Why we still need guides in video games

Why do games still need guides?

We live in a time when games are becoming harder to learn. Developers rely on end-users having at least some familiarity with the tropes of modern games. But every game released is also someone’s first game, and something as simple and taken for granted as twin-stick controls— “left stick=motion, right stick=camera”— can be bewildering to the user who has never played a game before. And if a user cannot get over the relatively straightforward hurdle of two analogue sticks working independently, they are unlikely to stick around for a hundred-hour open-world action-adventure.

So tutorials are necessary, but they are also unpopular: for those who are familiar with games, they are a speed-bump to the action, a hoop-jumping exercise that gates off the rest of the experience, a sign reading “You Must Be This Leet to Proceed.” Thus, among games marketed towards the more “hardcore” end of the market, there has been a been a backlash against excessive tutorialising. The popularity of Dark Souls— along with its imitators and successors— has shown there is a market for games that don’t hold the player’s hand. Indeed, some games have begun to go out of their way to obfuscate the critical path and even invite actual dishonesty: think of Dark Souls and it’s in-game community feedback that ranges from the helpful to the trollish with all the unpredictability of the modern internet. In the vernacular of the day, games are moving (Linked Comment)into a “post-truth” world: Simon’s Quest, with its duplicitous NPCs, begins to seem eerily prophetic. There is perhaps no clearer bellwether for this trend than Nintendo, whose reputation for providing a helping hand reached a peak with Donkey Kong Country Returns, which offered struggling players the option to have stages literally play themselves. Even Nintendo has changed with the times, as shown in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Whereas previous Zelda games suffered ridicule for a series of expository mascots designed to dictate Link’s every move, Breath of the Wild throws the player right into the deep end of a broken world with minimal instruction and expects the player to swim or sink on their own

In this environment, guides have paradoxically become more important. As the trend towards understated and unforgiving experiences grows, it becomes a barrier to entry to many consumers, which is a shame given how much artistic prowess, world-building and atmosphere is crammed into games like Breath of the Wild and Bloodborne. But doubling down on tutorials or lowering the difficulty risks alienating the core audience for such titles. How do game makers square this circle: appealing to a large yet niche audience while still inviting in new players?

It is neither realistic nor fair to expect every player to “git gud”— that is, to put in the time and the sweat to the skills they need to engage on a game’s terms. The time constraints placed upon the modern audience for games are extensive— from jobs to study to family and social obligations. Not everyone has the time or the ability to dedicate to mastering every game they may want to play. Guides serve to ameliorate a lot of the frustration of gaming’s learning curve, acting as both safety net and roadmap for anyone who would otherwise be put off by a title’s reputation for putting up a challenge.

Guides have a  great advantage that they have over tutorials and difficulty sliders since they are opt-in: the agency lies with the player, not the developer, as it is the user’s choice to consult a guide. Likewise, those looking for a challenge can simply choose not to look at a walkthrough, or only seek one out for a particular section or problem when their experience turns to frustration. Guides let the player set the terms for their experience, without suffering undue frustration, learning things they already know, or suffering the humiliation of losing an achievement when they adjust the difficulty.

Guides, then, are here to stay. But why is it that traditional outlets still feel the need to publish them? One might well wonder what the point of posting a guide is when the answer to any question is as simple as typing “Sonic 3 Carnival Night Zone help” into Google to find a dozen answers from the community.

At a time when the truth has become a valued commodity on the internet, the quality of guides is more important than it has ever been. Outlets have to compete not only with the glossy artbook/guide hybrids released by Prima but also with dozens of user-submitted FAQs that are available online for free. It is critical to strike the right balance when producing guides that are informative and accurate (especially when any mistake risks going viral) while also recognising that guides are content, that they must be engaging, entertaining and drive clicks on the outlet’s website. The guide writer must be subject both to the peer review expected of an academic and to the approval of an audience looking for entertainment. It is not easy work, but it is important, and it will remain vital for as long as video games have to compete for time with the uncertainties of modern life.

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