Experience a game, don't try to defeat it

A moment in a game has hit you hard, like when John Marston steps out of the barn for the last time in Red Dead Redemption, or you're not fast enough to save Alyx from the business end of a hunter's claw in Half-Life 2. It's an emotional gut-punch that leaves you reeling hours, days, weeks later, and you want nothing more than to talk about it because it was just so good. Even though it was a legitimately painful experience, it also drastically improved how you felt about the game by getting you to connect with the characters on a genuine, personal level. You probably shared that story with your friends, heard their heart-wrenching game stories in return, maybe learned about another title with a mean left hook of emotion that you'd never heard of before.

But there's always that one guy. He may be a close friend or a vague acquaintance, maybe you talk games all the time or have barely exchanged five words. Regardless, he always makes a point of saying the game's big twist was predictable, he didn't care about any of the characters, the whole thing was boring and it's just a game anyway, so why do you care so much? More than that, he seems to take pride in not caring about what the game puts in front of him, like refusing to be "tricked" into an emotional response by the game's narrative is a victory in and of itself.

Instead, he focuses on his own ability to dominate its gameplay aspects through incredible skill (as he perceives it, anyway) without getting distracted by anything as silly as story or emotional connection. This ability to 'defeat' a game makes him superior to the emotionally-invested dupes (and/or other players) around him, elevating him as an intellectual while shaming everyone else. It's an attitude with a recognizable pattern, and it hurts not only the enjoyment of the people around him, but ultimately his own as well.

It might seem like an odd concept at first - trying to claim total victory over a game by refusing to engage with it? Really? However, it comes out pretty quickly in any gaming discussion of reasonable size, and it only gets worse (as many things do) in the presence of the internet.

As opposed to sincere criticism that highlights where and how a given game went wrong, this defeat-the-game mentality addresses a game's supposed narrative failings in vague terms that focus on how smart the player is for seeing through them. The game's story is boring, they predicted the ending before they even opened the case, the AI companions are annoying and why can't we kill them again? While there's nothing wrong with pointing out how a bad story or unlikeable characters can hurt one's enjoyment of a game, these assertions are usually leveled at the existence of a story or characters you're expected to engage with.

According to this mindset, such elements distract from the "pure" gameplay experience that allows you to show off your mechanical skill, a warrior slashing through a gauntlet as fast and as brutally as possible. Anything that gets in the way of you beating a game (never finishing or completing, of course) is just an unnecessary obstacle, and the game should be decried for putting it in your path. That mindset reaches outside the game itself as well, since guilty players tend to cop this attitude in response to someone else's positive experience. Other players are shamed for having a genuine emotional reaction, and the game-defeater's own indifference is seen as inherently praiseworthy. For reasons they don't take the time to explain, of course.

This attitude naturally elevates certain games over others, suggesting that any game that doesn't value its end-goal first and foremost isn't worth playing. For instance, titles like Gone Home and The Last of Us aren't truly games because empathizing with the characters is what makes them work; 'defeat' their emotional core and their technical, roll-the-credits victory feel pointless.

Even a game like Bloodborne, which tells its story through intense and frustrating gameplay, loses most of its potency when this mindset comes into play. Because a big part of the game involves letting your frustration with difficult bosses drive you to succeed, the voice that comes around just to say this isn't that hard, you just suck needlessly takes away from what the game is trying to do without giving anything of value in return.

At the same time, those voices ignore how much of the game is hidden in environmental clues, bits of dialogue, and areas you will completely miss if you barrel past them too quickly. While Bloodborne certainly has its share of mechanical difficulties to overcome (and you're not impressing anyone by saying it doesn't), rushing straight for them and ignoring everything else ends with the defeater playing half the game and telling everyone else that the other half doesn't matter. Nevermind that players who took it slower experienced a world packed with lore, fascinating mysteries, and people with stories to tell. None of that is worth a real player's time.

Ironically, the person who's hurt most by this attitude is the player who subscribes to it. Sure, it can be fun to predict a big twist ahead of time, and disliking a character everyone else loves can make you feel unique and discerning. But ultimately, chasing that ego-boost to the point that you need to outsmart the game to feel good about yourself keeps you from experiencing those moments that could have a powerful effect on you.

I've never met anyone who regrets getting upset at their use of a golf club in BioShock, or feeling guilty for killing the Colossi, or screaming with joy when Chell shot for the moon in Portal 2. There may be some shame attached to feeling strongly about a collection of zeroes and ones, but that usually comes from external pressure, and goes away when you tell them about that one time you stayed up until five in the morning shaking with adrenaline while trying to rescue an AI companion you really cared for.

By focusing so heavily on outsmarting the game and acting like they're better than players who don't, the game-defeaters not only stop themselves from getting the full picture, but ruin everyone else's good time too. After all, what's the point of being the smartest kid on the playground if you can't tell everyone how much better you are than them? That creates an environment where actually enjoying the ride the game is taking you on becomes a sign of stupidity and weakness, and people shy away from sharing their experience because of the fear of being mocked. The game-defeater is basically the guy at the haunted house who scoffs at every scare and makes sure to point out how fake everything is. Yes, we know that the ghost that jumped out of the wall is a kid in facepaint, but we're trying to have fun here so if you could please shut up for ten minutes?

Ultimately, that kind of stern disregard is the best way to respond to the defeatists, as individuals and as a community. Just like you wouldn't invite that guy to haunted-house-hopping next year, push anyone who lords their in-game intellect over you out of the conversation. If all they do is scoff when you haven't already figured out the ending to a game after the opening cutscene, or say a title isn't worth playing because its goal is to make you feel something, then they don't actually have that much to say.

Don't be afraid to tell someone that you couldn't hold it together when Zack walked to his fate in Crisis Core, or dropped your controller in shock when you found out Elizabeth's secret in BioShock Infinite. Chances are very good you got more out of the game than the person rolling their eyes at you ever did.

And if you happen to be one of the people who refuses to engage with a game and gets an ego-boost from criticizing those who do, stop for your own sake. As someone who used to think that way once upon a time, I promise that allowing yourself to engage with something is more fun and a lot more affirming than putting others down. You can still totally guess the ending without being a jerk. And if you let yourself get swept up in the experience, who knows? The surprise of being wrong might be more fun than you thought.