Have you played Undertale? Of course you have! No? Well, I don’t know because articles are not interactive media, even if they talk about interactive media. But it’s ok, because chances are you have heard about Undertale and that’s enough. For the purpose of this article, it is just an example, a starting point: the real meat is wider and affects every one of us. Because if I wrote this and you are reading it, we care about games.
The Internet is full of information and related media about Undertale. Its community is amazing and the emotional impact of its story and memetic powers make it ubiquitous, even after all this time. So, in order to play it, I isolated myself from it as some friends told me that it’s a better experience without knowing anything or having expectations of any kind. Just enjoy the ride, they said.
So I avoided the cold touch of knowledge the best I could, but some pieces of information got inadvertently lodge into my brain via social media. Even so, I arrived practically virgin to the game and, indeed, the less you know about it the more you enjoy it.
But, as I said, Undertale is just but an example. We have access to more and more information about video games every day. Sometimes we even have hours of gameplay available months before a game comes out! This is something we’ve just gotten used to, but in truth it’s a little crazy.
Needless to say, things back in the day were wildly different. Before YouTube and the bulging mass of games news sites, you needed to scour for information about a video game. You needed to pay for the information (mostly in the form of magazines) and, of course, that information was limited to a couple of pages.
Or you could just trust the game packaging. Gamble it all on the front and back covers: the work of devoted developers at the mercy of an illustration that often had little to do with the game, a couple of screenshots and a text that promised you the best experience of your life.
I have particularly fond memories of the back text of OutRun for Sega Master System:
Sega’s Out Run 3-D is so close to reality that it will leave you breathless! As your car whips around treacherous curves and over hills, you can almost feel the engine screaming and the wind whipping through your hair!”
Of course, we were much more impressionable back then, so it worked.
Don’t get me wrong, this is not a claim in favour of going back to the old days. We’ve all felt that sting of disappointment having purchased a game on a whim, only to inset the disc and realise it was either poor or something completely different from what we had expected. Today, with such an extensive bounty of video game information available at the touch of a button, we’re able to make far more informed decisions, but are we losing something along the way?
Some of my all-time favourite games came into my life unexpectedly. Playing a game you know almost nothing about it, it’s a risk, but can lead to amazing discoveries. I fell into the Persona series simply because it was a Japanese game with a Spanish word as its title. That was it – I had no preconceived ideas, I just dived right in.
Knowledge scarcity can even lead to different ways of playing. I remember playing Monkey Island 2 in school with six other kids. Every afternoon we played (each one at their own home) and shared our experiences the next day in school. We didn’t have ways to know how to beat the game, but the joint effort didn’t just lead us to the end of the game, but to a great social dynamic.
The way we consume video games affects the gameplay experience. After all, the game takes place not only on the screen, but in our minds. And a mind that knows too much can never go back to the way it was.
Again, I’m not saying we should be going blind into every new game, but how much is too much information? In principle, I see three reasons why a player may acquire too much information (I’ve been in these three scenarios many times in my life).
The first one is because players make an investment. Of money, yes. But more important: of time. So yeah, a trailer, a review, an honest opinion, a gameplay video… There are many ways to know more, to make an informed decision.
The second is hype. A player wants to play a game so bad that they need something to help ease the pain of waiting. Sometimes that means playing a similar game, usually a previous instalment (this situation is really common with established IPs) or entering the online discourse. However, those chasing the hype train for every nugget of information tend to gorge themselves. If you have every intention of playing an upcoming game, why risk ruining some of its surprised by hunting every leak or rumour?
The final reason is just because we are used to it, conditioned into following the marketing cycle of any video game we’re even remotely interested in. Given the surprising statistics on video game completion rates, sometimes I get the impression that many players spend more time watching games rather than actually playing them (even beyond esports and speedruns).
So how can we avoid the cold touch of knowledge? Sometimes it’s good to stop and take a deliberate action. Like a well-connected strike in Dark Souls.
Putting a limit on the amount of time you spend watching videos of a game before playing is helpful, as is muting a game’s title when browsing social media. The latter method can be extremely effective, especially when looking to avoid story spoilers.
You can also change the way you actually buy games. Take advantage of Humble Choice, Xbox Game Pass, PlayStation Plus, or Epic’s deluge of free games to restore a sense of discoverability, sifting through these libraries as if you were standing in your favourite game store. You can even use the Random Steam Game Picker if your PC library is large enough. Better yet, just let a good friend choose a game for you once in a while and go in blind.
Or just keep doing what you’re doing. While there are certainly negatives to having so much readily available information on video games, that won’t always get in the way our how much we enjoy them.