We have a concept around these parts called ‘good stupid’. More to the point, stupid exists on a gradient between ‘bad stupid’ and ‘good stupid’. I’m not referring to people here. I’m not using stupid as an insult. Good and bad stupid are almost exclusively used to describe movies or games or music. Entertainment.
As an example, Pacific Rim is good stupid. Bright is bad stupid. The difference between these two movies is how aware they are that their basic premise is nonsense. While the characters in Pacific Rim don’t appear to be aware that everything happening around them is silly, the movie constantly winks and nods at the audience. The creators are aware of how stupid it is and they lean into that stupid in fun ways. Bright presents itself as a veiled social commentary but can’t help stepping on itself in the process. It doesn’t seem to know how stupid it is.
There is a gag in Bright where the human character played by Will Smith calls an Orc character ‘Shrek lookin’. This is a world where Orcs exists and, seemingly, have existed for thousands of years. Shrek is a CG animated movie about an Ogre. CG animated would mean that Shrek had to be a movie made in the very recent past in that world. Not only is it horrific to consider that people made a movie like Shrek in that world, having a main character use it as a joke is almost inexcusable. As an audience we are given a lot to consider in that moment. It’s not really a joke, but one of the main characters, a man who is supposed to be on a redemptive arc, being hateful and cruel. As soon as you think about it, the movie and the character never recover. The internal logic of the ‘stupid’ movie crumbles and the only conclusion you can come to is that the creators really didn’t know what it was they were making. Bad stupid.
That is a particularly blatant example of bad stupid. For bad stupid of the more careless rather than thoughtless variety you can always look to the Transformers movies. The Transformers as a concept is pretty stupid, giant robots that hide as vehicles and structures even though the people of earth they are hiding from pose absolutely zero threat to them. Or maybe they are hiding from each other, except they why bother changing shape when they could easily hide underground or in the ocean. The cartoons and comics understood how stupid it was and offered this option: giant robots are cool, cars and jets are cool. Want to see a robot that turns into a car or a jet? Yeah? Want to see them fight? Okay. And now everything else that these giant robots do from here on out will absolutely not point out how ridiculous this concept is. That’s what we would call ‘good stupid’.
The Transformers movies forget all of that, sideline the Transformers as secondary characters and comic relief in a movie named after them and consist of action set pieces that don’t link in any logical way. Bad Stupid.
Due to the limitations of the medium, up until a few years ago video games have almost all existed in the realm of ‘good stupid’. Why is Mario running from left to right. Doesn’t matter. No effort is ever made to explain or expand on that. If anything, the narrative drive of attempting to rescue a princess weakens the game. Running and jumping is why you play that game. You could just as easily have made the end goal of each level collecting all of the ingredients for a really good salad. That’s the kind of silly I can really go for. For the most part, it’s ‘good stupid’.
‘Good Stupid’ in games isn’t anti-narrative though. A game like Dream Daddy where you play as a dad dating other dads presents a weird idealised world of pleasant characters and uncomplicated sexuality. The world is absurd, but through that lens the creators tell stories about unconditional love within families and interactions between people just searching for companionship and sharing joy in their lives. The premise is silly, but very much ‘good stupid’
With the technology of games improving, there will always be this drive to strive for realism or grit or accuracy. The systems and method of interaction with video games is still pretty ridiculous. Pressing buttons on a controller is not like jumping and selecting items from a menu is nothing like actually talking to a person. Until we come up with something better video games will remain pretty silly. I say lean into it. Better to be ‘good stupid’ than ‘bad stupid’.