Look at any part of the video game world and you'll find a red-faced moron telling someone they’re doing it wrong. Whether it be journalism, game creation, or simply how you choose to play, some nutter has got beef. It’s usually muttered in some dank corner of the internet, but when it comes to cheating the dingus rises from the darkness. Finally, they have ground to stand on because, you know, cheating is bad… right?
I used to believe guides were for cheaters. It's a stigma shared by many. If you wanted to find a boss’s weakness in Mega Man, you put in the time collecting every powerup until you found the one that worked, not turn to a guide. In the original Zelda, blowing up every wall or burning every bush to find that damn dungeon was a rite of passage, not a chore. But for others there were guides. These could have been official strategy guides that cost a few bucks, or found between the pages of our humble mag. But to me and the other self-righteous gamers, you were still a cheater.
Our editor D.Wilks believes this stigma wasn’t always warranted. “By necessity, adventure games never really gave any instruction to players other than the fact that you could use items on other items to solve puzzles,” Wilks recalls. “The early King's Quest games had game-breaking puzzles that required innocuous hidden objects found early in the game to complete, leading to situations that all but demanded guides.”
And yeah, he has a point.
Players were stuck between well-made titles that put your skills to the test, and broken titles that were so cryptic they were almost impossible to solve by themselves. It either came down to dumb luck, or a nudge in the right direction from a guide.
Designers tried to correct this. To avoid people turning to outside sources they placed in-built tutorials, hints and info cards. When done overzealously, the term ‘hand holding’ was born, meaning a game did all the work while users simply went through the motions, and this sucked. Final Fantasy VIII comes to mind, among others. “The fairly recent game Remember Me really annoyed me for the amount it held your hand throughout,” says Wilks “Many modern developers seem to lack that faith in players. It could be that in the drive to make gaming more mainstream developers have decided to make accessibility and ease of play the core tenets of their games, but it could simply be that they don't believe that people will be willing to find out things for themselves.”
But some games have more faith in their players than others, with titles like Dark Souls and Minecraft leading the “fuck you” charge. These games are reactionary: on one side they draw from the games that didn’t treat us like children, on the other, they push so aggressively in the opposite direction they risk alienation.
Well, they would, if the developers weren’t all around our community. We live in an age where people in trouble automatically turn to a guide, not just in gaming, but in day-to-day life. If someone doesn’t know how to do something as simple as boil an egg, they’ll turn to Google, that ever present cyber father figure we never had. So how do you combat that?
For me, Dark Souls, a title notorious for turning players away, marked the first time I turned to a guide. It’s also so cryptic that one can completely finish the game and still not quite know the ins and outs of the story. I had the guilts so bad, all my perceived cred was gone… but how the hell was I meant to know what a covenant was? There was no in-game explanation, and seemingly no effect once I’d joined, other than a vague item description – kind of like Scientology. I eventually caved to learn what I’d gotten myself into, and I slowly began to realise how much games had changed.
Games like this thrive alongside community-driven wikis, FAQs and YouTube videos to fill in the blanks, but not because the game is broken. Without a guide, it is very possible to work your way through with a base level of understanding – and still have a damn good time at that. But by building on each other’s notes, players now create community-driven content that are synonymous with these types of games. Guides help explain the unexplained, work out confusing game mechanics, or gain a deeper understanding of the narrative – all in the name of an enriched experience, not a spoilt one.
These games have an edge: with Dark Souls, it’s the extreme difficulty and tight combat, with Minecraft it’s procedurally generated maps and user creativity. These factors make simulated handholding almost impossible, as even the more spoiler-focused guides can only be vague at best, or still require a large amount of player skill to achieve. They help players unlock something they may have otherwise been oblivious to, and thus give a greater experience. Think covenants, obsidian portals and backstory.
Certain developers are getting smarter, making use of how we communicate without jeopardising their games. They’re no longer treating us like children (even though children can enjoy, and excel at Minecraft) but they’re also fair.
For these guys, gone are the days of ‘find this here, use this there’, replaced instead by pure experience. So how do you beat a world that relies on Google? Embrace guides — make them work for you, not against you.
There’s also another side of the coin here that I’m not addressing. Game worlds are massive now – crazy huge – and most people don’t have ten billion hours to scour a digital continent for hints and clues. If people who only have an hour here or there to play games don’t want to be restricted in their choice of games, guides are like a light in the dark that make these experiences possible. But that never applied to me. Gaming has always come first.
The rocky relationships between cheaters, guides and games have led us to this point. Guides are no longer for cheating; they have simply become a way of bringing the gaming community together to get the most out of an experience, and that’s a good thing.
So next time you have no idea what’s going on in a game, don’t get the guilts. Shut that red-faced moron out of your earhole and turn to a guide, they’re here to help.