Let's Be Real About Walkthroughs

Fact: websites like GameFAQs and game-specific Wikis are some of the biggest, most popular websites on the internet. Fact: a lot of gaming culture prides itself on the pursuit and overcoming of difficult challenges. Hmm.

Doesn't it seem like both of these shouldn't be true at once? Looking up how to beat a game, after all, could be considered the antithesis of challenge.

The question of challenge in the age of the walkthrough has been on my mind as I play Shin Megami Tensei IV. Like most of the games in the franchise, it's devilishly difficult. To give you an idea: I experienced at least half a dozen deaths in the tutorial dungeon alone. I think my memory has fudged the number a bit out of embarrassment, to be honest. One of the neat things about preordering the game, though, is that it came with its own guide that I can thumb through.

I've definitely been using it, although it's curious to watch myself justify when it's "okay" for me to do it and when it's not, and why. So far, because the game likes to sic a bunch of tough min-bosses at me, I've looked up a lot of enemy weaknesses. Sometimes, if I'm on the brink of death—low supplies, low health, lost in a dungeon—I might look at a map to see where the nearest exit is.


I'm not alone when it comes to looking up stuff about how a game works.


Admittedly, I've felt a little guilty about it. At first, anyway. Then I realized the game was pretty damned hard even with the extra help. It's difficult to feel guilty about getting a bit of help in a game where a normal enemy you encountered hours ago has just as much of a chance to mess you up as a boss.

Let's contrast that situation with one where I was adamant about not looking stuff up. Immediately, Animal Crossing: New Leaf comes to mind. Most of my friends looked up what conditions you needed to get upgrades, or how to "unlock" stuff, which is fine—for me, much of the joy of the game is the small surprises it can hit me with in its otherwise normal day-to-day game. I figure, knowing that I'll get a coffee shop a week from now isn't as exciting as just having it pop up as an option one day, right?

That fits with a larger ideology when playing Animal Crossing: I just like taking it slow. I try not to farm too many beetles at the island for money. I don't play every day. I don't spend too long playing it, either. Why rush when it's supposed to be a game I play year round? I don't want to get burned out on it, you know?

I've talked about this approach with much pride, but thinking back on it now, it's not as noble as I'd like to make it out to be. I have looked up some stuff. In fact, it strikes me now that for any given game, I'll probably look up a handful of different things—things that I consider small. In this case, it's looking at prices for bugs, which didn't strike me as "cheating" so much because I'd still have to go through the trouble of catching the bugs. I just wouldn't waste my time with stuff that's not worth much. What's obvious here, though, is that looking up how things work in a game has become normalized to the extent that there are different degrees to which one can "betray" the spirit of challenge. Looking up some stuff is more okay than looking up others, but you'll still likely end up Googling something about how a game works no matter what.


That's the joy of living in the information age. We can look just about anything up.


But I didn't outright realize this; for some reason, my experience with the walkthrough on SMT IV seemed particularly shameful even though, like I said, it's completely normal. I can even use SMT as an example here: in the past, I have looked up how things in the franchise work. My time with the walkthrough is not an isolated incident. As a quick example, I've looked up how "fusions" work—which is a system that allows you to combine different demons (these are allies in battle). The system is complicated and not well-explained if you want to do anything more advanced than just throwing two demons together.

While arguably that's "okay" because lack of clarity of a game's system is SMT's fault, what I've realized is that what is considered "cheating" is elastic, and in some ways, arbitrary. A few examples of the different rules and philosophies to looking something up in a game:

  • Some prefer to only do it when they're absolutely stuck.
  • Some will only do it with older games.
  • Some will do it with games where puzzles and challenge aren't the point.
  • Some use them to aid their completionist tendencies.
  • Some refuse to consult them at all.
  • Some, like me, all all over the place with when they do or don't look something up.

I am willing to bet that, regardless of what your philosophy is on looking stuff up, that ultimately I'm not alone when it comes to looking up stuff about how a game works. This includes stuff like tips on how to play better, clarification of how things work, explainers, or straight-up walkthroughs. And yet it's remarkable how often the people I talk to about this admit to feeling a sense of shame or defeat when looking something up, even though it's not something that's so out of the ordinary.

I'm not just talking about games here, either. There's one scene in the Netflix show, Orange is the New Black, where Piper Chapman—the protagonist—gets reprimanded for basically "studying" the prison experience because she wanted to prepare for her sentence. It's a jab at her, and yet watching it, I didn't exactly feel surprised she would do something like that. I can't tell you how many YouTube tutorials I've watched. How to cook something. How to clean something. How to take care of my health. Often, when it comes to matters of health, Google gets consulted before my doctor does. It's kind of absurd.

That's the joy of living in the information age. We can look just about anything up—and then we'll pretend we knew how to be this cool, this functional, or that good at a game without any help at all.

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