Guide Lines

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.

Comments

I've heard the guide is really good, and Dark Souls is definitely a game where having that information in some tangible format seems like a really good idea. The one question that's been burning since the game launched for me is "What does the Pendant do?" Wish the guide had an answer

While I have spent nearly 300 hours playing Dark Souls, I've probably spent nearly 500 hours reading the guide and the online Wiki.

I never even considered picking up the guide for Dark Souls, I usually turn my nose up at such things, but for something like Dark Souls, it could be just the ticket. I've stopped playing for the moment because it's just so punishing and I've got a lot of other things to play. A guide might help me get back into it.

For a game like DS, the guide is more like using a map to drive with. Maps don't help you drive better, but they do prevent you from getting lost (or as lost). The guide for DS won't make you better at the game, because it relies to intensely on your own personal skill, but I think it makes the game more enjoyable because it provides a literal and metaphorical map.

Caveat emptor: the stats in the guide will be out of date due to patches. I'm sure a lot of the general tips would be useful though.

>Is it the game worth it?

Here's what I ask people:

1. Do you consider yourself a hardcore game player?
2. Do you have a lot of patience?

If you answered yes to both of those questions, then the game is simply put, a must buy. It was my personal pick for best game of 2011. The melee combat in the game is the best in any game I have ever played and the world is very memorable.

Yes, it is a hard game, but it is doable without having the twitch skills of a teenager. I have the reflexes of a week-dead fish and I just finished my second playthrough. First playthrough was a heavy magic character and the second was an archer/katana character.

If you do not have a lot of patience, replaying sections of the game because you died late in a section (and that will happen for sure) will not be fun and you will give up.

I have on my bookshelf very few guides, but the ones I have are: Oblivion Official Game Guide, and The Morrowind Prophocies Game of the Year Addition (actually replaced my original version because I destroyed it using it so much). Just Tuesday I received my Dark Souls guide. I consider my collection incomplete only because I do not yet have the Fallout 3 guide. Nor do I have the time to utilize it. Alas.

Why these games? Because, save Dark Souls, there is so much in them. The guide books are, to me, like a Fodor's Guide to Tamriel. They are the only way to make effective use of my time in the game. Do I want to have a light, frothy trip of killing the best monsters and getting the best loot? Well, then scan through one of the annotated maps and find the best quests nearby your current location. Do I have a few hours or, gods forbid, a whole day to myself? Then I'd like to make as big a splash in the political scene as I can! Fast travel in Oblivion eliminated the need for a lot of my page flipping, so I never got around to wearing out that original book.

Dark Souls is different, though. There are weapon features I would have never realized, sets of armor I would not have known about, and areas of that I would have beat my head against unless I knew the correct path and how to defend myself in its midst. There is some pleasure to be had, an exquisite pleasure at that, in Dark Souls challenge. I really need this guide though, or I might not see the end. Perhaps there's someone that needs the same help to finish Assassin's Creed or Drake's Fortune? I guess I'm glad guides exist for them as well. But in limiting my collection, I limit myself to the help I really only need and want. And I use them sparingly! Or I ruin the game for myself.

Also, for the record, I'm in the camp that kind of pisses in the "learning styles" pool. Teach in multiple ways because information is recorded through multiple paths in every brain, not because "people are different". That's just the former high school teacher in me talking out is all.

I have discovered that when I get a game, I need to decide if it is one where I will use a guide or not. Once I decide not to use a guide, then I don't use one because if I do, then I feel like I've seen the ending to the movie, and my play interest goes way down.

When I got Dark Souls, I decided I would consult the wikis for strategy hints, but I tried to avoid walkthroughs until after I got through an area. I'd get that sense of exploration, then go back and get what I missed. I looked up boss strategies, usually after one try on my own. I also used it to plot weapon and armor upgrades. I basically used the Dark Suls wiki like I used Wowhead. To me, they were both "researchable" games, and I wouldn't have gotten very far without the support.

Knowing the game... would I need a special guide to beat the official guide?

"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."

I know what you mean. I've never bought a guide to a game, but I've always loved looking through whatever supplemental materials there may be. Every so often I'll have a dream about playing a game (usually more like, living IN a game) or a dream in more-or-less the real world but with a videogame character in it.

A couple of times, I've even had dreams or dream fragments BEFORE playing a videogame, a sure sign (as if I didn't know already!) that I'm really looking forward to it, and have seen enough screenshots and preview movies to get the look right.

