Old Man Musings – I Miss Strategy Guides

I know that a lot of people are of the mindset that games should be completed without any help – that the experience is intended to be between the self and the game. Personally, I’ve never really bought into that, and I actually miss strategy guides as they once were (yes, I realize that some strategy guides are still coming out, but with the nature of the internet being what it is, things have certainly changed). In a recent post I talked about coming back to gaming after a long hiatus. In line with that, I’m going to walk down memory lane and just kind of ramble about the good old days.

Before we talk about strategy guides, we have to talk about the Tower of Druaga. This was a game designed with difficulty to spare, and the game would foster a culture of players sharing information. To complete the game there were some pretty obscure requirements, so talking to other players would have been the only option. This was a time before the internet, a time before easily available strategy guides. The very nature of these games with incredibly obscure puzzles (which was by no means exclusive to this game, it’s just my favourite example of it) demanded some sort of way to learn these puzzles beyond blind luck. And what’s really crazy is that this was a time before 80+ hour RPGs with dozens of skills, options, and locations.

I spent a couple of minutes trying to look up some information on the origin of strategy guides, but very quickly got lazy when my searches were heavily muddled by web sites desperate to sell me strategy guides and Wikipedia wanting to tell me about them in general, but not give me any information on their origin as a type of media. I’m sure there’s some great info out there, and I’d love to find it and read it, but this is a look back at my own past, not a research article, so that’s for another time.

Anyways, before I so rudely interrupted myself, I was preparing to talk about my younger gaming life and strategy guides. When the internet was still young, and games information was a mixture of unreliable, incomplete, and potentially difficult to find (I’m talking about a pre-Google world here), there were paper strategy guides. They were far and away the best way to 1) beat the game if you were having a hard time, 2) get the most out of the game regardless of how much you’ve already played it, and 3) see concept art/official art for the game. For me, strategy guides transformed the way I played games, and with RPGs (which quickly became my favourite genre once I started to venture in deep), strategy guides were an opportunity to enjoy literally everything that the game could offer.

Two strategy guides are particularly important for me: Legend of Mana, and Myst. These two guides had minor to moderate effects on my playing of the games, but massive effects on how I felt about the games.

The Legend of Mana guide introduced me to one very important concept: game art. I was familiar with the idea that games had concept art, sketches, official art, etc. outside of the art available within the game itself. The first game where the art style completely sucked me in was Legend of Mana. LoM’s sprites are very story book (which is what I love about them), and are so lovingly crafted and perfect for the world. I was completely enamored. I would say that I got the guide to help me get through the game (the map that interconnects the plots was pretty much essential for me to puzzle it out and make my way to the ending), but that wouldn’t be entirely true. I bought the guide because the giant art on the cover was my best chance to have highly detailed copies of the art that went into that game.

For a kid unable to get art books, strategy guides weren’t just the next best thing: they were the art books. They didn’t just help me get through the game, they enhanced the experience. LoM’s strategy guide gave me a glimpse at that beautiful official art, and more than any other thing I’m thankful for that. I love that game on its own, but I love it all the more for what there is of it off the screen.

The Myst strategy guide was a totally different experience. My little brother and I tackled that game as two lone explorers. We found ourselves on an island with nothing but strange machines and no explanation (we got it as a pack in with our first ever computer, a Gateway, and didn’t even have a manual for it). My brother lost interest fairly quickly, he wanted a clear goal instead of wandering and puzzling, and I was alone on the island. I spent countless hours with that game (I don’t know that I was quite old enough to really grasp it, but I struggled through it all the same), carefully drawing maps, taking notes, and figuring out every last detail that I could. For all my efforts, my progress was brutally slow, and my parents got me the guide as a surprise to help me through it.

What a surprise that was. My parents thought I was getting a strategy guide, but it was so much more for me. It was a work of brilliant fiction that happened to also be a strategy guide, but to my young mind it was a very real artifact from the island of Myst. The guide is set up as a journal/guide assembled by a photographer who had also fallen through the void and onto Myst island. This made the experience real for me. Someone else had been there. I had a record of their journey. I was able to use my information and the notes they took to find my way through all of the puzzles. It was incredible, and immersive in a way that I’m not sure any other gaming experience has been for me since (I came close when I played through Myst 1-4 with a notebook, which was also great).

The Myst guide taught me that guides could me more than just that – they could be true pieces of media in their own right. It was a transcendent experience, and certainly one that cemented my love for games.

Things have changed since then, though. Wikis and online strat guides have become the norm. The informal nature of walkthroughs on Gamefaqs is nice, but they are generally quite spartan visually. Wikis are fine, but a lot of times have a visual design that makes me miss old geocities fan pages. Professional guides on gaming sites are close to strategy guides, but tend to lack the supplemental art and are bloated by ads and links to other content on the site. Strategy guides are a dying art form, and with the rise of art books and the unwillingness to make immersive pieces of media, they aren’t what they used to be (there are certainly exceptions – the Pokemon guides are excellent – but they are rare exceptions from what I’ve seen).

We live in a changing world, and that’s okay, but I’m still going to look back with nothing but fondness for the strategy guides and playing experiences of my youth.

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