Music video director Marcus Herring played a lot of video games in his youth, but his parents wouldn't let him have his own console.
He says that not having a system of his own ended up being “the seed of an obsession.” He would play games at the houses of friends and draw Legend of Zelda characters. Today, Herring doesn’t play many games, although he still stays up-to-date on what’s going on that world. “I do graphics,” he says, “and that kind of occupies that portion of my mind.”
Recently, though, Herring sifted through the images of a couple thousand video games, played the ones he could find, and put together “Cinefamily’s Most Outrageous Video Games,” a presentation of bizarre, and, sometimes, completely terrible offerings that have been available for arcades and home gaming systems. On Wednesday night, the event made its debut at the Cinefamily, a small, Los Angeles movie theater, as part of Everything Is Festival IV: The Dreamquest. The event sold out, with an encore presentation that took place on Friday.
The evening began on a nostalgic note. Old video game commercials played on the theater screen. Some were so worn out that it looked as though they were taken from fifth generation recordings of Saturday morning cartoons. We blast back to the 1980s for a good dose of Atari fun, including a spot for the now infamous E.T. game. We veered ever-so-slightly into the 1990s for a Tetris 2 clip.
Once the show started, it was clear that we weren’t here for nostalgia. Most of the works featured in the clip show remain fairly obscure and with good reason. “Outrageous” in this sense meant varying degrees of awful. There were the games that simply didn’t play well. Action 52, one cartridge with 52 games, is an example of this. When showing off this masterpiece of failure, Herring and the Cinefamily crew brought up someone from the audience to give a couple of the games a try. Even from the crowd’s vantage point, it looked like a completely frustrating experience. More often than not, outrageous referred to poor execution. Wretched gameplay and godawful voice acting were staples here.
Aside from plain-old lousy games, there were a lot of bad ideas. The show featured plenty of attempts to ride the coattails of other popular media. There were copy-cat games aplenty as well as games based on other pop culture figures. E.T. might be the best example of a movie badly reinterpreted as a game, but it wasn’t the only one. There were also games based on musicians and bands. Michael Jackson’s ‘Moonwalker’ and a ‘Journey’ video game both made appearances. Even the Noid, the old Domino’s Pizza mascot, had a video game counterpart.
Those were the games that could send a whole room up in laughter, but there’s a dark side to video game outrageousness too. The segment on pornographic games was cringe-worthy, probably intentionally so. Even in the crudest, 8-bit forms, the blatant misogyny in so many of those titles could not be missed. “I think the violence against women question in games is still out there and very relevant,” says Herring. “I find those games to be outrageous.”
After the show, when we spoke, Herring offered some of his thoughts regarding the underbelly of the video game world. “It’s truly about fantasy and myth-making and exploiting people’s curiosity,” he says.
“It’s easier to make a game with a nude scene or a sex scene and have it become famous for that and sell cartridges that way than versus making a really good game,” says Herring. “It’s a lot easier to make a game that’s gross and sells that way.”
Herring likens these games to exploitation in film, particularly movies of the 1970s. It’s an interesting comparison to make and the parallels between movies and video games were evident throughout the presentation. “These are like movies,” Herring says of the games they highlighted, “but they totally fail at movies and they totally fail at games.”
Video games have changed a lot since Atari and other home-centric systems first hit the scene and that’s partially why “Most Outrageous Video Games” is important. “I think it’s interesting now that game culture has evolved so that we can analyze games in terms of good and bad,” says Herring. “As a child, I either played a game because I liked it or didn’t play it because it was too hard. Now people analyze games like movies and like art and you can critique them and understand what’s good and bad about them.”
Photo credit: Liz Ohanesian