I was crouched in the tall grass next to a road in the middle of Afghanistan, rocket launcher on my shoulder, D-Dog snuffling around behind me, waiting for a convoy of tanks and trucks to pass by along their route to somewhere important, when a thought occurred to me: what if I’d already missed the convoy? Concerned, I scampered to the top of a stumpy hill and peered through my scope in all directions, whirling in a circle like a frantic lighthouse. To the north: nothing. To the south: more grass. So much more grass. Nothing moving anywhere else but a herd of wild donkeys going about their wild donkey business. Shit. I knew the convoy’s route - I’d exploded heads with my sniper rifle at a nearby encampment until it was unpopulated enough for me to run up and scan a conveniently left behind document setting out the details - but I had no way of knowing whether it had already come and gone. Still, I wasn’t about to sit there by the side of the road like a heavily armed chump waiting for things to happen to me. I was a man of action! A take-charge, alpha male, go-get-’em paradigm-breaker! I was motherfucking Big Boss!
I...pulled up a walkthrough on my phone.
I’d missed the convoy. I’d spent too long snooping around the outskirts of that first encampment marveling at the soldiers’ body armor and wondering if my wimpy sniper rifle would be able to pierce it, and now the convoy was gone, probably way up north and surrounding by barbed wire fences and turrets and mines. I could have climbed aboard my trusty steed and gallopped off after it in hopes of catching up, but who knew if that would work? Not me. I started the mission over.
This sort of thing happens to me a lot more in 2016 than it used to in the 90s, back when I had nothing more than abundant free time and my (ten-year-old, terrible) wits available to help me solve twisty video-game-related conundrums. Today, if I encounter even the dinkiest roadblock on my path to victory, I’m exponentially more likely to google a solution than risk tripping over it and wasting more time. Is this a consequence of the INFORMATION AGE? Is the “information age” even a thing? Was that back in the early 2000s? Is it still happening? I couldn’t tell you - I’m not a scientist - but I do know that it’s damn easy to let the internet hold your hand through even the easiest puzzle a game might present. No sooner does something like The Witness drop than outlets like IGN release extensive walkthroughs detailing “How To Solve Every Single Puzzle In The Witness” despite having spent the preceding weeks extolling its rewarding puzzle system and devoting page after page to discussing how solving those puzzles is the crux - the only purpose - of the game. If you’re consulting a list that unravels each and every puzzle in a game that only exists to give you puzzles to solve, why are you even playing? What are you doing?
It wasn’t always like this. As a small child - a shorter-legged but just-as-awesome version of the brawny man typing this today - I found myself the proud owner of a Final Fantasy III cartridge just begging to be jammed roughly into my Super Nintendo. I played the shit out of that game. For about two hours. At that point, I ran up against a setback that my tiny brain couldn’t quite compute: to advance the plot, I needed to move King Edgar’s castle out of the desert. Of course, I didn’t know that. I wandered aimlessly around the castle chatting with NPCs, fought a bunch of monsters on the world map, threw heavy shoes at my brothers in frustration, and eventually gave up and switched back to Donkey Kong Country. It wasn’t until a while later that I revisited the game and, with my rapidly growing and ever more neurologically interconnected brain applied to the task, was able to find some guy who pushed a button that moved the castle underground. And you know what? It was rewarding as hell.
Lucasarts adventure games were the same way and typically characterized by considerably more obtuse puzzles. Need to get across that zipline in Monkey Island? Slide across on your rubber chicken, idiot. What’s that, Zak McCracken? You want to go back to Peru? I hope you didn’t spend your limited money stash joy-flying around anywhere else. Those games were ruthless, but with every puzzle solved came a distinct sense of accomplishment that goes home when Google joins the party. In nearly all of the five Lucasarts games included in my variety pack, I’d repeatedly find myself hopelessly, tantrum-throwing stuck, but I’d eventually worm my way out of the predicament through dogged, experimental combination of unlikely inventory items or, in the case of Zak McCracken, just starting the fuck over. Lucasarts threw players a bone, though: at least in my compilation version, the company saw fit to include a voluminous (you know, voluminous to a little kid) guidebook that provided a variable degree of assistance for each game. For Monkey Island, there was a captain’s-log-style narrative written by Guybrush Threepwood, the would-be pirate protagonist, that offered guidance, but usually not solutions; for Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade, I seem to recall some sort of tiered hint system that left up to the player whether he wanted a subtle nudge in the right direction, a more pointed hint, or a quick end to the pain.
