I’ve noticed a distinct lack of something while playing through Decay and a lot of the other indie titles that have consumed my time lately. I went through many of my regular channels to look up walkthroughs for help in certain areas of the games I’ve been playing lately and came up with nothing. Sure, I could watch someone else play them on YouTube so I wasn’t completely out of luck, but it was weird to have difficulty finding an answer about a video game question in 2012. A little exciting, too.
I’ve never attempted to hide the fact that I’m a walkthrough addict. I’m a man that has two or three GameFAQ pages up at time while playing a game, usually with a 360achievements window along with it. Call it cheating if you like, but I really don’t like missing out on things when I play through a game. I’ve flat out quit RPGs after playing for ten to twenty hours because I discovered that I permanently missed an item that I can’t find anywhere else in the game. Even though I’d probably never use that item, the fact that I couldn’t ever find and do everything in that game made me too angry to continue. It sounds obsessive-compulsive, and most likely is, but I like to wring every bit of fun and exploration out of my games as I can.
It was weird to be out of my element for the past few months. It all started with Lone Survivor, right around when I heard that there were multiple endings. I didn’t even think about trying to see which ending I got by just playing the game organically. That idea wasn’t even on the table. I just set about my usual business and tried to find every bit of information that I could so that I didn’t miss anything on that crucial first playthrough. My searches brought me back empty-handed, though. No one had any answers for me. While I’m sure they were out there on the internet somewhere, they were just far enough beyond my researching abilities to force me to actually play the game on my own.
I was a little annoyed at first. As I walked through disconnected hallways and blundered around, I kept wishing that I knew where I was supposed to go and what I was supposed to collect. I couldn’t help but think that I was walking past important objects without even realizing it, or that I was making a crucial mistake on my path to earning the best ending. I was fraught with worry over how I was playing the game, as if I was doing it wrong somehow.
I never got that perfect ending I wanted. I was too much of a killer and treated too many people like garbage. I didn’t even take good care of the main character, starving him and depriving him of sleep simply because the game didn’t have any visible consequences for either of those things. Now, if I’d had a walkthrough I probably would have avoided all of those ‘mistakes’, but I would have missed out on seeing the kind of person I really am when playing a game. Instead of seeking a specific narrative and making the game give it to me, I actually wrote my own. For the first time in twenty years, I had charted my own path through a game.
Walkthroughs and tips are nothing new. My Nintendo Power article is testament enough to how much I love the people who help me get the most out of my games, but also how long they’ve been a part of my life. It has been a very long time since I had to play an RPG without any maps or hints from a magazine or internet article. There are lots of people playing games today who have never known a time when you couldn’t find the answers you needed about any game in some way, shape, or form. Even as far back as Metroid there have been maps and hints on where things are and how you should go after them. The temptation to give in and find out everything about what you’re playing has always been great, and the ability to do so has been around for so long that I doubt a lot of people even think about it anymore.
Cheat books. I’ve heard them called that, but I’ve never really bought into that line of thinking. A walkthrough can show you how to do something, but it can’t do it for you. Sure, it’ll save you from having to spin cameras around a 3D environment so you can find the hundredth can of coffee or three hundredth special coin, but they won’t go out and get them for you. I never felt like it was cheating to use them because of that fact. I still fought the boss, even if the tactics weren’t my own. I still found my way through the invisible labyrinth even if I didn’t make the map for it.
Just the same, knowing everything in advance takes a little something away from the game, doesn’t it? If you were meant to know everything before you walked into a boss fight, the game would give you that information. If you were supposed to know where every upgrade and path was in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, they’d have just made the entire game into one straight line. If games weren’t meant to challenge your mind as well as your reflexes then they would have never evolved in gameplay or narrative; beyond the first forays where you shot at ships in space. You shot at those ships because you blew up when they touched you, and that was it.
Mystery is what games are built on, though. Even in my example about the space ships there comes a point when one of the ships will do something out of the ordinary. Maybe it will split in two, or maybe it will pick up speed or shoot back, but not knowing what’s happening keeps the game interesting. If all of the enemies behaved in knowable ways, then the game would never get any more challenging or interesting. That first moment of surprise when something changes in a game can really rope you back into something that might have been getting stale. It’s those moments where you don’t know what to do that make games shine and separates them from any other form of entertainment. No matter how simple the game is, it’s impossible to take them in passively once that controller is in your hands.
While walkthroughs give you the tools to see every little bit about the game, they sabotage that mystery by handing you every secret at once. It’s cool to be able to witness them personally, but how often do you get that overwhelming sense of satisfaction from finding some insane secret. Getting the hadouken in Mega Man X was awesome, but can you imagine how it must have felt for the kids who stumbled across that on their own? I would have been on the phone calling my friends about it that instant. How many people get feelings like that from discovering something in a game anymore? How many times have you made a ridiculously cool discovery about a game on your own these days?
Knowing everything in advance or just being able to look it up online removes a core piece of the game. I really had this point driven home while playing Decay, as I was forced to go into everything blind. A lot of the narrative involves the character being unclear about the environment or why he’s in it, and I got to experience that myself while playing it. I was lost in a creepy world and didn’t have any real clue on what I was supposed to be doing in it. If I’d found a walkthrough for myself, it would have just become a series of mechanical actions that lead to the end of the plot and nothing else. If any genre dies by having a walkthrough, it’s the point and click adventure.
As it stands, I got to experience the story in my own way; making really cool discoveries about the puzzles as I went along. I was really amazed at some of the bizarre solutions in the game, but even more so by the fact that I’d rattled my brain hard enough for these answers to come loose. I felt a sense of accomplishment from figuring out what the game wanted me to do, and got a sense of satisfaction from the game that I just don’t get all that often. It was something more than just overcoming a boss or completing an area. It was a sense that I had seen the challenges in front of me and charted my own path through them. I didn’t owe what I’d found to anyone. The ending I got was the ending I deserved, which was especially pertinent since I’d forgotten to load the gun before the ending.
The game did everything but directly call me an idiot, but I laughed. I laughed because I had earned the moron ending of the game on my own. It wasn’t some joke I chased down later, but rather my own cluelessness merging with the gameplay to form my own particular ending. I discovered that cutscene all on my own. My game had grown through my own choices, uninformed and raw as they were, and it was actually pretty cool.
I know the websites and playthroughs are tempting, but give them a rest every once in a while. Doing so just might let you get a taste of what the developers wanted you to feel from their games. Go in blind and get the full experience from the games you bought. Play them as they were designed to be played. Embrace the mystery of a new game as well as the challenges of its gameplay, and you just might come out more satisfied with yourself at the end. You might even learn that you’re smarter than you give yourself credit for.
Or in my case, dumber.
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