New advances in the dark art of clickbait

Understanding the gamer instinct

New advances in the dark art of clickbait

By Chris Breault

Ever since Baldur’s Gate III came out, YouTube has been urging me to watch a lot of videos like this one:

It’s a clip of a BGIII interaction that most players won’t see, delivered with no commentary beyond the vague curiosity gap title1. Making this sort of thing is easy: record any joke or surprise from BGIII, add a field-tested title like “The developers even thought of this…” or “After 100 hours I realized you could do this…”, then click upload.  

There’s a glut of these videos right now:

What do these have in common? The titles are vague enough to get clicks from anyone, but the content only makes sense if you’ve played a lot of BGIII. The uploaders all believe in the power of ellipses. And everyone seems amazed that the makers of the game might be good at their jobs; it’s become an oddly common premise on social media, seen in the “X didn’t have to go that hard” memes a couple years ago, that artists are like office workers who phone it in by default.

The dark arts have evolved since the days when A/B-tested Upworthy clickbait ruled the web2. While those decade-old headlines tantalized readers by withholding one piece of key information (“The Things This 4-Year-Old Is Doing Are Cute. The Reason He’s Doing Them Is Heartbreaking”), these new titles have become more conversational while saying even less. The main hint about their subject comes from the thumbnail, which is often a screenshot edited to amp up the violent or suggestive nature of the scene.

The same gamer-baiting title formats have been in heavy use for more than a year, well before the August release of BGIII. The channel Muaxh03 blew up in May 2022 with a Dying Light 2 clip called "Developers understand our gamer instinct too well..." (8.9M views), then followed it up with clips like “When the developers are bored, they add stuff like this…” (3.5M), crediting the Battlefield creator TBAG’s Shorts channel for the latter title.

Regardless of who really innovated the “vaguely awed description + ellipses + game easter egg” formula, it entered the creator consciousness as an algorithmically proven concept and was soon tried on everything. That included God of War: Ragnarok in November 2022 ("Developers Understand Our Gamer Instinct Too Well...."), High on Life in December ("Developers Understand Our Gamer Instinct Too Well...."), Skyrim in February 2023 ("Developers understand our gamer instinct too well..."), Zelda: TOTK in May ("developers understand our gamer instincts too well.."), Starfield in June (“When developers truly understand gamers”), and Baldur’s Gate III this month (“When devs truly understand gamers…”). Many similarly dumbstruck titles have been repeated religiously — “Yes… this is actually in the game,” “I discovered/realized you could do this after X hours…”, “This is why real-time cutscenes are superior…”, etc. — to appease the Recommendations machine3.

Within the world of identically named videos, quality varies. Muaxh’s original was a legit find that spoke to a lot of hours clocked in-game or at least a few spent on the game’s subreddit. But many indistinguishably named BGIII clips are unremarkable: cutscenes that every player sees, scripted reveals on a normal route through the game, or bits of standard gameplay that the uploader doesn’t seem to understand. In the best case, these clips show a path not taken in your own playthrough. But a viewer looking for that sort of thing is better served by actually descriptive titles like “What happens if you kill Gale and sleep for 3 days.”

It’s a stark demonstration of something that happens on YouTube all the time: channels stripping games for content and then repackaging it into algo-friendly formulas. You could see this also with the channels that make “Get OP Early” videos, which went straight from Zelda to Diablo 4 to BGIII, treating each like the same kind of gear treadmill. Everything new can be crushed down into the few old shapes that the algorithm wants, or is imagined to want. But the creators who do this aren’t drawing out anything interesting about the work, making connections, finding the part that explains the whole; they’re just babbling.

I’d like to add a bold prediction here and say that the soon-to-be-released Starfield will also be the work of developers who understand our gamer instinct too well. It will feature voice actors who deserve a raise as well as those who get paid enough. It will have voice lines that are actually in the game. It will have moments when the developers knew you’d try this and moments when the developers didn’t know you’d try this. It will show why real-time cutscenes are superior. And it will take me 100 hours to realize this.

  1. The in-game context is that there’s a cursed amulet with the spirit of a laughing monk inside, and if you give it to this character who never laughs, her voice actor delivers an impressively Joker-fied performance.

  2. Upworthy still exists and doesn’t like to be compared to “Old Upworthy.” Their stories are as relentlessly uplifting as ever but now have less pathologically withholding titles.

  3. It might seem like a pretty fine distinction to separate vague clickbait BGIII videos from short but creative BGIII videos. But the latter brings something new to the original scene, doesn’t reuse a shopworn title, and doesn’t step on its own joke with spammy end cards.