One of my favorite games this summer is Necromunda: Hired Gun, which is a thrill ride of violence, guts, and gore in the grim darkness of the far future. The game is extremely fun, but also … kind of sloppy. It isn’t quite broken, but it doesn’t fully work, either.
In a word, it’s janky — and that’s part of why I love it so much. On one hand, jank breaks immersion and reminds us we’re playing a game, but on the other hand, it’s fun and often endearing. I’m not afraid to say it: I love these awkward baby horse games, and their stumbles only make them more endearing.
“Jank” is when the illusion of a world rips, and you can see the machinery underneath making the game work. Jank can manifest in silly looking animations, or objects that clip through walls and floors. It’s when there are random people littered around the world who can’t stop telling you that the Mojave almost makes you wish for a nuclear winter, or to get out of here, STALKER. It’s when you shoot a guard in the shoulder with a bow and arrow and he looks around for about 20 seconds before going “Huh… must have been the wind.”
There are even subcategories of jank! Necromunda, for instance, is an excellent example of Eurojank, defined as “an unofficial term for that class of sprawling, verbose, and oftentimes glitchy action/RPG titles originating from Eastern European nations like Russia, Poland, and Ukraine.” It’s like in The Witcher, when Geralt talks to bearded men with wooden faces and wildly flapping mouths. Or in GreedFall, when a character’s face clips through itself as they hand you an invisible object that they say is very important. Sure, why not, let’s roll with it!
Say what you will about it, but these moments are memorable. It’s been a decade since the release of the last Elder Scrolls games, people are still fondly thinking about them, and even working to imitate the awkward steps and weird pivots of Skyrim NPCs. Sprinkle a little Oblivion music on a mundane argument, and it’s instantly funny.
There are games from recent memory, like Fallout 76 or Cyberpunk 2077, that have drawn critical ire for being awkward or even broken, but I found myself enjoying the jank in these titles. When I think back to my time with Cyberpunk, I remember a few compelling side quests or touching cutscenes … but some of my fondest memories are sneaking through a club, blinding guards so I could choke out their buddies and drag the bodies into a closet, and watching the guard regain his sight and continue to talk to thin air. Then, the cops spawned right behind me in the closet and told me to stop right there.
Some of the best games in the RPG genre are absolutely loaded with issues, like Knights of the Old Republic 2 or Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines. Jank in these games represented areas where the developers were pushing for something ambitious, but due to complicating factors, couldn’t quite make it work. Some games are polished to a tee, with every interaction carefully planned and scripted to perfection. But I find that whenever a game is too clean and the jank has been scrubbed away, it kind of bounces off of me a little.
I love the moments where things break a little — you can only find them in video games, and they make everything a little bit sweeter. It’s a little like cracking open a book and seeing the author’s original notes scribbling into the margins, or watching a movie and seeing the boom mic dip down into the background. But that’s still not a perfect 1:1 comparison. Creating a massive, complex, living, breathing, interactive world is ridiculously difficult, and jank shows where the developers stretched to try and cover the gap and, sometimes, ultimately failed. It may not have ended up perfectly, but I respect the ambition — and hey, sometimes it’s more memorable than something that works but is otherwise mundane.