Toxic Help

Words: 3448 Approximate Reading Time: 25-30 minutes

Spoiler Warning: This essay contains some spoilers for two games – Undertale and Dark Souls. The spoilers are necessary to help properly explain what we might call “how to properly or optimally play the game.” But in explaining these concepts, anyone who has never tried these games may find themselves learning about certain important twists and mechanics that they are intended to discover for themselves. So for those not familiar, I would encourage people to skip either the first subsection (on Undertale) and/or the second (on Dark Souls), so that you can retain the chance to experience these games authentically.

Like many people in the game-playing community, one of the things I do for entertainment is watch others play games. Sometimes I do so as a way of just passing time – I’ll put on an old playthrough that I’ve seen before as background noise while I do something else, like someone might put on a rerun of a TV show or a familiar movie. Sometimes I watch streams and participate in the chat. Sometimes I watch a Let’s Play channel or stream to experience a game I probably won’t end up buying. Sometimes I watch for the gameplay, sometimes I watch for the personality.

But something I’ve encountered – that especially many people who are on the performance side of this equation have experienced – is the desire to help. If you’re stuck, people want to point out how to get unstuck. If you’re struggling, people want to provide tips on how to overcome a challenge. They may offer to join in if they can. They may just say “here’s what you need to do next.” They may point out that you’re about to mess something up, or that you did mess something up, and thus urge you to refrain from messing up or to load an earlier save.

I very much get this desire to help. Like so many others, when there’s a game I know and love, I kind of want other people to get that same experience that I got, so they too can fall in love with the game. When I see them struggling, I want to help pull them out so that they can get to the good bits. If I see they’re about to make a mistake, I want to point it out so that they can avoid screwing themselves over.

But one thing I’ve been learning – both in reading comments on videos or observing chatters in streams, as well as stepping back to observe my own behavior – is that often this desire can be counterproductive. The wish to get others to enjoy the game as we experienced it involves imposing our own views upon others. It is to rob the player of their experience and their ability to discover something to love, and instead trying to force them to love the game. And this is being done without us necessarily realizing that we’re at fault. We’re genuinely trying to be helpful.

And so I want to examine this idea of toxic helpfulness. I highlight this concept as “toxic” because it is essentially destructive of the real goals we have in mind. The same premise exists within discussions of caretaking – it is possible to take charge of the person you’re helping in such a way that they cease to even be a person.

The toxicity underlying this helpfulness is that we have a firm belief in “the right way” to do things, and that if someone else tries, they’ll just mess up. And obviously, if people knew what “the right way” was, they too would want that outcome. So why not just do things ourselves, rather than let people figure it out? Why not just tell a person the answer, rather than give people space to learn?

This topic relates to a previous essay on the nature of authenticity, but from a different direction. The earlier essay was about how we approach games on our own. That we should strive to approach games first as problems to be solved and experiences to be engaged with before resorting to help. Not that getting help was ultimately bad or wrong, but that it robs us of an important component of the experience if we’re not careful.

Toxic helpfulness is about how we as viewers can be the robbers in this dynamic. When someone is trying to play authentically, we can take away their opportunity to do so.

So I wanted to use this space to explore a few examples of toxic helpfulness in the context of video games to help draw a couple lessons that we as players (particularly those who play in a performative aspect) and we as viewers can take away.

“You Messed Up and Need to Restart”

Undertale is one of my favorite games. I love the care taken in making the various characters feel fun and lively. I love the music. I love the design of the areas. I love the mechanics. I love the storyline. I love all the little hidden stuff that you can discover.

One of the things I appreciate most is that the game reacts to how you choose to play it, both in small ways and big ways. The game gives you suggestions about what you should do to solve problems, but doesn’t actually force you do any particular thing. It leaves the choice up to you as a player, and allows you to face the consequences of those choices. You get opportunities to go back – and that opportunity is baked into the game and its storyline.

Undertale feels very much like a game where you are meant to play it multiple times. The first time where you screw up. Where you play it like a “normal game,” arrive at the end, and realize that there was a different way to play. If you do “screw up,” you are told that you could get a better ending, and told what you need to do. And in replaying the game, so many little changes occur to make the experience feel just a little bit different – enough so that it doesn’t feel boring going through the entire game again.

This idea of “play, get a ‘bad’ ending, then replay to get the good ending” feels so incredibly baked in to the game’s design, storytelling, and so on that it then feels strange when we observe how people watch the game being played.

See, there’s a good ending, and that good ending really stuck with a lot of players. But to get that good ending, you have to play a very particular way: namely, you have to never kill any of the creatures that you fight throughout the game. It’s not immediately obvious to a brand new player, but becomes obvious over time as you replay. If you should kill even one monster – and the game often finds ways to “trick” you into killing monsters – then you are routed to a ‘bad’ (technically a ‘neutral’) ending. If you have an earlier save, you can go back to undo the mistake. But if you’ve killed something and then saved, then you have to start over from the very beginning.

