Game guides point lost players in the right direction.

The art of play.
Sept. 10 2004 12:23 PM

Turn Left at the Zombie

Game guides point lost players in the right direction.

Still from Ghost Hunter
Assuming the astral form …

I was playing Ghosthunter recently and couldn't figure out how to enter a waterlogged mine shaft. It's a common plight for gamers: You run into some trap you can't dodge or some villain that seems invulnerable, and everything grinds to a halt. What to do? I went out and bought the "game guide"—a walkthrough of the entire game crammed with detailed maps, solutions to the puzzles, and tips on how to navigate. The answer was on Page 39: I had to assume my "astral form," float down to some planks, and follow a ladder to a small room with an ancient water pump. Aha.

I'm not the only who gets stuck occasionally. Publishers like BradyGames and Prima Games publish guides for more than 150 video games each year at around $15 a pop. At least according to Prima, they sell quite well—the company reports that up to 30 percent of people who buy a game buy the companion guide.

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With numbers like that, you might think these guides are evidence of a cheating epidemic—a nation of players trying to get a cheap leg up. Thick and glossy as an issue of Elle, the best game tutorials are like encyclopedias, crammed with screen shots, breakout boxes listing trivia about the game, and hundreds of joystick-button combo moves. But gamers don't use FAQs and walk-throughs illicitly. On the contrary, guides have become a fundamental part of how many people consume video games.

Why? Because games today are crazily complex, sometimes unmanageably so. Unlike a movie or an album, you can spend 30 hours with a beloved game, yet never come close to seeing everything. Even the most weakly designed title is chock full of byways, tangential characters, and hidden power-ups you'll probably never see. Modern games are designed for teenagers with infinite hours free for exploration. For us time-deprived gamers with jobs or kids, guides are the only way to make sure we're not missing out on something really, really cool.

Game guides are, in essence, travel literature. Much as a Fodor's guide makes sure you don't overlook a key building in Prague, the Doom 3walk-through tells you to be sure to look behind the mangled steel doors to find a hidden pack of shotgun shells. Game guides aren't merely utilitarian, though—the best ones point out intriguing bits of architecture and design that might be overlooked otherwise. The Ghosthunter guide suggests that you should enter a house and look down a dark well, lest you miss the giant dead fetus. ("Creepy," the author shudders).

Still from Ghost Hunter
Don't overlook the giant fetus

Creating a travelogue for a virtual world requires a strange bouquet of skills—everything from a knack for descriptive writing to cartography. Dave Hodgson, a veteran writer for Prima Games, says he faced a typical challenge with the driving-shooting game Driv3r: He had to illustrate a sprawling 162-square-mile virtual world into a single two-dimensional map. Hodgson has also trained himself to be a surrealist wildlife photographer, luring zombies out of the shadows so he can get that perfect screen shot. Like most professional guide writers, he usually works directly with the game designers to make sure he finds every hidden ammo pack. Sometimes he even gets special versions of a game that run in slo-mo "bullet time," making it easier to pick apart complex maneuvers.

Professional guides aren't a new phenomenon. Magazines like Nintendo Power and Electronic Gaming Monthly started printing maps and secrets for popular games more than a decade ago. In 1993, BradyGames published its first glossy stand-alone guide, for the martial-arts gorefest Mortal Kombat. But alongside these professional publishers, gamers have created a vibrant culture of self-made FAQs and walkthroughs. Barely 48 hours after a hot new game is released, some avid player will have probed every nook and cranny, written up a free walk-through, and posted it at a site like GameFAQs.com.

Though free guides are usually bare bones—plain text, no screen shots—they're created by fans, and thus are monomaniacally comprehensive. One Ninja Gaiden guide I've used runs to 58,700 words—longer than some doctoral dissertations. If you're playing a fighting game or a sports game, where all you need to know are the secret moves, then an online FAQ should be all you need. It's only when I'm navigating a complex, immersive world that I'll buy a commercial guide with its gorgeous, full-color maps—crucial for figuring out where I'm going.

Some guides do nothing more than give you the facts. The best ones, though, are just plain fun to read. It's hard not to love the incredibly strange prose style. The text has to be surgically precise, like a dry, technical manual for an airplane engine. Yet it's also describing deeply weird fantasy environments filled with dripping goo and gibbering monsters. The end result is a kind of how-to guide for the damned, replete with unintentionally hilarious one-liners. The Doom 3 guide, for one, notes that "Your one advantage in Hell is that your stamina is unlimited. ..." Noted!

I made it only halfway through Doom 3, but I made it all the way to the end of the guide. Even when I do finish a game, I'll still sometimes flip through the guide months later, almost the way I'll look back over the program to a museum I've visited. But you don't have to be a nostalgic gamer—or a gamer at all—to get something out of a game FAQ. Virtual worlds are now "real" enough that they're culturally interesting to plenty of people who don't have the energy to voyage in them. That includes parents who wonder what the heck their kids are doing up in the bedroom and academics who want to write about the cultural impact of Grand Theft Auto but don't have the joystick skills to explore very far.

With games getting more Byzantine all the time, the audience for comprehensive guides is only going to grow. That ought to eventually affect how games are made. Now that legitimate publishers and obsessive fans are cranking out three or four comprehensive guides for every game, designers can create ever-more-enormous worlds without having to worry that no one will ever see them. Thankfully, there will always be someone to exhaustively document it—and keep lamers like me in the loop.

Clive Thompson is a longtime contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired. He is the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better.

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