You're Doing It Wrong

We spend a lot of time, appropriately, talking about the content we are provided from the multitude of authors within the video game space, measuring their relative merits and endlessly critiquing the shortcomings. This is, of course, as things should be, but there’s a stigma and even open hostility to turning the laser beam focus of criticism onto ourselves as receivers of content.

Let me show you. Pick the game you most recently played that you did not like, and imagine I’ve just said to you, “Well, maybe you played the game wrong.”

Did you feel that kick in your gut? That flood of whatever chemicals it is in your brain that triggers a defensive emotional response? It is a powerful toxin. I’ve felt it plenty of times, and allowed myself to be swallowed into a cathartic rictus of self-righteous indigence. Rarely are adverbs and adjectives more my friend than when someone has seemingly recklessly blamed me as a culprit in what I perceive as a bad game.

But, is it so wrong to ask this question? Is there no culpability in the way a game player chooses to experience a given game? In cases where I’ve initially rejected a game, only to come back later, approach it in a different way and discover that there was actually excellence where I’d first seen failure, who is responsible for my initial negative experience?

I have to admit, the more I think on the matter the more I see that there is an art to playing games, and how I choose to receive my content can play a major role in my enjoyment of the experience.

I did not care for The Witcher when I first played it. Naturally, it would be hard to argue that the reason I didn’t like the game all that much was because it was somehow objectively bad. For all the things you may or may not be able to say about The Witcher series, that it was just not a good game seems like a losing strategy. At this point I have two options, either I can assume there is no such thing as a “good” or “bad” game — which actually is an interesting enough angle perhaps worth exploring at a later date — or that somehow the way I received the game is impacting my experience.

It’s easiest to just say, “Well, I guess it’s not my style.” I don’t care at all for shellfish, for example, because I do not like things that are obviously disgusting. However, it seems that others find those “foods” to be delicacies and even a special treat to be savored, so it’s very hard for me to be faced with a plate full of shrimp or lobster tails and make the argument that the problem is with the cook. To be honest, I don’t even know how to frame a discussion about what actually defines poorly prepared shrimp, because from my seat it’s all just a bad idea to begin with.

As I have belabored to death, this is how I feel about a lot of Eastern-influenced games. Not just JRPGs, but basically everything from the Capcom and Atlus oeuvres. I can’t begin to comment on what’s good and what’s bad from that entire hemisphere, because I have no language for understanding the most basic building blocks that lay the foundation for these games.

Not so with The Witcher, though. This is a different beast altogether, which is why I was surprised not to enjoy it when so many other people did. But the more I talked to people who loved it, the more I realized that what they loved weren’t even the parts I was thinking about. I was complaining about difficulty, combat systems and a lack of direction, and they were talking about all the things I didn’t like as though they were exactly the positives of the game.

The thing is, when I went back later — looking at the game through the lens as they had described it — I had a different experience. I realized that I’d been trying to absorb this game as though it were a race to a conclusion, as though it were about achieving some kind of end state, when the whole point was experiencing a complex and challenging journey. I realized that, to be frank, I’d been playing the game all wrong.

Frankly, I think the best recent example of this was with Dragon Age II, which is a game I thought was absolutely phenomenal. Not flawless or without room for criticism, certainly, but both subjectively — and, I think, objectively — the positives of the game vastly outweighed the negatives. For some people, it was their shellfish, a repulsive thing for which they had no common ground. That said, I think a lot of people played the game all wrong, and as a result unintentionally sabotaged their own experiences.

It’s a dangerous statement, I realize, because ostensibly I’m saying that the reason a number of people — maybe you — didn’t like this game is not because it failed, but because they failed at the playing of it.

I suppose it doesn’t matter in the end. The results are the same both ways: Person X liked game Y, while person Z did not. There are no worlds at stake, no grand effect hanging in the balance. But, actually, I think if we can accept within ourselves that we have at least some ownership over the result of our experience, then we are better prepared to get more out of games. It’s hard, particularly in a medium where interactivity is the cornerstone, to cede power to an author to dictate the terms of how you are supposed to receive content, but in many cases by doing so, I think we may be better served in the long run.

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Maybe this is why I don't like Mass Effect, I've been playing it wrong.

Interesting take. I've had similar discussions with my best friend about this as I don't like a bunch of the games he does (Deus Ex, XCom, etc). I must be playing it wrong to not enjoy some awesome gaming specimens. Ah well.

