Cheating Well (and Helping Others to Cheat Well, Too)

Catherine (Atlus, 2011)

After trying and failing to figure out the pattern combinations to create some of the advanced mermaids in Mermaid World, my wife decided it was time to do what any good gamer does when faced with a brick wall. She found it was time to cheat.

For the past month or so, my wife has been playing an iOS game called Mermaid World. It's a game about collection and display.

The player looks into what is essentially a mermaid aquarium and is given a few mermaids that are assigned colors as attributes that define who they are to get started. The mermaids can collect money for the player, and they can be sent out to explore their little area of the sea to find new items, some of which might be used to decorate her environment. However, the crux of the game's interest is that mermaids can be paired together to sing a song that calls a new mermaid to their realm. This is where the collection of mermaids begins, pairing mermaids to bring new mermaids to call yet more mermaids for your own underwater display.

The mermaids of course all have their own styles, some are punk while others have a retro 1930s vibe, for example. You can purchase new “tanks” to keep them in, and the mermaids themselves function better when they are happy, which requires them to be surrounded by mermaids that they like, sequestered from mermaids they don't like, and adding décor to their underwater kingdoms that they find aesthetically pleasing.

Of course, this is a game that is all about pleasing aesthetics, and the pleasure that my wife takes in the game is collecting the mermaids that she thinks look cute or cool or whatever.

Most of the ludic qualities of the game are fairly straight forward, involving combining different colored mermaids to get a new mermaid (say, creating a duet between a red mermaid and a blue mermaid to produce a red-blue combination mermaid). Eventually color combinations get more complex and trial-and-error is required to produce the most complex mermaids. Many of them have different attributes all together that are marked by different icons a ll together, like stars, and one begins to wonder how just matching color combinations might lead to producing something like a star mermaid.

After trying and failing to figure out the pattern combinations to create some of these advanced mermaids, my wife decided it was time to do what any good gamer does when faced with a brick wall. She found it was time to cheat.

Now, cheating, of course, by gaming culture's definitions of what that can mean can have quite a bit of nuance. There are exploits and hacks, and there is looking for outside help -- a kind of “light” form of cheating. Mermaid World is not an especially complicated game, though it does require a significant time commitment as some mermaid “recipes” seem to have some randomness assigned to them (in other words, some of the most difficult mermaids to acquire are only acquired some percentage of the time that a particular recipe is attempted). So, getting some outside help (or “cheating” in a probably very broad sense of the term) to find out what recipes are worth trying several dozen times seems to be a somewhat valuable form of “cheating.”

Cheats, tips, and hints have been a part of video gaming culture almost from its inception, what with the very old school hint lines that could be called back in the day to get help on an adventure game to the countless guidebooks written and sold that revealed secrets and strategies for gamers unwilling to figure out every nuance of a game themselves. Today, we, of course, have the internet. We have GameFAQs. We have YouTube walkthroughs.

Now, my first instinct if I was trying to figure out how to acquire a mermaid like Velvet Twist would be to visit GameFAQs and look up some recipe guides on how to whip up such a mermaid, but my wife is more of a casual gamer and may or may not even know that that carefully organized and archived site exists. She instead googled the name of her desired mermaid and some keywords that might suggest a how-to guide and was immediately drawn to one of the last places that I like to go to help me out with my own cheating, YouTube.

I know that videos of walkthroughs have gained in popularity, but I'm not quite sure why that is. To me, as marvelous as the internet is at providing multimedia and how much a visual and cinematic guide to a game might seem to be perfect for unpacking the secrets of a game (since games themselves are some form of moving pictures, moving pixels), I just find video walkthroughs onerous in most instances.

My wife's experience was one such example of why a video walkthrough can at times be frustrating.

Now, my main problem with videos that help me cheat is the inability to effectively and efficiently “skim” them. Frequently a walkthrough of a game is 20minutes or 60 minutes or even hours in length. Finding the spot in the video that you need can be a pain in the neck. I like text because it comes with a table of contents, header sections, and best of all (because it is the internet and my browser is built for efficiency in sorting text), a search feature that can help me pinpoint a location in the text that pertains to my problem relatively easily. I have yet to see tremendously well organized videos that allow me to sift contents quickly and readily, without simply having to drag the slider bar around somewhat haphazardly trying to figure out where in a video the information that I need is. This wasn't exactly my wife's problem, though.

The video that she found was purely a how-to guide on acquiring the specific mermaid that she wanted. Seemed simple and efficacious enough. The problem was that the guy who made the video spoke slowly and seemed especially interested in discussing some sushi he had been eating while taping and editing the video. His comments on his sushi delight created an exasperatingly long preamble to what she cared about, how to get that damned mermaid, and worse still, once he finally got on with explaining the mermaid recipe and demonstrating it, he continued to lapse into tangents about the wonders of his experience with raw fish. My wife got the information she needed, learned information that it (admittedly) would have cost her hours and days to acquire on her own, but she just didn't find the delivery of her cheat all that effective. She just didn't find cheating especially satisfying because her strategy for acquiring her ill-gotten outside information was also time consuming and needlessly boring and largely off topic (I guess both subjects of the Mermaid World how-to video that she found were fish related, but that's stretching a bit, yes?).

For a medium, like video games, so steeped in audio and visual presentation, my wife's experience reminded me of how often audio and visual demonstrations fail to demonstrate to me what I need to know or what I need to do in a game. Admittedly, it can be useful sometimes to watch how someone fights that boss that seems unbeatable or where exactly that one well hidden item on a level has been secreted away. However, I recently watched a video concerning improving one's game in League of Legend by stutter stepping, using effective attack-move combinations and through some key binding tricks that left me with little more sense of how to execute these techniques than before I watched it.

One of the problems with capturing video of games is that one is usually only presented with the outcomes of technique and the process of enacting them is left out or explained in an incomplete way. I can see what the results of what you're doing on the screen look like, but I can't see what you're actually doing with your mouse and your keyboard or you're running through menus so fast that I can't tell how to set up those bindings the way that you suggest.

I'm reminded a little sometimes when watching a video game how-to of the fact that you can watch speed runs of levels in New Super Mario Bros. after you complete a level. What whoever is playing that level is doing looks amazing and fantastic, but all that you taught me about playing is that I am just not as good at New Super Mario Bros. than you are. I need more context, more explanation, more text to better comprehend how you accomplished it. Then I can play better. Then I can cheat well. Then I can cheat and be satisfied. Just give me the whole picture. Just focus in on the details. And just don't tell me about your sushi dinner, please.

By the way, I made and consumed a cheese and onion omelet just before I wrote this. It was quite delicious. I recommend monterey jack and substituting a bit of half-and-half for the milk if such an omelet appeals to you.

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