Playing Games in the Wrong
Imagine for a moment that you’re a videogame developer.
You and your team spend years coming up with and crafting a particular experience.
You do everything you can to set a consistent tone and create systems to help guide players so that they feel a certain way when playing.
Maybe your game is straightforward or maybe it has a fair bit of variance with how it can be approached, but regardless of how many moving pieces there are, Every aspect of what you design is made to feed into a specific vision of what the game should be.
You meticulously rework sections over and over in the hope of getting things just right.
And then players finally get their hands on it, and do shit like this: One of the few guarantees of game design is that players will approach any given title in ways that developers never could have anticipated.
It’s unavoidable and takes many different forms.
The most common examples of this are the unintentional ways people play games wrong—players misunderstanding mechanics or directions, causing them to engage with things in weird or suboptimal ways.
Like, I’ve heard of multiple people playing through the entirety of Dark Souls without realizing they could lock-on to enemies.
Also, when I put out a video that mentioned Mario is able to sprint in the original Super Mario Bros.
I received hundreds of comments of people saying they didn’t know he could do that.
These sorts of things happen all the time, and while most people will figure things out eventually, they do have a major impact on how players experience games.
This form of unintentionally playing titles in the wrong way has always been fascinating to me—really it is kind of the basis for the Gaming For a Non-Gamer series, but, to be honest, what interests me even more are the intentional ways people play games quote unquote wrong—the ways that don’t come from a lack of understanding of a title’s mechanics but instead from a keen awareness of them that players utilize to create their own unique experiences with.
One of the most obvious examples of this can be seen with speedrunning where players pull apart every aspect of a game to find the fastest way through it.
Through unintended combinations of mechanics, they essentially break the game, and even though there are many developers who do design their titles with speedrunning in mind, runners have an uncanny ability to find paths that developers never could have planned for.
The argument could also be made that this can be seen with certain competitive scenes, Super Smash Brothers Melee being one of the most notable.
While things like wavedashing and L-canceling were known mechanics to the dev team, Saukurai and company never could have predicted the way these elements would be combined, mastered and exploited by the players, leading competitive Melee to be a scene driven by community discovery and rule setting rather than developer intention.
Beyond those more structured examples there are also just a ton of people who just create objectives and restrictions for themselves when playing a game in order to bring a new challenge.
It may be an in-depth and planned out approach to a playthrough like beating a Mario game without collecting any coins, it may be one powered by external factors like finishing Elden Ring using a drawing tablet or it might be simple tasks, thought of in the moment like getting on a motorcycle and trying to land it on top of a building in GTA V—what matters is that the player is setting an alternate win-state for themselves that pushes against the intended experience.
Regardless of the form it takes, seeing games be played through unconventional means appeals to a fair amount of people.
It forges communities and generates millions upon millions of views on YouTube and Twitch—and as an avid fan of playing games and watching them be played in the “wrong” way, I’ve recently found myself wondering why? What about experiencing games in these ways is so captivating? What aspects of certain games make them so fun to play in weird ways? Obviously, I have had countless incredible experiences playing titles largely in the way they were intended to be played, but there is something about the times where me and/or my friends shaped our own experiences within a game that resonate with me in a way that nothing else really does.
So, in order to get a better understanding on the topic, I reached out to the world’s foremost expert on playing games in the wrong way: “I’m DougDoug.
I’m a YouTube and Twitch Streamer, and I make a lot of videos about playing games in really, really stupid ways, and often having my viewers help me in playing the games in very, very stupid ways.
” Doug’s content primarily centers around him presenting a weird idea or challenge to his audience and then seeing how it plays out.
There’s always a plan he comes in with that he intentionally leaves unfinished in order to let his chat help fill in the gaps, however his earliest exposure to playing games in unintended ways was far less structured and really the result of just goofing around with friends: “Halo 2, when that came out that was a huge deal and everybody loved the single player and especially the PvP multiplayer, but me and my friends spent an entire day—there’s a mission where you drive a tank down a bridge to save some city in earth…and we just shot each other with tanks for 3-4 straight hours and made no progress in the mission.