The guidebook was a great midway point. It was there if I needed it, easily ignorable if I didn’t, and it wasn’t going to shove the answer in my face if I found myself in need of a leg up. That’s not to say it was the perfect antidote to tough games: it couldn’t do much to combat the world-destroying mental terrorism of Maniac Mansion, but I’m not sure there was much that could. If I sat down to play that game today - which I won’t, even thinking about it makes me frown - I imagine I’d be reduced to tears just as quickly as I was the first time around. My point, though, is that the absence of easy solutions was a boon to 90s gamers, not an impediment. I have to believe that it contributed something major to my set of problem-solving skills and whatever amount of patience I’ve accumulated- like I said, I waited months, maybe even a year, to make any headway in Final Fantasy III. That’s a long time, bro. Today, I’m lucky if I wait ten minutes before letting the internet solve my problems for me.
The modern-day “solution” to the difficult-puzzles question is, to a certain extent, the outright dumbification of games. It’s not easy to find a game that’s comfortable leaving you lost like a kid in a grocery store for too long; your mother’s going to be there holding your hand, guiding you to the candy aisle, showing you the way to the exit, don’t worry, don’t cry. QUIT CRYING, HERE’S THE EXIT. Most open world games ship with a standard-issue mini-map and/or a big honkin’ arrow floating at the top of the screen to make sure that you don’t for one second feel any twinge of doubt that you’re not 100% certain what to do next. Shit, Final Fantasy XIII was literally one long, gray hallway, and not even the scary kind of hallway like in P.T. (which I haven’t played and which I’m not going to play because the screenshots and game description fill my nightmare quota all by themselves, thanks). I couldn’t have gotten lost in that game if I tried. And isn’t that kind of a shame? Isn’t there some joy in being lost and sleuthing your way back out of your own accord? I think there is, and I think the disappearance of the availability of that joy is the result of two directly correlated phenomena all twisted together like a strand of DNA: the stranglehold that my life has on free time - something I’m realizing I tend to shoehorn into all of my posts, so maybe I should tell a therapist about it - and the aforementioned relative easiness of new games.
Now, neither phenomenon is an absolute truism in all cases, I understand that. There are people my age with sloppy bucketloads of free time that they can and do devote to video gaming who don’t hear the second hand ticking behind them while they puzzle out their puzzles, just as there are new, aggressively difficult games released that make no bones about turning you into a pile of bones - Demon’s Souls and its successors, direct and spiritual, are evidence enough of the populace’s thirst for punishment. Sick bastards.
Still, even given infinite time (if you know that cheat code, DM me) and a game that presents a legitimate challenge, the internet it always lurking in the wings like a friendly, super-helpful phantom. For every seemingly untouchable boss in Bloodborne, there’s a corresponding YouTube video with ten kadrillion views showing you exactly how to bring it down. And every minute that I spend not bringing it down, or relaxing on some quiet hilltop in Afghanistan with only the goats for company and no idea whether the convoy I’m waiting for is coming, can feel like a minute wasted as long as I’m aware that sweet, sweet answers are only a click away. Do I really want to spend the next half hour trying and failing to progress in this game? I’ve got to go to bed! I’ve got to floss, man! I can’t spend a half hour every night trying to advance through the same infinitesimal segment of a 100-hour game without ever getting anywhere - that’s the fifth definition of “insanity” (I don’t know, probably). My time is precious, motherfucker! I can’t afford not to achieve forward motion.
There’s no obvious way to solve this riddle. In 2016, it’s not really even a riddle - just a fact a life. For my sanity and ongoing belief in the good of man, I have to believe the answer isn’t re-releasing Final Fantasies on cell phones with “cheats” available that allow you to play in fast forward with no random encounters - that’s how you neuter a game. The only way to fight against the rising tide that I can visualize in my mind’s eye (my Third Eye Mind?) is to mandate that all employers provide video-gaming employees with a one-month paid vacation during which those employees are permitted to play only a single game until it is beaten and are absolutely prohibited from contributing productively to society or pursuing self-betterment in any way. Is that a good idea? Hell no. Would I do it if it was offered to me? Well, yeah. Until that day comes, though, I’ll grit my teeth, and I’ll try and fight through puzzles with my own smarts, and I’ll avoid grabbing at the easy solutions the internet offers until I’ve put forth a sincere effort that I’m proud of and can stand behind. I’m Big Boss. I’ll crack the cipher.
Wait, so how do I edit this post again? Oh, I bet I can just google it...