I slam the book shut as a fresh string of expletives issues from my mouth. From behind her magazine, my wife sighs. I know exactly what she's about to do. She's going to invoke the famous line Grandma Carmella deploys every time the family suffers through another heartbreaking Buffalo Bills loss, after the three-plus hours of alternating cheering and cursing that inevitably culminates in a dejected march to the kitchen for a consolation beer. "Well," she intones, not looking up, "was it worth it?"
She's joking about my latest failed run in Dark Souls, that dominatrix of a game that keeps whipping your rear end into submission until you're begging for more. But she could just as easily be referring to the strategy guide I've just tossed to the carpet. For the first "official game guide" I've bought since I was a kid, it's a nice one. It's a hefty 385 pages, hardbound, with page after page of full-color screenshots. Reams of statistics paint enemies, weapons, items, and spells in minute detail, while the walkthrough sections provide level maps and combat tips. I wish the index were a little more comprehensive — man, is there ever a ton of crap in this game! — but it's well written, with an appropriately sympathetic tone. "Chances are we died more times in this game than in all the other games of 2011 put together," the introduction says. "We died so that you don't have to. But you're still going to die."
Yes, I am. And I knew that before I bought the book. In fact, that's one reason I didn't feel silly for buying it, given, you know, the Internet. I knew that mastering Dark Souls was going to be about more than simply following directions. Its world is almost impenetrably complex, its systems highly dependent on strategy and execution. Sure, you might know a skeleton knight is around the next corner, but you still have to defeat him. Knowledge alone doesn't necessarily equal power.
But I also bought the Dark Souls guide because I wanted a physical artifact to accompany the game, a tangible object to help me connect with its arcane world. This wasn't just nostalgia for the "feelies" of old, the cloth maps and decoder books that were packaged with game disks. I was curious, not having used a physical strategy guide in decades, how my play experience would feel. What I've discovered, so far, is that what I suspected all along is true: I get just as much enjoyment out of poring over the guide as I do out of the game itself.
This isn't a new phenomenon. In the early 90s, I sent away for the Clue Book for The Dark Queen of Krynn, one of the old AD&D games by SSI. Though what I received in the mail was essentially a photocopied booklet, it was a revelation. Like the other AD&D Gold Box games, Dark Queen of Krynn was an exercise in micromanagement that puts modern RPGs to shame. Drawing your own maps, manually managing your inventory, and memorizing spell stats were necessary if you expected your party to live to see the next dungeon. For an eleven-year-old new to the world of Dungeons & Dragons and to computer RPGs, the Clue Book — which was essentially a detailed walkthrough — transformed the play experience from a barely-comprehensible slog into an exciting guided tour of a fantasy world theme park. I suddenly felt powerful. That's a huge thing for a middle-schooler, right at that age when he starts to perceive and understand the lack of power he has in his own life.
At night I would huddle in bed with a flashlight and the Clue Book, preparing myself for the next day's adventures, cross-referencing with the spell lists in the Adventurer's Journal to plan my combat tactics for each encounter. In important ways, the act of reading became the game: I was doing the hard work of synthesizing information and planning strategies away from the computer, without even putting disk into drive. Once I fired up the game, it was about executing what I'd planned.
It's easy to see now why that process isn't always, well, fun. In some sense it's tantamount to data entry, or maybe to cooking from a recipe: how fun can it be to follow instructions? The Dark Queen of Krynn allowed for at least a little creativity and variation in how you approached obstacles, but in other games, using a guide can feel like missing the point. Doesn't advance knowledge ruin the thrill of discovery? Doesn't it dull the triumph of overcoming obstacles with skill and smarts?
The answer, of course, depends on the person, and on the game. For me, it's often about my (lack of) time. Although I want to experience as much content as I can, I don't have hundreds of hours to spend chasing down every objective. So while I appreciate the 17,659 side-quests stuffed into open-world games like Skyrim, a little insight into what I can expect with each helps me determine how I want to allocate the time I do have with the game. For more narrative-heavy, linear games like Bastion or BioShock, I'm hesitant to consult a guide; I'm wary of turning the experience into an exercise into following directions. Instead of a guided tour of the game world, it feels more like fast-forwarding through a highlight video. Working through frustration and confusion is an important part of play, and I don't want to deprive myself of that.
But just as valuable to me as my time in game, when it's a game world I'm interested in, are opportunities to engage with it outside of the game itself. Sometimes that means browsing background lore on a wiki. Sometimes that means borrowing a spin-off book from the library. But when engaging with supplemental material feels like play in and of itself, that's when I'm happiest. I'm playing the game even when I'm not playing the game.
That's why I'm glad reading the Dark Souls guide resembles my childhood experience with the Clue Book: as I read, I'm learning enemy locations, mapping out combat maneuvers, and designing contingency plans for when it all inevitably goes wrong. It feels like play. (And the outcome is always better in my head than it turns out to be on screen.) But I'm also using this guide, as I've used others, to get inside the game designers' heads, an exercise I find fun. For example: why do they choose to allow you to go up or down at Firelink Shrine, when up is clearly the only viable path? What message are they trying to send about how this world operates, in terms of both narrative and mechanics? Seeing the game world plotted out on paper, in photos, charts, and text, inspires questions and interpretations that might not have otherwise occurred to me. In turn, I'm able to conceptualize the world and appreciate it more fully because I can see it represented in different ways. (Fun fact: some educational theory is built on similar principles.) The fact that the Dark Souls guide is a tangible object — not a hastily-Googled, poorly written, ASCII-formatted walkthrough — is important. It cost money. It's a physical reminder of my investment in the game. And, well, it's pretty too.
I don't blame the Dark Souls guide for my repeated failures in the game. It did warn me, after all. As with any game guide, the onus is still on the player to perform. Dark Souls is probably a better example than other games on this front. That's why, after my wife has fallen asleep, I'll retrieve the guide from the floor, slip back into bed, and flip on the booklight. Is it the game worth it? I don't know yet. But the strategy guide was.