I don't really go in for "objective" anything, especially when it comes to value judgments like "objectively good," but when the object in question is interactive—ergodic, even—I think there's a definitional conclusion that the audience is partly responsible for the experience.

So you're going to give The World Ends With You another shot?

Datyedyeguy wrote:
Maybe this is why I don't like Mass Effect, I've been playing it wrong. ;)

That was actually what I thought of while reading. Not your experience with Mass Effect, of course, but mine.

I hated it. I enjoyed only a handful of minutes of the entire game. But it's a series that's been praised to high heaven for all the very things I hated: the characters, the dialogue, the universe, and the combat. It was the sort of game I expected to have a Metacritic rating in the low 60s that only a handful of people would enjoy and them only a little.

And yet, there it is, the most beloved franchise of this console generation. And I've wondered: what did I miss? Is Mass Effect my shellfish, something I just don't enjoy and wouldn't enjoy, or did I do something wrong? Could I learn to appreciate and enjoy the series?

Mass Effect 2 is just $10 on Origin right now, and I'll admit that I'm tempted to buy it just to see what it's like. But I have so many other games to play that I know I'll like (you know, all that Atlus stuff) that I'm not sure I want to take the time to try.

garion333 wrote:
So you're going to give The World Ends With You another shot? ;)

My first thought too.

Elysium wrote:
cathartic rictus of self-righteous indigence

Winner: Most Rappable Phrase of 2012.

I experience this almost exclusively with Free to Play games oddly enough. I didn't much care for Puzzle Pirates or Realm of the Mad God the first time I experienced them, but after a healthy cut in pay forced me to re-evaluate my gaming budget, suddenly the second attempt was a complete success. I love them both now.

ClockworkHouse wrote:
Datyedyeguy wrote:
Maybe this is why I don't like Mass Effect, I've been playing it wrong. ;)

That was actually what I thought of while reading. Not your experience with Mass Effect, of course, but mine.

I hated it. I enjoyed only a handful of minutes of the entire game. But it's a series that's been praised to high heaven for all the very things I hated: the characters, the dialogue, the universe, and the combat. It was the sort of game I expected to have a Metacritic rating in the low 60s that only a handful of people would enjoy and them only a little.

And yet, there it is, the most beloved franchise of this console generation. And I've wondered: what did I miss? Is Mass Effect my shellfish, something I just don't enjoy and wouldn't enjoy, or did I do something wrong? Could I learn to appreciate and enjoy the series?

Mass Effect 2 is just $10 on Origin right now, and I'll admit that I'm tempted to buy it just to see what it's like. But I have so many other games to play that I know I'll like (you know, all that Atlus stuff) that I'm not sure I want to take the time to try.

I had similar issues as well. Never finished Mass Effect 1 as I couldn't justify slogging through the rest of the game. Nobody really stood out to me as a character to care about, combat was floatly and non-responsive, and yadayadayada.

Who knows, maybe if it goes crazy cheap on Steam I'll give it another shot.

I get the ME comments. Actually, I did not care for ME1 the first time I played. The second time, I loved it.

I'm enjoying Mass Effect 1 after realizing this very thing. It's a story based Scifi game and I had kinda ruined the story for myself due to my expectations and my inability to not pursue sidequests. When I recognized this about myself and made a conscious effort to overcome it, the game became enjoyable.

I don't know if either way is "right" but I used to not enjoy a game and now I do. I consider it better, at any rate.

Elysium wrote:
I get the ME comments. Actually, I did not care for ME1 the first time I played. The second time, I loved it.

What changed?

Through what lens should I be playing Dragon Age then? It never clicked for me...

PyromanFO wrote:
I'm enjoying Mass Effect 1 after realizing this very thing. It's a story based Scifi game and I had kinda ruined the story for myself due to my expectations and my inability to not pursue sidequests. When I recognized this about myself and made a conscious effort to overcome it, the game became enjoyable.

I don't know if either way is "right" but I used to not enjoy a game and now I do. I consider it better, at any rate.

So for those of us that just can't bypass side-quests, is this a lost cause? Is trying to do everything in the game the 'wrong' way to play?

I don't think it's all that dangerous to say that some people are simply looking for the wrong things in some games. Some of it is marketing - games being marketed as something that they're not, but in many cases, it's also gamers not recognizing a game for what it is.

Mass Effect 3 is an absolutely appalling platformer, and it totally fails at being an open world sandbox game. Rated according to those expectations, it would be a massive, massive failure. A gamer expecting that sort of experience would find it terrible, particularly if he just sped through the dialogue and set the combat to "Narrative" in order to "get the irritating parts over with."

