Videogame Walkthrough: Commentary?

What is the purpose of a videogame walkthrough?

That is the implicit question discussed in the post “Epic Life: The Big Break of BioShock 3: Humanism of the Walkthrough, or, What happens when the prisoner doesn’t notice he’s been freed“. Are they commentaries? Do they explain the game and contain, in prose, the results of countless explorations? Are they references or co-texts themselves?

Put more basically: “What are walkthroughs exactly?” and “Do they show us something important about gaming?”

It is easy to dismiss them as help for a broader public. That videogame walkthroughs might be merely guides for an easier path through a game is a common thought. In fact, most gaming sites do not differentiate between “guides” and “walkthroughs”. For many, they are the same thing: a reference when needed.

However, Roger Travis brings our attention to an important point about walkthroughs: they encode a humanistic response to a game. By equipping readers with the mental tools to face a problem in a videogame, they encourage us to be better than we are. They list rules to follow and provide ways to avoid obstacles. In other words, they give us “better texts”.

That is the very phrase Travis uses when he writes: “Those old recorded performances were the traditional philological activity of producing better texts, the traditional historical activity of producing better descriptions of the events of the past, and the traditional philosophical activity of applying the wisdom of the past to the needs of the present; these new recorded performances are walkththroughs, game-guides, and game-play videos, not to mention a mass of forum-posts that, if printed, might turn the earth into a gravity well.”

They show us another way. A videogame walkthrough is often the work of numerous hours poured into a game to fully explore its depths and connections. Many, especially those listed on sites like GameFAQS, can contain multiple versions as the author revisits a game and adds more extensive notes. It is not uncommon to see a walkthrough quote or otherwise cite another too, thus creating a cross-linked web of references radiating outward.

That Travis equates them to commentaries is certainly an interesting idea then. Using just my own history with them as anecdotal evidence, I can certainly see how they are recorded performances too. I can remember reading several authors relating their first experience of parts of a game and how that changed their perception of an encounter. I’ve even seen one particular example with two authors who would write about their experiences during different sections while comparing strategies; it was much more of a conversation with occasional advice to the reader than anything else.

Yet, they explain the game. Many point our how, via certain technique or strategies, a secret can be revealed or an additional path found. Using just text, many walkthroughs even try to re-create a description of an area, drawing a picture using punctuation and letters. That they are pedagogy in action is hard to argue.

More than anything else though, they are also interpretation. This is the break from an indexed reference creation. Walkthroughs are not a map to different points, but part of a longer textual journey. Like a novel, they are often broken into units: sections or even chapters with uniquely codes of letters and numbers. A reader can jump into and out-of any part, but they are often meant to be read as a whole.

It’s this hypertextuality that makes them special. Many authors construct their walkthroughs in such a way to expect these open-read-close experiences, isolating their notes on bosses, certain battles, or difficult sections of a game separately. They then implement elaborate systems of codes to connect purely textual walkthroughs, or use links for those composed in HTML.

Comparing a walkthrough with a commentary on a work like Parmenides, as Travis does when he cites a translation of Plato’s own, we see the same thing. It is a section-by-section explanation of the work, on which, it needs to be mentioned, many people disagree. A commentary, like a walkthrough then, is often personalized to the play-style of the author. How they viewed the virtual world is coded in how they write about it.

Hence how Travis comes to quoting “Andrew Ryan is quite possibly the easiest boss in the entire history of video games” from a walkthrough on BioShockJason’s expectations about how videogames work, that boss battles should be challenging, are confounded by the “easy” boss encounter with Andrew Ryan in BioShock. It’s his interpretation and analysis that is written for others to consider later about the game.

Yet, they are not often ignored. Walkthroughs, both in text and video form, represent the closest a person can get to a game without actually playing it. “Let’s Play”, the term for a person playing while also commenting on a game in video form, often produce powerful performances of combining the commentary as audio with the game as video. They record games for prosperity, frequently “extending and deepening the great chain of practomime and breathing new life into old bones and tired rulesets” as Travis writes.

In our chase to write about every aspect of a videogame, we would do well add some writing about the commentaries themselves as Roger Travis has done. They often go unrepresented as the clearest example of humanism as encoded by other players. They are guides, yes, but more too. They are a game as seen through the lens of another person, chronicled and compared to help others make their way through the same problems. They make us better players by showing us “better texts”.

2 thoughts on “Videogame Walkthrough: Commentary?

  1. Thanks for this marvelous extension and refinement, Dan. I really like the way you read “better texts,” which is something I wouldn’t have thought of doing, locked as I am into my philologist’s mindset, where a better text is a text that’s closer to what the original audience read!

    1. Dan Cox


      I think you are on a great track on the “Big Break of BioShock” series. I fully agree with the idea that, to understand what is happening when we “play”, we must be looking at all interactions as really performances within different rulesets. Of course, I already agreed with that before the series started too.

      One of the reasons I decided to write about it this time though was because of the walkthrough issue. As I wrote, and have noticed as someone who has followed the community for a few years now, walkthroughs are mostly ignored as a site of study. Yet, especially in my own play history, I’ve found myself using them extensively while playing RPGs like Persona 4 and Final Fantasy XIII where I’ve invested 60+ hours and want to get the most out of my performances within each ruleset. Without those co-texts, I would not be as “good” a player.

      The same goes for commentaries on written works too. To understand certain imagery or icons in novels, I’ve turned to other texts to help explain and “walk me through” what something means and how it links to the larger part of a story. Through reading someone else’s performance of a text, I’ve come to be a “better” reader of that text.

      It makes perfect sense to equate the two to me then. Walkthroughs are most definitely commentaries.

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