One of the most unique things about games as a medium is the freedom to interact with them however you choose. Other mediums can evoke varying experiences as well, but only games let their players truly control what they do during a play session. This freedom is constrained to the extent that all games revolve around a system of rules and mechanical limitations, and within those systems players do generally tend to form common strategies and expectations, but nevertheless players usually still have the option to think outside the box and play differently from what is expected.
Sometimes this is as simple as a player imposing a new kind of challenge on top of the basic framework of the game. In Pokémon, there’s the infamous Nuzlocke challenge, where players agree to box or release any Pokémon that faint, in order to simulate a more brutal version of the game where fainting results in permadeath. There’s also the solo-run challenge, where the player only uses a single Pokémon, usually a horribly weak Pokémon like Sunkern, (objectively the weakest Pokémon of all), to beat the entire game. While conventional wisdom and the rules of the game itself suggest that there’s no reason why fainting Pokemon should be permanent or why Sunkern should be on any team whatsoever, players are still free to do these things and essentially adapt to original structure of the game to their own liking.
Maybe an even more common way to play games unconventionally is to explore the game world more thoroughly than it necessarily warrants. While games are often goal oriented and even designed to push players towards an objective, a player might still chose to stop in the middle of the action and smell the roses. A game where I’ve taken this approach, (quite to the extreme, in fact) was World of Warcraft during the Burning Crusade expansion. While WoW is a game that generally does encourage exploration, quests nevertheless serve to curate that exploration and offer a goal around which to limit the area a player will explore. For me, however, the fact that I could explore in WoW became a goal in of itself. I ended up mastering an exploit called “wall-jumping”, which involved a now long-fixed bug in the game’s mechanics that would enable the player’s character to climb impassibly high walls and steep slopes if the player’s character faced parallel to them while jump. Using wall-jumping, I began to explore past the mountainous boundaries at the edge of zones in order to uncover strange, unfinished areas that were devoid of NPCs or quests, but felt like they could hidden secrets. Often these areas would just be empty spaces with a single texture painted over everything, but for me their discovery and that feeling of trespassing into somewhere abandoned and forbidden was a reward enough.
WoW also used to offer a much greater range of character development/progression, where despite there being a correct or viable way to build a characters stats, it nevertheless remained up to the player to decide if they wanted to follow their class’s most optimal builds or go their own way. While knowledgeable players knew these optimal builds precisely, the average, novice player like me commonly had zero idea what they were doing when it came to character progression. I literally didn’t know that spell power was a stat, (and in fact was my mage’s most important stat), so I focused on increasing my characters health and mana, as that is what I had seen increase over and over again while leveling up.
This was actually a terrible way to structure my character’s stats for group content, (the basis of WoW’s endgame), but it made me feel powerful in solo-content, (what used to be filler outside of endgame), where I spent most of my time anyway. Having high health and mana made my mage feel powerful, even if increasing my spell power would have had a more direct and beneficial impact on his potency. As I collected better gear and used gems slots to focus on improving my health and mana, it felt increasingly like my character could take more hits before dying and cast more spells before needing stop and recover mana, which was what appealed to me most for solo play. By any conventional measure, I was playing the game wrong, but I was too much of a novice to notice, and ultimately the progression my character followed felt fun and meaningful.
RPGs in particular, despite often providing the player opportunities to experiment with their character’s builds, are a fickle genre to play wrong in, because giving your character the wrong stats can be crippling to the point of making success impossible, at least without significant over leveling. To that end, I respect game designers who go out of their way to make as many viable builds as possible, as I think having the freedom to play wrong and still find a moderate degree of success isn’t so much the sign of a game being too easy as it is a sign that game was designed with flexibility and creativity in mind. Even in competitive meta games, where top-players usually only use a handful of builds that are proven to be the objective best, having too few of these builds makes the competitive scene overly predictable and boring.
I think the ability apply creativity within a given rule structure or to find ways of redesigning is one of the most entertaining aspects of gaming. Of course, unlike board games where rules aren’t hard programmed into a computer, only some change is usually possible in video games, which is why successful player driven rule changes are that much more impressive. The fact that a player can fundamentally alter how they play or experience a game without doing any programming themselves reveals the degree of ingenuity and expression that video games’ unique interactivity enables. While purists might argue for playing games the way they were meant to be played, I think that games can only benefit from letting their players engage with them in whatever way suits their own liking.