Sunday, September 5, 2010

Walkthroughs, Hints, and Clue Books

I like to think I'm contributing a lot to the history and lore of CRPGs through this blog, but my personal hero is a guy named Dan Simpson. I don't really know anything about him except that he's contributed 47 files, including 23 complete walkthroughs, to and plenty of other sites. Most of them are for newer games, but he's got a few of the Ultimas, Master of Magic, and yes, Starflight, in there, too.

Dan's FAQ for Baldur's Gate II is epic. It's a work of literature. The damned thing is over 143,000 words, and if you paste it into Word, it clocks in at 394 pages. Needless to say, it is comprehensive: every nook and cranny of this game, every possible outcome, is explored. More important, Dan writes well and his descriptions are just fun to read. I have almost as much fun reading the walkthrough as I do playing the game. Just looking it up to write this post, I got trapped for 45 minutes.

Just a small snippet of Dan Simpson's awesome walkthrough.

So who is this guy, and why does he spend so much time writing so much great material for little recognition and no compensation? If he's ever been interviewed, featured in a magazine, or offered a job at one of the gaming web sites, I'll be damned if I can find it.

But here's a better question: who spends $30 on the "official" Prima strategy guide with a walkthrough like this available for free? Who spends any money on printed strategy guides with so many FAQs and walkthroughs available on the Internet?

It wasn't always like this. Back in the era that I'm currently playing, if you couldn't figure out where to find a particular object or how to answer a riddle, you were pretty well screwed. If you were lucky, the game publisher provided a hint line. I used Origin's to win Ultima IV the first time I played it in 1985 because I neglected to write down the runes that spelled INFINITY. Ultimately, game makers realized they could make money off of their hints, turned them into 900 numbers, and charged $1.99 a minute for their hints. I remember calling SSI's hint line when I couldn't get past the final battle in Pool of Radiance after multiple tries. It cost me something like $6.00 to hear "the best way to defeat Tyranthraxus and his minions is to cast as many fireballs as possible." (Calling the hint line for this, incidentally, turned out to be a little lame. I won on the next attempt by just using different tactics.)

You also had the option to purchase clue books, but remember that in the 1980s, we didn't have or even book superstores, so it was always iffy whether you could even find them. Some of them were quite well done, though. I remember having the clue book for The Bard's Tale, and it was basically a novel, providing hints and solutions in the context of a larger story about a party of adventurers seeking to defeat Mangar.

The party failed, of course, and the magic they used to send their adventurer's log on to the next party of heroes used "evil magic" that erased everything they had accomplished "from the fabric of time and destroyed," but their wisdom could be passed on to the next generation. Great stuff, and heck of a lot better than the official novel based on the game. (I had intended to do a special posting on game novelizations but couldn't get past the first chapter of this.)

Pages from the clue book for Curse of the Azure Bonds.

You could buy a clue book for each of the "Gold Box" games. These were less interesting than The Bard's Tale clue book, but they were at least comprehensive, with complete maps and full lists of encounters and spells. The Might & Magic series and Ultima (after V) had official clue books, too.

The clue books I liked most, however, weren't for CRPGS: they were for the Infocom "text adventures" like Zork, Spellbreaker, and Leather Goddesses of Phobos. I can't seem to find any images online, which is too bad because they were very creative. They were written as FAQs for the most common puzzles in the game ("How can I kill the troll?"), but the answers were written in invisible ink, and you had to uncover them with a special pen. They started off general, getting more specific as you uncovered more lines. To encourage you not to just uncover every answer, each book featured "fake" questions for problems that didn't actually exist in the game, causing you to waste your ink or be led astray in your gameplay. It was brilliant.

Prima, now a division of Random House, started in 1990 and swiftly grew to dominate the strategy guide market. All of their guides throw the word "official" in the title; does this mean they actually license the right to produce the guides from the game publishers? If so, I guess it explains why game publishers don't seem to produce their own clue books any more. But Prima's success baffles me. I would have thought they'd have a few good years before the Internet obliterated their profits. But they're still alive despite IGN, GameFAQs, GameBanshee, and hundreds of other sites devoted to both specific games and games in general.

This brings me back to walkthroughs. My rules prohibit me from using them as I play the games, but I still like to read them at the end and see what I missed. If Dan Simpson is my hero for Baldur's Gate II and newer games, the king of classic CRPG walkthroughs must be Andrew Schultz. His name is on the walkthroughs I reviewed for most of my recent games: Shard of Spring, Rings of Zilfin, Might & Magic. Unfortunately, he seems to have disappeared: most of his work is dated 2000-2003 and the web sites he lists in his FAQs are no longer active. As with Dan Simpson, Googling him is fruitless because of so many other people (including a comedian) with the same name.

Whether by these authors or thousands of others, walkthroughs are available for nearly every game, old and new. There's even a walkthrough for Big Rigs: Over the Road Racing, famously described by GameSpot as "one of the worst games ever made"--a game so lacking in challenge that your opponents on the race course don't even move.

