experiment. It’s assets spilled out as a barely finished product, but Th3 Plan a testament to what can happen when the stakes are low. It’s valuable sometimes to look at something broken to see how well it could work.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/180655-how-bad-games-can-be-good/