Or, why some people shouldn't be writing them.
It happens to all of us at some stage or another. While we usually do our best to triumph on our own steam, we all have to look up help at times when playing a game.
Maybe you've died ten times against a particular boss and want to make sure you're not missing some kind of obvious weak point or strategy. Maybe you're a die-hard completionist like me who's spent weeks playing through a game several times over, and you're desperate to find that last little hidden item to complete a checklist or earn some kind of special prize. Whatever the reasoning, sometimes a game just pushes us beyond our limits and we seek out the advice of others just to keep the ball rolling and get the task over with.
Over the years I've seen my share of guides and walkthroughs on sites like GameFaqs and StrategyWiki, and generally the process of finding that one little kernel of information you're searching for is a quick and painless process. But all too often a guide is so full of convoluted misinformation and poor writing practices that it would have been quicker to just figure out the problem yourself.
I've put together a list of personal peeves I frequently come across on my quest for information. I'm not going to single out any particularly bad walkthroughs that I've read, I just want to give my two cents worth of help to those with room for improvement.
If I can at least play a part to helping a handful of future FAQ writers structure their documents a little better, then I'll consider it a success.
There's no "Review" in "Walkthrough".
A guide is a guide, not a comprehensive journal of your entire playing experience.
People looking up your walkthrough are doing so to find out how to pass whatever point they're stuck at. They don't care what you thought about the game, or the adventure you had getting to the store to buy it, or that you're better than your little brother at playing it. Don't put an entire review with a score breakdown at the start. That's what reader reviews are for, and most people will just scroll past it.
Don't be a control freak.
If someone's clicked on your guide, chances are they're already partway through the game and are already familiar with the controls. I understand that some people don't look at game manuals or might skip past tutorials and then get stuck when the game requires them to do something they should already know. Mapping out the controls in your guide can have some practical use, but don't stick it at the top of the page before the guide itself, unless you're using a contents list with search tags so people can quickly ctrl-f their way past it.
Furthermore, if the game has a customizable control set or works with different controllers, don't automatically assume your readers are using Type A default controls, because almost all your "Hold A and press B" instructions will inherently be rendered irrelevant.
This can also be said for guides that contain a complete character list at the start. If you're showing a crucial difference between selectable characters, their stats and advantages/disadvantages over the other characters, then fine.
If it's a one-player game in which you can only play as one character, there's no strategic reason for listing every cast member, their personality type and their favorite foods. It only serves as more unnecessary filler that people will scroll right past.
Leave the comedy to the professionals.
I'm sure everyone's seen this type of guide. The author is a self-proclaimed comedian, and every single instruction is broken up between a lengthy monologue of personal thoughts, sarcastic comments or immature jokes that only he or she would find funny. "As you go into the next room you'll see a zombie facing the far wall and moaning. Hurr-durr, he must be jerking off." You know the kind.
There are ways to be witty in your writing, and a joke here and there can make your guide more fun to read, IF it's appropriate and warranted. If the joke you want to write doesn't directly contribute to the point you're making, it has no place in a walkthrough. Save it for the chat rooms.
Align your lines.
I don't mind a little ASCII art to decorate your guide and make chapter headings easier to see, but try not to make a gigantic logo that takes up the entire first page of the document, and check it using multiple browsers to make sure it lines up on all of them. Nothing looks quite as pitiful as a broken ASCII picture.
Learn the difference between left and right.
Seriously, this is grade school stuff, and it's boggling to see how many times this concept is confused.
Everyone gets a little lost sometimes, heck, that's often why people need to consult a walkthrough. One or two mistakes made in a moment of absent-mindedness can be forgiven, but in some guides this happens constantly. Simple misdirection can often be solved with a quick survey of the surroundings, but when the situation calls for you to "take the third path from the left to avoid the deadly traps" or "keep following the wall on your right for about 10 minutes to reach the exit", You'd want to be pretty damn sure you're giving your readers the right advice. And by right, I mean correct.
Here's a super-simple guide of your own to help out if it's really giving you trouble. Raise your fists up in front of your face, and point up to the ceiling with your index fingers. While doing this, point your thumbs towards each other. See the "L" shape one of your hands makes? That's "L" for "left". Amazing!
Compass directions do not correspond with relative directions.
I've seen several guides where the player is instructed to "look in the NW corner of the bookshelf", or "ride the elevator south until you get to the basement". I know it's pretty easy to figure out the intended meaning, but come on, that's just silly.
Likewise, just because you're walking forward along a path towards a specific goal, don't assume that direction the character is going is North. It can be extremely disorienting when navigating a maze of branching paths where the guide tells you to "head North, then turn East and follow the path to the end", only to bring up the game's map screen and find out you're heading South and need to turn West.
Even in games where the map can be rotated, there's always a little compass or legend showing which direction is North for the specific purpose of preventing this kind of confusion. If you want me to turn right, just say so!
"Next we want to go to the Forgotten City, where Sephiroth kills Aeris."
There's nothing quite as annoying as having a major story revelation ruined for you, especially when you're just about to get to it. In order to explain how to navigate certain parts of certain games, avoiding spoilers can sometimes be pretty difficult, if not impossible. Nonetheless, there's no reason to describe the events taking place in each cutscene as they happen. I've even seen a few walkthroughs that plot out the entire dialogue script for every movie sequence in the game! Why!?
If the player has followed your guide up until this point, they'll be watching the movie anyway. Try to have a little consideration for your readers and they'll appreciate your guide all the more. Don't give spoilers in chapter headings either. "Chapter 5: The Death of Aeris" is a bad idea, even if it's the worst-kept secret in the history of video games.
This brings me back to my earlier point about avoiding character profiles at the start - it goes double if the game has a plot twist involving the identity of the final boss.
Thoroughly proofread and fact-check your walkthrough to make sure all the information is correct before you submit it to the online databases. Use spell-check and be careful of common grammar mistakes. Make sure you're calling the characters by their correct names and listing levels and areas by their official map names where applicable. Test your own advice and strategies to make sure they're accurate. It goes without saying, if you're sending your readers on a wild goose chase, they're not going to be too pleased with your instructions and you'll probably get backlash in your email about it. Lastly, don't patronize your readers. Be courteous and respectful. Everyone has different levels of skill, and if they can't pass a certain point in a game without looking up a guide, it doesn't make them stupid.
Keep your guide concise, straightforward and helpful, and you'll be writing for Prima Games in no time.
Goofy pictures drawn by me.