Finally, I can't talk about walkthroughs without a note on the Universal Hint System, created in 1988 by Jason Strautman. It used to require special software, but now of course it's just browser-based. The idea behind UHS is similar to the old Infocom cluebooks: only provide as much of a hint as the user needs to solve the problem. Don't spoil the game. As you click away, you get progressively more specific hints until ultimately it just tells you.

Asking about where to find the Ritual of the Void in Might & Magic VI.

UHS is still hawking its "UHS Readers," but I'm not sure what purpose they serve with all the hints available on the web site. They also claim to pay (or "may be willing to pay") the hint authors. Think they'd be interested in hints for games a quarter century old? Anything pre-1995 is sorely underrepresented in the UHS.

My problem with using walkthroughs is that they rob me of three things that I like about CRPGS:

  • The satisfaction of solving difficult puzzles on my own. I felt a real thrill when I figured out the three-dimensional chess problem in Might & Magic. If I had allowed myself to use hints at all, I would have used them here.
  • The process of mapping and meticulously recording clues.
  • The character development that occurs while you're wandering around and backtracking, trying to find the one message, NPC, or clue that you need. This is always good for at least two more levels in the game.

You might say, "Well, CRPG Addict. Instead of taking an all-or-nothing approach, why don't you allow yourself to occasionally use walkthroughs if you really need them?" This is a good question, but one that betrays a lack of understanding of the term "addict." I have a binary personality. I either do something or don't do it; I have no ability to do something in moderation.

Nonetheless, I admire people who spend the kind of time needed to write thorough walkthroughs. After posting this, I'm going to send e-mails to Dan Simpson and Andrew Schultz and see if they want to tell us a little about themselves and get the recognition they deserve. In the meantime, I'll keep restricting my own hints to what you all tell me in the comments.


  1. I collect clue books. Some are fantastic and some are junk. I thought the gold box cluebooks were much better than the bards tale stuff. Also Ultima III is pretty cool to read but not very legible. Ultima VI has a nice cluebook.

    I tend to dislike cluebooks written as stories that provide little to no real game info (eg: Fountain of Dreams).

    Lucasarts + Sierra had imo the worst of the cluebooks around. 'functional' yes but craaaap. Faery Tale + Tunnels And Trolls have great big thick clue book that are pretty but ultimately useless :(

    I also think its a shame not every CRPG ever had a cluebok!! I'd love to have cluebooks for a lot of old classics (demons winter, questrons, etc). Sure I have compilations with those in (quest for clues serires etc).. but its not the same as a dedicated cluebook...

  2. As a "CRPG hobbyist" (not only playing but also dabbling in the creation of one) I always found the maps of Andrew Schultz both useful and enlightening, especially the tile-based ones.
    A similarly useful endeavour is the the Ultima Map Project, BTW:
    I always liked maps and some of these projects look like a real geographic atlas. I sometimes explore these RPG maps without the intention of actually playing the games - just having a peek at and into another world.

  3. I remember the Ultima hintbooks for U4-U6 which were essentially like the Bard's Tale one you mention above. A hint book and a novel all in one... quite something and definitely worth the money.

    Of course another notable mention would have to be the in-game hint-book for Space Quest IV, filled with random other hints and jokes unrelated to the game.

  4. Calibrator, I was the same way with Dungeons & Dragons modules when I was a kid. I didn't play the game, but I liked to read the modules. Seems kind of lame in retrospect.

  5. I agree with the Addict's comment about his binary nature. Once I open a walkthrough, I'm doomed. I will go from looking for one specific answer, to sitting with a print-out in front of me, consulting the walkthrough at each step -- and consequently draining all fun from the game!

    By the way, I have been reading your blog for some time now and love it. I don't know how you find the time to play these old games and blog about them, but I'm glad that you do because your posts are excellent!

  6. I wish I could change that about myself, but I can't. From April to the end of August, I was on a tough diet and exercise plan, but because I stuck to it every day, I was "on the plan" and it worked: I lost 40 pounds. I'm only about 20 pounds away from my ideal weight now. But about two weeks ago, I had a day in which, because it got all screwed up for reasons that would take too long to get into, I didn't exercise AND I broke my diet. Just like that, I was "off the plan." I haven't exercised or stuck to my diet plan since. I need to work myself up to getting "on the plan" again. What the hell, right?

    Anyway, Larry, thanks for your comments. I wouldn't keep doing this without this kind of positive feedback.

  7. I think the major purpose of guide books these days is their capacity for content that isn't merely plain text, ie. maps, charts, tables, screenshots, illustrations. And guide-makers actually do get licenses to make said guides; if they're lucky, the game company will give the guide makers access to game assets to ensure accuracy and completeness.

  8. "Calibrator, I was the same way with Dungeons & Dragons modules when I was a kid. I didn't play the game, but I liked to read the modules. Seems kind of lame in retrospect."

    He he, me too.
    But that was in a time and place when fantasy was rare and reading D&D material was one of the few ways of quenching the thirst for more fantasy.