Dear J.P.,

I just want to say thank you for making me not feel so bad about looking up a video guide for Catherine last night.

Sincerely,

nel

This brings back memories of grade school. If there was a Squaresoft or Nintendo NES/SNES game in my collection, there was a near 100% chance I owned a guide for it. Or could quickly find the issue of Nintendo Power that ripped the game open like a thanksgiving turkey. I still have my entire set between my apartment and my parent's, and a lot of them have plenty of battle scars to show their many hours of duty.

I weened myself off guides starting around the start of the PS2 era, I think partially due to BradyGames phoning it in on Legend of Mana* and FFIX. But, I wholeheartedly agree that there's no comparison between a good strategy guide with full color maps, tables and images and an ASCII based FAQ. There's just something about having the tactile feel of paper and a nice presentation that still makes guides tempting even though I find myself not wanting to spoil the experience as much these days, despite having less time for gaming.

I think the only web based guide that's come close to the feel of a printed book was the Diablo II Arreat Summit which did a really good job of presenting nearly all the data in that game in a nice structure.

* The one advantage FAQs do have is that they have no time constraints which means they get to explore games to their limits. There's some pretty epic tomes dedicated to the Legend of Mana crafting systems which the official guide completely glossed over.

I bought this after reading this article. I usually buy guides for the art and to have a physical thing to look at from the game. After reading this I was convinced to look at this book and it's really pretty.

Thanks for the nice comments, all.

D_Davis wrote:
The guide for DS won't make you better at the game, because it relies to intensely on your own personal skill, but I think it makes the game more enjoyable because it provides a literal and metaphorical map.

Absolutely agreed. The idea of a "metaphorical map" — in other words, a more complete conceptual picture of the game's world and logic — was what drew me to the guide in the first place. Execution in game is a different story. I feel like I need a friend to come over and coach me as I play.

DSGamer wrote:
I bought this after reading this article. I usually buy guides for the art and to have a physical thing to look at from the game. After reading this I was convinced to look at this book and it's really pretty.

Man, I should've asked Future Press for a commission!

nel e nel wrote:
Dear J.P.,

I just want to say thank you for making me not feel so bad about looking up a video guide for Catherine last night.

Sincerely,

nel

nel, you can always rely on me to make you feel better about your gaming abilities.

You know, I don't remember seeing much more than casual mentions of strategy guides for games before. The writers of that guide should feel very proud indeed that they did a good enough job to inspire an article about what's normally a fairly forgettable product.

You should send them a link to your article. I bet it'll make their collective day.

You're bringing back some great memories of those gold box games and just how much of the game was outside the computer back in those days. Even today I sometimes find myself spending as much if not more time reading up strategy as playing (though this could be because I'm in the office where I can't play!).

Two weeks ago my read-on-the-podcast email went horribly off the rails. My original intention was just to observe that certain games like Dark Souls demand player investment in a way that's radically different from the follow-the-gold-trail make-things-easy-for-the-player approach. My question, if there was one, is whether the deep investment paid off much bigger dividends (in fun, in a sense of accomplishment, in whatever we play games for) than the instant-gratification route.

In that email I'd referenced Amy Chua's core thesis in "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom": that teaching children resiliency is far more important than merely building self-esteem. I think the parallels drawn in this piece to education are totally on-point:

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.)

But, does a game have to be frustratingly hard to induce this kind of learning?

Actually, the connection I was trying to make wasn't about difficulty, although I see where you're going with that. Dark Souls absolutely demands player investment, and most folks I've talked to also feel it's more rewarding because it's so challenging.

My link to educational theory was more about the idea of multiple intelligences/learning styles. Put very simply, the theory is that students have different types of "intelligences," or facilities, that engage them in learning in different ways. Some kids are visual learners, for example, and gain a lot more from working with video or images than they might if dealing only with text.

The DS guide allowing me to interact with the game world in a different format, i.e., by reading instead of playing, reminded me of that idea. (N.B., I'm not endorsing any particular view of this theory, but as a former teacher myself, I thought it was an interesting connection.)

kincher skolfax wrote:
Some kids are visual learners, for example, and gain a lot more from working with video or images than they might if dealing only with text.

The DS guide allowing me to interact with the game world in a different format, i.e., by reading instead of playing, reminded me of that idea.


