This week on Cold Take, Sebastian dives into how we talk about the “right way” to play video games.
Playing Games the Right Way – Transcript
There’s a little more to this world than just ‘git gud or git got,’ and if you don’t get it you ain’t got it.
When I got into game playing and game development I was obsessed with playing ‘the right way.’ ‘The right way?’ Therein lie the details. Conversations about the ‘right’ way to enjoy video games are a tense standoff from the get go regardless of what stance you take. Trying to apply fact and reason to a field predominantly ruled by opinion. Now, that’ll get you some strange looks from the crowd. Meanwhile, trying to argue that there is no wrong way to play video games is also a clown’s errand. Well, consider me the whole circus, because I like talking about talking about the ‘right way.’ ‘Tribalism,’ they say. The desire to preach about the things we love and burn everyone who disagrees at the stake. It’s often cited as the culprit to blame, but I think there’s more to it at times. I believe the phrase comes up due to a burning desire to understand and communicate with each other, as well as the undeniable fact that we all have our own biases.
My never-to-be-trusted-in-deception-games editor-in-chief, Nick Calandra, recently found love again in Death Stranding. From an article he released at the start of February, he communicates with me, the reader, his points of enjoyment and his points of conflict. His favorite part of the game is navigating the world and figuring out the best path to traverse, but slowly the game’s tedium grinds away his backpacking-through-Wyoming bewonderment. By his own account, there’s too much inventory management for his taste, backtracking takes too long, and he isn’t a fan of the stealth or combat mechanics when it comes to dealing with BTs or the Mules–whatever that means. I own it and haven’t played Death Stranding either out of sheer intimidation from the initial trailers in 2016. But through his writing he communicates his journey to become a more patient gamer over the years, his willingness to try games from a new perspective, and how lowering the difficulty removed the tedium and finally granted him a full 26 hour playthrough of enjoyment.
That’s him attempting to communicate. That’s the first part of having a conversation. The second part is at the mercy of my understanding of what he was getting at. Sadly for Nick, I have the reading comprehension of an 8 year old and my attention span’s been corroded by years of Vines and TikToks training me to take in all information in spurts of 10 seconds accompanied by a silly dance, so the understanding I gain from his article is “that Nicholas Jicholas Calandra hated the game because he couldn’t beat Death Stranding until he put it on the easiest difficulty and should probably stick to playing that dead game, Halo Infinite. He didn’t play Death Stranding the ‘right way.’” I think I tore a ligament with how hard I had to reach for that conclusion. In reality, I have the reading comprehension of a 9 year old and I understand where he’s coming from. This isn’t him recommending the ‘right way’ to play Death Stranding nor is it even a cautionary tale about playing Kojima’s Wonderland the ‘wrong’ way. I’m sure there’s plenty of people who have a different perspective or actively enjoy the points of Death Stranding that didn’t vibe with Nick.– One man’s frustrations are another man’s kink.– It’s a conversation, built on personal anecdote, about playing games your way. Not his way. Your way. Sounds like he plays games similar to me, so for my playthrough I’ll be starting off on the easiest difficulty as well.
The thing about people who bring up the ‘right’ way to play games is it’s a response. It’s a reaction. It’s an assumption. You ever notice how no one asks if you played a game the right way if you told them you liked it beforehand. It’s only suggested if you say you didn’t like a game as much as they do. It’s not always negative. I don’t always assume bad faith. It’s the final attempt to make sure we’re on the same page in the same book. Video games are a variable experience that appeal to a vast demographic with differing expectations. They’re subject to the tastes and whims of their consumer base liable to mistake their own opinions and biases for irrefutable truths.–I don’t think I said that word right, but I’m keeping it– “All JRPGs are slow and boring. All roguelikes are obtuse and random. Being led around an environment covered in yellow paint is fun.” These are all opinions, and I like talking to people who have different opinions than I do. “Have you ever played a game like this before? What difficulty did you play on? How did you play? Why don’t you like yellow paint?” Part of me is offering my assistance in trouble shooting, because I’ve played plenty of games I didn’t quite get because they weren’t in my field of feigned expertise. Sometimes I do need a little help, like in the case of Skyrim. Every playthrough went the same way. Skipping all the customization, listening to every line of dialogue, reading everything that could be read, doing every side mission, crouch walking off into the wilderness, spending hours in caves eating cabbage to make more room for cheese wheels in my inventory, and then ultimately exhausting and burning myself out three days later once I made it to the top of Throat Goat Mountain. Every. Single. Time. And that never stopped me from appreciating the objectively sound fundamentals. The game had my respect, it just didn’t have my affection. Not until my most recent playthrough where I am roleplaying as Todd Howard, no relation, a kleptomaniacal imperial coming to terms with his mother being a hamster and his father being a dragon. While some may enjoy touching every nook and cranny of Skyrim, I find my more laissez-faire and linear wanderings suit me better. It wasn’t a change of difficulty so much as a change in perspective.
