Let’s Play a Walkthrough

If you’re of a certain age, owned an NES, and were really into RPG’s, chances are you probably owned- or at least knew someone who owned- the Nintendo Power Strategy Guide for Final Fantasy. Full of “play to win strategies straight from the pros”, the guide provided intrepid explorers of the groundbreaking RPG a complete walkthrough of how to beat the game, in addition to a detailed breakdown of every monster, every item, and every spell your White/Black/Red wizard could hope to cast. For me, the guide was indispensable in navigating what seemed, then, to be an immense world full of dungeons, towns, and secret items just waiting to be discovered.

Zoom forward to today, and consider an entirely different game- The Last of Us. I don’t own a PS3, but wanting to see what everyone was talking about I decided to check out not a walkthrough but rather Day[9]’s most recent ‘Day Off‘ video series. I really enjoy watching Day[9] tackle various games, his facial expressions and screams contained in the corner, sometimes competing with, and often complementing, the dramatic gameplay unfolding in the majority of screen real-estate. It seems impossible that a written walkthrough could compete with this.

But even though a lot has changed with games the walkthrough endures, and even takes a hallowed spot next to the more recent emergence of LP, or Let’s Play, videos. A brief survey of GameFAQ’s proves this point. And while it might be easy to dismiss walkthroughs as having a very specific purpose, looking a little deeper at how both walkthroughs and LP’s accompany the games they depict reveals an interesting story on not only how our games have changed, but also how our interaction with games have changed as well. It’s no longer about receiving ‘strategies straight from the pros’. It’s about sharing gameplay and placing one’s personal mark on that experience.

“It all started as a bet between my daughter and myself a couple of Christmases ago,” says Darren, the creative force behind the YouTube account of Das24680, in describing his entry into making LP’s. “The bet was to see who could get a million views on YouTube before the following Christmas. She was trying to think of something that would go viral while I took the option of uploading a lot of videos with small numbers of views.” While Darren never reached the one million mark, by the next Christmas he was well over 500,000 views. Over at his YouTube channel, Darren focuses his LP’s on turn-based strategy games. With 470 videos and over five-thousand subscribers, the steady pace of output appears to be a working formula. While most videos Darren posts achieve views in the modest hundreds, a few break into the realm of tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of views- mostly those that introduce a new title, or explain how to get started in what might be a daunting and complex strategy game, like Victoria 2 or Crusader Kings II.

“I feel Let’s Play videos allow players to become more immersed in the story of the game as well as really seeing if the game is right for them. I certainly prefer to see a Let’s Play of a game I’m interested in before purchasing it if it costs more than about $20,” responded Darren when I asked him what LP’s do well. “I think it also allows players to be part of the strategic choice within a game. I love reading comments of what players would have done differently and I actually learn a great deal from these comments.”

This is a key feature LP’s offer that walkthrough cannot. You can check out a game and see if it’s worth your $20, $40, or even $60 before you buy it. But Darren’s comments highlight another feature of the LP’s- the interaction with viewers. While many disparage comments, they do offer a way for the viewing process to be more interactive and more like the shared experience of storytelling. When I watch Day[9] play the Last of Us, see him interact with the live chat of fans, you can almost visualize the entire process as akin to telling stories over a campfire. There may be a narrator, but the telling is a community effort.

In contrast, a walkthrough comes across as an introspective journey, albeit one that is eventually shared with everyone.

“Writing a guide helps me to get more enjoyment out of the game that I’m writing for – it basically completes the experience for certain games. Writing actually helps the game to last longer and writing for it makes me take a more in-depth look at the game to where I learn it better,” replied Kevin, who goes under the handle of Berserker93 over at GameFAQs, when I asked him why he takes the time to write walkthroughs. His work spans multiple systems, from the Gamecube to PS3, and he particularly focuses on writing walkthroughs and other guides for the Resident Evil series of games. “I get fully in the zone when writing for any game in that series and go well out of bounds with length.”

Kevin said it takes him about a month to complete a fully fleshed out guide, even though he admits that “I’m the type of person that is never happy with what I have up and am constantly adding more to it.” His hard work pays off, at least in terms of views. His Final Fantasy XII guide has over 5.7 million views alone, and the Resident Evil Revelations guide he wrote for the 3DS and PS3 charts over 2,000 views daily.

The walkthrough, with its detailed breakdown on the content of a game, is a direct tie to the early days of video games when certain elements of design necessarily prevailed over others. Graphics and narrative, while sometimes impressive for their era, nonetheless were generally underwhelming when compared to the other elements- such as collecting items or finding secret rooms and hidden characters- that were not de facto tied to graphical capability. These elements could flesh-out a game, and did so with little extra cost in terms of memory or demand on the systems graphical capability. Walkthroughs celebrate that design aesthetic, and even in an age where eye candy is held supreme for AAA titles this older form endures because it revels in what made games exciting in the first place.

During an online chat, I asked LP creator PewPewChewChew what he thought LP’s offered over walkthroughs. He said that LP’s can possess walkthrough qualities, but whereas there is an eloquence to a walkthrough the LP is a dynamic form meant to show gameplay concepts in a visual form. He intimated that the caster becomes part of the gameplay, and the various styles seen in LP’s, be they comedic or serious, demonstrate the character of the person involved. As such, the LP becomes a deeply personal performance in which one utilizes the game as a way to project personification of themselves. Objective elements of a particular game transform into a subjective experience in which different shades of personality come to the fore.

Thanks to YouTube and streaming services like Twitch, the LP has become a viable form for players to put their own personality into a game they had little hand in developing. Walkthroughs blazed the trail in this regard, their detailed breakdowns another way of projecting a personal stamp on the gameplay experience. This is what the walkthrough and LP share in terms of common ground. They both take gameplay that is often a closed, solitaire process and share that process in a way that creates a more open and multiplayer experience.

Cover image courtesy of Bryan Ochalla

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