Videogame spaces can be infinite. Within, a player can move in any direction, in countless combinations. At its core, a videogame is a sort of abstracted ruleset, a limitation on how the player can experience. The specifics of these rules, and what must be done to progress within them is a constant communication with the player. This information can take the form of an elemental weakness of an enemy, the bounds and contents of a room, or an esoteric clue to a puzzle. Some players are bound to misinterpret, or plainly miss information altogether. A videogame’s abstractions will lead some players following along in step, and others stuck. The simplest, most obvious solutions to one player can come off as the most contrived to another. This is not a failing of the player, this is not a failing of the game. In fact, this is not a failing at all. This is inevitable.
A challenge in a videogame is not the test of a person. Failing to develop a superior strategy or solve a puzzle doesn’t drop your IQ. I read so many reviews and discussions plagued by this fear. They weaponize this obvious frustration resulting from their failures, lashing out at the game for being unfair, or not teaching them properly. They rip apart the game that dare challenge their intellect and make them feel the sting of failure. No amount of fairness can solve this problem, videogames cannot be wholistically fair. In the space of a videogame, it’s only a matter of time until an abstraction trips up the player. Regardless, most videogames will aim for, and be evaluated on, a certain flow state where a player is challenged but not failed. Of course, this is a completely subjective curve. For every ten players who love it, five will be challenged “too much,” and five will find it “too easy.”
Maybe games don’t need to be fair to the player, and maybe they don’t need to be challenging either. The Void (2008, Ice-Pick Lodge) is an absolute nightmare to play. What the player needs to do, or how to do it is never fully explained. NPCs simply offer a vague direction of where to go, but trial and error will still lead to a swift death. Doing anything at all costs your precious living resources; every errand must be profitable. The tutorials aren’t even sufficient at teaching the player. Within an hour of play, the player will probably need to restart or face an inevitable game over. The stress of skimming by and tight management textures the story and makes its themes much more evocative. The struggle of life and death adds a tangible weight to the game’s themes of depression and creation. When the player mourns their situation and agonizes over what to do, when the incessant planning infects the rest of their life, when the player feels trapped with no way out, this is when The Void shines. The game never took hold in the west.
I’m reminded of a conversation between Davey Wreden and Coda in The Beginner’s Guide (2014, Everything Unlimited, Ltd.). Does a game that is unplayable serve any purpose? What is the point of a work that nobody can experience? I posit that’s a false dichotomy (at least in the application of this discussion). Walkthroughs allow the impossibly hard game to exist, and be playable too. We can observe the difficulty and experience its texture, while also being able to understand the work as a whole through completion.
A point can be made for experiencing the work as presented, a sort of no-spoiler approach to games. I just don’t think this works very well in practice. When I see somebody get stuck and refuse to seek help, usually one of two things happen. They keep trying until their lack of progress makes them lose interest, and they just stop playing the game. Or even worse, they keep trying and eventually succeed, but go on to resent the game for the challenge that was presented. Neither of these outcomes are preferable. A player who uses a walkthrough simply misses out on the intrinsic satisfaction from solving a single challenge; they can resume the entirety of the game in peace. Games can be so much more than a tinge of pride coming from success. Forsaking an entire work for missing out on that tinge is asinine. To condemn a work for being too challenging, to abandon when engagement becomes boring, to refuse help when needed, this is the epitome of ego gaming.
Preaching the subjectivity of games while rejecting walkthroughs is hypocritical. Every experience is different, every person needs a unique amount of guidance. I used to get really frustrated with some games, and I think that’s only natural in this medium, or at least for some people. A certain hangup I had would stain the entire game for me, and I’d scramble to find “objective design flaws” to justify it. Once I could internalize that every experience is subjective, seeking walkthroughs is a natural extension. I can roll with the punches, take a game’s goodness and leave its badness. It’s only natural for me to reach for help when I’m challenged past my understanding.
Besides a much healthier view of games and what gaming can do for you, walkthroughs are very empowering! Without walkthroughs I wouldn’t able to finish half the adventure games I start, let alone puzzle games. Completing all these works gives me greater knowledge, it lets me extend my boundaries and learn more about games. Lord knows I couldn’t have beaten The Void without it, and it’s easily become one of my favorites now.
Walkthroughs can empower developers to make better games too. The Void could never exist in a world without walkthroughs, and it was barely successful in a world with such a hesitance. If gameplay and interactivity (to whatever degree) is an integral part of a videogame, then difficulty is an integral texture. A walkthrough allows developers to design with the perfect texture in mind. They don’t have to worry about player expectations and playability. Again I’m brought back to The Beginner’s Guide. Imagine if some of those spaces were in a standalone work, what if there truly was an invisible maze! Wouldn’t that be an amazing texture, to feel the very space repel your existence? I would love to feel the power of the invisible maze, while also being able to surpass it and see why the space resists your presence so much.
Videogames in aggregate are bound to either challenge a player too much, or simply confuse them in their web of abstractions. Embracing the walkthrough lets us surpass our limitations, come to a greater understanding of games, and develop games with a greater understanding of their parts. All we have to do is admit that we’re not perfect.
read more about the void, it’s difficult mechanics, and how its themes intertwine here