Recently, I was in a driving lesson when my instructor leaned over and grabbed the wheel.
(Bear with me, this is going somewhere.)
One of the things I’m not very good at in games is dodging. One of the things I’m not very good at when driving is, uh, dodging, or as I guess you’re supposed to call it ‘not crashing into other cars.’ In this case, there had been a van bearing down on me (or, you know, driving as it was supposed to on the opposite side of the road but it’s scary, okay?) and so I’d been driving way too close to the parked cars on the other side to avoid it. Though my instructor tells me that this is quite normal for learner drivers, I was worrying about it later and it made me realise something quite different: I will probably never finish Undertale.
At least, I won’t finish playing it.
Much like when I’m driving, my biggest problem when playing the combat sections in Undertale is not panicking when there’s something coming towards me and thereby making a mistake. This leads to two problems. Firstly, it’s frustrating. While the overall story and humour of Undertale was enough to keep me playing regardless (which is saying something – there is nothing I hate more than losing over and over again), the second problem turned out to be much more key.
I simply cannot continue.
I am just not good enough at the process of playing Undertale to absorb it that way. In this very interesting article about Undertale, the writer references “jake muncy’s review at killscreen…[which] takes issue with what he sees to be as the unclarity of the game’s combat mechanics. the point that muncy ends up making needs to be considered, however: he is not admitting he is ‘bad at games’”. Well, I am. I’m both bad at games and happy to admit that.
Luckily, there are other ways to absorb a game. You know what I’m not bad at? Watching YouTube videos. You know where you can find everything that makes Undertale great? On YouTube. Admittedly, you can’t experience the feeling of playing the game, but for me, with regards to Undertale, that feeling is frustration. Therefore, for me, watching Undertale will be more enjoyable than playing it. It also has other advantages, like the fact that it’ll save me time, since I can watch and reblog pretty video game scenery at the same time, which I can’t do when playing.
I made a similar decision recently with Until Dawn. There were two main reasons for that decision. Firstly, I’m happy to watch something with jump scares, but there is no way I’m going to play it. Secondly, I didn’t have a PS4 at the time. Therefore the ability to consume my games by watching them was the only way that Until Dawn was accessible to me, on two fronts. This isn’t that uncommon – there’s a fairly large group of people who want to play games, but don’t have the access. Usually this is to do with money – as we all know, gaming is a really expensive hobby. Sometimes there are other reasons, like disability.
So, I watched Until Dawn instead of playing it, and now I have some thoughts and opinions on it, as I do about most things. It lends itself well to this kind of consumption, true, but there are some things in any game that you can comment on without playing it – story, characters, graphics. Sure, I can’t speak to Until Dawn’s gameplay, or give a conclusive overall opinion, but I certainly do know that Emily is the best character and fuck everyone who thinks she deserves to die.
What I’m saying is that there are a lot of ways to engage with a game beyond simply playing it. Lets Plays and streams are one way, but I also spend a good amount of my time reading about games. If I see a critique of a game that seems well considered, I’ll probably provisionally agree with the author. Isn’t that sort of the point of reviews in the first place? If someone you trust can explain why they liked the game, in a way that details things that you believe you will also enjoy, you might decide to buy that game. You’re forming an opinion on a game that you haven’t played.
Similarly, the article I linked to earlier did a good job of summarising Undertale’s story, so I feel I could form an outline opinion on that despite not having finished the game. This is even more relevant to Undertale since it has a number of endings, and certain actions will render some of the endings unreachable – through playing. But nothing can stop you from looking them up on the internet, either in visual or written (or even audio) form. In the same way, if you decide that you don’t want to systematically murder all of the characters you came to know and love in the first two playthroughs while they repeatedly tell you what a bad person you are for doing it (as you absolutely have to in order to get all of the story in Undertale by playing) you might decide to let the internet tell you what happens instead.
This kind of experience might be in some way incomplete. But I don’t think it’s any less valid. And that raises some interesting further questions.
There’s an oft repeated rumour that Anita Sarkeesian, of the Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series “doesn’t even play games,” or that women, feminists, or “SJWs” in general just don’t game. This is untrue, obviously, but there are feminists who don’t play games, sure. Whilst this makes it much harder for them to have an overall insight into the industry and its unique problems (and successes), they can still have certain informed opinions. For example, if you see a picture of a sexualised female character, that’s a pretty stand alone problem. Playing the game isn’t going to give you much more insight into it. No, not even if it’s Quiet from Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Sure, playing that game might net you more appreciation for its other elements such as gameplay and story – it is, after all, critically acclaimed. That doesn’t negate its ridiculous fan service, and you don’t have to be a gamer to see that.
Games don’t exist in a vacuum, and there are is ever increasing flow between the gaming community and the wider world. That means it’s increasingly easy for non gamers to have informed and valid opinions about games, in the same way that I have opinions about Until Dawn despite not having played that specific game. And while I don’t think they should be, say, reviewing games they haven’t played on Steam, I think that we should be open to listening to them when they want to input their perspective into our discussions. It’s sometimes difficult to take a step back from the culture of gaming, so getting outside views can be a breath of fresh air where our environment may have given us a certain degree of tunnel vision.
In our quest to make games all that they can and should be, we should be attempting to foster the most open and accepting discussion spaces that we can. I think we should be completely open to people who cannot, for whatever reason, play the games they want to discuss. I also believe that we also often have room in our discussions for those who don’t usually play at all, because there are so many other avenues by which they can learn and form opinions about games. I think that being receptive to these outside voices will offer us new insights, new perspectives, and maybe even new gamers to call our allies.