And I remember going away from that being like “Man, Halo is awesome” but, like, that is not how you’re supposed to play Halo at all.
” For a lot of people, myself included, the Halo series was a breeding ground for experimenting with seemingly unintended forms of play.
Personally, I’ve spent hundreds of hours in Halo 2 just messing around with stuff whether it was searching for glitches on various maps or creating complex out-of-game rulesets for multiplayer modes in order to play something a bit more engaging than slayer.
Frankly, there’s something about the series that lends itself to being played in these ways.
It was the heart of early machinima and grew a massive community that developed their own modes that sometimes ended up making it into the actual games themselves.
And Bungie recognized this which led to them adding Forge mode in Halo 3—their way of giving power to the playerbase to experiment with things even further, in a sense acknowledging the value that can come from players creating their own fun.
While the campaigns and multiplayer modes of each game are mostly well crafted experiences worth playing, I think what made the series remarkable from the start were the slew of interesting mechanics and intricate play spaces that gave players room to create their own modes of play.
“I mean, I think certain games just have a sandbox or set of tools that can be applied in a lot of different ways, where they’ve developed it so that all the tools in the game can interact in interesting or unexpected ways.
So like Breath of the Wild and GTA 5 and Halo, I think all of those share kinda similar attributes of hey, here’s a whole bunch of pieces in the game.
Here’s the way you are supposed to play them in quotes, but there are so many interesting combinations that can happen if you just sort of slam them together.
” When examining the games that lend themselves well for being played in the wrong way, the most notable commonality between the vast majority of them are that they all have interesting physics engines.
Ones that provide flexibility in various ways, sometimes leading to cool movement options and other times just fun chaotic nonsense.
Looking again at Melee, there is a reason it has stuck around while every other version of Smash fell off as soon as a new iteration of the game came out.
Its movement options are unparalleled, creating a wildly high ceiling for what can be accomplished in any given match.
The same can be said for many of the most popular speedrunning games—they’re all about exploiting movement, level design and even how a title was programmed to get through it at a ridiculous pace.
The ones with the most active communities are also often the ones with the most interesting movement systems.
And of course, when just considering self-imposed objectives made by players to shift how a game is played, the adaptability that certain physics systems offer is what allows for so much variety in what players can do.
For instance, a title like The Last of Us really can’t be played in that many different ways.
Sure players can set challenges like trying to beat the game without using a gun, but there aren’t all that many options for playing it differently than it was intended to be played—at least not many that are all that fun.
The Last of Us has an incredible world to walk through and explore, but not one that can be interacted with in all that many interesting ways that aren’t scripted.
It’s a grounded, linear game that is great in its own right, but is too rigid for players to be able to turn into something else.
And there’s nothing wrong with that—a games’ quality is not dictated by the amount of goofy ways people can find to play it, but it does make it harder to go back to.
I’ve seen the story, and while all this time later, I do still enjoy talking about it, I don’t have all that compelling of a reason to actually replay it again aside from seeing how the graphics look in the Remake.
Compare this to titles that aren’t so rigid in how they can be played The fact that a substantial amount of people are still playing Skyrim and Minecraft 11 years after they were released is indicative of how valuable a title having a certain amount of flexibility can be.
There are so many ways that the world can be interacted with, which gives players the agency to mess with those things in countless fun ways.
With that said, there is a valid argument that games can have too much of it.
“Just having completely open-ended creativity and you can do what you want, I don’t think feels particularly satisfying because there’s no resistance.
And so I think that tension between the game attempting to hold onto the fabric of reality while you poke it in the wrong ways, like, that’s what’s super rewarding in a lot of ways and so there actually does need to be some sort of tension back and forth, at least for me to be satisfied by it.
” With titles like Minecraft or Garry’s Mod, they offer so much freedom that it makes it harder to have sufficient stakes.
Pushing against the defined limitations of a game and its world breeds a type of creativity that can be difficult to cultivate when just given free reign over a system.
