Is there a "right" way to play a game?
Earlier this month, I dug deep and tried to understand the Souls franchise by reviewing Dark Souls 2: Scholar of the First Sin. When I played, I went in fresh, with no tips or guides to lead me along my way. This meant I missed a ton of features that are common knowledge to classic Souls players, but aren't explained by the game. On Axe of the Blood God Episode 8, Kat pointed out that Dark Souls is a game where you need to start with some of this second-hand knowledge to get the full experience. I had missed facets of Dark Souls 2 due to the way I played the game.
We've also recently had the controversy of Mortal Kombat X and its microtransaction-based Easy Fatalities. For $5 you can buy 30 Easy Fatalities, allowing you to perform the game's signature finishing moves without knowing or performing the button combinations to activate them. For some, the inclusion of microtransactions are the problem. For others, having Easy Fatalities as option at all is abhorrent. "That's not the way the game is meant to be played," these people say. For them, the Fatalities are the reward for learning the game properly. They believe that if you want to see them, you can watch them on YouTube; being able to experience them in-game should require a greater amount of effort.
Which is to say people believe there are correct ways to play games. For each game and its community there is an understood orthodoxy or group concensus: "If you are one of us, this is how you should play." The culture around a game establishes its norms. An understood orthodoxy is also how the culture determines who its best is. Beating a game, but not turning off a specific feature can determine if your accomplishment is laudable or not within the community.
The thing is, not everybody wants to be a part of that community or at least not in that manner.
Certain fighters, like Tatsunoko vs. Capcom and Marvel vs. Capcom have allowed players to have "easy mode" controls, letting them pull off more complex maneuvers with fewer button presses. Some players absolutely hate the idea, even for non-competitive casual players who just want to enjoy the game without learning double fireball motions and more. For those orthodox players, learning those motions is an integral part of the game's experience; if you're not learning them, you're not playing the game how it's meant to be played. You are not observing the agreed-upon rules.
To see a divergence in the opposite direction, you can look to the speedrun community. Many of the best and most impressive speedruns are the work of hours upon hours of concentrated play, learning the ins-and-outs of a game. Digging into physics, collision, and more, and determining where they can be subverted to shave valuable time off the total run. Even the non-glitch speedruns play in a manner that's far beyond beyond what the developer intended.
You would think developer intentions would establish what orthodoxy is for a game's culture, but that's honestly just the first step. A developer can steer a game in a specific direction, but that doesn't mean that gameplay won't diverge heavily once it's in players' hands. One way this happens is mods, which add changes that eventually become the norm in some communities. Payday 2's HoxHud reached "essential mod" status for many, leading the developer to merge some of its features into the game. Blizzard's World of Warcraft has a history of turning popular mods into established, official in-game features. For other games, there are simply actions players take to match the performance or others. In Destiny's early days, many leveled in the same manner: find a specific cave and kill all the enemies that spawn from it. It became so common place that jokes were made about it. It was an efficient way to acquire solid gear for your Guardian, given the randomness of the game's loot system.
Some of these changes are mods, some are smart play, some are defined as exploits; either way, they're certainly not what the developer intended, but they became the norm for the community. These methods were more efficient or more fun for the players. That's the difference between developer intent and emergent gameplay. The latter can actually become more important than what the developer originally had in mind when they crafted a game. Street Fighter 2's combos were a bug that was left in the game and ultimately discovered by competitive players. Together, those players defined what was orthodox for Street Fighter 2, with Capcom later following suit.
A community might determine what's canonical overall, but ultimately every player has their own idea of how to play a game.
"When I was younger, I used to like going into games cold, as Mike was saying. I wanted to figure out everything on my own, and prided myself on rushing through the critical path as quickly as possible," wrote USgamer reader Hal9k in the Axe of the Blood God post I mentioned above. "My perspective changed when I started playing RPGs with my girlfriend. She likes to get absolutely everything out of a game; every collectible and side quest. For example, she collected every Triple Triad card in FF8 and every trophy in Wind Waker - and she has no qualms with using a FAQ to do it."
"Now I've gotten to be the same way. I'm almost always looking up guides and walkthroughs before I dive into a new game, especially when I need to consider options for character and party builds or come up with a plan for how I want my characters to develop. Part of me still feels like that's cheating; I'm not really playing the game "right," and that ruins a bit of the surprise and the challenge. But as Mike said, time is limited, and using guides helps me see more of the game content without a lot of flailing around."
I admit, I'm the same way. As my time has become more limited due to other responsibilities, I'm more likely to rely on the extensive fountain of information that is the internet. There are tips, tricks, beginner's guides, and more out there to help you. Hell, we have a pretty extensive section here on USgamer because people look for them. That's not to say people don't like challenge or have lost the sense of exploration, it's just not the point for some players. I'll personally hammer at something for a while, but if I'm not making significant headway, I may look it up. There's not a lot of pride in that, but it's all about preserving my sense of enjoyment, not having something to crow about online. (Of course, this doesn't matter much since I became a reviewer, because I'm frequently playing games before things like guides and tips exist.)