Certainly... and that's why my organization publishes educational games.

Mind you, I haven't played Dark Souls, but it sounds to me like the value of the strategy guide as a book lies in the fact that the underlying mechanic/difficulty is fundamentally mathematical, and therefore capable of being understood and calculated in an abstract way. By contrast, a lot of today's games require kinetic mastery, the kind that's best captured on YouTube. I will admit that there's no way I could have gotten through parts of Portal, Braid, or Angry Birds without the occasional (or not, as the case may be!) video walkthrough. I did just hack through Fire Emblem, a TBS, for which written FAQs are much more useful than video.

I find it fascinating that the quality of strategy guides varies so widely between titles. Admittedly I haven't bought/read one in a while, but I wonder if there are still big-name strategy guide publishers, and whether they still maintain quality control. After all, good guides are about enhancing the experience and not just providing checklists.

I do still harbor a lingering resentment of strategy guides for killing off game manuals. I'm sure that wasn't the only factor, and manual production costs and added bulk/weight were almost certainly reasons. Still, it's insulting when the game comes with no discernable manual, and then the strategy guide includes a hefty section describing the basics of how to play the game. Perhaps strategy guide writers are simply filling a gap, but again, I would prefer that such guides add to the experience instead of just compensating for the publisher's penny-pinching.

So in the modern era, when there's a strategy wiki for just about any game you can imagine, the role of a print guide is interesting. It's a chance to do things that an online website can't, and if the printed strategy guide doesn't do that then it's a missed opportunity (and probably a regretted purchase).

I had never bought a strategy guide until I picked up Oblivion guide used at the thrift store for $2. I enjoyed reading the quests I had done a few years earlier. Also, it inspired me to install Oblivion again, this time with a bunch of mods, and play through again. It was definitely worth $2. Not sure if it's worth $20, or whatever the new price is.

I loved reading the strategy guides when I was a kid. I'm a completionist so before (having access to) the internet, it was often hugely important.
I agree with the premise, reading the guide was a form of playing the game away from the game for me too. Reading online faqs just isn't as fun and I assume aren't always complete, often frustratingly so, of course I haven't bought a strategy guide in ages so who knows.
That Dark Souls guide looks pretty sweet. I find it amazing that it's only $25.

That "digital feelies" article: that guy needs to play more rpg's, codices are pretty standard.

RolandofGilead wrote:
I'm a completionist so before (having access to) the internet, it was often hugely important.

OK let me change the subject slightly. Has anyone found that the existence of walkthroughs or FAQs have ruined their game experience? I ask as a completionist who was trying really hard to enjoy a few classic adventure games (Gabriel Knight, Longest Journey) several years back, and because I "needed" to do everything "right," I kept spoiling the plot and therefore most of the reason I was playing the game. The possibility that I might "miss" content because of my choices kept dogging me.

Anyone?

Padmewan wrote:
OK let me change the subject slightly. Has anyone found that the existence of walkthroughs or FAQs have ruined their game experience?
Anyone?

You have to learn to read very carefully. Spoiling the plot has happened to me though, I'm now playing Luminous Arc 2 and I know many major plot points. I know slightly fewer plot points for Etrian Odyssey 3.

Another issue are length of playtime and multiple playthroughs. I don't replay 20+ hour games as a rule so I better get as much out of one shot as I can. Off-topic, but I find it really weird that all these really long games are the ones that offer incentives for multiple playthroughs and yet these games that last six or eight hours never seem to do so.

My favorite strategy guide is probably the Castlevania: SOTN guide. I mean, how else was I going to unlock the inverted castle? Sometimes that fear of missing out on stuff is very real (particularly for the last seven or eight 2d castlevanias) and since I don't want to replay a really long game, well, hurray for first world problems.

Padmewan wrote:
OK let me change the subject slightly. Has anyone found that the existence of walkthroughs or FAQs have ruined their game experience?

I downloaded a FAQ for Final Fantasy 12, diligently playing it as I read from the guide. At first, I enjoyed the feeling of getting everything I could in the game, but as the days went by, I started to lose interest. What was gone was the sense of discovery and surprise, which I found was very important to me.

So now I consult them sparingly. Sure, my play style and general lack of luck means I tend to miss out on the Big Loot in a game, but my experience with it remains mine. Which brings me more a sense of completion than following recorded instructions to get and experience everything the game has to offer.