You have to learn how to finesse things in just the right way to accomplish your goals, and that can be really satisfying.
Obviously, a lot of this does come down to personal preference—I’m sure plenty of people find a ton of value in the freedom stuff like Minecraft and Garry’s Mod provide, but personally I find it way more compelling to create my own objectives in games that have more limitations because I like the feeling of pushing the boundaries of a system more than I like the feeling of defining them.
Titles with tons of freedom are designed expressly to let players play them however they want, where the ones with more limitations weren’t—they just have enough interesting mechanics for people to do it anyway.
Also, while there are instances when I go into a game with a certain objective in mind, more often than not, the times when I engage with a title in the wrong way are born out of some organic discovery—is it possible to place a message over there; can I get from one side to the other without touching the ground.
When given too much freedom, these sorts of challenges generally need more planning and preparation, making it so they don’t really allow for players to just react to situations they may find themselves in.
Regardless of preference, providing players with many different ways to experience a game, whether intentionally or not, gives them a reason to revisit it.
Like, it is a pretty natural instinct to want to replay games you love, but for titles that are unyielding in regards to how they can be approached, doing so will eventually get stale.
However, for titles that are more flexible with what players can do, it is much easier to go back to them because their systems can be applied to a variety of different situations.
This form of replayability is further compounded by the use of mods, which can add even more variations to a game.
When titles offer freedom far beyond the intended vision, they give players a strong motivation to come back.
It is a way to have a fresh and distinctive experience with a property you already love.
Again, a game’s longevity or replayability is not the most important thing for every player; to be honest, it’s an aspect that has never held all that much weight for me personally.
With that said, I am definitely a bit jealous of people who get to keep finding new and fun ways to play their favorite games long after they’ve beaten them.
Another key aspect that is often associated with playing games in the wrong way is doing so with other people.
Whether it be with friends, communities, or just strangers on the internet with similar interests, being able to share experiences with others can add a lot of value.
“The most rewarding of pursuing dumb things is doing it with others.
That is what I really love, that’s what draws me to content creation in the first place rather than, ya know, just playing games by myself.
So that’s not an accidental thing that happens on my channel, that’s deliberate because that’s what makes it super satisfying to me.
I always look for those opportunities if possible because, man, like, it’s so much cooler to achieve this incredible stupid thing in GTA V because Twitch chat landed an airplane, rather than like me just doing it by myself in a vacuum and then telling people about it after the fact.
” When I think about my personal experiences with playing games in unintended ways, every single memory that comes to mind is tied to my friends.
Sharing those weird, unique moments together that came about from a potent mixture of persistence, stupidity, and chance have stuck with me for decades.
It’s far easier to remember the times when things went off the rails than when we just played games as they were meant to be played.
And I don’t think that one way is inherently better than the other; they both serve a purpose, but there is something special about the experiences we shared that went against the design of a game.
One of my now favorite examples of this happened just after I played Journey for the first time.
I adored it and wanted to watch everyone I knew play it so I could live vicariously through them.
Seeing my friends react to everything from the breathtaking vistas to the enthralling music to the reveal after the credits of all the players who joined them on their journey brought me a surprising amount of joy.
Looking back now, most of their playthroughs blend together, but there is one that stands out to me still.
It was a late night and a group of us were all watching my friend Adam play it.
He got through the majority of the game in the way I expected—he certainly engaged with stuff a bit differently than I did and uncovered a few things I hadn’t seen before, but all things considered, it was a typical playthrough of the game—that is up until right before the end.
He began his final ascent up the mountain, soaring along scarves and waterfalls, ready to finally reach the destination he had spent the past few hours in search of, and then right when he was about to get there he went off course for a moment and then glitched into the mountain itself.
No matter what he did, he was unable to get out, and every attempt to get back to the path just seemed to get him even more stuck than before.
We all laughed for a while and he crowned himself as the king of the mountain.
After it was clear to me that he wouldn’t be able to continue, I told him to reload the game so that he could keep going and see the end but he refused, simply saying, “no, for I am the king of the mountain now.