But even then I wouldn’t say I was playing it ‘wrong’. To my credit, Skyrim was peddled to me as having an accommodating catch-all type system, so being my mother’s son, I did as I pleased to the detriment of the game. Ten years later I approach games from a healthier angle with a relatively opener mind and more sensible expectations. But games like Stray don’t boast that level of complexity nor is there much room for miscommunication, so I find it unlikely that I didn’t play it the right way the first time. Its indie game of the year status leaves me equally perplexed and paranoid that I missed out on something. It’s easy to write off the game as a marketing miracle pandering to the internet’s cat fixation, leading it to outperform other indie games featuring orange critters that were released in 2022 like Neon White, Cult of the Lamb, or Tunic. It’s a pretty okay game in its own right, but did I play it the ‘right’ way?
Don’t mistake my internal double checking for a lack of confidence in my own tastes. It’s quite the opposite. I fancy myself so much I believe myself the only one suited to remind myself that I am still human. I want to be sure I understand the perspective of those that differ for the sake of fulfilling my duties to the best of my abilities. “Did I play it right?” is my “Memento Mori.”
Every time I fail to praise the trending second coming of video games there is at least one brave individual willing to step up to the cabal of cynical and jaded gamers. Signalis had many brave individuals stepping forward to make its case. A hidden gem that would have dethroned Elden Ring if only it had garnered more mainstream attention. A love letter to classic survival horror that would captivate fans of Silent Hill 2 and people who had never played Silent Hill 2. It’s on Game Pass and I had a free day so I gave it a go. Once again it’s alright, but the dissonance between my experience and the anecdotes of others once again brought back perplexion and paranoia.
I was guinea pig number two, the one who never played Silent Hill before, paired up with guinea pig number one, Silent Hill zealot Ben ‘Yahtzee’ Croshaw, for a livestream where we compared our opinions of Signalis. We both formed our own thoughts separately in our own special bubbles. But, according to the Signalis fans, our lacking appreciation for the game must be because neither of us played it the right way. I had not played enough Silent Hill and my coworker had overdosed on the franchise. Apparently there was a third guinea pig we failed to bring along with us. One that had played more Silent Hill than none but less Silent Hill than all. This is the guinea pig everyone wants to hear from. This mythological creature is the one people call upon when no one else will validate their opinions. Its opinions somehow manage to be both inexperienced and experienced enough to always know when to praise a game and when to tear into one in just the right way to appeal to every single person’s preference.
There’s that phrase again. “The right way.” The chances of everyone that disagrees with me being incompetent are astronomically low and not representative of the whole. In the end I don’t think it matters how one plays a game. You’ll never be able to play it in just the right way to stop people from wanting to get a second opinion from the Third Guinea Pig. What matters most is the ability to express oneself in a manner that allows others and, more importantly, you to understand where the shortcomings occurred. In which case don’t worry about playing games the “right way,” go have something you can enjoy your way. As someone who’s made a career out of their credibility–firstly in culinary, then business management, then game development, and now this– too many questionable takes make me a liability. But, if it’s one thing I’ve learned from operating in the opinion-havers industry it’s that my job depends less on my being right and more on my being understood and understanding myself. Being right a lot can help, but I can’t be correct all the time so the second best thing I can be is as transparent as possible and willing to grow from my own understandings.