The Skyrim guide is a lot of fun to read - it's a gorgeous book that goes into great detail about every quest and location. I use it to figure out quests that sound interesting - if not for the guide I probably would not have joined the Companions since I'm not a huge fan of fighters in fantasy games. I also use the guide to make sure I didn't miss important clues or items. One thing I never do is read ahead before I do a quest - I simply read the basic description in the guide, play out the scenario, then check the guide to make sure I didn't miss something.

The Dragon Age 2 guide is also great because it has a detailed lore section about the game world.

On the flip side, I recently thought about buying the SWTOR game guide and was disappointed at the lack of detail or fluff. I then read reviews saying it's already horribly outdated a month after game launch.

Only guide book I've bought in over a decade. GameFAQs is usually good enough, and the wikis for games have been even better lately. Main reason for the guide was getting the game on release day and the wiki not being up to date yet.

Also, this guide in particular had video codes to enter on the publisher's website, as well as QR codes for cell phones. Both are supposed to link to video sections of the map or boss fights, that correspond with the book as a guide. So basically a nice youtube-esque walkthrough included with the book. Sadly though, last I checked (3 weeks after release) the videos still hadn't been uploaded to the publisher site. By that time there were youtube videos, and wiki updates, so the guide not being complete on release date really made it less useful than it should have been.

The rubbish strategy guides of the past 10-plus years and the thoroughness of gamefaqs has kept me from picking any up. It's wonderful to see that even if other companies are content with being outdone by the net, that Future Press has put together a beautiful, stylish, and data-dense volume that should withstand years of admiration.

My favorite strategy guide was the 480-page guide for Master of Magic: http://www.amazon.com/Master-Magic-O.... That guide not only included every statistic for every possible entity in the game, but also thorough and well-written essays discussing the principles behind things like the economic model, how the maps were created, etc. I'm a little shocked now looking back and recalling how much I enjoyed just reading through it (at least twice).

RolandofGilead wrote:
Sometimes that fear of missing out on stuff is very real (particularly for the last seven or eight 2d castlevanias) and since I don't want to replay a really long game, well, hurray for first world problems.

Touche!
Keithustus wrote:
My favorite strategy guide was the 480-page guide for Master of Magic: http://www.amazon.com/Master-Magic-O.... That guide not only included every statistic for every possible entity in the game, but also thorough and well-written essays discussing the principles behind things like the economic model, how the maps were created, etc. I'm a little shocked now looking back and recalling how much I enjoyed just reading through it (at least twice).

Sounds like the fun of this was almost in the game design, sorta like the Portal developer's notes, except done by deconstruction. (Unless it was written by the developers themselves?)

The only game guide I have actually used was for Final Fantasy 3 and it was after the fact. I just wanted to make sure that I picked up everything and did everything in the game. Dark Souls is a game I have been waiting to buy this year. I would never have thought to use the game guide but after reading this post I think I will take the plunge. I always felt that they were cheating but then again with this game you will need every crutch you can get.

Padmewan, I don't think that the authors of the MoM strategy guide were part of the development team, but it was so many years ago, I could be wrong. (And I misplaced the book a long time ago so can't easily check the author-info page) I've never used the Portal guide, but I'm skeptical of your comparison, because it doesn't seem possible to me, given the type of game that portal is, that there could be 300 pages written about its systems, even if many pages were likewise not counted against that for maps--the data-equivalent of MoM's unit and item statistics tables. I don't doubt that the Portal guide was good, but the difference between the MoM guide and anything I've seen more recently is that it examines the various game mechanics from what could be considered an economist's perspective: how each system does or doesn't contribute to the overall game function, and how each system itself operates.

inthebird, strangely, I spent a bulk of my time reading your comment in attempting to determine which "Final Fantasy III" you mean. Most (ignorant) people say "FFIII" when referring to the SNES title, but now that Square has released the real FFIII on NDS, Virtual Console, and iOS, it's very possible that you could really mean FFIII, instead of FFVI. It's a shame that because of Square's earlier hesitation to release ports, and to renumber those that they did, that we now need to specify *which* FFII and FFIII we mean. ....and yes, I wholeheartedly recommend getting the Dark Souls book. It's a physically solid and aesthetically beautiful manuscript, in addition to being a great source for maps and other expected data.

Dark Souls is really a great game to play. i am planning to buy this guide influenced by the reviews here.
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