The ultimate Camp statement: it’s good because it’s awful. …Of course, one can’t always say that.
—Susan Sontag, “Notes on ‘Camp'”
This game is so bad, it’s not just become good. It’s pretty close to perfect.
—Jim Sterling, review of Deadly Premonition
Jim Sterling gave Deadly Premonition a score of 10 points out of a possible 10, easily the highest score the game received among major gaming review sites. In his review, he makes it plain that this game does not deserve that score in any “objective” sense. The graphics are dated, the gameplay is limited, and its systems pay too much attention to irrelevant details. This is to say nothing of its absurd plot and characters. In comparison to almost any other game, Deadly Premonition is awful, but within the bounds of a certain kind of sensibility, that does not preclude it from also being good. Sontag identifies that sensibility as Camp, and it’s an idea worth thinking about in connection to games.
I think it’s reasonable to ask whether one can extend this sensibility to games, because appreciating that which is awful or excessive in games is, I feel, much more difficult than extending a similar appreciation to film or other visual arts. A bad game demands more of its player than bad films or bad sculptures do of their viewer, and gives far less. The bad game demands time, of course, but more importantly, it demands effort. A game must be played. Games that adopt bad interfaces, aren’t sufficiently responsive, or require extreme skill might be considered “awful” in one way or another, but their experience will be reserved for an elite group of players who have the dexterity or sheer pig-headedness to force their way through.
I don’t mean to imply that Camp is egalitarian; this is certainly not the case. A sensibility that ironically appreciates the awful is, by its nature, a sensibility of the wealthy. Sontag connects Camp to the “psychopathology of affluence”, and this becomes even more acute in the case of the expense (both monetary and temporal) of the best-known contemporary video games. Additionally, although Camp seems egalitarian in its appreciation of “low” culture, the nature of Camp appreciation differs greatly from popular appreciation. The Camp aesthete, in ironic detachment, loves the Tiffany lamp because it is tacky; this judgment casts its holder in an elite, above the man who loves the Tiffany lamp because it is beautiful. Reasonable gameplay is not a requirement because the masses must have access; rather it is required because the appreciation of awfulness rarely extends to the point of discomfort. Few people would appreciate bad films if they cost $60 to watch and flickered on and off every 5 seconds.
We certainly can have Camp gameplay, however. House of the Dead: Overkill has a very responsive player interface and delivers an intrinsically enjoyable play experience that has Camp overtones because it belongs to a style of interaction presently viewed as outmoded. The rail shooter (or “guided first-person experience” as the favored euphemism goes) embodies the player as a viewpoint with a gun and sweeps him along a preset course, asking him only to move a pointer over onscreen enemies and press a button to fire. The first-person shooter caused this kind of gameplay to fall almost entirely out of favor, so play in this style seems almost deliberately anachronistic and cheesy. This plays into Overkill‘s dominant B-movie aesthetic, but it also connects with the Camp appreciation for items that seem old-fashioned.
In an earlier era, Overkill‘s gameplay might have seemed serious or visceral (and Dead Space: Extraction demonstrated that it can still be made to generate this feeling), but with time and the advent of more liberated modes of interaction it seems merely silly or perhaps even ironic. Virtually any subgenre of the shmup could probably generate a similar feeling, as could games in the classic adventure style. In a few year’s time, the match-three puzzle may also develop some Camp potential.
Of course, taking Camp into games from a purely ludic perspective is overly limiting. Games use audiovisual context to imbue abstract actions with meaning. The campiness of those abstractions is interesting, but does not exhaust the modes of experience in a given game. Overkill becomes both more and less campy because of this context. Less, because the dialogue and cutscenes make it clear that the game intends to leverage its pervasive B-movie aesthetic for laughs rather than taking it seriously. Yet the visual aesthetic of the levels and the staging of its cutscenes does serve the game’s reach for the Camp sensibility. Also, an enormous number of “mutants” must be killed in the game, which leads us to another point.
A certain Camp spirit pervades almost all of gaming culture. Consumers seem to desire, and reviewers love to extoll, games that embrace a certain degree of outrageous excess. Gamers love “Over the top!” action, characters that live “On the edge!”, art direction that’s “Out of this world!”, and storylines that are “Epic!” Don’t forget the exclamation marks, please. Video games rarely show any sense of restraint or refined sensibility; those that do rarely receive praise for it.
The hallmark of camp is the spirit of extravagance. —Sontag
As Overkill so cleverly displays, the great extravagance of the video game is violence. The game rewards the player for stringing together kills with extra points, using a combo meter that calls its highest level a “goregasm”. Of course, excessive violence is such a pervasive feature of games that it alone cannot qualify a game as Camp. However, certain genres play towards excessive violence in particular ways that may be seen as campy. The so-called “stylish action” genre, for instance, including the Devil May Cry series and the more recent Bayonetta, reward killing enemies in unusual ways and stringing together combos. These games are also campy in other respects, particularly in regard to their storylines and their character designs. What prevents these games from being truly campy is their historical tendency to be fiendishly difficult.
In this sense, God of War II may be the best example of video game Camp. Its half-naked hero Kratos, bedecked in war paint, tears through wave after wave of mythology-inspired monsters using giant swords that have been chained to his arms. Provided he weakens his enemies enough before killing them, Kratos can also perform elaborately brutal finishing moves that frequently involve dismemberment or decapitation (he yanks the heads off of Gorgons, for instance). Yet all of this requires little skill on the part of the player; even the most hapless button-masher can muddle his way through the combat, and the keys to the finishing moves are always displayed prominently on screen.
Most importantly, God of War II lacks the moral core of its predecessor. The first game in the series began with Kratos committing suicide, and concerned his quest for vengeance against Ares, who drove Kratos mad and caused him to kill his wife and child. In the final battle, the player is forced to become part of this memory, fighting an army of Kratos clones while intermittently hugging the wife and daughter to restore their health. The player becomes involved in the tragedy, and to some extent, the story succeeds emotionally. In the sequel, Kratos is out to change his fate and prove he’s the bigger man (God?) than Zeus. The gravitas of the original, such as it was, is dispensed with in favor of a story about, essentially, a cosmic bar fight. The sequel takes itself no less seriously than the original, but it fails to truly be serious.
Camp is art that proposes itself seriously, but cannot be taken altogether seriously because it is “too much”. —Sontag
With this archetype in mind, other exemplars can be identified, starting most obviously with God of War clones such as Dante’s Inferno. One could argue that the similarly intense Resident Evil 4 is even campier. Gears of War and its sequel also likely qualify. Camp arising from violence is not limited to games, of course; many of the fight scenes in Kill Bill, for example, though posed in absolutely serious fashion, become comic in their bloody excess.
One might argue that I have betrayed my purpose; now I’m arguing that good games are campy. Well, they are good games, but they’re bad stories, filled with flat characters doing stupid things in service of a plot that’s incomprehensible at best and insulting at worst. The content of these games regularly contextualizes the player’s action as violence and destruction — the more outrageous and disgusting, the better. We praise this behavior: here I’ve praised Overkill, and Sterling has praised Deadly Premonition. Many of the games I’ve mentioned have been rewarded with stellar sales. So the fact that we continue to receive games that offer this kind of content is no accident. The problem for most games isn’t that they inadvertently find themselves becoming campy. The problem is that they aspire to Camp, to achieve no better fate than to be loved for their excess, and to let ironic appreciation smooth over their faults.