By the same standards, I'm expecting Diablo 3 to be downright terrible. It's probably also going to be an awful platformer and an failed sandbox game.

Lest people think that this is excessively obvious, I'd like to point out that a number of prominent publications heavily criticized Reckoning in this fashion:

"Yeah, the combat is good, but it totally fails at being Skyrim."

which makes just about as much sense as,

"Yeah the shooting is good in Team Fortress 2, but where's the narrative?!?!?"

At the point where you're glossing over the best parts of a game just to harp on the things it's obvious not intending to do, I think it'd be safe to say that you're doing it wrong.

I think that asking yourself "Am I playing it wrong?" is a gateway to more critically interesting questions. In the case of a hypothetical "yes" or "maybe" answer:
- Is there more the game could have done to show me the "right" way to play it?
- Could it have done that without being alienatingly patronizing to other players (ones who wouldn't be playing it wrong absent such additional guidance)?

Whenever I'm not enjoying myself, I think: Is it me, or is it the game? Basically the question posted by this article, I think.

And then I think, can I easily imagine a hypothetical person who would find this fun?

For example, I had to put down Disgaea because the options for progressing were too overwhelming and the level grindiness was getting to me. Is that me or the game? Well, a lot of people LOVE that level of options and love that level grindiness. So it's probably me.

But then there are issues that I honestly can't imagine being fun for anyone. Something like unresponsive controls.

I don't know what you're talking about. Shrimp and lobster are delicious.

On topic: I agree with juv3nal about the other questions raised by this. My recent example is Catherine. Frustratingly hard at first, it became a joy once I had a better understanding of the mechanics. And the game didn't help as it would teach you critical techniques after you would need them/figured them out for yourself. Needless to say, a handful of youtube strategy videos moved this game from 'interesting concept' to 'highly recommended'.

nel e nel wrote:
On topic: I agree with juv3nal about the other questions raised by this. My recent example is Catherine. Frustratingly hard at first, it became a joy once I had a better understanding of the mechanics. And the game didn't help as it would teach you critical techniques after you would need them/figured them out for yourself. Needless to say, a handful of youtube strategy videos moved this game from 'interesting concept' to 'highly recommended'.

Perhaps tangental to this discussion, but Clockwork House and I have had several discussions on recent Persona team games from Atlus (of which Catherine is one) and how they use the actual mechanics of the games themselves to further enhance the narrative. Needless to say we both think that there is a very specific reason in Catherine why you're often taught certain concepts after you start to need them. However, I also think that the Persona team is maybe the only dev house trying to weave things in so tightly, so juv3nal's points typically apply.

This sort of interlocking gameplay and narrative is something I'm excited to see developers pursue further, but it probably will make for some confused and/or upset players before it becomes accepted.

I definitely think that 'You're doing it wrong' can be a valid comment. Let's stick with Mass Effect. Many people whose opinions I respect disliked ME2s shooting gallery level design and complained that it made for a bad shooter, and that it was too easy, and they are absolutely correct. Playing with a gun class on Normal difficulty is not the 'right' way to play ME2.

My first playthrough of ME2 was as a sniping Infiltrator on Normal and it was honestly pretty boring,* my second go was as a hard charging Vanguard on Hardcore and Veteran and suddenly the level design didn't matter anymore because I was charging through and over the conveniently placed bullet proof crates and shooting Turians in the face with a Krogan shotgun. The difficulty meant that it was necessary to pay attention to what was going on, and the class required strategy.

But if you tell someone they are playing a game wrong, no matter how delicately you try frame it, they will understandably get defensive. 'Why is Normal so Easy?' and 'Why do they make it look like a shooter if it isn't meant to be played as a shooter?' are the questions they will ask, and they are valid ones, but my response is that the developers give the player a whole box of toys to play with and it's up to the player to move on from the wooden blocks and maybe try the Lego.

juv3nal wrote:
I think that asking yourself "Am I playing it wrong?" is a gateway to more critically interesting questions. In the case of a hypothetical "yes" or "maybe" answer:
- Is there more the game could have done to show me the "right" way to play it?
- Could it have done that without being alienatingly patronizing to other players (ones who wouldn't be playing it wrong absent such additional guidance)?

Good questions. Bioware definitely failed in making Normal too easy in ME2. Players are programmed to consider Normal to be the standard for a first playthrough, after all it's 'Normal' right? But for any reasonably experienced gamer Veteran should be considered the minimum difficulty. They really should have just renamed all of them.

