Patience, the Forgotten Virtue or, No Help Wanted

Is patience the best virtue over using a guide and giving up the challenge?

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The first adventure games I played, back in 1999, were Myst and Riven. I only threw Myst into the CD drive because it had come free with my new G3 PowerMac, and I'd heard a little bit about it being very popular. I thought, Okay, this is another one of those dumb kiddie fads. Let's see what the fuss is about. So I wandered around Myst island for an hour or so, before it dawned on me that I didn't have the faintest idea how to progress. So much for the kiddie game theory. As I started, slowly, to figure things out, I was stunned to realize that here was a mass entertainment product that hadn't, like all the others, been dumbed down.

I spent a couple of weeks slowly plodding my way through the various ages of Myst. And finally, almost incredibly, I got to the end. Okay, at first I got to the wrong end. But at least the game was over. On my second try I got it right. And I had a tremendous feeling of satisfaction of a type I don't frequently experience in life. Oh, sure, it was just a game. But Myst had done what art is supposed to do it exhilarated me, for however brief a time. It didn't just help me pass the time. It was, for me, a genuine experience. At which point I ran out and bought Riven. Which gave me an even more satisfying, and challenging, run for my money. And this time, I guessed right at the end.

Once again, it had taken me a solid couple of weeks to painstakingly crawl my way through Riven. I spent four days alone looking for the last of those spinning, squeaking, wooden ball thingees. Modern computing was still something of a novelty for me then. I'd been using an IBM XT clone for word processing throughout the previous decade, and had essentially missed the entire graphic computer game explosion of the Nineties. Hey, I still had a working Atari 5200 console hooked up to my TV. Pac Man! Space Invaders! Defender! Wizard of Wor! What more could computer gaming possibly offer?

Even the internet was new to me. I'd signed up for dial-up only a few months before I played Myst. While I was struggling to get through both of Cyan's games, I had no notion that such a thing as a walkthrough existed. And then surfing the web one day, I stumbled across Jim Stephenson's great (now defunct) "unofficial" Riven site. He had set up a beautiful, multipage hint-through for Riven. Wow, I thought. If I'd only known about this earlier.

In the meantime, I was scrambling to find another fix, another game like Myst and Riven. I didn't as yet realize that games like that were few and far between to begin with, and ones that would work on a Mac even harder to locate. At last, I landed a copy of Crystal Key for Mac from Dreamcatcher (now the Adventure Company). Once again, I plunged in, banging my head against the wall most of the way. I was ecstatic. And then I got truly, terminally stuck. I wandered over those pastel Photoshopped alien worlds for hours. I didn't have a clue. But this time, I knew there was probably a walkthrough on the web somewhere. That would get me going. Sure enough. I downloaded it, scanned through to where I'd gotten stuck and realized that I'd simply overlooked a fairly obvious drawer.

I was heartsick. Really. Heartsick. My stomach hurt. I started to feel faint. Now, admittedly, this is an overreaction. But, nevertheless, I'd lost my chance of experiencing with this game the exhilaration that I'd gotten from Myst and Riven. I'd traded expediency for satisfaction. Being stuck in an adventure game is frustrating but using a walkthrough permanently, indelibly spoils the experience of playing one. I plunged ahead and finished Crystal Key. But my sense of "completion" was incomplete. The walkthrough had halved my enjoyment. And to this day, I still can't believe I overlooked that damn compartment!

You cannot unlearn something. Once you know, or are given, the answer, that's it. You can't put the genie back in the bottle, or the toothpaste back into the genie, or whatever tired cliche you want to drag out. Never. If you're one of those people who wonder why some folks get so worked up about others using spoiler tags on game forum sites, this is the reason. If someone accidentally gives them the solution, that puzzle is ruined. Understandably, many visitors to these sites, and many ardent game players themselves, think such an attitude is silly. It is silly. It is, after all, only a game. It's like the people who say that golf is silly adults knocking a little white ball around a field. Golf is silly. But the feeling of satisfaction one can get from playing golf expertly is a rarer thing on this earth than gold. It's not the little white ball that matters. It's one's battle against oneself, against one's limitations, that matters. Solving a challenging adventure or puzzle game, however silly the game may seem to others, is a similar test of one's mental abilities. When you cheat, you only cheat yourself.

Which, of course, is perfectly all right, if that's your preference. Here, though, is where the problem arises.