So you’re watching somebody play Undertale, and they mess up: they kill a monster. They’re going to get the bad ending! You as a viewer are worried about this: what if they miss out on the good ending? And so you reach out. “Hey, you messed up by killing this enemy. You should go restart your game and spare them so that you can get the good ending.” Maybe the message is worded in this way, maybe it’s worded more harshly. The exact sentiment isn’t relevant (though obviously you’re a jerk if you insult the person you’re watching).

This mentality was incredibly pervasive when Undertale first took off, and may well persist to this day.

But the problem with offering this kind of help is that it prevents people from discovering the importance of their own choices in the game. All of this advice – you should restart because you should get the good ending – serves to remove the sense of choice that the player has in this exchange. They’re now doing it because they feel they must – perhaps to appease the audience, or perhaps because the game isn’t worth replaying and so they need to get the good ending.

But all of this presumes that getting the good ending is “the proper experience.” That it doesn’t matter how you reach that goal, as long as you do reach it. It would be just as worthwhile to have someone tell you exactly what to do at each step along the way, because then you could be sure to get the good ending, and that’s what matters.

But this kind of helpfulness is more likely to turn a player off from the game than get them to fall in love with the game. The game has a good story, and good music, and stuff like that, but that whole experience can be easily gotten from just watching someone else play. There’s not much to fall in love with as a game if the player is being led by the nose in this way.

“Make Sure to Kill this Dude…”

As is no surprise to those who’ve read my earlier essays, I also love Dark Souls and the various games by FromSoftware.

And now we shift from stuff I experienced merely as an outside observer to stuff I experienced more as a direct participant.

There’s a lot to enjoy about Dark Souls. In fact, one of the things that makes it such a good game is that there are so many things for players to choose to enjoy. Do you want to cooperate with others? There’s a system for that. Want to play alone? Go right ahead. Do you like PvP? The game has multiple options for how to fight other players. Prefer to just face the game? You can play offline. Do you like the story and lorecrafting? There’s all these neat tidbits that you can pull together to forge a coherent set of plots and themes about the game. Don’t care about the narrative at all? You don’t have to – just go out and kill stuff.

The fact that there are so many options is somewhat staggering. And yet that same fact tends to lend itself to “optimal play.” Players who have more experience tend to know the best weapons, the best stats to pump, the best routes to traverse, which items are worth picking up and which aren’t, and so on.

Which raises an important question: how do you help out a new player?

All games face the fundamental problem of teaching players how to play and getting them to intuit the “right way” to play. Each game is going to have a particular approach to challenges as a whole and to specific challenges put before the player. Getting into the right mindset is a learning experience for the player, and games try to help get players get into that mindset.

Of course, the more subtly you try to teach players these lessons, the harder it may be for a player to get into that mindset. So what do you do to encourage players who are still learning?

One answer – arguably a common answer within the Souls community – is the “git gud” attitude. The game is hard, and it’s supposed to be hard. Figure it out, or be a quitter. I’ve already argued before about why this kind of mentality is bad.

Another answer is to try to explain everything. To tell the player where to go, what stats to invest in, what weapons to use, and so on. To the point that the player is then warned about traps and upcoming problems before they even have a chance to learn what the problem is or could be.

A good example of this is a particular NPC in Dark Souls. There is a character that you encounter relatively early on in the game named Lautrec. You can encounter him a few different ways, but at a certain point in the game he shows up in the game’s hub area and sits right across from a lady sitting in a cage. For those familiar with the game, this lady is a firekeeper – she is maintaining the bonfire in the hub area that serves as your save point, your place to level up, your place to refill your healing items. Bonfires are important.

You can chat with Lautrec and he says some cryptic stuff about having “work” to do, but not much else. So players could very easily see him and just ignore him. Or maybe not even notice him at all.

But if you leave Lautrec alone and progress through the game, when you eventually come back, you’ll find Lautrec gone, and the firekeeper dead. Which means that the bonfire in the hub area is out and cannot be used. Which is a serious issue. Not that you’re left helpless – there are other bonfires in the game. But it’s the bonfire in a very central area of the game. There is a way to eventually revive the firekeeper and relight the bonfire, but you have to progress even further in the game to reach that point…which doesn’t exactly solve the immediate problem in front of you.

Now most players who go through on their own will wind up facing this problem of the bonfire going out. It is possible to figure out Lautrec’s plan before it’s too late, but the clues are pretty subtle. So the vast majority of players are going to have to lose that bonfire. Which means having to figure out how to navigate the game with a central save point just closed off. This outcome is most certainly intended by the designers, by the way. It serves to throw a challenge to the player and remove them from a potential sense of complacency.