I think it's tough to encourage players to be adventurous. Players don't like being handheld and forced to do things they don't want to, if it's done clumsily. For a start the level design could have been a lot better, but I don't know how the devs could encourage the player to try more interesting classes than Soldier or Infiltrator which can just hunker down in cover and unleash death from afar.

*except for the blue spray from sniping a Turian in the head with the time dilation effect. That never got old.

@Minarchist: yeah, I think you guys touched on that discussion about integration in Catherine in the catch-all, and I totally agree. One of the more immersive experiences I've had to date in video games.

@MrDevil: I totally agree with the naming conventions of difficulty, and experienced gamers should 'kick it up a notch' from the get go. I know I've slowly morphed into a 'one level up from Normal difficulty' player over the past year or two. ME2 would have benefitted from the Halo treatment, where they straight up say that "Heroic is the way Halo was meant to be played".

If you ask me, Hardcore is the minimum for any seasoned gamer in ME2. The various anti-defense powers and combos simply don't matter on any lower difficulty setting. Three-fourths of the game might as well not exist on Veteran.

MrDeVil909 wrote:

'Why is Normal so Easy?'

I'm a person who plays a lot of video games but really isn't all that good at them, and this question drives me up the wall. I'm very grateful when a designer decides to put in a mode / difficulty level that I actually have a chance at beating, or at least beating without huge amounts of frustration. Leave my easy and normal modes alone!

Demyx wrote:
MrDeVil909 wrote:

'Why is Normal so Easy?'

I'm a person who plays a lot of video games but really isn't all that good at them, and this question drives me up the wall. I'm very grateful when a designer decides to put in a mode / difficulty level that I actually have a chance at beating, or at least beating without huge amounts of frustration. Leave my easy and normal modes alone!

Hey don't get me wrong, I suck at games myself. I usually play shooters on Easy because I just play them to unwind and make things dead, RPGs and strategy games I play on Normal because I like to think a little when I play them, but not stress myself out.

But ME2s Normal setting really should be Easy, it's a cakewalk.

I'll second that. I'll even extend it to Veteran. Hardcore in ME2 really isn't hard at all - it merely requires a familiarity with level mechanics and power combinations; which have very simple relationships. You don't need to shoot well to do well in ME2 on Hardcore. You just need to read the entries on the powers to see how they combine with other powers; and there's not that many of them.

Pause - Anti-Defense Power, Pull, Warp - this sequence of four button presses will suffice to instantly and completely obliterate any closely clumped group of the usual enemies on Hardcore, and since you're Paused, you can take 30 minutes to enter the three subsequent button presses, if you so choose. You don't even need to aim since the powers auto-hit.

Sean Sands for president!

The title of this article should totally have read: "Your Doing It Wrong"

Datyedyeguy wrote:
PyromanFO wrote:
I'm enjoying Mass Effect 1 after realizing this very thing. It's a story based Scifi game and I had kinda ruined the story for myself due to my expectations and my inability to not pursue sidequests. When I recognized this about myself and made a conscious effort to overcome it, the game became enjoyable.

I don't know if either way is "right" but I used to not enjoy a game and now I do. I consider it better, at any rate.

So for those of us that just can't bypass side-quests, is this a lost cause? Is trying to do everything in the game the 'wrong' way to play?
It is less fun to play it that way, given my real world time constraints. If I had no other responsibilities and I could do 18 hr days on Mass Effect, then I could do the side quests and keep the story in my head the entire time. As it is, each side quest leaves me bewildered when I finish it several days later and go "okay, wait what was I doing again?"

Interacting with a piece of art/entertainment is a two-way street. What you, the participant, brings to the experience (or the ways in which you experience the thing) is just as important as what the creator of the thing presents to you.

It is very possible to read things in the wrong way, or play games in the wrong way, just as it is entirely possible for a creator to present things in the wrong way.

Scott Nicholson, of Board Games with Scott fame, talks about this phenomena often. For each group, and for each setting, there are right games and wrong games. What we have to do is pick the right games for the way we are playing games at that moment.

Interesting article.

There's a conflict/synergy between a player's preconceptions and the game designer's skill at teaching you what kind of game it is. You can't play Mafia 2 like Grand Theft Auto, but many people went into the game thinking you could.

The article seemed good but I sort of zoned out after the shellfish comment and now all I think of is a big plate of tiger prawns in garlic butter. Something Mass Effect something agreed something man I could go for some prawns.

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