Back in the Nineties, during the heyday of the graphic adventure and the dawn of the world wide web, back when Sierra On-Line was still in California and LucasArts was still producing adventure games, the games were noticeably harder. Certainly, they had far less built-in "help." Nor was there the extensive worldwide gaming community only a click away to resort to. True, gamers were posting to bulletin boards, and you could always telephone the game maker's hotline (for a pretty penny usually.) But there were no walkthroughs or even "strategy guides" like there is today. Most gamers were on their own, unless they had a buddy who'd gotten the same game for Xmas. Adventure gaming back then, apparently, was more adventurous. People struggled to get through a game for months sometimes. Moreover, adventure game developers were apparently under the mistaken impression that customers wanted challenging games. Or, more likely, they simply preferred challenging games themselves.

Nowadays, game developers don't have to wonder what gamers want. They get flooded with instantaneous feedback on their websites. And much of that feedback is cries for help. And cries for easier and easier games. Naturally, the developers, fond of making money, want to satisfy their customers' demands. Which is why today's adventure games, for all their gorgeous imagery and symphonic sounds and astounding refresh rates, keep getting, on average, easier and easier. They all now come jam-packed with all types of help systems. Guides and walkthroughs and journals and highlighters and it appears that what most gamers are most interested in is assistance, not games.

I know I'm going to sound like a spoilsport in saying this, but, uh, you know, the whole point of a game is to be challenging. If there's nothing to puzzle over, there's no puzzle. One could argue that getting stuck is the whole raison d'etre of an adventure. The "fun" is supposed to come from solving the difficulties you encounter, not in petitioning the publisher for a patch to skip over them. Without snags, an adventure game is just a mindless joyride, an amusement park in megabytes. That said, I think that's what more and more people want in an "adventure." They want a pretty grand tour of some fabulous land. For them, puzzles in an adventure game are like a series of toll gates on a road-trip vacation.

As a result, the modern commercial adventure game is morphing into something quite different from what it started out as during the late Eighties. It's turning into something closer to a digital storybook. Of course, there is still a sizable number of gamers who prefer the traditional adventure. So game developers are now put in the odd position of trying to simultaneously appeal to two essentially opposed camps people who like puzzles and people who don't. The way, or so it appears to me, they've been dealing with this dilemma so far has been to load up a traditionally challenging adventure with a boatload of those help features. That way, everyone can build their own game, like choosing the toppings for a pizza. I wonder, however, or fear, that the trend is now irreversible, and that eventually puzzles will be dropped from adventures entirely to placate the larger camp.

Obviously, this will destroy the adventure game for those of us who like the older style. Now, I don't expect to reverse this trend singlehandedly. It would be like trying to turn back a flood with a Dixie cup. The majority will get what it prefers and the minority will have to make other plans. But before we go however gently into that good night, let me make at least one argument to the hey-where's-the-walkthrough? crowd.

Patience, believe it or not, really is a virtue. When you use a walkthrough, you really are only cheating yourself. I get a big kick out of people who complain in forums that they played through a particular game consulting the walkthrough and that it was no fun. Of course it's no fun. The walkthrough has drained not only all the challenge but all the satisfaction out of the game.

Now, glitches and bugs and bad puzzle design are absolutely another issue and of course the developer should eliminate those, or write patches to fix them. I am talking strictly about basic adventure puzzles. But when gamers write in to say that they don't like mazes and couldn't the developer amend the game to eliminate the maze I mean, I don't enjoy mazes either, but come on. Do people really expect developers to customize the game for every single player?

I realize that many gamers who use walkthroughs only do so to get them through one or two rough spots, and that they do prefer to solve the puzzles on their own. I also have nothing against hints. A really good hint can be priceless. Still, the overall trend is for easier games. If more people really preferred challenging games, they'd be pestering the publishers for less help and greater difficulty. I also know that many gamers don't have the luxury of dwelling on a puzzle for hours or days. That's fine. The truth remains, though, that for those who do persist (and dogged persistence will get you over most gaming humps), the reward is much greater. And for those people who find recent adventure games boring have you tried getting through one entirely on your own? Without the in-game help?

Getting stuck in a game is an unpleasant feeling. Especially if one's friends are chatting or posting or tweeting about how they're breezing through it on the game's forum and all those other proliferating social networking sites. This social aspect of games is another important new factor. Using a walkthrough is of course a sensible way to keep up with the Joneses. I would suggest, however, playing a game and not telling your friends about it. Keep the pressure off yourself. And if you get stuck, don't panic. Give the problem some thought. Sleep on it. Give it a rest and go back to it later. Play another game for a while. Eventually, you will figure out the solution (the vast majority of the time it is something simple, like my long ago Crystal Key drawer), and you will reap the full satisfaction that a good adventure game can supply. Then go online and brag to your friends.

I am not saying gamers shouldn't use walkthroughs. People should do whatever they like. However, I am saying gamers who tend to rely on walkthroughs, for whatever reason, would find they enjoy almost any adventure more without one. Greater patience in playing a game isn't one of those golden virtues you develop to benefit others. It will benefit you.

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