” At the time, I did find it funny, but I also really wanted him to see the ending of the game.
His choice to stop playing without actually beating it baffled me, but now I kind of get it.
While every player’s time with Journey is unique in its own way, he is probably one of the only people ever to have finished it in the way he did.
The experience belonged to him and he chose not to see the glitch as a mistake, but instead as a moment.
One part of the journey and not something that occurred outside of it.
In the moment, I don’t think he actively thought about how ending the game in that fashion would be a one-of-a-kind experience, but I do think it influenced his choice to stop playing nonetheless.
To him, interrupting Journey’s natural flow seemed antithetical to everything he had grown to understand about it, so when he got to a point where the only way to get back on the conventional path was through a menu, he chose to let his adventure end on what felt like his own terms.
Maybe most importantly though was the fact that all of us were there together, watching this weird, unintended thing happen.
He’s told me since that part of why he didn’t finish the game conventionally was because all of us were pushing him to do it but he found it much funnier to dedicate fully to the bit, which in hindsight was the right call.
Regardless of the full reason why, his refusal to end the game in the way he was supposed to led to something far more memorable than just coming across a glitch or beating the game as intended—it led to him becoming the king of the mountain.
While this sort of thing could happen to someone when playing the game alone, it is hard for me to imagine it having the same kind of impact.
It being a moment that was shared between us—one that felt like something no one else had ever seen—is why I still remember it today.
And this seems to be a pretty common feeling.
“What I love to do is share my love for games with other people.
I actually realized that growing up, what I had loved so much about games was not playing games in my room by myself, it was playing games with my brother.
That was my favorite experience as a kid, is him playing and me getting to sit there and watch it with him, and I had that pivotal moment as an adult, and went “oh! I can do that on YouTube and Twitch.
So sharing it with viewers and audience, especially during the actual development of the goal and the challenge, that’s what I truly love.
” For me atleast, sharing these sorts of experiences makes them feel more important regardless of how silly or inconsequential they are.
Having other people be invested whatever stupid thing you end up doing is a huge part of what gives it life.
All in all, games are different from every other medium because they hand over control.
When a title releases, in a way, the ownership of it passes onto the players.
They are the ones who engage with it, leading to developer intention taking a backseat to player expression.
Of course, depending on the type of game, the amount of actual agency the player has will vary.
With a lot of titles, there really only is the illusion of agency.
Players may control the pace at which things move forward, but there aren’t all that many systems they can engage with, so for the most part, they are being led by the developers through the use of tight and clever design.
And again, to be clear, this can be great.
Some of my favorite moments in video games are ones where I played right into the developers hands and seemingly did things in the exact way they expected me to do them.
However, it is also nice to really feel in control of an experience.
To be given a set of tools or be put in a situation that you weren’t meant to be put in and decide for yourself what to do.
While the game’s world and mechanics were designed in a way to let you do these things, they weren’t made with the intention that you would.
No one aside from yourself or maybe the people around you are dictating the experience.
And I think there is something liberating about that.
To do things that no one else would think to do, that no one else would probably want to do.
It isn’t necessarily the best way to play a game, but it certainly is a special one.
It is nice to have an intriguing reason to revisit old favorites, and it is fun to experiment with other people in order to discover what the limits of a title are.
I imagine that the vast majority of game developers have come to accept and even appreciate the ways players engage with their games that they never could have predicted.
I also suspect that some titles are designed with the hope that players will discover weird and unexpected ways to play them.
Games don’t exist in a vacuum and at the end of the day, players are the ones who bring life to them, so to a degree, the way they play them defines what a game is.
Ultimately, I think in the same way that someone like DougDoug loves sharing games with hisaudience, in the same way that I love sharing games with my friends, developers love sharing games with us as they get to see what all of their hard work will turn into—even when we end up playing them in the wrong ways.
But enough talk about doing stuff wrong, let me tell you about this video’s sponsor Nebula who does stuff right.
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