Back in the day, I spent hours trying to beat Super Mario World to full completion. Not one for puzzles, I was terrible at figuring out the secret areas. Star Road and the twisting passages in the Forest of Illusion were maddening.
Around that time, Apple Jacks cereal had a joint promotion with Nintendo. Special boxes were plastered with Mario’s smiling visage—and the phone number for the Nintendo Helpline.
Calls weren’t free. But if you were stuck, it was worth doling out a bit of allowance to have an expert Nintendo Gameplay Counselor guide you through the tricky areas of the game.
I called once. With my parents’ permission, I asked a counselor for advice on the Donut Ghost House. Luckily, there was an easy solution. Mario donned his cape and flew up to the hidden passageway.
These days, FAQs for games are ubiquitous. Strategy guides and frantic helpline calls are no longer necessary.
Clive Thompson, a science and culture writer, once likened game walkthroughs to “travel literature of the damned.” It’s true: reading a descriptive walkthrough gives a definite sense of place, even through the most grisly of video game scenarios.
Unlike the recent spate of video walkthroughs on YouTube, most plaintext game FAQs can’t rely on visuals to explain complex hints. (The most advanced text files include ASCII diagrams.) To work around this complication, FAQ writers use bold, descriptive language.
Looking beyond damned travel literature, game FAQs are like recipes.
The structure of a recipe and a walkthrough are essentially the same.
Both have an end goal. Both strive to explain the process from A to Z in thorough, exacting detail. Both are tested and retested and improved upon.
In recipes, the steps are clearly delineated. Ingredients are listed out in the introduction. Sometimes the writer begins the piece with history, an anecdote, or a description of the dish’s selling points.
In walkthroughs, each step of the gameplay process is laid out in exhaustive detail. Large-scale goals—like rescuing the princess, escaping the crazy boss man, or saving the world—are broken down into specific actions.
One style of walkthrough is especially recipe-like. Whereas some writers expound upon the intricacies of the game’s plot, spoiling new developments before players can clear the obstacles, others strive for spoiler-free hints. These walkthroughs read like recipes, quick bits of information laid out in succession, one after the other.
Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Beat the egg whites until they peak. Mix in the dry ingredients.
Scale the wall beside the tattered picture. Hide in the corner until the beams of light disappear. Shoot the alien thirteen times in the leg.