I was, earlier today while working on some of those mindless tasks at the office, listening to a podcast interview with David Hodgson. Hodgson is (sort-of) known as the guy who writes a lot of game strategy guides, particularly for the games I’ve personally been playing a lot of lately — Fallout and Skyrim, to be specific.
While I didn’t ever pick up the strategy guide for Fallout, I have lately (after clocking over fourty hours of play therein) purchased the guide for Skyrim. The book is a telephone directory-sized tome of small-fonted, screen-capped goodness, measuring at somewhere over seven hundred pages, and detailing locations, characters, sub-plots, and checklists for a whole breadth of in-game complexity. And — though I’m certain there will be some who doubt my honesty in this statement — the only reason I bought the damn thing is that — with so many inter-tangled and cross-linked quests and chores within the game — I’m having trouble keeping track of finer points of the plot in my head. I’m mostly using it for a refresher for loose threads picked up later in my game-play and also a broader-context summary of the story-so-far. Only occasionally will you find me poking at the spoilers.
But, I get the (probably obvious) sense that the game community as a whole is sharply divided on game guides. And I kinda wish the interviewers in the aforementioned podcast had touched on this with an author of these strategy guides: Does Mr. Hodgson consider his work something more than creating cheat manuals for lazy gamers. Is using a game guide cheating?
My short answer is… well, not really… I don’t think so. But I do think there a few factors involved here:
In other words: when would you look at the guide?
When are you using the guide? When did you buy it? Did you buy it alongside the game? Or did you pick it up after realizing that multiple trips to the bookstore to “just peak” was becoming economically less feasable, eating up too much time, or more capitalistically unfair to the author than just buying the thing flat out? Are you half way through the game and need to refresh yourself on why exactly you were trekking off to some distant corner of the map to avenge, uh… who was that again? Or do you read tour guide like a manual while waiting for the files to install on your hard drive, learning the nuances of game play, crafting, scavenging, trading, and all those gritty bits that will emerge naturally for the more patient player?
In other words: why do you play?
Are you a completion-ist, needing to find every last treasure chest and try out every quest before you feel satisfied to move onto another title? Or are you a casual gamer who only picks up a game once every few weeks and doesn’t have time to explore, or are you instead a wanting to just get into the action already and enough psuedo-medieval dialog already just-let-me-kill-stuff kinda player? Is it that you’re like me and are forever confusing some developer-generated character names like Benathor with Banador and Belakor, and vaguely remember that you’re supposed to befriend one, avoid one, and assasinate the other… but can’t remember which or why? Or are you simply hoping to have a few more moments of distraction within the game world while you’re away from your computer, while — perhaps — riding the bus to work the next morning, and so thumbing through the strategy guide while listening to the soundtrack on your iPod helps with that?
In other words: how do you prefer to play?
Are you looking for a story, a narrative that unfolds at the pace determined by the creators of the game. Or are you looking to get it done, spoilers be damned? Is it important to you that there be a sense of mystery or suspense, or are you one of those people who reads the last chapter of a novel first, getting a glimpse of how it turns out — or what characters are being spoken of in the past tense — before you begin reading for real? Do you yell — in CAPS — in game forums at people who hint at the slightest glimmer of a possibility that an implied whisper within their comment might give away the tiniest notion of a deductive hint of a plot spoiler? Or do you just play because a game is nearly always better than just staring at a television show?
So… what is it?
I’ve personally reached the point in my gaming experience where a few extra bucks on a guide and a map for a big game I’m enjoying is not really a question of economics. It’s a question of enjoyment, so I weigh these questions out — or at least I’ve done so on the few occasions I’ve bought the guide — standing in the mall bookstore with the fifteen pound strategy book in my hand. Standing there, contemplating, in the end, I just ask the question: is buying this book going to add or detract from my enjoyment of the game? Is it going to become my crutch upon which the fragile elements that make the game enjoyable buckle and bend ultimately causing me to loose interest? Or is this book more like a road atlas on a foreign adventure, pointing out the interesting little pubs and bistros the locals all seem to know about, but are tough to find otherwise?
Let’s go through this then…
When would I look at the guide? I would look at it when, between putting my daughter to bed and actually holding down a real, professional job, I run out of space in my brain to store vital — but trivial — pieces of a story spanning dozens of hours.
Why do I play? I play to get lost in a world, and sometimes I’m the guy looking for more distraction than less.
How do I prefer to play? I like the suspense of a well-written narrative, but I’m also the guy who looks up the details of movies on IMDB. Also, I’m lucky to get a couple hours here and there, so roaving after too-difficult quests or wasting my time grinding to increase some random character stat is not my idea of a fun night in.
So, that’s how it all levels up — for me at least; Games like Skyrim or Fallout, existing in open and vast worlds with seemingly infinite number of paths to follow can do well with an atlas to help out the digital adventurer — or, I think so. Is it cheating? Let me put it this way: I know of a very short code that, when typed into the game, would remove the character-based limitations on how much weight I can carry within the game. I could apply this in-game, and thus remove the frustration of having to travel back to my in-game house to unburden myself of random collections of swords and other junk collected on various dungeon crawls — and be rich selling all the extra junk I could carry in the process. When I play tonight I’m not going to apply that code… because that would be cheating. I am, however, going to read my game guide.