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Ever since the first intrepid video game explorer found the famous warp room in the original Super Mario Bros, one topic that has caused no shortage of debate amongst gamers is the merit or lack thereof of cheating. In recent news, this debate came to the forefront somewhat when PC Gamer journalist, James Davenport, outright admitted to using a mod to cheat the final boss of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, the latest action game from FromSoftware, a pedigree that naturally came with the expectation of an incredibly challenging game. In his article, Davenport argues that he lost nothing in terms of gaming experience, and that the final boss was simply the point where what was once challenging and engaging devolved into frustration.
Nevertheless, this prompted a strong response from Twitter user @Fetusberry, who simply declared that Davenport had “cheated not only the game, but yourself”, and whose brief statement quickly became the latest viral meme template. While @Fetusberry’s response was clearly hyperbolic for the sake of comedy, it does touch on this longstanding debate among gamers, especially when dealing with games of the ‘git gud’ variety like Sekiro, and it is something of an interesting question when you think about it. While obviously cheating in any multiplayer game is at best low and at worst contemptible, the matter gets a little blurrier when applied to any single player game. After all, it’s my game, who cares if I’m playing the ‘right’ way or not?
Of course, you’d need only glance in the direction of practically any discussion of a game more complicated than Tetris to learn that, in fact, people tend to have seemingly very strong opinions about the ‘right’ way you should play a certain game, and are all too happy to lambast you for not playing the way they want you to. Even in a game series as ubiquitous as Pokémon, there are still the elitists, who will insist up and down the only ‘real’ way to enjoy the game is to painstakingly build the perfect competitive team, with perfect natures and IVs and so forth. And indeed, for some people that is a very enjoyable way to play a Pokémon game, but surely, we can at least agree that’s not the only way to enjoy Pokémon?
But then, outright cheating is quite different from playing a game in a ‘sub-optimal’ fashion, not least because, as we see in the case of Sekiro, it essentially lets you skip over the challenge of the game, which can certainly seem like you simply don’t want to have to improve to win. Of course, that raises a question of it’s own, what if you’re not playing the game for a challenge, but for different reasons entirely? As Davenport asserts in his article, while a challenging experience was part of the appeal to him, he got more enjoyment from Sekiro’s storytelling and world building than the difficulty the gameplay presented. Assuming this to be the case, can we really say he cheated himself out of an enjoyable experience if Davenport himself asserts the opposite, that cheating was what allowed him to enjoy it?
But then, how do we deal with the people who cheat in one game, but not another? To put my own cards on the table, I play both Darkest Dungeon and Crusader Kings II, in very different manners. In Darkest Dungeon, I play the game fairly straight, I try to optimise my party members, avoid spoilers, don’t take advantage of exploits and generally try to roll with the punches, even as I lose an entire party for the twelfth time and have to start from scratch again. With Crusader Kings, on the other hand, I cheat relentlessly, whether through save scumming bad events, console commanding cash whenever I run low or sometimes having particularly annoying characters drop dead from spontaneous heart attacks, there is no depth I’ve not plumbed in Crusader Kings in regards to cheating. Yet I would honestly claim that I enjoy both games very much, so what gives? Am I someone who enjoys a challenge or enjoys playing around casually?
The answer, in my case, would be yes. That is to say, I enjoy both a challenge and screwing around. But, perhaps more to the point, I feel these two separate games have different expectations of their players that influenced my own decision whether or not to cheat. Obviously, in the case of Darkest Dungeon, quite similarly to Sekiro, the clear expectation is that the player is playing Darkest Dungeon explicitly for the challenging gameplay, in which every dungeon cleared is an accomplishment, with corresponding costs to the heroes you controlled in said dungeon. Crusader Kings meanwhile, while challenge is a part of the game, the main appeal, as I’ve perceived it, is basically running your own personal medieval soap opera, where a good chunk of the fun is found in just how bizarre and perverse events can spiral while you and other characters run rampant across history (Just skimming the first two pages of it’s reddit page will show you just how far that rabbit hole goes).
Further Reading: A Dance of Death and Victory in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.
What this meant for me, I suppose, was that one game was meant to be enjoyed as a challenge, while the other was meant to be enjoyed in other ways, and so I felt more inclined to cheat in the game where challenge wasn’t the primary point. I can’t speak for every cheater, but for me at least, whether cheating ‘ruins’ a game or not is dependent entirely on how much the actual challenge is supposed to be the main draw. With Darkest Dungeon, I would certainly agree that cheating would be screwing myself out of a good experience, just that I wouldn’t feel the same with other games.
To go back to the original dispute mentioned at the start of this article, I would personally take the view that if Davenport really felt that he didn’t lose anything from cheating the final boss, then we can’t really say that he ‘cheated himself’. However, had he been cheating right from the get go in Sekiro, that would have been a different story, and players who were able to play Sekiro without resorting to cheats are within their rights to say that the difficulty is a part of the game. Ultimately though, and I think Davenport and @Fetusberry would agree with this, the discussion of cheating in single player games isn’t something to get hugely worked up about, and really, so long as the player’s having fun, then the game has fulfilled it’s purpose, whether that fun was achieved fairly or not.