Bad Rats used to be called the worst game on Steam. People would buy it for each other as a joke and write nonsensical user reviews declaring it a masterpiece. But then in 2014 a company called Digital Homicide came along and managed to take that dubious crown for itself with the zombies-meet-Duke-Nukem shooter The Slaughtering Grounds, and ensured it kept it by bringing 20 more terrible games to Steam over the course of just three years.
Digital Homicide's games were not treated with the same affection as Bad Rats. There were fewer tongue-in-cheek user reviews and more hatred. Steam communities dedicated to getting Digital Homicide shut down were created, and Robert Romine and James Romine Jr. – the developers behind Digital Homicide – received death threats.
The studio reacted to all this by attempting to sue 100 Steam users for $18 million for what it felt was a coordinated campaign to sink its games on the platform. Valve – the multi-billion dollar gaming giant which owns Steam – was unimpressed and duly pulled all of its games from the store. Digital Homicide then attempted to sue Valve, though it quickly requested a dismissal and ultimately gave up before declaring the end of the company.
That wasn't the first time Digital Homicide had threatened legal action. It attempted to sue popular YouTuber Jim Sterling after he made fun of several of its games on his channel, which earned the ire of his fans and contributed to yet more backlash for the beleaguered studio. But even Steam users who weren't fans of watching Stirling shout at bad games on YouTube were angered by Digital Homicide.
So were its games really worth getting angry about? Were they really some of the very worst games in the world?
I played some of them to find out.
The Slaughtering Grounds
Finding ways to make shooting zombies fun is a solved problem for video games, so a first-person shooter with zombies should be a hard thing to get wrong. The Slaughtering Grounds manages it. Its zombies are a strange mish-mash of Nazis, convicts, Girl Scouts, policemen, and one that looks like Nosferatu in a tuxedo, but they all explode in a shower of gore that continues spraying over their twitching remains long after they're dead. A voiceover that sounds like Duke Nukem sometimes shouts “Victory!” while the screen declares “Blood bath!”
The Slaughtering Grounds is what people who make TV shows think video games are like – it's the mock-up you expect to see fratboys playing on an episode of a crime show where exasperated detectives shake their head at the youth of today. It is not very good.
Visually, Temper Tantrum is a lot more appealing than The Slaughtering Grounds. It's a bright cartoon world where a toddler in a diaper runs through a house breaking furniture for points while floating gremlins named Mr. Boogers and Mr. Nightnight give chase. The camera frequently gets on the wrong side of walls and there are only three levels on a seemingly endless loop, but Temper Tantrum is still a step up from The Slaughtering Grounds.
Medieval Mercs crams its character select screen with stuff, making it seem like good value even if only for containing so many options. There's equipment to craft, characters to choose from, and difficulty options, but all of them are limited by an unlock system that insures I will never have access to them because that would require playing more of Medieval Mercs.
It's a 2D action game about defending a village gate from fantasy monsters, but while the dwarf hero waves a hammer and several magical abilities, there's no sense of impact from any of the attacks. If it weren't for the health bars over enemies you'd assume you were simply missing. Meanwhile, their attacks slice away your own skinny health bar hidden in a display full of things you don't need to know about. I have to watch it like a hawk to know when to heal and rarely pay attention to the harpies and ogres I'm actually fighting.
Those monsters, like the dwarf, come from a collection of creatures on the Unity Asset Store. A close look at Digital Homicide's games shows store-bought assets all over the place, sound effects and music as well as art. It's one of the main things their haters had against them, but it's hard to fault a company made up of two coders for not also being artists and sound designers. Lots of games, even famous ones, have used pre-made in-game assets – like generic car or animal models or sounds – they've just been more subtle about it. Even the iconic door noise from 1993's Doom actually comes from a collection of effects sold by Sound Ideas and has been used in Star Wars movies and episodes of Doctor Who.
