The Paper Trail: Strategy Guides (Part 2 of 2)

Posted: March 26, 2011 in PC, Retro
Tags: , , ,

Times have changed in regard to the strategy guide. It has been known by many names over the years: the hint book, the “Official Game Secrets” or, as one of my elementary school friends called them, “code books”. This seemed an unlikely moniker, as the books rarely contained cheat codes, although as time has gone on, some strategy guides have started to refrain from including any real strategies…perhaps it’s as appropriate a name as any.

Back in the day, I loved strategy guides. In the days before everyone had high-speed internet (consider that I didn’t have a home internet connection until late 1997, and even then this was dial-up with a prescribed amount of hours per month), they could even be a necessity. There always stood a fine line between getting stuck forever and “cheating” by buying a guide with a walkthrough. When I was a kid, a new game cost $50 and I could usually only afford one every few months, so I liked to make it count. Throwing an extra $13 out to quell the frustration of hearing “I can’t use these things together” a thousand times wasn’t a bad deal at all.

Now, it wasn’t entirely dishonorable to pick up a guide. In the case of some adventure games (especially when a fickle text parser was involved, INFOCOM!), it was either pick up the hint book or spend months trying everything imaginable. In some cases, hint books were packed in with the game. In the case of some games (Sierra’s King’s Quest IV being a prime example), this was merciful. Downright charitable. There’s a reason the Myst strategy guide says “over 1 million in print.”

Necessary.

Strategy guides, as they grew out of hint books and into their own in the mid-’90s, sometimes had a lot of extra content in them that you might not find in one today- interviews with developers, production artwork, and in the case of the Duke Nukem 3D: Plutonium Pak guide, a segment on using the game’s included level editor.

In my own opinion, the best strategy guides were the ones for open-ended, freeform strategy and simulation games like Civilization II, SimCity 2000, or X-COM (I needed that Terror From the Deep guide). The thing I like about these guides is that, due to the way their games played, they weren’t restricted to providing rote instructions on how to successfully finish missions or find items.

In recent years, strategy guides have, for this writer at least, become increasingly irrelevant. There’s been a trend of games being more linear, more hand-holding, or having game mechanics that eliminate the need for guides. I believe the last guide I purchased was for Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem or Metroid Prime (both of them Nintendo’s typically high quality ‘Player’s Guides’, if I’m not mistaken). It seems that even the most ‘complex’ and ‘realistic’ games make printed guides unnecessary. The Call of Duty series has very straightforward maps as opposed to the labyrinthine corridors of DOOM. In Fallout 3, for all of its non-linear, go-everywhere glory, there is a compass marker to lead you to your objectives. The only time I needed a guide was to collect all the Vault-Tec bobble heads, for which I used GameFAQs.

Which brings me to the next point: even in games where you are having a hard time, does it really make sense to shell out fifteen to twenty dollars for the solution to a problem you’re going to look at once?

And in that case, I think using a guide on a game like one of the Fallout games, using someone else’s guide, defeats the purpose of playing the game, of building your own character and having your own unique experience with the game. If you’re following someone else’s advice in a game that’s so open-ended, where the game experience changes radically based on how you choose to develop your character. A few tips aren’t a bad idea, but I would argue that playing Fallout the way someone else tells you is just going through the motions. You may as well watch that person play.

But, I digress.

Alan Emrich, co-author of exhaustive strategy guides for the first two Civilization games (among others), puts forth criticism on the strategy guide publishing industry on his Decline of Guides web page:

To obtain more sales, strategy guide publishers (primarily Prima, but Brady and Sybex, for their official strategy guides, are, I suspect, just as guilty) want to release each official strategy guide as close to the game’s release date as possible. Citing facts and figures, they know that timing, not quality, is the primary engine for sales of their strategy guides.

This is not a theory! I have personally been told this by several representatives at Prima. They’re very open about this policy. Sure, all of the publishers would like to have the best quality book. However, speed has been proven (to them) to be far more important for getting the bucks (and, thus, justifying the extra money they’re paying to the game publishers for the official title) out of your pockets. Basically, if you’re playing the game now, you want the strategy guide for it now. It’s almost as if the book publishers perceive their books as impulse items to people just learning a computer game.

I agree with Emrich on this point. Go into GameStop on the day a  major game releases (for the sake of this article, let’s say you went in to buy Dragon Age II). You walk in to pick up your preorder, and there’s a shelf of glossy Dragon Age II guides just in front of the counter. I spent some time working in retail, and we always kept our impulse buy items – candy, chewing gum, gossip magazines – up close to the counter, so customers could just toss it onto the counter on a whim.

He also brings up that strategy guides often include a ‘basics’ section, essentially the manual that should have been included with the game. This brings me to a quote from one of PC Gamer’s articles on a supposed board meeting on their mascot’s fictitious game, Gravy Trader. “Manual? Make them buy a strategy guide!”

In addition, the push for strategy guides that are out when the game comes out can be hair-pulling when the developers decide to change a puzzle around at the last minute or cut content altogether. The Elder Scrolls Adventures: Redguard and Silent Hill guides both suffered from massively overhauled puzzles due to beta versions of the game being used to write the guide. Yet amazingly, this isn’t the worst instance of a strategy guide being hurt by publisher lead times.

The worst by far was the Final Fantasy IX guide. Not content to simply charge you money for a printed guide, in places the book split information between print and going online to get information. This was to push registrations to Square’s PlayOnline service. This was met with plenty of backlash.

It was around this time that I started turning to GameFAQs when I needed a guide at all. Games were, if not necessarily getting easier, becoming clearer in objectives, providing things like quest arrows and detailed automaps and being generous with checkpoints. Let’s just say that many games of the 2000s, from God of War to BioShock and beyond, don’t require a whole lot of investigation or careful thinking. Games are increasingly likely to hold your hand. Since I bought my PS3, I think the only time I had to consult a guide was, again, for all the bobble-heads found in Fallout 3.

While I’d love to see some games get the massive, detailed guides that they deserve and are more than just walkthroughs, I feel the time of the strategy guide has passed, and more often than not they are, in fact, outdated by both the internet and game mechanics.

Part 1 may be found Here.

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Comments
  1. Excellent article, Chad, and thought-provoking to boot! Fun fact: I used to collect strategy guides much like I collect videogames. In truth, though, I cannot remember the last time I actually bought a guide. GameFAQs all the way, baby!

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