A Defense of the Walkthrough

While playing through a pre-release version Resonance for review, I came across a number of obstacles that I struggled to overcome. The difficult line that puzzle games have to walk is that the player must be stumped — but only for a little while. Unfortunately, given that my review was time sensitive, getting stuck lost much of its charm in the last few days before its release. However, just before its official release, developer Wadjet Eye Games sent an email offering a walkthrough to any reviewers that thought they might need it.

I hadn’t come across a puzzle that I couldn’t figure out, but I worried that that time was coming. So, with a slight sense of shame, I asked the developers to pass along the walkthrough. It was an interesting offer that is pretty unique to games. It felt almost like getting offered a ten page summary for a book review or an extended “highlights” trailer for a film review. It felt like cheating. But walkthroughs can add a layer of depth to games.

Conventional practice seems to be that only the resources and information provided in the game are “allowed” to be used and that any time that outside resources must be used is an indication of poor design. Walkthroughs and cheats are for second playthroughs. The first time through a game ought to be done blind. Yet the first Legend of Zelda included a real-life map included with the instruction manual to find all of the dungeons and there has been no backlash against it over time. Since then, using strategy guides for contemporary games is regarded as cheating. With the internet’s proliferation of walkthroughs (most of which are actually very good), it would make sense for walkthroughs to play a more important role in games.

I maintain that telling a game’s story outside of the game cheapens the narrative. However, having the gameplay explained in step-by-step instructions can make an unplayable game enjoyable — and an enjoyable game immersive. Walkthroughs (or rather, any in-game challenge that requires the player to write notes on a pad or draw out a map or write down instructions) breaks the fourth wall. It ceases to be immersive because the player steps out of the game world rather than being drawn into it.

Games can’t work without a player, and generally the more that a game includes the player, the better the game works. But developers seldom use the real world as a resource anymore. The fight against Psycho Mantis in Metal Gear Solid may have been gimmicky, but everyone remembers it. The special characteristic of games is that they deliberately make the audience a part of the story, and there is a surprising lack of ingenuity in approaching that uniqueness. It would be interesting to have a game where a notepad was as necessary to completing it as the controller.

Even though walkthroughs are a major part of playing games, there’s almost a taboo against using them. Walkthroughs should not just be used as a last resort before giving up, and games that present information in such a way that you need a calculator or a list of notes to play them are not necessarily lazily designed. Games are becoming more important, their place in the real world is becoming more pronounced, and it makes sense that they should be designed with an awareness of that.