Winged Knights: Penetration
Imagine Joust, the 1980s arcade game about knights on flying ostriches, only with pegasi instead. That's Winged Knights: Penetration, one of several Digital Homicide games inspired by arcade classics – both Krog Wars and Not In My Crapper are based on Space Invaders, only the latter has you shooting turds instead of lasers.
While the flapping flight works the same way as in Joust, ground movement is different. Those ostriches charged across the ground before changing directions with a dramatic skid, where the pegasi of Winged Knights: Penetration turn on a dime – which seems a tad unrealistic, even for a mythical creature. It's much less kinetic and feels oddly frictionless. Skewering enemies on your lance – get two in a row and the screen shouts “DOUBLE PENETRATION!” in case you thought the name's crudeness was accidental – also lacks any kind of visceral impact.
Most of Digital Homicide's games have this in common. You only know enemies are attacking because the screen flashes red or your health bar shrinks. “Game feel” is a hard-to-quantify thing, but it's easy to spot in its absence. This seems like a much greater flaw than the obvious use of generic assets.
Devils Share dumps you in a ghost town at night with no explanation. In an empty gas station I find a flashlight and a gun, but while I'm looting the buildings naked red men appear behind me, chase me up stairs and genuinely terrify me. They shouldn't be scary, but something about the atmosphere of Devils Share is effective. The same is true of Paranormal Psychosis, another horror game by Digital Homicide. Big-budget horror follows rules, is constructed to a tight formula just like movies, but low-budget games gain an added creepiness thanks to their (sometimes unintentional) unpredictability.
Neither of these could be mistaken for well-crafted experiences, and yet both of them work in the same way other amateur horror games like the infectiously thrilling – and endlessly livestreamed – Five Nights At Freddy's or Slender: The Arrival do. You never feel a sense of equilibrium, never really know when you're safe. If Digital Homicide had stuck to games like this, they might have found a more appreciative audience. But they didn't, obviously.
The Decimation Of Olarath
A game about being a mass of tentacles in space that eats planets is at least an original idea. The Decimation of Olarath has the usual Digital Homicide flaws, however. When spaceships attack it's difficult to tell they're hurting you, and even harder to tell if you're damaging them. Death is abrupt and inexplicable, and after playing for a few minutes you'll have seen all there is to see. Good concept, though.
I played more of Digital Homicide's games, but you get the idea. Some of them are the same game reskinned – Wyatt Derp and Withering Kingdom: Arcane War are the same shooter only with cowboys replaced by wizards – while others are so opaque I never really figured out what the hell was going on. The effects of every action in Attrition: Nuclear Domination seemed so arbitrary if this were made by anybody else I'd have assumed it was deliberate commentary. I don't know if the crafting in survival game Forsaken Uprising was broken or if I couldn't place campfires for some other reason, but at this point I wasn't going to keep trying.
In the past unpopular games sometimes gained cult followings in the same way bad movies do. Desert Bus is basically the video game equivalent of The Room. But Digital Homicide came along after Valve stopped curating what people could see on Steam and started to rely on the user-voted Greenlight system to choose games, resulting in a flood that eroded players' patience for trash. The reaction to Digital Homicide is as much about having a stick to beat Valve with as it is about the games themselves. While several of Digital Homicide's games never made it through Greenlight – thankfully a game about beating up sex workers called Six Nights at Suzie's among them – the quantity-to-quality ratio of Steam has obviously dropped as it becomes more open.
Is that really so awful, though? Digital Homicide was a reminder of the days in the Eighties and Nineties when shops had bargain bins full of games you'd never heard of but which could be yours for a buck. The late-night B-movies of video games, they weren't good even if they weren't always that terrible. Even bad games can teach us something, casting into greater relief what better games do well. The next time I play a game with a sense of heft I'll appreciate it even more after playing so many that lack it.
And if someone else took the giant space squid who eats planets out of The Decimation of Olarath and made a better game to showcase it, I'd play the hell out of that.