There are a number of ways to tell how and why people play videogames and what type of player they are – are they an Agoner – an actual gamer – playing entertainment software as actual games and challenges for the kinds of reasons we discuss here, or is it for something else? The excellent Brainhex Survey certainly proves invaluable for self analytical game-literate people, as do our videogame classifications, and of course there’s various studies into observing how people play games, as limited as they are at this time. Chris Bateman (developer of Brainhex) also put forward some interesting ideas about a classification of gamer types that I’ve referenced before here. However I had a really interesting discussion with a friend recently that made me hit upon another simple way to observe how & why someone plays entertainment software, whether they have considered it or not - their use and reaction to using ‘walkthrough’ guides (or other FAQs for the sake of argument).
What triggered this was my friend surprising me by happily advertising her use of walkthrough guides – she was essentially making a public thank you to them for their improving her play experience. This led us into a discussion as to why, because to me, if I was playing a videogame as a puzzle/challenge, then the use of a walkthrough guide would generally be a pretty worthless thing. The whole point of a puzzle/challenge is to get stuck and to figure out how to solve or overcome it. If I used a walkthrough guide then that would either signal defeat to me, or perhaps that the software was very badly designed, either way, it’s not something I would be proud of or happy about. At the best it’s something I’d feel deflated or guilty about, possibly even anger or relief in the case of terrible or bugged software. Would you be happy if someone else solved a rubiks cube for you? Would you cheat to fill out a crossword? You might do both these things and I can imagine you might find some sense of satisfaction in their ‘innate’ completion – yet you also probably wouldn’t feel overtly proud or happy about it for yourself, only perhaps as some kind of vicarious pride. You certainly wouldn’t, or at least shouldn’t, view it as any kind of accomplishment that you’d “progressed”.
But of course, as I suspected after further discussion, it was very clear that my friend was actually playing entertainment software primarily as Interactive Stories, and not for the challenge or as a game at all. So here, the use of a walkthrough, and feeling thankful towards them, makes perfect sense. Using a walkthrough in this case means you can get more enjoyment by continuing to progress the story or the movie; since you aren’t really interested in a challenge anyway – perhaps only the illusion of one.
When it comes to playing a competitive game – then there can be no such concept as a “walkthrough guide”. Here any good guide is a useful training aid to someone who wants to improve their knowledge and skill at a game, but it can’t actually make you learn the actual skills and application of skill you need to do (we’ll need Cyberpunk style skillchip implants in our brains for that!). It’s actually a shame that so few games explain enough of their true depth and mechanics within the software itself that leads to the use of gaining knowledge elsewhere being so ubiquitous. Ideally game software would offer fantastic training, documentation and tutorials within itself so that a player shouldn’t have to scour the internetz to figure out how to do something – at least not as much as is usually the case currently. Of course a big part of the problem is that many games are so complex the developers don’t even understand their true mechanics or depth at the time of release.
There is also a mid-way point between these two extremes. In a challenge/puzzle game where there’s large dexterity, reactions and execution skill elements, yet it also requires a lot of trial and error, and has obfuscated mechanics in the challenge, then sometimes using an external guide may actually enhance your enjoyment of the challenge itself, or even enable new challenges. It’s a tricky line to define though. The reason I mention this is that I did recently use some guides to help me & my group of friends (Team Shitty Shotty!) to complete Expert level difficulty campaigns in Left 4 Dead, and my feelings about that fit more with my description of using a competitive game guide, than with using a “walkthrough”. I believe this is because the ‘knowledge skill’ part of L4D could only be gained through extensive and laborious trial and error – and so using the guide essentially allowed us to shortcut that part. Figuring out exactly which weapons and team formations work best is part of the challenge in a way, but the trouble is with L4D that it hides many of the mechanics from you, perhaps on purpose to enhance the interactive movie, experience/amusement and even simulation elements of the software. But the trouble is that it could take you forever to figure out that fire damage and weapon damage do not combine – if you ever figured it out at all – as it is completely nonsensical, even though it works well as a mechanic. Yet this is essential knowledge to be able to beat the game on Expert, which I definitely feel is a flaw in the design of L4D. It doesn’t explain this or give you any real route to figure this out. There’s also many other things like this in L4D; like the fact a close range shotgun can ‘headshot’ Witches but other weapons cannot, ‘tricks’ like constant melee and knowing exactly how all the damage systems & zombie spawns work – that are all also vital or at least very useful for playing it, especially on Expert. But discovering or improving my knowledge of these things through using other guides felt more like gaining a map to follow rather than having to just guess a route – there was still a huge accomplishment in being able to make the journey and apply all those skills to be able to beat the challenge on Expert. Another good example of this tricky line to defining the use of external guides is when during playing Braid where I desperately wanted to know whether it was my solution that was incorrect or it was just that my dexterity skills that were lacking – because I could potentially be spending hours trying to get the execution right on something that was actually impossible. Although amusingly my experience with Braid probably was more biased in the other direction as I am sure there were a number of puzzles that I actually failed to solve through the ‘correct’ solution, but instead muscled a “dexterity skill” route to success! As I discussed before, I also found the amount of hidden mechanics to be a bit of a flaw in that game too.
I doubt entertainment software will ever get to the point where external guides are not needed at all though, even for their play as challenges, and certainly not as games. There’s just too many mechanics and too much depth in videogames already to be able to explain everything that’s going on in detail – the dedicated player will have to look elsewhere, especially when it comes to high level competition that often the game’s developers themselves do not understand. But it’s well worth examining why you’re using a guide (or even, why you won’t) and your feelings about doing so. It may very well reveal what type of player you are, and what you are really getting out of playing that particular title.
(Many thanks to my friend Empyreus for inspiring this article and allowing me to use our discussion as the basis for it)