Dan's FAQ for Baldur's Gate II is epic. It's a work of literature. The damned thing is over 143,000 words, and if you paste it into Word, it clocks in at 394 pages. Needless to say, it is comprehensive: every nook and cranny of this game, every possible outcome, is explored. More important, Dan writes well and his descriptions are just fun to read. I have almost as much fun reading the walkthrough as I do playing the game. Just looking it up to write this post, I got trapped for 45 minutes.
So who is this guy, and why does he spend so much time writing so much great material for little recognition and no compensation? If he's ever been interviewed, featured in a magazine, or offered a job at one of the gaming web sites, I'll be damned if I can find it.
But here's a better question: who spends $30 on the "official" Prima strategy guide with a walkthrough like this available for free? Who spends any money on printed strategy guides with so many FAQs and walkthroughs available on the Internet?
It wasn't always like this. Back in the era that I'm currently playing, if you couldn't figure out where to find a particular object or how to answer a riddle, you were pretty well screwed. If you were lucky, the game publisher provided a hint line. I used Origin's to win Ultima IV the first time I played it in 1985 because I neglected to write down the runes that spelled INFINITY. Ultimately, game makers realized they could make money off of their hints, turned them into 900 numbers, and charged $1.99 a minute for their hints. I remember calling SSI's hint line when I couldn't get past the final battle in Pool of Radiance after multiple tries. It cost me something like $6.00 to hear "the best way to defeat Tyranthraxus and his minions is to cast as many fireballs as possible." (Calling the hint line for this, incidentally, turned out to be a little lame. I won on the next attempt by just using different tactics.)
You also had the option to purchase clue books, but remember that in the 1980s, we didn't have Amazon.com or even book superstores, so it was always iffy whether you could even find them. Some of them were quite well done, though. I remember having the clue book for The Bard's Tale, and it was basically a novel, providing hints and solutions in the context of a larger story about a party of adventurers seeking to defeat Mangar.
The party failed, of course, and the magic they used to send their adventurer's log on to the next party of heroes used "evil magic" that erased everything they had accomplished "from the fabric of time and destroyed," but their wisdom could be passed on to the next generation. Great stuff, and heck of a lot better than the official novel based on the game. (I had intended to do a special posting on game novelizations but couldn't get past the first chapter of this.)
You could buy a clue book for each of the "Gold Box" games. These were less interesting than The Bard's Tale clue book, but they were at least comprehensive, with complete maps and full lists of encounters and spells. The Might & Magic series and Ultima (after V) had official clue books, too.
The clue books I liked most, however, weren't for CRPGS: they were for the Infocom "text adventures" like Zork, Spellbreaker, and Leather Goddesses of Phobos. I can't seem to find any images online, which is too bad because they were very creative. They were written as FAQs for the most common puzzles in the game ("How can I kill the troll?"), but the answers were written in invisible ink, and you had to uncover them with a special pen. They started off general, getting more specific as you uncovered more lines. To encourage you not to just uncover every answer, each book featured "fake" questions for problems that didn't actually exist in the game, causing you to waste your ink or be led astray in your gameplay. It was brilliant.
Prima, now a division of Random House, started in 1990 and swiftly grew to dominate the strategy guide market. All of their guides throw the word "official" in the title; does this mean they actually license the right to produce the guides from the game publishers? If so, I guess it explains why game publishers don't seem to produce their own clue books any more. But Prima's success baffles me. I would have thought they'd have a few good years before the Internet obliterated their profits. But they're still alive despite IGN, GameFAQs, GameBanshee, and hundreds of other sites devoted to both specific games and games in general.
This brings me back to walkthroughs. My rules prohibit me from using them as I play the games, but I still like to read them at the end and see what I missed. If Dan Simpson is my hero for Baldur's Gate II and newer games, the king of classic CRPG walkthroughs must be Andrew Schultz. His name is on the walkthroughs I reviewed for most of my recent games: Shard of Spring, Rings of Zilfin, Might & Magic. Unfortunately, he seems to have disappeared: most of his work is dated 2000-2003 and the web sites he lists in his FAQs are no longer active. As with Dan Simpson, Googling him is fruitless because of so many other people (including a comedian) with the same name.
Whether by these authors or thousands of others, walkthroughs are available for nearly every game, old and new. There's even a walkthrough for Big Rigs: Over the Road Racing, famously described by GameSpot as "one of the worst games ever made"--a game so lacking in challenge that your opponents on the race course don't even move.
Finally, I can't talk about walkthroughs without a note on the Universal Hint System, created in 1988 by Jason Strautman. It used to require special software, but now of course it's just browser-based. The idea behind UHS is similar to the old Infocom cluebooks: only provide as much of a hint as the user needs to solve the problem. Don't spoil the game. As you click away, you get progressively more specific hints until ultimately it just tells you.
UHS is still hawking its "UHS Readers," but I'm not sure what purpose they serve with all the hints available on the web site. They also claim to pay (or "may be willing to pay") the hint authors. Think they'd be interested in hints for games a quarter century old? Anything pre-1995 is sorely underrepresented in the UHS.
My problem with using walkthroughs is that they rob me of three things that I like about CRPGS:
- The satisfaction of solving difficult puzzles on my own. I felt a real thrill when I figured out the three-dimensional chess problem in Might & Magic. If I had allowed myself to use hints at all, I would have used them here.
- The process of mapping and meticulously recording clues.
- The character development that occurs while you're wandering around and backtracking, trying to find the one message, NPC, or clue that you need. This is always good for at least two more levels in the game.
You might say, "Well, CRPG Addict. Instead of taking an all-or-nothing approach, why don't you allow yourself to occasionally use walkthroughs if you really need them?" This is a good question, but one that betrays a lack of understanding of the term "addict." I have a binary personality. I either do something or don't do it; I have no ability to do something in moderation.
Nonetheless, I admire people who spend the kind of time needed to write thorough walkthroughs. After posting this, I'm going to send e-mails to Dan Simpson and Andrew Schultz and see if they want to tell us a little about themselves and get the recognition they deserve. In the meantime, I'll keep restricting my own hints to what you all tell me in the comments.