How Should I Play?

Spoiler Content

-Telletale’s The Walking Dead Season 1, Episode 4, one major spoiler
Spec Ops – The Line, one major spoilers

Everyone who has been through high school or college has had a teacher tell them how to read.  “Look for this symbol!”  “Underline anything important!”  “Take notes!”  “Reread it multiple times!”  As someone who’s ADD (and, okay, occasional lack of effort) made passing detail-oriented reading quizzes difficult, I was instructed to try every one of these methods, none of which worked.  All of these instructions instilled in me a strong belief that reading wasn’t a passive experience, but a skill, an art in and of itself.  The book didn’t react to my actions, but content and the way I consumed it did. How I approached the medium very directly affected my experience, helping me get the most of out of my reading.

It was with this mindset that I recently started approaching a new question, “How Should I Play?”  I don’t approach playing a game the same way I read great books; the way I play games is an aspect of my experience that largely goes uncriticized.  If I sit down and think about revising my play style, it is usually from a purely mechanical standpoint; how can I increase my damage output, how can I avoid dying so much, how can I make this jump; these were the questions I was asking.  You know what kind of questions I have almost never asked?  How would Booker DeWitt fight in this shootout?  What kinds of weapons and vigors would he use?  Would he take cover?  Would he use the brutal melee takedowns that bothered me so much?  How would Joel react to Ellie in survival situations? Would he go off on his own and leave Ellie to fend for herself while he took down dozens of enemies, or stay by her side to protect her?  Would this change as the game progressed?

Two events recently got me to really think about this question.  MrBtongue, a YouTube creator who’s content I have increasingly grown to like, once talked about how, when he played Half-Life 2, he would close all the doors behind him in the game’s iconic opening sequence, Point Insertion, because he didn’t want the Combine to know that he was there.  It didn’t make any difference mechanically, but it did affect his experience.  The second happened the other night, I was playing through Telletale’s The Wolf Among Us, and a friend commented that I never picked the silence option, despite it being 25% of the game’s choices.  I simply hadn’t considered it.

Both of these events made me think that there was an entirely different way of playing through some of my favorite games.  They also showed me that there was a method of thinking that would allow me to get more out of these games, and that came from considering my actions in the context of the world and the characters, not just my personal morality.

In games, there is a brilliant conflict between player and player character.  I both am and am not Martin Walker.  I both did and did not drop white phosphorous on unarmed refugees.  I both am and am not Joel.  I both did and did not kill all three doctors in the game’s final level.

But I also am and am not Commander Shepard.  I both did and did not become great friends with Garrus Vakarian.  And I also am and am not Lee Everett.  I both did and did not save Ben’s life even when he wanted me to let him die.

Games have an enormous potential to help us better explore the depths of human experience, both the good and the bad, but they can’t do that if I’m not playing critically.  There is no way I could have understood the brilliant ideas in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 if my teacher hadn’t helped me build a respect for the depth and nuance of the book’s metaphors, or if I hadn’t created my own techniques and to discover how every single facet of the book was connected and meaningful.  Books have that nuance.  You can be a great reader.  Films have that nuance, as anyone who has explored Citizen Kane or even Blade Runner will tell you.  You can be a great film viewer.  But when people say that someone is good at a game, they mean they have mastered the game’s systems, not that they can really dig into the meaning.  We don’t have a term or way of talking about someone who approaches a game as a world of art that was carefully crafted by brilliant developers with the same degree of depth and nuance as a film or book.  Yet I have seen gamers, be they on YouTube or in my own life, who make me say, “I want to play more like that.”  They seem to get more out of their experience, to have a greater understanding and mastery, yes, of the game’s mechanics, but also the game’s ideas.

The internet is filled with articles telling you how to master the systems of a game, but you will rarely see an article that tells you how to play to get the most out of a game.  We have the beginnings of this approach to playing, bits and pieces of it, in the way people say, “Don’t rush through Skyrim” or even “Don’t spoil Bioshock Infinite.”  Neither of these impact your interaction with the game mechanically, I would still be able to beat Skyrim or Infinite just fine if I didn’t explore or knew major spoilers, but the fact that we can have that conversation shows that we do understand that there is a better way of playing a game outside of min-maxing stats or switching armor sets.  Skyrim just isn’t the same game if you just charge right through the main quest, and Bioshock Infinite just isn’t as fun if you already know the ending.  We aren’t talking about how to beat the game, we’re talking about how the game is meant to be played, or how it could be played better.  People clearly understand that there are certain approaches to gaming that can better their experience, we just don’t have a language or foundation with which to discuss it.

So, let’s start asking this question: how should I play?

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