Up against the wall. (winning at computer games) (Column)
by Paul C. Schuytema
It's 3:00 a.m., and you've just rammed full speed into the brick wall that designers work so hard to build into their games: the unstoppable opponent or the unsolvable puzzle. After committing hours to the game, you've reached an obstruction that seems impossible to overcome.
Computer games are tough (they have to be to justify the cost), and as we get better and better at anticipating what's coming, the game publishers work harder at creating more challenging puzzles and burlier opponents. And in this spiraling climb of difficulty, there has to be some friction. Don't hate the game. You wouldn't have bought it if you thought it was going to be easy. Every game has a solution (at least, I'd like to think so), no matter how cryptic or convoluted, and there are ways to hurdle that wall.
The first thing you should ask yourself when you hit the wall is, "Am I on track, or is this a dead end?"
If the game is a linear shoot-'em-up, then you know you have to overcome that obstacle to get any further. If it's an adventure game, the answer is trickier; you might have wandered into a blind alley. If so, all you need to do is back up and take another route. And if it's a simulation, you know it's just a matter of patience and learning the right skills before you put that F-16 down on the runway without crashing.
The best way to get past the wall is to arm yourself with as much information as possible. If you're playing a savable game, then play right up to your wall and save the game. Make a few copies of your saved game and settle down to experiment.
Search for resources beyond the game itself. Often, the game's manual contains a wealth of information. It's a great place to start looking for your solution. Some manuals have their own hint sections, while others will give information in the narrative introduction or in the fictional background material. It's worth a try.
Sometimes, the game itself will allow you to modify the parameters. Don't think of this as cheating, but as fact-finding. You're simply looking for the solution to a puzzle. If you change the parameters and solve your dilemma, you can set them back and recall for "honest" play a game you saved previously.
Often, the game is in real-time, and you only have a few precious seconds. So take a snapshot. A screen capture utility is also great for this. You can tell a lot from a screen shot, especially if the screen is crowded like the one in Falcon 3.0.
If your video card has an output jack, hook up your V and record the last minutes before you crumble. Think of yourself as a coach, evaluating the gameplay. (Digital Vision and others make interfaces that convert VGA to composite video for videotaping.)
Another good tactic is to get the game up and running and then have a friend run through the difficult part while you watch. Maybe you'll see something new. But watch out. If your friend breezes past your wall, your ego may be hurting for a long time.
Often, if a game is popular enough, you can buy hint books that solve nearly all of your problems. Generally, the books are written with the frustrated gamer in mind and organized so that you can get the information you need without spoiling the game.
Check out online resources, too. Often, a local BBS will have a library of text file hints that you can download. Also, large networks such as Genie and CompuServe have gamers' forums that provide the opportunity to ask for specific help from people who have been there. CompuServe will also provide its members with contact numbers for the major game publishers. Genie has a general RoundTable for computer game enthusiasts. Nowadays, it seems as if everybody's installing 900-number help lines. Electronic Arts has a 900 hint line which allows you to access any level of any game through a menu and your touch-tone phone. But don't forget that these help sessions can cost as much as a hint book. And at times the hints may be as cryptic as the puzzles themselves. Remember that these games have solutions. Sometimes the answer is practice, and sometimes it's a little more complicated. If you need help, the resources are out there. Someone somewhere has run into the same problem. You only need to track that person down.