I love strategy guides. I use them a lot, and I think everyone should turn to them when they get stuck. When you’re time-poor, have no patience or energy for “One of us always tells the truth/One of us always lies” style riddles, and possess a sense of direction so woeful an amoeba would find nothing short of shameful, guides make things possible. I see a lot of them, anything from slick video productions to the fragments of a Geocities page created decades ago to simple text FAQs of all shapes and sizes as I stumble my way around the web in search of the definitive answer to such intellectual questions as “RPG boss wipe out party after frog why?” “Lost in dungeon where squid key chest trap” or “Ziggy swimsuit why?“, and I also see a lot of them fall into the same old traps, giving out either too much or not enough information, or digressing into mini reviews and extended FAQ update lists that read more like a personal blog. The most common problems tend to fall into one of these categories:
- “I won’t describe this bit because it’s obvious/easy” If I thought it was I wouldn’t be scrolling through your guide looking for an answer, would I? I feel bad enough as it is for lugging a goat around in my inventory for hours, can someone please tell me how to combine it with a jellybean and the hose? I used all my braincells solving Hitchhiker’s famous babelfish puzzle years ago.
- “Now go back to [Room mentioned once, using an unofficial name, 2000 words ago]” As I’ve already said, my sense of direction is phenomenally bad – “Family members retelling the tale of That Time I Got Lost” – bad. “Head back to Room 204″ means nothing to me.
- “And now that’s done, let’s get on with the story” says an over-enthusiastic guide writer after fourteen pages describing an entirely optional five hour subquest in excruciating detail. Explaining side stories and additional extras is fine. Assuming I want to do the work is not.
- A shorter variation on the above: “Now go into this room.” [dutifully treks over to the room, getting lost and fighting enemies along the way] “You don’t need to come here, but there’s a note containing some interesting info on the table in the corner“. You could’ve told me what the note said. Or told me I didn’t need the note at all before I picked it up.
- “This boss is a cakewalk, just blast it with everything you’ve got” This boss is probably not a cakewalk, and this phrase tends to pop up most often in guides written by people who also think spending an entire day grinding for weapons with a 0.00001% drop chance is something everyone does for fun and also has no impact whatsoever on a later challenge’s difficulty.
- “If you’ve been following this guide, you’ll be fine from here” or its variant “I won’t spoil this last part for you, so you’re on your own! Good luck!“. I am begging you not to do this. Please spoil me. Please. I’m one smug bad guy away from watching the staff roll and I’m struggling – if you don’t tell me what to do I’m going to end up watching the finale on YouTube and feeling thoroughly miserable about it.
So! Seeing as I clearly know what a bad guide looks like making a good one of my own should be easy – I just need to pick a game to demonstrate my flawless FAQing…
Let’s go with Resident Evil 0‘s train section for this intellectual exercise in excellence. It’s short, it’s one clearly defined chunk with a definite beginning and end, it’s the only bit of the game you really need to play, and I already know it like the back of my hand. I think. Maybe.
First things first: ASCII art. Everyone knows no amount of text, helpful or otherwise, is a proper guide unless the top of the page is decorated with ASCII art. This is an unbreakable universal law, on a par with gravity and cats being whatever furry shape suits them best at the time. So as you’ve probably already noticed I made sure to place my own meagre efforts at the top of this page, in the hope of pleasing the unseen gods of FAQs. It took roughly forever to do because it turns out making even bad ASCII art is really hard.
With that out of the way we can start to think about structure, the basic form this hypothetical guide is going to take. Something short and to the point should do nicely… but as I’ll have no idea how good (or scared) someone is – or how well-behaved their AI-controlled partner’s been – even if they follow everything I write to the letter they might need some extra ammo or another herb along the way, so how do I make sure people don’t find themselves standing in front of a boss with only two shotgun shells and a blue herb to their name? Room-by-room item lists? “If you need healing head back to [place]“? But what if they already used that herb or first aid spray? The obvious solution is to mention something big’s coming up so it’d be a good idea to try to hold back as much as possible, I suppose… which is a huge tension-puncturing spoiler, especially in a survival horror game. And all of this is assuming they’ve been reading from the beginning and haven’t dropped in just to find the solution to one particular sticking point either, so I need to make sure my guide doesn’t fall apart the instant a reader isn’t carrying everything I think they are. I suppose I could compartmentalise it all and list a bunch of key items and where to find them, turning my FAQ into an unreadable web of “If you are here and have [thing], then you can carry on to [place]. But if you are here and don’t already have [thing] you’ll need to go to [other place] and come back.” Which means then giving out a whole raft of directions someone may or may not need (and back) because I don’t want anyone getting lost. Directions they won’t need if they’re one of the people already at [place] with [thing].
Oh and on the subject of directions: Should I give them based on the character’s position, the map, or the current camera angle? “Turn to the right, go down the corridor, then take the second door” is pretty meaningless by itself – Whose right? Which corridor? The second door in there? The second door I can see? – and even more so when you’re already lost. Billy’s left is different from the left of the screen, which is different again from the left hand side of the map… and all of them are useful references in their own way.
So let’s… let’s put all of that aside for a minute and talk about two of Zero’s key features (and recurring problems) instead – the hookshot and the ability to drop items pretty much wherever you want to. “You have to use the hookshot here, an event marking the first, last, and only time using this cursed device isn’t deeply annoying” Hah! Look at me, I made a funny. But it’s not useful, is it? And other people might not mind the hooksh-OK I can’t finish that sentence. Anyway! It’s not necessary… but is it adding a little flavour to what might otherwise by an overly dry document, or is it getting in the way? At least item management’s an easy one: “Anything you pick up and put down shows up on the floor in the aftermath of the train crash (Dammit, that’s a spoiler), but anything you didn’t interact with vanishes forever” – job… done? I’m fairly certain that’s how it works, but I should probably check before I try and pass that off as a stone-cold fact. And I’d better check every type of item too – maybe only herbs and ammo reappear and that old and now useless key politely vanishes for good. Check. Every. Type. Of. Item. That’s a heck of a lot of work for a single sentence…
To state what I’m sure is already painfully obvious by now, writing a guide is a difficult task at the best of times and even more so when you’re doing it for free in whatever speck of non-work time your corporate overlords have deemed you worthy of receiving. I’m in awe of all of you brave guide-ers, whether you make annotated maps intended to be used in tandem with a screenshot-heavy font of information, wrote down a short list of essential events to trigger, or gave up halfway through FAQ version 0.842alpha – you’ve all done the hobby a great service, and created something wonderful.
…Just please clearly mark the optional bits if you’ve got a minute, OK?