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.