“The following is a contributor column by the Infernal Accountant Mage.”
Many keystrokes have been wasted debating the status of video games as art. Are they? Aren’t they? Does it matter? We talked about this on The Well-Red Mage some time ago, and based on the Twitter responses Well-Red received after bringing it up at all, it’s still a bit of a sore spot. Even growing up, though, I never really thought much of games outside of their mechanical qualities. I can respect that some of them look nice, that some of them sound great and that, apparently, some of them have really moving stories… but that’s not really why I play games. For me, it’s the act of playing that draws me to the hobby.
I think this is best illustrated by how young me approached new games. The days of yore weren’t like the modern era, where new games flow like water and gainful employment allows me to keep new goodies coming on a regular basis. No, back in the day money was hard to come by, online shopping was a less attractive option and a new game was a rare and valuable prize. Even renting a new game for a weekend was a treat. What’s more, young me grew up in Europe but only had access to NTSC equipment, so certain niche games were simply not going to be available – that was a bitter pill to swallow for a Japanese RPG-loving kid like myself.
The bottom line is that there was a big game-shaped hole in my soul a lot of the time and I wouldn’t be able to fill it with, well, games. The next best option turned out to be game guides. I absolutely adored video game strategy guides; they were what I’d read to sleep at night, what I’d take to school to read between classes (and sneak during class if I was feeling bold) and what fuelled my daydreams with thoughts of games I didn’t own in an age where you couldn’t just watch gameplay on YouTube. At first this meant grabbing print guides where I could, but young me was part of the first generation to grow up alongside the Internet, and this meant being able to access GameFAQs.
I’ve been a professional writer for over a decade now. I don’t mean “professional writer but actual barista,” I mean that writing has paid my bills and kept a roof over my head. I believe that GameFAQs is responsible for this, as young me consumed FAQs voraciously. Even before broadband access was readily available and Internet access was something you paid for by the hour, young me would desperately scour GameFAQs for the longest and best guides to save and read later. A treasured childhood possession is a burned CD containing an extensive library of text files saved from GameFAQs. During the sweltering Spanish summer, young me would stay up until the wee hours of the morning listening to music and reading guides.
It wasn’t about learning how to beat a game. Young me could probably have handled that, and indeed most of the games I’d read about weren’t games I owned. It was about knowing the game and, more importantly, having the material presented to you by someone who legitimately cared about it and wanted to share their passion with you. A well-written guide is a thing of beauty. It is part documentation, part review, part memoir. It is a slice of the author expressed through the lens of explaining how to master a video game; the magic of the written word is that it’s not constrained by format. I’m not the only one to see the artistry in guides; author Tim Etchells’ book The Broken World is a drama leaking into a walkthrough for a fictional game.
So I didn’t play Final Fantasy VI like most people almost certainly did – I knew the game inside and out before I touched it. I’d read guide after guide about it. I knew what was going to happen and when. I knew where to find the secrets and how to obtain them. To me, the act of playing the game was something akin to having a beloved book brought to the silver screen in glorious fashion. I’ve never been enamored with the idea of “spoilers;” if something can be spoiled just because you know what’s going to happen, then to me it wasn’t very well-presented. There is a clear and significant difference between knowing how something is done and doing it oneself.
Screenshots weren’t common in those days. I knew Sabin was a powerful martial artist with numerous special attacks, but now I got to see him fight and use those attacks for myself. I knew the Atma Weapon was a solid wall of a boss that would test the player at the halfway point of the game, but now I’d get to conquer that challenge for myself. I knew Gau was able to learn the attacks of the monsters you’d fought, but filling up his list of Rages was now up to me. I was finally able to see how my imagined view of dungeons, enemies and plot points compared with the real thing. The experience was exquisite and I’d repeat it time and time again; in particular, Star Ocean: The Second Story doesn’t appear on the big list that this column is based on, but my obsession with the game and its guides prior to finally getting the chance to play it was legendary.
This paradigm didn’t last forever. We’ll talk about SaGa Frontier in a future column; this is a game awash with mysteries, secrets and questions that remained unanswered for years, and even the official guide was patchy at best. The thought of a game so enigmatic that I simply couldn’t know everything there was to know about it was fascinating to young me. SaGa Frontier and its associated series and spin-offs are some of my favorites these days precisely because of how they refused to have their depths revealed. It was an entirely different sort of enjoyment; this tends to be how I prefer to approach games in an age where everyone talks about everything in games and there are no more mysteries.
Still, some of my most beloved gaming memories come from those titles that I’d finally, miraculously managed to play after exhaustively reading about them for days, weeks, months or even years. Deep into the night I’d sink into a guide, absorbing the endless complexities of a game I’d never played from a friend, gleaning the knowledge of a friend I’d never meet. Some people might call that a waste of a good experience. To me, though, it was amazing.
The Infernal Accountant Mage believes the pen is mightier than the sword…well, depending on how sharp the pen and sword are. A child of the ’90s and a prolific writer, he strews his work about like Legos made of words, just waiting for your brain to step on them. He enjoys a devilish challenge, so when it comes to talking about some of the more difficult games out there, you might just run into the Infernal Accountant Mage. Some advice: hold on to your soul around this guy, and don’t sign anything. Read more at popzara.com
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Categories: Wednesday Column