Attention, Ball Lickers! 

Gaming guides come of age

Wednesday, Aug 30 2006

In 1973, a week before Christmas, 23-year-old Craig Kubey received an early and unexpected gift. The Bally Fireball pinball machine in the student lounge at UC Davis Law School was giving out unlimited free games. Four days later, the malfunctioning machine was repaired, and Kubey was exhausted from his pinball binge. After graduating, Kubey moved to Washington, D.C., to pursue politics — he was a legislative assistant to Robert Drinan, the Democratic congressman (and Jesuit priest) from Massachusetts, and helped Ralph Nader establish the Equal Justice Foundation. But in 1979, he returned to California to make a civic mark on his old law-school pastime: the arcade.

Starting with Space Invaders at Golden Gate Lanes in El Centro, Kubey spent a couple of years gathering enough expertise to publish The Winners’ Book of Video Games, a strategy guide for all the coin-op machines of that day. Walk-throughs and hint collections had circulated informally since the mid-’70s, when Will Crowther’s Fortran-based Adventure lured programmers away from their work on ARPANET, but Kubey’s book was one of the first attempts at comprehensive coverage of this blossoming national craze.

As gaming grew, so too did the sales of strategy guides. Part instruction manual, part geeked-out love letter to those nascent quarter-gobbling machines, these guides were like bibles for the truly devoted. There were patterns for Pac-Man, the secrets of Galaga were revealed, there were even special notes for the third elevator boards on Donkey Kong. The Winners’ Book of Video Games helped set the tone for the genre, with its 270 pages of maps, quizzes and pointers and a “video medicine” section which features a crude sketch of a player suffering various arcade-related health maladies.

click to flip through (3) Illustration by Mitch Handsone
  • Illustration by Mitch Handsone

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In addition to practical information, these early game guides provided guidance to the new culture forming around arcade games. On page 110 of The Winners’ Book, for instance, Kubey informs readers that regulations 021-023 of Missile Command (part of the bylaws of the Awesome Player Society and previously top-secret) are, under no circumstances, to be shared with “wimps” or “those who, despite lots of practice, score below 50,000, those who think all three bases are equally effective, and those who, while waiting to get on the machine, distract the current player by placing a reservation quarter on the control panel during an attack wave!”

In the two decades since, guides have become a firmly entrenched part of the massive and highly lucrative commercial-gaming landscape. Retail outlets like Electronics Boutique and GameStop have rows of games stacked up against nearly as many guidebooks. Both are released simultaneously, as companion guides are conceived of as scalable market opportunities, a lucrative new revenue source to be extracted from a given “interactive property.” The guide for Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas has moved more than 748,000 units since it hit shelves in 2004, and the Halo 2 guide kept pace with Bill Clinton’s My Life, becoming Random House’s second-fastest-selling nonfiction book of all time, with 270,000 copies sold on the first day alone. As such, the guide has been absorbed into a slick publishing empire, with two of the largest publishers, BradyGames (a division of Dorling Kindersley) and Prima Games (a division of Random House), having forged working alliances with many of the major developers to release “official” strategy guides. What was once just transcribed knowledge from the local arcade’s hotshot has now become a corporate undertaking, with a single guide being produced by as many as 50 writers, artists and map designers, all in constant contact with the multimillion-dollar development effort in the office park next door.

Stylistically, guides are still a mixture of the obvious (Grab health packs to replenish your health!) and the arcane (Berserker Gauntlets require level 35 and add +9 agility, 167 armor . . .), all laid out with glossy charts, colorful foldout maps, glossaries, creature profiles and exhaustive back stories. Whereas Kubey’s 1982 survey of the arcade landscape filled 270 pages, today’s guides will fill that many pages and more for a single game.

It’s been necessary growth. As virtual worlds have become infinitely more complex, so too have their guides. No longer a matter of eating dots in a maze, today’s games might require a player to navigate through Khaz Modan to the Shadowthread Cave, obtain the Pearl of Ulster, proceed to the Stranglethorn Vale of the Eastern Kingdoms (where the Forge Master dwells) and face the dreaded Margoz of Elwynn Forest — at which time the precise specs and location of those Berserker Gauntlets will likely come in handy.

Who needs a fuckin’ guide u fuckin’ pussies. U are the ones who are the ball lickers. And u enjoy cheak squeezing sausage fests.

—“Halo,” on Clive Thompson’s Collision Detection blog

True dat muther fuck. Who ever needs a guide is quite the fondling ball fucker. I am outa here bitches.

—“Halo Master”

The Internet is filled with rage over the very idea that someone would actually need help with a video game. As with any activity dominated by teenagers, false bravado prevails, and among hardcore gamers there’s a predictable backlash against game guides. That’s handholding, they say, a mental shortcut for those who lack the discipline and tenacity to fight through a tough boss or figure out an obscure puzzle. They have a point. Many of today’s games are about exploration, the marvel of which is certainly undone by following a walk-through. With sandbox games like Grand Theft Auto or multiplayer online realms like World of Warcraft, having a guide by your side does have the taint of surrogate experience, much like reading Cliffs Notes.

Of course, some people don’t always have three hours to poke around for the Cinderhide Splints of the Monkey or try for the thousandth time to kill the 12th Colossus, and for them, guides are essential. “Games are really one of the hardest forms of popular media out there,” says Peter Brinson, an instructor at USC’s Interactive Media Division and a former employee of an online strategy-guide company. “There’s a certain logic to them that’s not immediately apparent.”

Harold Bloom once remarked that “one doesn’t read Ulysses; one rereads Ulysses.” He left out what most of us do, which is try to make it through the annotated version — once. In a sense, game guides are like literary annotations: They annoy the scholars while opening up the experience for the rest of us.

By mapping out places that technically don’t exist, game guides may even form a new genre of their own as digital travel literature — a Frommer’s for the pixilated world. Moving well beyond Kubey’s early advice on arcade etiquette, today’s guides often lay bare the complicated social hierarchies, customs and norms of the vast lands residing out there on those servers — places where success is less about winning and more about the nuances of reputation, experience and communal interaction. For example, the World of Warcraft guide has massive chapters devoted solely to naming conventions, hunting manners (in town and on the battlefield) and the locals’ taboos. If all this sounds a bit like an anthropological study, well, it is. Many of today’s virtual realms actually contain their own distinct cultures; visitors can spend time with the natives and then return with accounts of their society and history. For future travelers, these guides often frame strategies for experiencing that new world.

For this reason, USC’s Brinson suggests that strategy guides complement and extend rather than subvert a particular gaming universe. “In the end,” he says, “[guides] help you understand virtual worlds and make the experience even more immersive and interactive.” After all, both games and their guides are firmly rooted in the desire for exploration. That’s why even the hardcore gamers who would never use a published guide still post their own detailed walk-throughs and FAQs on forums. Indeed, in the era of open-ended gaming, the guide can even serve as a diary, a tale of one player’s specific path to victory. So whether on GameFAQs.com or a Random House imprint, guides will exist as inevitable artifacts of the virtual worlds they describe. Which is great news for us pussies who just want to get Berserker Gauntlets and get on with it.

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