So I was reading this strategy guide...

By Brian Taylor
Sunday, July 24, 2011 at 10:00 am
Brian Taylor
The guide in question.

I love strategy guides.

I love them in all of their forms.

Tip books, magazines, walkthroughs, FAQs, wikis. I love seeing how they present the game and how to play it (Codes? Maps? Text? Images?), how different media can do different things.

The nature of a game can have a large influence on the best strategy guide structure. An adventure game works really well with a text-only walkthrough until you get to the point in Full Throttle where you have to kick the wall in the correct spot but this stupid .txt file you downloaded from the mid-1990s Internet is absolutely USELESS at showing you that spot. A screenshot with an arrow would have been much more helpful then, even though it would have taken way more bandwidth. So the technology got in the way.

Large open world games, like those made by Bethesda, are served very well by wikis. That technology allows large numbers of people to contribute and collaborate and allows a user to search and explore things very quickly in a nonlinear fashion.

The available technology (books!) and the game itself definitely influenced this TIE Fighter strategy guide I found a while back in a used book store.

Missions in TIE Fighter (as in the rest of the X-Wing series) begin with a briefing. You're told a bit of background, shown a map, and given a strategy. The fun comes from following that strategy (or not) and improvising once, as the game gets more complex, missions go awry.

The games, played primarily in cockpit view, never had to worry about a disconnect between your control input and the game fiction: a keyboard has plenty of buttons to stand in for a starfighter control panel. There wasn't much separating you from your pilot; your computer and the game were your ship.

I point this out because it helps to understand the downright weirdness of how the strategy guide presents information. Both X-Wing (1993) and TIE Fighter (1994) came with novelized manuals: The Farlander Papers and The Stele Chronicles, respectively. They were published as LucasFilm was ramping up the Star Wars machine. Heir to the Empire, the first novel set after the events of Return of the Jedi, had been a great success when it was published in 1991. People were eating up any new Star Wars adventures, so instead of listing controls and instructions, these manuals told a story that just happened to have a lot of specific control detail.

The first part of the strategy guide takes this approach. Each mission is presented not as what you should do (the game's briefings already do that), but what Maarek Stele, Imperial pilot did in that mission. In his introduction, the author, Rusel Demaria, writes:

"... the strategies suggested in Stele's After-Action Report are possible scenarios. Because these missions involve many spacecraft and certain elements of chance, the mission strategies should be used as guidelines only. Your experience may be different ..."

"Your experience may be different" is far from the idea of the strategy guide as walkthrough, as hand-holding "tell me what to do so I can win as easily as possible". The book is more like a reference, which is enhanced by the second way the guide covers every mission: data tables.

Brian Taylor
What does any of this even MEAN?

Both the back of the book and its introduction promise "coded mission details known only to the programmers," and these tables provide that. Sprawled in columns across nearly 150 pages, all abbreviations and numbers. I wonder if this information was useful to players, or if its appeal was how obtuse it was. Arcane knowledge for knowledge's sake, knowing these numbers.

Maybe it was useful, though. Where the novelized portions of the guide provided a single possible strategy, this information could be used as a kind of recon to plan your own strategies. If you had the knowledge of the game necessary to decode these tables.

You'd already need to have game experience to make use of this part of the strategy guide. It's not a substitute for playing the game or figuring things out on your own, it's extra knowledge. Plenty of strategy guides try to add value by providing behind the scenes stories or concept art or access to other things that the developer can provide that a community-created source like a wiki or a website FAQ just simply can't. But I think this extra information, this peek into the systems underlying the game, is way more interesting.

Paratext is a concept in literary criticism: it's all the material that is part of a work that isn't the work itself. Writer, photographer, and librarian Brian Taylor's biweekly column is about the things and the people and the places surrounding video games -- and often about the past.

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