Expectations

This is a post about something I don't understand. So I'll skirt around a topic and probably never reach firm conclusions. You have been warned.

I do understand that how someone experiences a game is shaped by expectations. And whatever experiences people have are what they are -- I'm never going to say feelings aren't valid. But what I don't understand is where those expectations come from and why, at least among certain vocal communities, expectations seem to be getting narrower over time rather than broader. Even though the availability of a broad range of games has only improved.

Maybe it's easiest to start with an example that does make sense.

Certain aspects of game design have become narrower over time, in a good way. If I pick up a modern game, particularly a 3D first person game, I probably already know how to move through the world and perform basic actions. Timing and precision varies, but there are reliable constants that mean not having to start learning from scratch with every game.

Going back to games from the '90s, like Fade to Black or the original System Shock, means having to work much harder. Those examples had a ridiculous number of buttons to keep track of, including separate keys for run vs. walk, or turn vs. strafe, or looking around corners. And different modes to switch between movement and combat, each with their own set of controls.

The trend towards streamlining and standardising control schemes is broadly good for accessibility. It can be bad for accessibility if it means less ability to remap controls, but in a general sense it's helpful. If a modern game breaks the trend it will probably feel awkward and go against expectations in a way that interferes with enjoyment, or even with my ability to play at all.

Even here there are plenty of exceptions, where non-standard control schemes are purposeful and effective. There are entire genres based around making mundane actions feel awkward, or creating nonsense worlds with wacky physics and movement (QWOP-likes and joke simulators). Controls that swap function or misbehave are sometimes used to represent drunkenness or other altered mental states (e.g., Wing Commander III). David Cage games have you manipulate the controller in intentionally awkward and stressful ways in an attempt to map more closely to what the character is experiencing. Experimental shooter Receiver focuses in on what it's really like to handle a gun, separating out controls for individual components and creating a tense learning curve. Octodad's co-op mode splits control across up to four players, each taking charge of different limbs.

Love or hate any of the examples, and have disagreements about how effective they are, but people don't usually question their right to experiment with controls in the first place. Even though controls are one of the most fundamental things anyone could mess with, and must be interacted with (sometimes overcome) before you can engage with anything else.

Still, I suppose it's not too difficult for me to imagine a person who only ever plays games with standard control schemes and could have their expectations messed with in a bad way when they encounter something different, even if it was done with skill and purpose.

But most aspects of game design aren't like control schemes. I want to believe that things diversify over time. At least among indie games, my impression is that the landscape does keep broadening. Or at least, it gets better at showcasing the diversity that was already there, which from most people's perspective is the same thing. This diversity is in itself threatening to some people, and causes them to lash out, which is difficult to separate from the discussion. But for the purpose of this post I want to assume people are coming to games in good faith. I want to understand why unexpected experiences throw some people for a loop.

Expectation doesn't completely cover it, mind. No one plays Depression Quest expecting Call of Duty. The promotion was honest, and when it comes to interactive fiction (and twine in particular) it's a fairly standard example. DQ has a common, choice-based linear structure, and the themes are also typical of twine. From my perspective, if there's anything surprising about DQ it's the higher than average production values.

Full disclosure I guess: I helped crowdfund the project that later turned out to be Depression Quest. It's one of the few times I've given money to a creator rather than a specific project, and had no idea what to expect. There are plenty of things I can criticise about DQ -- stuff about treatment approaches in particular that disappoints me -- but I don't regret supporting it. DQ does one specific thing particularly well, which is to represent how depression narrows choices. Knowing the best course of action isn't good enough if you can't act on it. And depression won't let you just pull yourself together, that's not how it works. It's a worthy thing to communicate, and was created in a format that suits that objective.

In my head, DQ is part of a large, broad landscape of interactive fiction and indie games exploring mental health or other personal/serious topics. It's not even my favourite game about depression. That honour goes to Actual Sunlight, which is a rather bleak example, but it feels honest and real. There are others: Elude, Inner Vision. And a bunch of games that are less explicitly about depression but I could make a good case for that being what they're about.

So, of course it's difficult for me to get inside the head of a person for whom the existence of a game about depression blows their mind. Or who didn't think text-based adventures had existed for a long time. It's easy to accept that not everyone wants to play that, mind, but not wanting to play something doesn't in itself lead to even well-meaning people spewing hate or confusion. And, as someone who isn't the target of the hate, the confusion might even trouble me more. Confusion relates to that narrow expectations issue. Possibly narrowing expectations. Which, in a wide world of digital entertainment and simple game-making tools, makes absolutely no sense to me.

It's like watching a bunch of people going to art-house movies and complaining they weren't action-packed Hollywood blockbusters. That might be a genuine opinion, sure, but all I have to learn from it is that people are weirdly bad at reading movie guides? Or that they love to hate on things? I'm sure there are people out there who spend time complaining about art-house movies, but most just accept it isn't their thing and move on.

