A Game That Wasn’t For Me

I played a game last night and I didn’t get it.

I understood the mechanics. I understood the events in the game. I hadn’t played it “wrong”. But I had to search for reviews to understand what everyone else saw in it.

This isn’t the first time it’s happened. I can think of at least three other games where the intended experience was utterly lost on me. I had to ask other people, “What did you get out of this game? Why did it affect you that way?”

Two key factors involved:

  1. Hype. I was surrounded by people saying “Thing X is amazing!”
  2. Background. My lived experience (or just my personal taste) was a clear mismatch for the target audience.

Last night’s example included both factors. I kept evaluating and reevaluating the experience, wondering when it was supposed to blow my mind. Then I reached the end, mind distinctly un-blown, and thought, “Well, that was a thing all right.”

I admit it – I’m a tough audience. And worse, I’m a contrary audience. There is nothing to make me more skeptical and unemotional than a friend claiming I’m gonna Feel Stuff. (My internal measure of Steven Universe‘s success: I Felt Stuff. Though part of what I felt was annoyance that I Felt Stuff.)

There’s a huge range between “Argh I Felt Stuff” and “Wait, What?” For professional reasons, I play games for analysis as much as for fun (usually at the same time). Even if I don’t have the intended experience (emotional or otherwise), I expect to understand why other people did, and what the intended experience was.

It’s a very strange feeling when I don’t get it.

Is everyone really having this experience? What if everyone just thinks they’re supposed to have this experience? Am I the only one who sees the emperor naked?

From Wikipedia: “In psychology, cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values.”

  1. Person W did Thing X, and they report having Experience Y.
  2. I have done Thing X, and I did not have Experience Y.

I haven’t formally studied psychology, and I don’t have solid opinions about cognitive dissonance theory. But I find this situation disconcerting, and I think most people do.

Humans understand each other through empathy in action. If we both do Thing X, we expect that we’ll both have Experience Y. And if that’s not the case… well, it bugs people.

This happens a lot on the Internet. It happens a lot in games. And it specifically happens a lot on Steam Greenlight, where users browse potential offerings and answer: “Should this game be available on Steam?”

People vote on potential games and leave comments, exactly as they’re intended to do. The comments are generally mini-reviews, and they’re visible to everyone. Some comment threads smolder. Others explode.

In the situation:

  1. Person W did Thing X, and they report having Experience Y.
  2. I have done Thing X, and I did not have Experience Y.

…there are three basic conclusions that can be drawn.

  1. I was wrong about my experience. I really did have Experience Y.
  2. Person W is being dishonest. Person W did not have Experience Y.
  3. It is possible for Thing X to produce different experiences in different people.

Personally, I trust that people are accurately reporting their experiences. Therefore, I consciously opt for 3 (possibly with an unconscious scattering of 1.) I might not understand why other people have Experience Y, but I believe they did and I want them to explain.

But I do not expect my taste to be definitive.

When I see livid comments on Greenlight, they don’t come from a vacuum. Either the game itself has angered the poster beyond measure (less common), or the post is contradicting someone else’s opinion.

In a contradictory post, 1 is off the table and 2 is pretty rare. Most upset posts are trying to express:

  • It is possible for Thing X to produce different experiences in different people, but my experience of Thing X is more valid than your experience of Thing X.

As an example, see the comments thread for 12 Hrs by Kiva Bay. For context, this is a Twine game about being homeless.

12 hrsSome people tried the game (or had tried games like it, or wanted to support the creator). They wanted 12 Hrs to succeed. A sample comment from this perspective:

  • Thessilian, Sep 29 @ 6:02 AM: I played an earlier version online (there’s a link above if you want to try it out). Interesting, incredible and heartbreaking game. There’s a lot of replayability. Good luck with it!

