Talking about Games: Counter-Recommendations

I’ve long been a huge fan of Undertale. It was suggested to me by a friend shortly after it came out, and I sat on the recommendation for a few months. My initial viewing of the trailer said to me “eh, I guess it looks okay, but doesn’t exactly appeal to me.” It wasn’t until I started watching the playthrough of it on the Game Grumps YouTube channel that I then realized what was going on. I had to immediately stop watching and play for myself.

I got pretty hooked for a while, and wanted to consume a lot of information about it. I played the game multiple times, hung out on the Wikia and talked about theories and mechanics, gathered resources like text dumps and the like…a lot of the basic things you might do when you get really invested in something.

Getting involved in the community, there was one thing that I always found annoying, which was the insistence of people on how to properly play the game. I have already covered this idea in a different essay, but the short version is that it is possible for the player to get multiple endings, and whenever someone would record themselves playing Undertale those fans would flood in to make sure that the player got a particular ending. If the player messed up, the fans would jump in to say “no, you need to go back and do it right!” It’s a tendency that I understand, but also hate. It likely has not helped the community’s image in any way.

Certainly the community has long had a reputation for being pushy about its love for Undertale. I don’t know to what extent this is real or merely a perception. But whatever the case may be, that pushiness has an impact. There are a number of people who dislike the game because of the people surrounding it. They might have enjoyed the game itself, or they might never have played it, or they might even be trying to be confrontational, but they have oriented their dislike for the game around how other people talk about it.

I’ve been fascinated by this phenomenon for a while. It makes sense for people to have different likes and dislikes. Not everyone would need to enjoy Undertale, because not everything about the game would appeal to everyone. But to point to the behavior of some nebulous community and say that they are the reason a game is bad seems weird. At least in the context of a single-player game like Undertale.

And so I wanted to explore these “counter-recommendations”: not recommendations against a game, but a recommendation that basically causes a person to dislike the game.

Expectations and Disappointment

Allow me to tell a little story.

Celeste is a really charming platforming game that is well-known for its difficulty. It isn’t impossible – there are absolutely much harder platformers in existence. But the gameplay is centered around small challenges that require fairly precise execution. It is actually a pretty good game, and if you enjoy challenges or platformers or both, it would likely be up your alley.

But my own experience with Celeste was poisoned. I recognize the game being fun and well-made, but where I would normally have tried to 100% a game like this, I got to the end and decided to just put it down. Why is that?

To begin, I am a huge fan of puzzle games. I especially love the process of learning rules and how they work, analyzing how systems interact to figure out not merely what the intended solution is, but also how the mechanics work. That “Aha!” moment, when everything slides into place, can be a miraculous feeling.

So when I was watching a streamer, I mentioned one of my favorite puzzle games: La-Mulana. La-Mulana is a Metroidvania game with an emphasis on puzzle solving. The exploration combined with the process of deciphering clues really invokes this feeling of freedom and ingenuity. There are also enemies and boss fights and platforming, so it’s not purely a puzzle experience. But reading tablets and remembering clues and using those clues to solve puzzles throughout the dungeons really make it a thorough combination of the two genres.

After making the recommendation, someone else in chat suggested that I play Celeste, on the grounds that it is a “puzzle platformer.” I had already owned Celeste for years, but I had always just seen it as a platformer. A neat platformer, and from everything I’d ever heard a good one, but a platformer nonetheless. So when the word “puzzle” was attached to it, I had to play.

Probably a week or so later I loaded the game up and played it over the course of two or three days. I had fun, properly speaking. I enjoyed the mechanics and challenges. The graphics were really good for how simple they were. The narrative was really charming.

But it wasn’t a puzzle game.

Upon playing, I understood what that person had meant. The challenges of approaching a room and figuring out what you need to do to get through seems superficially similar to puzzle solving. You are using your brain in both cases to gather information and process it.

But the core of puzzle solving wasn’t really there. If I might offer a rudimentary distinction, there are two kinds of gameplay – planning-based and execution-based. Puzzle games rely on planning. On understanding the rules and seeing the problem and knowing what solution you are going for and arriving at a conclusion for how to actually reach that solution. In a puzzle game, execution is generally secondary to the whole matter – if you mess up, you are usually fine. On the other hand, execution-based games are ones where you are focused on your ability to actually press buttons in the right order at the right time. Failing to execute properly means loss, whatever that entails.

Celeste’s challenges technically require some amount of planning, but the focus is really on execution. Hence why it didn’t really scratch the puzzle itch. No amount of planning would save you from bad execution. But you can get away with not planning if you have really solid execution.

So as I said, my impression of Celeste was poisoned by the expectation I went in with. Had I just approached it as a platforming game, I likely would have loved the game. I absolutely am able to understand what other people see in the game and why they do love it. But my own history with the game prevented me from being part of that group.

And that is really what lurks at the bottom here. The way we recommend a game builds an expectation for the listener. We can frame it however we want – overhyping, misdescribing, pushiness. The idea is that if we present a game to someone, we are creating an imagined picture of what that game is like. If the game doesn’t match up, the listener is going to be disappointed.

To some extent, the art of making a recommendation is knowing how to manage those expectations. To be able to get a person to listen without creating that image that ruins their experience. We could, for instance, recommend a game on the grounds that it is the greatest game ever made. That not playing it is really a stain upon the player. But if we build up a game like that, then it really does need to be perfect. Because anything less than perfection will make the game all the more disappointing.

In fact, we even want to be wary because people often have some natural degree of skepticism about these issues. If you talk about a game as being absolutely amazing, and keep talking about how great it is, then at some point people are going to no longer believe you. They will likely start to think that you are exaggerating – you simply love the game so much that you are unable to see its flaws.

And so it is possible to recommend a game so highly that it hurts the game. To praise it so much that others become discouraged from playing it, or else do play it and find their experiences just don’t match up to the expectations.

I wish there were some clear rules for avoiding this problem. If it were as easy as saying “don’t call a game ‘great’ or ‘amazing,’” then that would be enough. But since we don’t have some objective standard of what a “great” or “amazing” game is, that rule doesn’t help. And the best that I can come up with – don’t praise a game too highly or build up the wrong expectations – is far too vague. What does it mean to praise a game too highly…what exactly is a “wrong” expectation outside of the little story I told?

Instead, it just requires some degree of care on our part. To be aware of what we are really trying to accomplish when we recommend a game. To be aware of what other people are hearing when we make those recommendations. Because what we say and what others hear aren’t always the same, and understanding that discrepancy and how to prevent it is a key part of just being good at talking and social interactions.

Concluding Remarks

I am often fascinated by the way in which we approach games not as mere pieces of media, but as part of a social trend. In facing these kinds of situations – whether it is the pushy fans of Undertale, the toxic fans of Dark Souls, or the little foibles of the “puzzle-platformer” Celeste – a common refrain is to say that the quality of a game stands on its own. Don’t focus on the people – just focus on the game.

But the simple fact of the matter that “just focusing on the game” is much more difficult than the phrase implies. How we experience a game is a complex set of expectations laid down by our history and our awareness of discussion around a game. If you’ve ever played a sequel and felt it was good but didn’t really grab you in the way its predecessor did, you have fallen victim to this same reasoning.

And it’s not bad reasoning. It is a reflection of our experiences. We can’t make all of that context just go away – no matter how much we’d like to pretend. Sometimes context can make a game feel richer and more amazing, and sometimes it can poison our perceptions. Understanding this phenomenon and how we build our expectations around games is an important component to understanding our own likes and dislikes, to analyzing games on a deep and sincere level.

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