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Game Guides: Too Much Of A Good Thing?

There was a time in the history of gaming when gaming guides and FAQs weren’t necessary. The games were ones of skill and reaction time and if you sucked, you had no one but yourself to blame, and nothing but another quarter to make you better. You could watch your friends, or strangers, or experts.. marvel at what they did, and hope to do what they could. But just watching them didn’t mean you could take over and do what they did. You didn’t “solve” those games as much as “master” them (And then you would write a book).

With the emergence and evolution of adventure games came a need for more. The more in this case, however, wasn’t more skill. It was more information… more analysis… more time. You could get away with not having the best reflexes, because the game wasn’t about skill, it was about memorization. Once you learned what to do, that was the solution. So began the need for guides to explain how to best navigate through the realm of choices in games. This basic need for information; for knowing the most efficient way through a game’s web of trials, has led to what we have today: websites devoted to game guides, YouTube movies depicting exact steps to take to accomplish goals, and softcover game guides outlining every statistical piece of information in the game complete with maps to show you exactly where to go and when. Its almost to the point where companies will let you download their playthrough directly into your game so you can just enjoy the ride. And this information is available to you from day 1… you don’t even have to wait to get all the help you’ll need through the tough spots; they’ve all been highlighted, videoed, and worked around already. All you have to do is follow their lead…

Some things worth revealing here...

It wasn’t always like this. Even when hint books were hitting their stride, they were done in a way that didn’t give away the entire game unless you made the effort to reveal it. I am referring, of course, to the Sierra Hint Books. For those not familiar with these books, they contained the answer to every possible situation in the game, done in a true FAQ style, without revealing the whole game. How did they accomplish this? The questions were readable throughout the book, with a series of seemingly blank boxes below. Using a pen that came with the book (or later, a red tinted plastic sheet), you could reveal clues to the answer one box at a time (or one line, one word, whatever you wanted). The first clue or two was general, usually referring you to where you could get more info in game. The next one or two would be specific, with the last box giving the answer outright. This was a smart way to have a useful guide that didn’t give away the entire game in a glance (a problem that current forms of media have – in one screen you can see the solution to several quests in the game). One such question from the hint book would look something like this (Remember that each answer would be hidden until revealed by the reader):

Ok, so I know the gnome’s name is Rumpelstiltskin, but when I guess that, he says it isn’t and gives me a key. How can I get the magic beans?
First answer: You’re close, but not quite there. Did you visit the gingerbread house yet?
Second answer: The note mentioned thinking backwards.
Third answer: It’s not as simple as just writing Rumpelstiltskin backwards… keep thinkng.
Fourth answer: Write the alphabet out on paper. Below that, write the alphabet out backwards. For each letter in the forward alphabet, write down the letter that’s below corresponding to Rumpelstiltskin’s name.
Fifth answer: His name is ifnkovhgroghprm.

This was a tactful way of revealing the answer while still letting the gamer figure it out on their own each step of the way. Even if someone followed to step 4 and then got it without revealing the 5th box, there was a certain sense of accomplishment, as opposed to just sitting with the strategy guide open to that page in the walkthrough, or having gamefaqs scrolled down to ::AKJUUI::, or whatever arbitrary jump phrase they’ve used in their guide.

And what if your eyes scanned ahead in the old Sierra guide, as they will do when reading? You didn’t ruin any answers, you just might have seen a future event (“OK, so now a giant is chasing me, help!”) It keeps the integrity of the game intact, rather than reducing the game to a series of keywords searchable by google (“deadly premonition quint trailer“). On a website or reading a guide today, reading ahead reveals answers to the next obstacle you will face whether you wanted it or not.

Ok, so the book medium is dead or dying; even if they brought back the old hint books, it wouldn’t work because of the information on the internet, right? Well, kind of. It would be difficult to work today not because it can’t, but because we have crossed a threshold that is difficult to come back from. The age of over-information that we are in means there is less and less time to digest and process than there ever has been before. People don’t have time to play around with something that should be giving answers, and they don’t want to think about the solution once resigning to search. Perhaps its a pride thing: there’s already a concession being made by even going for a hint that you either weren’t smart enough to figure it out, or were too lazy to try. So the last thing you want to do is not figure out what the answer is. I get it.. people have tender feelings. In an effort to not hurt anyone’s feelings, let me remind you that you are not alone.

