Once upon a time, back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, before the Internet was a big thing, getting help when you were stuck in a game was not easy. The first game I remember getting stuck on was Maniac Mansion. When I got stuck, there wasn’t a lot of help available. Basically I just had to keep trying new things. Sure it was frustrating but, looking back through wistful rose-coloured glasses, it was also kinda nice. I had to figure things out myself.
However, my gaming hobby had barely gotten started before the era of figuring things out yourself started getting eclipsed by the business of game hints. In 1989 Sierra introduced their new hint line – for only $0.75 for the first minute and $0.50 for every additional minute, you could talk to someone who would tell you how to get through their games. I don’t believe I ever called them, but only because I didn’t have a credit card when I was 8. Gaming magazines, like Nintendo Power had sections dedicated to hints and strategies. Prima Games started making strategy guides in 1990, and their guides for challenging games like Myst sold like hotcakes. Hints were on TV too. If you were lucky enough to be a Canadian with access to YTV, Nicholas Picholas would share Turbo Tips with you every week on Video & Arcade Top 10, which premiered in 1991. In 1995 GameFAQs was created, which really got the ball rolling on internet game walkthroughs and guides.
Access to information is great, but when does it become too much? When does it begin to hinder enjoyment of a game rather than enhance it?
Let’s talk about World of Warcraft for a bit. When I first started playing World of Warcraft, one of the coolest things about it was the amount of exploration I could do. Everything was new to me. Every zone had new things to look at, and every quest (whose text I needed to read in order to know where to go) told a new story. There were little surprises, like treasure chests you could find scattered about. Sure, they rarely had anything exciting in them but just finding them and anticipating the contents as you opened them was exciting. Doing dungeons or killing a rare I stumbled upon and having a blue piece of loot for me was unexpected and rewarding. One of my favourite early memories from the game was finding and completing the questline that eventually rewarded me with the Sprite Darter Hatchlings. The quest-giver was quite hidden, so it felt like a secret. Not everyone had one, so it felt special.
If you asked me to name a time something unexpected or surprising happened to me in WoW over the last few expansions, I’d be hard pressed to think of one. What happened? Information overload happened. The Sprite Darter Hatchling questline (if it still existed) could never stay hidden, you’d see a big yellow exclamation point on your map as you came near it. Getting stuck on a quest became near impossible as your map would highlight the area you needed to go. Reading the quest text and actually knowing what was happening in the story became a thing of the past for me, since it was no longer required.
Mods were created that gave you information in-game that you’d otherwise not have access to. With AtlasLoot Enhanced, I could see the loot table of every boss I fought. Good drops were no longer an unexpected delight, because I knew where they all came from. Bad drops became infinitely more disappointing because I knew when they came at the expense of a drop I really wanted. Rare mobs stopped being interesting as soon as I downloaded RareSpawn Overlay so I could see where every one of them spawned and NPC Scan which would blast noise at me as soon as one was in range so I didn’t even need to pay attention to the game. Mists of Pandaria introduced treasures and BoA items you could find around the map. These were fun, until I realized it was much more efficient to check the Wowhead guide and see a map which pinpointed every single one, or download TomTom and be navigated right to them.
Further than just information about objects, there’s also a ton of information available about how to play your character. IcyVeins will tell you how to spec and ability priorities. Mods like SpellFlash will tell you what spell to cast next. Even the default UI will make your spell icons flash when an ability is ready to use. Raid healing was always my favourite thing because it required some decision-making and quick reactions on my part, but even those requirements are reduced by DBM counting down every major ability I need to know about or GTFO screaming when I stand in bad things.
Looking up the information or installing an addon is so much more efficient than trying to figure things out or find things yourself. But it is not more fun. Sure, you could just not use addons, not use Wowhead, but that’s a lot like telling someone who complained about content nerfs to just turn off the Dragon Soul buff. Technically possible, but not bloody likely. Why should you handicap yourself?
For a game with such a huge, beautiful world there’s actually very little to discover in WoW that you can’t find in a database first. Exploration can seem like a waste of time. With PTRs, Betas, and datamining, it’s even possible to learn everything there is to know about a new content patch or expansion – every item, achievement, cinematic, quest – before it’s even released.
Of course, WoW is not the only game that can be ruined by having too much information easily accessible. With all the walkthroughs, FAQs and video guides available, it’s possible to ruin almost any game. Information is good and sometimes a game will really stump me so I’m happy it’s there. However, there’s a thin line between access to info that prevents me from banging my head against a wall for too long, and having so much information available that I never have to actually think for myself. I played a puzzler called The Bridge a couple of weeks ago and I really enjoyed it. At first. The puzzles were all based on gravity, sometimes momentum, and solving them in the first few levels made me feel accomplished, especially as they got more challenging. But then came a puzzle that I played around with for a good 10 minutes and I couldn’t figure out how to solve it. So I looked up a video, got the solution and went on my way. The next puzzle that stumped me I only tried for a couple of minutes. I mean, I had already found a cool video guide that had all the answers, doesn’t hurt to take another peek, right? By the end of the game I was sitting at my computer, right hand on the keyboard, left hand holding my iPhone as a video walked me through the solutions to all of the last puzzles. This is not fun. This is not gaming. I want to think, want to have to try, but all the answers are right there. Looking up the answers is so fast and easy.
I lack self-control when it comes to spoilers, though the pervasive presence of guides makes me think I’m not the only one. Once I’ve looked up a solution, it becomes very hard not to do it again for that game. Soon I’m not even enjoying the game, I’m just following a set of directions from point A to point B.
When it comes to availability of this information there’s no going back, but it does make me miss the days when finding that information was just a little bit harder and thinking for yourself felt more encouraged.