But when observing most people playing the game online, there are people who just tell the player to kill Lautrec. If he’s dead, he can’t kill the bonfire (and he drops a good ring as well).

Now there’s fair reason to want to provide this warning. A lot of players feel annoyed at losing that central bonfire, and end up wishing they could prevent it from going out. So surely don’t you want to avoid this annoyance as well?

But this mentality again means robbing the player being helped of their ability to experience the game on their own terms. They don’t get to make the decision, the decision is made for them. This is true even if it’s just saying “hey, if you don’t kill Lautrec, he’ll kill the firekeeper and you’ll lose the bonfire.” Because at that point the only reasonable solution is to kill the guy – the decision is made because it’s the obvious choice.

Addressing Toxic Helpfulness

Okay, so these are the issues, but what do we do about them?

I think it’s useful to think about this in the sense of what a player – a streamer or Let’s Player who is broadcasting themselves for viewers – can do, and what we as viewers can do.

For the one playing, it’s important to set the boundaries as clearly as possible of how you want to play the game. Maybe the above examples I mentioned are things where you – if you were going through them – would like this stuff pointed out so that you don’t make mistakes. Or maybe you’d like to be able to stay in the dark and figure things out for yourself.

The problem with toxic helpfulness is that while it does genuinely help the former group, it does so at the expense of the latter.

So the players themselves should try to specify as best they can what they want in terms of help. If you are fine with lots of help and information, then you can encourage people to provide tips and warnings and advice as much as they want. Though you want to be careful – if you then decide you want to reel your viewers in because you want to solve a problem on your own, you’ll likely find that people have gotten set in their ways. At best, people may simply struggle with adjusting, and you’ll get advice when you don’t want it. At worst, you may end up offending some of your viewers.

Alternatively, if you want to try and experience things for yourself, you need to be clear about that so that people won’t try to jump in with advice. Tell people you don’t want help unless you explicitly ask for it. One streamer I watch even uses a codeword system to differentiate between “here’s a question I want answered” and “here’s me just thinking aloud,” with even further specification for “I want a tiny hint” versus “I just want to be told what to do.” Setting those kinds of boundaries can be useful, because it helps to set expectations for viewers about what they should and should not be doing to help. Of course, there will always be imperfections, because newer viewers won’t necessarily know the rules going in. But at least those new viewers can learn.

Of course, putting all of this on the player is unfair. We ultimately should want players to have fun, and that should include people who are streaming or putting up videos to entertain others. So viewers should also try to develop a set of habits for how we provide help.

And the most useful rule is that we should approach any new channel and any problem a player faces with the idea that we let them figure things out first. If they want help, if they want to be warned about something, they will let you know. But until then, stay relatively quiet. Avoid spoiling things, avoid referring to things that could be spoilers, and so on.

I suggest this as a habit because of the two errors we can commit – not helping someone who wants it and helping someone who doesn’t want it – the latter is the worse. Because if someone really wants help, we can rectify that problem. But once you’ve robbed somebody of an authentic experience, you can’t unrob them.

Ultimately, I think the desire to help comes from a place of wanting other people to enjoy a game that we love. If someone is struggling in Dark Souls, we want to help them out so that they can progress and finish the game so that they can say “I love Dark Souls.” But for any game, we should always approach watching someone else play with the premise that they might not like the game. And that’s fine. If a person tries to play Dark Souls and quits, we should not try to force them through. And part of staying back is about letting the person decide for themself if they actually like the game they’re playing. There are already enough psychological pressures that a player faces to finish a game that they might not like – to punish themselves when they’re not having fun.

We should strive to not be one of those pressures.

Concluding Remarks

I’ve written this essay partially as a form of self-reflection, as a way of investigating the topic of helpfulness and authenticity from the perspective of someone who watches others play games. I’ve been continually reexamining what I’ve done to try and help other players through games like Dark Souls, and trying to figure out what kind of helper I want to be: how can I make sure that I allow players to have their own authentic experience, while still allowing them to get help when they really want or need it?

My imperfect answer is that the best way to provide help is to simply provide information: to allow the player to make their own informed decision on a subject. But it is an imperfect answer because sometimes providing information still spoils surprises. And those surprises are an important part of the experience.

So it takes a lot of experimentation. There’s not really one correct way to do all of this. In no small part because we must be willing to adjust based on the player we’re observing – staying quiet when someone wants help ends up being rude, just as much as constantly providing advice to someone who wants to solve problems on their own.

But stepping back and thinking about what we want out of games and what others might want out of games is a useful way of addressing this issue. At least as a starting point.

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