With the need for instant gratification, if your site isn’t doing it, someone else’swill. I suppose a site could have both options: the current format of full or specialized guides, and this new (old) reveal-only-what-you-want-to-see style. If people want choice, give it. I’m curious how popular such an option would be.  I know I’d choose a slow reveal versus having the whole answer put before me.

Now what about game guides? I personally don’t use them, but have flipped through a few and find I read them like I would a Simpson’s TV episode guide or Dungeons and Dragons monster manual; that is I will open to random pages and just read up on and absorb the statistical information on that page. These guides could certainly be altered to reveal information more selectively. The maps could be left in, just remove all the icons or information, and make them overlays in the back of the book that you can put over it (different ones for how much info you want.. items.. achievement point spots, quest spots, etc). Of course, make a weblink in the book for folks to print out their own overlays as well as the ones included in the book in case they are lost, mishandled, or eaten. The point is, control the amount of information conveyed to the reader at one time, and let them decide how much help they need. If you want your hand held, the option is there.  But if you are just looking for an on-paper map overlay of pigeon locations instead of having to constantly refer to the ingame map found only at internet cafes, you can get it without seeing more (or better yet, make your own overlay for the blank map in the book, so you actually participate in the creation of your aid). I think more guides might be sold if they were able to be used as supplements as opposed to outright “cheats;” I know I would be more inclined to purchase one.

I often wonder if, because of these game guides and websites, game designers are making some parts of the game more difficult or obscure.  Things like feathers in Assassin’s Creed 2, or packages in Grand Theft Auto: items that aren’t on any in game map, and are found mostly by luck (some with some audio/visual clue).  There’s no indicator as to where they are, how many you’ve collected in an area, or how many more there are in said area. As a gamer (and a completionist), it would be frustrating as hell to comb every single portion of the game to find them.  Some may say this is playing the game fully, but I disagree.  At least in GTA 4, you could get an in-game map of those pesky pigeons, and theoretically jot those down, and work systematically on that.  It’s work, but it would be focused work.  Another game that got this kind of collection piece right is Deadly Premonition, which had you collecting 65 cards throughout the mission.  At no time did I feel like I had to comb the game to find the cards – they were tricky to get sometimes, but always attainable, and I knew where I had to go to get them.  I never once felt I needed the help of a guide to do it.  And this is just one small example – what else is put into the game with the expectation that only people who get a guide are going to be able to find it or figure it out? Are programmers coding with guides in mind?

Crank the volume up for audio clues

That said, not everyone needs help in the same way, and its time that game guides and help websites understood that. I don’t want to be handfed everything. I want to be nudged in the right direction sometimes, but I still want the sense of accomplishment from (mostly) figuring it out. Don’t rob me of that by plastering the entire solution in front of me.  Have it available, just not jumping off the page and shouting at me to read it (and the 10 other solutions below it). Unless it’s that damned Rumpelstiltskin… that was just evil.

What about you: Do you use guides or websites while playing games? Do you find that once you start using help, you come back to it more often? Would you support sites or guides that revealed information differently, guiding you first before answering the question outright?

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  • I for one don’t like to use help guides or sites, but I recently did when I was playing Darksiders a couple months back, because I couldn’t get past one boss and come to find out I was doing it right (even though I didn’t get past the boss) I attempted numerous times to beat it before I headed to a site to see if really was that bad at the game. I never beat said game it is collecting dust as we speak in the bowels of my back log of games

  • Gern

    I use game guides often. I would prefer not to use them. Batman Arkham Asylum was great because the game gave you hints and would clearly state the objectives and put them on the map. I like adventure games that give you this. It seems to me that game developers should implement settings so that a player can choose the number of hints and guides within the game. The hardcore adventurer can choose to play without any hand-holding. I also like what Nintendo is doing where you can have the console take over some of the harder sections so that that you can keep the gameplay moving. Again, the did it with a choice and I like that.

  • Jimbo

    Here’s an example of when I use a guide but wish I didn’t have to… Pokemon!

    Yes, it’s sad, but having to google when a pokemon evolves and with what and how etc is annoying.. It should all be on the game, maybe in the pokedex or you have to speak to people to find out.

    /No Life ^^

  • Yeah, I think in moderation guides can be useful – who wants to NOT beat a game because they can’t get past something?

    I just think the format they are in needs to be revisited.