    Regarding Andy Schultz he seems to have a web site at

  9. I too have collected clue books and D&D modules just for reading material. Haha. In fact, I wouldn't even look at clue books until I had completed the game. You are right, the Bard's Tale clue books were much better than the novels. Those were probably my favorite followed by the Gold Box ones.

  10. As someone who's been in the industry - yes, the Prima guides are generally deals struck between Prima and the major publishers. Prima usually gets a late Beta build, if I remember right, so if something changes just before the game goes gold, the guide will be wrong. In addition, the writers of the guide don't necessarily have a direct contact with the developers (who are, additionally, also busy trying to finish the game), so it's not quite as intimate as the old style guides (I think I recall reading that the guide for BT1 was written by Michael Stackpole, who went on to be the designer for BT3 - obviously a connection there). Finally, the writer is usually crunched for time trying to get the thing out (as I mentioned, it's a late Beta build which the writers receive). So, it's not that anyone is incompetent - it's that the game development process has grown too complex to allow good guides anymore.

  11. Prima's probably still around and making money because when you go into Gamestop to buy a new game they push them pretty hard. I'm glad I finally got my son to stop wanting them because frankly they're a waste of money, partly because most of them leave all kinds of stuff out.

  12. And how about: partly because they spoil the game!

  13. I remember the time before the internet, where you had to buy a clue book if you got stuck. If you were lucky you might be able to pick up a magazine with a walkthrough.

    I actually went out and bought a book once, containing walkthroughs for 35 games, because I got stuck in Veil of Darkness. The price tag is still on, and I can see that it cost the equvalent of about $35 back then. That's probably about the same as I paid for the game.

    I kind of miss those days, though. I have the spine of an earth worm, so I can't stop myself from using easily available faqs and walkthroughs. Because of this, I'm unable to enjoy adventure games anymore, and I used to love those. Come to think of it, I suspect that the internet probably figures into the demise of that genre somehow (although it seems to have had a bit of a comeback lately).

    Anyway, great article. I actually recognize Dan Simpson's name, since I've read a number of his walkthroughs. Don't forget Per Jorner, and his walkthroughs for the Fallout games (and Wasteland, I believe). Those are excellent, too.

  14. I'm fortunate enough not to have that sort of binary personality. If I get so stuck on a puzzle or fight that I get really frustrated -- like so much so I'm ready to quit playing the game -- I will look up a hint or advice or a solution online.

    I play console games only now, so I don't have a browser handy to look up a solution. That helps soothe the temptation to cheat, too.

    "I think the major purpose of guide books these days is their capacity for content that isn't merely plain text, ie. maps, charts, tables, screenshots, illustrations."


    I remember the very first Final Fantasy that came with the NES -- it included a huge fold-out map of the game world, on the back of which was a gynormous spreadsheet with ALL the weapons and armor and their stats, ALL the spells and their stats, and I think even ALL the monsters and their stats. Plus, the instruction guide walked you through the first 1/3 or so of the whole game. A lot of people would say that's hand-holding but I really appreciated a simple presentation of all the information that was ALREADY AVAILABLE in the game world and had been shown to me -- in an easy-to-access format.

    Having said all that, I've never purchased a strategy guide for anything. Not because I didn't want to but only because I'm almost pathologically miserly.

  15. I'm a bit late to the party here, but I can fully attest to how thorough and useful Dan Simpson's guides have been for me as well. If you ever read this blog, Dan, know that your work doesn't go unappreciated.

    1. I wish I could track down both him and Schultz. I had no luck when I gave it a try last year.

  16. It is an interesting subject. When I was a kid, my brothers usually did the mapping before me (they are a few years older). So I had an easy time then. Even so I didn't always finish the games.

    Nowadays I mostly play with walkthroughs. Mainly because I am a compulsive completionist. I really obsess over mising stuff, even if it is trivial. If there is a choice to go two separate ways I usually do both.

  17. Heh I read those D&D modules too even though I only played like two of them.

    One summer during the family road trip my main reading material the was M&M2 guide book. I loved that thing.

  18. Damn, the High-Resolution Ultima Map Project seems to have gone offline since you made this post. More confusing is the fact that nobody seemed to archive them, despite the last update being in 2000? Did people really think they would be around forever? Sometimes it happens, I suppose.

  19. I'm also an admirer of Dan Simpson. His walkthrough is so awesome that I often read them while having lunch/diner. Sadly his personal website seems to be down.

  20. Interesting that you mention game guides in the middle of your Starflight playthrough, because the Genesis version of that game was an example of a curious phenomenon that happened occasionally with console RPGs of that time period, where the game manual itself included a guide. In the case of Starflight, it was a ship's log; I think it used a similar conceit to the Bard's Tale guide, where at what would've been the end of the game the crew fails its mission and the captain somehow sends the log back in time to your hands. It was a pretty good read from what I remember.

    Nice to see ASchultz get some recognition as well. As someone pretty heavily involved in NES gaming, I would cross paths with him from time to time in relation to GameFAQs' NES Completion Project, but he seemed to fall off of the face of the Internet back in the late 2000s or thereabouts.


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