Other people tried the game (or had tried games like it, or wanted to oppose the creator). They wanted 12 Hrs to fail. A sample comment from this perspective:

  • Riond, Oct 1 @ 8:54 PM (excerpt only): First off, this isn’t a game. I dunno what this is, but it’s not a video game. There is no gameplay to it. All you do is click on highlighted text to try and make something happen…. My point is that this isn’t a video game and that it doesn’t belong on Steam. There’s about a hundred other garbage titles on the Steam store that we don’t need another one clogging things up and garnering support from hipsters and SJWs to flood out things that actually have potential….

What’s interesting about the second comment is the assertion that the people voting for 12 Hrs are “hipsters and SJWs”. (This distancing behavior is not exclusive to the opposition; there were comments that mentioned “haters” and “dudebros” among the supporters.)

In both cases, it’s a grab for authority. “My opinion is more valid than this other opinion, because the people with this other opinion are this other kind of person, so their opinion is less valid than mine.”

Steam Greenlight isn’t a space designed for compromise. From Valve’s perspective, it’s good when a game’s comment threads go incendiary, because it demonstrates that people know about and care about the game. This means people will buy the game if Valve greenlights it. Which is good for Valve.

And I can imagine where people are coming from when they argue against the value of a game. They’re reading the hype, but they don’t have the background to get it. They’re coming from the space that I was in last night, but colored with a veneer of hostility.

“The emperor has no clothes. Can’t you see that? It’s obvious to me, so how is it not obvious to you?”

I’ve reviewed games before. I’ll assuredly do it again (likely before the end of IFComp). But I’m not a reviewer at heart. I’m someone who makes games, and makes mistakes, and learns from those mistakes, and studies other people’s games to learn from those games too – rinse, repeat, continue.

So I’m not going to write a review. Or even tell you what game it was (though it wasn’t 12 Hrs). I’m just going to say: it’s a very strange feeling when you don’t have the experience and everyone around you does. And I have empathy for some unexpected people today.

Of course, the feeling can’t excuse the reaction. And I have no sympathy with some of those reactions. But the feeling itself? I think it’s universal and human. And not too much fun.

I played a game last night and it wasn’t for me.

…I wish it had been.

Thank you to everyone supporting Sibyl Moon through Patreon!
If this post was interesting or thought-provoking, please consider becoming a patron.

Bookmark the permalink.


  1. In my opinion (worth less than usual because I have no idea what experience Y was meant to be), the definition of “art” is that different people get different responses to it. It’s alive, in a way. And that’s a good thing.

    Sometimes, static things change drastically over time, eg twenty years ago a fantasy novel with a gay side character who dies heroically was challenging the status quo… “WOW! We can have well-developed heroic gay characters in fantasy novels!” Now, a lot of fantasy novelists roll their eyes at old novels that were constantly killing gay characters and never letting them have relationships… but today it’s still a leap to have a gay MAIN character in a fantasy novel. So a novel that was cutting-edge is now considered part of the problem.

    I mention this because it’s not just society that changes – it’s people. A game might be a revelation to one person, and an overworked cliché to another, depending on their life experiences.

    And sometimes, even the author’s official verdict on What The Story Is About is generally agreed to be false due to a perceived lack of self-awareness.

    Scary stuff, for an author.

    • Completely agreed. Everything is different in context.

      I studied Sappho’s poetry in college. The professor walked in after our first round of assigned reading and asked what we thought.

      We glanced at each other and eventually someone said, “It’s kind of clichéd, isn’t it?”

      He drew us out on that topic for a while – what lines seemed clichéd, how it compared to modern love poetry, how dreadfully unimpressed we were. And then he leaned on the table and said, “You think it’s clichéd. But you don’t realize – she did it first.”

      And we all had kind of a stunned “oh” moment.

      • I’ve heard similar things about The Virginian (for Westerns) and Lord of the Rings (for fantasy) – genre-definers in hindsight can seem uninspired and generic.

  2. I too had a similar feeling about a certain game:


    My basic conclusion about it however was: 4. It is possible for Thing X to be deliberately designed produce wildly different experiences in people, as to create the maximum amount of artificial discussion about its superficial Deep Meanings which (apparently) need endless convenient interpretation / online bickering ;-)

Leave a Reply to Robert H. Dylan Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *