Why Playing “Bad” Games Can Be So Good: “Sick” Games
Previously, Xbox One Uk featured a small piece talking about why playing “so bad they’re good” video games like Deadly Premonition can be a lot of fun, but that isn’t the only kind of badness that can be found within our game collections; there are also certain games that revel in moral badness, “sick” games, in other words.
Rather than the badness of these games stemming from incompetence, film scholar I.Q Hunter has argued in his essay “Trash Horror and the Cult of the Bad Film” that this kind of badness is “equally defined by its grossness“. These films, he writes, “set out to be sick, offensive, as disgusting exercises in bad taste, and their status as ultimate bad objects in cinema is a mark of their success”. Whereas we can take pleasure from laughing at games like Deadly Premonition, “sick” games affect us on a visceral level, they deliberately aim to repulse, shock, and disturb players. The best example of this kind of game? The Outlast series, obviously.
When beginning a new game in this series, we’re greeted with the message “Outlast contains intense violence, gore, graphic sexual content, and strong language. Please enjoy”, a clear marker of the (dis)pleasures that await anyone brave enough to subject themselves to the series’ horrors. This message is not unwarranted either; containing genital and bodily mutilation, infanticide, implied paedophilia, and so much more, this series is definitely not for the faint-hearted, but for those who can stomach it, this is a shining example of this sort of badness.
The main reason why Outlast is seen is so disgusting is due to it’s ability to transgress what’s considered as conventional “good” taste to revel in the bad by focusing on taboo and, more importantly, abject content. The abject is a bit of an obscure term. Outlined by Julia Kristeva in her work Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, the abject is “the in-between” where normal meaning doesn’t exist, a place where borders are transgressed, or, as Mathijs and Sexton have phrased it, abjection is “what language fails to describe – hence the frequent usage of ‘yuk’, ‘ouch’, and similar terms to indicate moments of abjection”.
The best way to illustrate abjection in action within the Outlast series is by pointing out how it manages to transgress these borders to make players say “yuk”, and that (there’s no nice way to put this) is down to all the bodily fluids on display from acts of licking, blood, and other less pleasant things that can be seen throughout the series. Likewise abjection can manifest itself within the character design of the NPCs in the series in the form of freakery whereby these bodies become deviant and unpleasant. Evident examples can be found in Outlast 2‘s deformed heretic characters through the androgynous sexuality of their leader, Val. Likewise both these forms of abjection are personified through the terrifying tongue monster who pursues you through an abandoned school.
How, then, can playing something designed to disturb us be pleasurable? According to I.Q Hunter, “sick” films can act as a sort of “security…blanket” for viewers to allow them to
survive extreme screen experiences – including that of extreme badness – outside the usual comfort zones. Exposing oneself to dangerous extremity is itself both challenging and sublime, allowing for “self-reflexive modes of performative reception in the negotiation of the phenomenal experience of moments of abjection, impurity and grotesquery”
Whilst that might sound a little fancy, what he means is that by watching disturbing films we’re allowed to experience their affects from the comfort of our couch. When it comes to “sick” video games, on the other hand, I believe this notion to be doubley true given the player/avatar relation that I discussed in the piece on “so bad they’re good” games. When we play these games, we are watching ourselves as the characters in these horrific situation, the immersion; because video games are intrinsically performative in nature, players consequently play a more active role.
These sorts of video games are disgusting and offensive, but if you’re one of the people who’re able to stomach it, then there’s a good chance you will love these games precisely for that reason.