We’ve all been there. When a puzzle is so obtuse you can’t even begin to work out how to solve it. When you’ve been searching for the next bonfire in a Dark Souls game for hours on end. When you've committed to finding a game’s scattered collectibles and one proves a bit too well hidden. Wikis and guides can replace hours of frustration with a few seconds of Googling, making up for an oversight on the part of a game dev or the occasional brain fart on the part of the player.
They can also leach the fun out of games. Looking up solutions can quickly devolve into a paint-by-numbers experience, with almost as much time spent alt-tabbed as playing a game. The moment that door is opened, there’s a danger that any sense of challenge or discovery will be lost. So, how do you decide when turning to external sources such as guides, FAQs, Wikis and search engines is worth the risk?
So that we’re on the same page, I’ll start by ruling out some examples of when I think it’s harmless to seek a bit of external help. Crafting recipes in survival games is an obvious one: in most cases there’s no expectation that players should be figuring those out for themselves. Looking up a poorly explained mechanic or item seems equally fair, such as the Atlas Passes in No Man’s Sky. The only other clear-cut cases that spring to mind are those situations where I’m so completely stuck in a game that, without cheating, I’d get too frustrated to keep playing.
Although this brings us to our first grey area. I have no qualms with reaching for a guide when my frustration reaches that point, but it’s something of a slippery slope. If I convince myself that I’m probably going to have to look something up eventually, very often my next thought is that I may as well save some time and just do it straight away. If I then find out that I’d have reached a solution by myself with a little more effort, then that's disheartening, but it's far from the worst way in which wikis have undermined my enjoyment of a game.
I was playing Darkest Dungeon, for example, and it started with me innocently checking how some of its systems worked. I’d been warned that the game does a poor job of teaching you how to play it, so I didn’t see a problem with clarifying a few things.
It wasn’t long before I was scrolling through the page which details the abilities, strengths and weaknesses of each class, as well as suggestions for which heroes work well together. Within 10 minutes of skimming, I’d essentially ruined a massive part of the game. Instead of experimenting with different party combinations, I’d simply memorised the most optimal. Clearing dungeons with my wiki approved team became a bit less challenging and substantially less rewarding: the congratulations screen at the end of each run no longer fully belonged to me. There was no going back, either – I couldn’t field teams I now knew would be less effective – so I just stopped playing.
Darkest Dungeon is a game that’s defined by its difficulty. Overcoming the challenge it presents is one of the main reasons to play it, and in cheating I’d robbed myself of the satisfaction I’d have got from beating it under my own steam. However, the same thing might be said of roguelikes in general – the very genre in which I most readily rely on wikis.
If I can’t instantly figure out what an item does, I’ll look it up. If there are secret characters to unlock, I’ll research how to get them. If a game has shrines or some equivalent, you can bet I’ll have the relevant page open in the background. I’ve never hesitated to do any of those things, despite having friends who’d consider them sacrilege. In many cases, without the aid of a wiki I’d miss out on elements of a game that dramatically enrich the experience.
I’m sure there are people out there who’ve found The City of Gold or Y.V’s Mansion all by themselves, but without help 99% of players wouldn’t know they existed. It could be argued that that’s the way it should be: that stacking the odds against the player renders the discoveries they do make meaningful and special in a way that they couldn’t otherwise be. There’s some truth to that, and for some people the chance of having a few thrilling moments of discovery will be worth it. Personally, I’m happy to pluck the forbidden fruit of wiki knowledge. Alt-tabbing to the Binding of Isaac cheat sheet, for example, allowed me to stop fretting about how each item worked and focus on just playing the game.
The decision to use a wiki or not is relatively simple once you know what you want to get out of a game. It's not knowing that makes that choice much harder. Stardew Valley is about many things: exploring caves, fishing and gifting blackberries to NPC’s until they marry you. Ultimately, though, it all comes back to farming. The core loop of the game is planting crops, selling them, then buying and growing more expensive crops. I tried, but I couldn’t bear to invest so much time and effort into growing crops that might not prove the most profitable... so I just looked them up. With fresh, optimal plants in the ground my profit anxiety faded, and that loop became much more enjoyable.
Yet I still wish I hadn’t done it. I’d improved the part of the game that was about making money, but by stepping outside of the game world I’d allowed part of its original charm to escape. The town felt like it had less character, with my farm simply a machine for making numbers bigger rather than a retreat from modern life. In a way, I’d gone against the whole ethos of Stardew Valley, fussing over optimisation rather than relaxing and doing my own thing.
Some games invoke an unavoidable tension between wanting to play efficiently and wanting to play without breaking immersion. In others, there’s a tension between wanting to know how something works now and wanting to find out for yourself. Some games have both – No Man’s Sky is a particularly thorny one, where my urge to get rich and reach the centre of the galaxy as fast as possible, with the help of wikis, is at odds with my fantasy of embodying a space trader and just going on adventures.
Using or ignoring resources from outside a game is a balancing act. When discovery, immersion or challenge are central to a game, there’s a good chance that they’ll detract from the experience in some way. Nevertheless, those elements may be more or less important in different games, in different contexts and to different people. Games can be enriched with careful use of wikis, but it’s always worth thinking carefully about whether it might ruin your reasons for playing in the first place - and remember, there’s no going back.