So what's different here? Because there's a big difference between disliking something, and being threatened and confused by it. Among the threatened and/or confused people, if I trawl past the toxic people who want to police what "gaming should be" and preserve their twisted sense of identity as a "gamer", is there anything left worth listening to?

I write far more negative than positive things here. It's easier, but also what I find more interesting and constructive. And I have no issue seeing negative opinions of things I love. But I don't usually discuss "good design" or "bad design", which is something very different and would involve a lot more research and effort than just writing about my experience. People who equate their personal taste with "good design" get my hackles up.

A design is only good or bad within a specific frame of reference and set of objectives. I suspect the people who most easily have their expectations shattered are also the ones who think the objectives are well agreed upon. This is easiest to see in the "Games are about having fun!" crowd. They often have to concede a broad definition of "fun" when they think about it. But that still apparently doesn't extend to accepting that another person's idea of fun might not line up with theirs, or that some of us weren't seeking fun in the first place.

I want to be able to take on information and experiences from people who aren't like me. But not if it means having my own experience dismissed as invalid. "Do you like this game?" becomes "Is this even a game?" and "Should it have the right to be sold or discussed in the same place as actual games?". Which is a hell of a thing to get past before even having a chance of getting to something more interesting. "What's a game?" and related questions have been asked and answered in so many ways at this point there's probably not much more to squeeze out of that line of questioning.

Calling something bad design, without explaining the scope of that statement or the assumptions involved, is similarly dismissive. It cuts off many possible discussions, rather than fostering ideas. Having "expectations" is often the same thing as having "unexamined assumptions about design principles". Which hopefully explains some of why this whole issue confuses and annoys me.

No Man's Sky is the most obvious current example of people expressing broken expectations. And it's not like the developers didn't know the hype machine had gone out of control, but it went way beyond their ability to rein it in. I doubt anyone could have.

I almost never read reviews, and mostly stick to more in depth or personal criticism of games I've either played myself or know are not my thing. So, once again I'm struggling to understand something I don't have much experience with: getting hyped and paying attention to marketing. As someone who spends a lot of time thinking about games (and the culture surrounding them), not understanding how hype functions is a serious weak point.

I went into No Man's Sky not knowing much about it, as is my way. It turns out to suit me, so good for me. But I'm not here to talk about why I like No Man's Sky, or what's disappointing about it. I'm here trying to understand.

I don't want to believe the cynical comments I've received so far when I've tried to ask someone "Why are expectations so narrow?" or "Why do they seem to be getting narrower?" or "Why are certain expectations more sacred than others?". Or, "Why do people expect any specific thing to conform so closely to their individual desires?". I think there has to be more going on than people being (a) part of hate groups; (b) mindless sheep sucked in by PR; or (c) products of entitlement culture. And I don't think people are stupid, except in the ways we all kind of are. We're all stuck with our own psychology, and it limits what we can perceive or understand.

But without relying on those ideas, I have no idea how to conceptualise what's actually going on. And it's not something I can easily get from the source, even if I were willing to wade through the sludge. People aren't especially aware of the forces acting on them.

I probably wouldn't have written this post if someone hadn't suggested I have things to learn from what I perceive as dismissive criticism with insufficient game literacy or self-awareness to illuminate anything. And that's regardless of whether I agree or disagree with the core opinion. People can always express opinions, but there isn't always anything to learn from them.

This is part of why the difference between reviews and criticism matters, even though people conflate them a lot. To review something means both expressing a genuine opinion, and asserting that this view has broader relevance. This is super hard to do, even though in a sense reviews only have one question to answer: "Is this thing good?". For me, that isn't an interesting enough question to justify the effort. I'm glad I have had some opportunities to try reviewing, but I know it's not my strong point.

Criticism is a broader collection of activities with variable objectives. I can't ever tell someone who is expressing honest experiences that they're wrong. Although I can disagree, and I can think they're being odious about it, of course. And being dismissive of others and lacking self-awareness about how subjective your views are, is a ubiquitous form of odious.

I don't want to accept a status quo of what "good" means, or what games "should be". And whether those perceptions are coming from marketing, or conservative AAA designs, or wherever else... I don't fully know. And maybe that's something I'll never understand.

But I do know it's almost always a pointless dead end to try to learn something from a person who is expressing why something didn't meet their narrow expectations. This is different to having narrow taste, which is fine. It's the combination of narrow taste and expecting everything to cater to it. That's what seems bizarre.

I suspect I'm perceived as the sort of person who sits in a bubble and avoids dissenting options. That isn't the case. It's rare for me to read things I agree with, in fact. I doubt I'm *that* weird, but people who think like me aren't usually putting themselves out there, for many excellent reasons.

I like to hear about people's experiences. I don't so much enjoy subjecting myself to opinions that attack or diminish me. There's only so much erasure or violence a person needs to subject themselves to, you know? But I'll always try to stay open and curious for when the worthwhile stuff does come along.