How to Spoil a Game

In Sanitarium, you have a godlike view of the nuthouse.You wake up in a centuries-old asylum. Your face is in bandages and your memory is in tatters, only coming back to you in black and white cinematic flashes. As you walk around and talk to people, you solve puzzles and unearth the mystery of your identity, travelling to different places that may only exist in your mind.

Sanitarium (DreamForge, 1998) is a puzzle-based adventure game for the PC, and playing the game caused me to stumble across another mystery from my own past: why does taking hints when I’m stuck in a game ruin it for me?

The appeal of games like Sanitarium is not in their realism. Sanitarium‘s got what’s known as a semi-isometric, top-down view, which will be a familiar one for players of The Sims. When you make your character go into a room, the top dissolves with a ghostly sound and reveals what’s inside, reminiscent of a dollhouse. The miniature characters are slightly blurred and unreal, which suits the creepy tone. When you encounter mutated children, their varied characters come through in their voices (tremulous, nasty) rather that the glimpse you’re given of their twisted faces.

The way that environments are small — as opposed to the sprawling, free-form settings of a lot of 3-D shooters — is actually preferable in a puzzle game like this. When you have a half-dozen rooms rather than a hundred, you’ll more easily find the stick on the ground that you need to poke the pig so it runs and gets rid of the dog, which allows you to get through the garden to the gazebo…

That’s not a real solution to anything, by the way, but that’s the kind of sequential list of things you do to progress in Sanitarium. When you come across something, you know you’ll be using it later — again, not realistic, but the interlocking tasks are fun to set in motion. Like the Rube Goldbergian contraptions that start by pushing over a domino that turns on a fan that blows up a balloon, there’s a satisfaction in getting it right.

In Sanitarium, you have a godlike view of the nuthouse.
But there’s an equal frustration in getting it wrong. In chapter two of Sanitarium, I got stuck. I knew what I needed to do but I couldn’t find the thing I needed to do it with. So I spent a few hours pixel-picking — revisiting everywhere I could, scrolling my mouse over everything that looked like it might be takeable. I knew the environment pretty well because earlier, the kids in the game had played a game of hide-and-seek with me, so I had to find them — a great little interlude where you have to watch carefully for the motion of someone peeking out of their hiding spot.

But this game of hide-and-seek was less fun, and I started to worry that the game might be buggy. So I searched the internet, found that there were no relevant bugs — and also found some hints. And I should have known better, but I looked.

When I was 15 and stumped by The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Infocom, 1984), we didn’t have the internet, so I bought the official InvisiClues hint book. I took but one hint but to this day I’ve never really felt like I finished that game myself. It’s a great game but my experience of it is somehow tainted by never really knowing if I could have completed it without help. Since that time, I’ve never taken hints. I’ve let games sit, come back to them months, or sometimes years, later, and give them another try — and more often than not, I figure it out eventually.

When I wrote my own text adventure, Punk Points, I didn’t include any hints, nor do I give any to people who ask. It’s not to be mean, it’s just because I’ve learned the correlation between challenge and satisfaction. When I write books, I’m more concerned about making things clearer — starting subtle, and moving towards obviousness if I need to — but with a game I’m OK with a smaller, more intense audience.

With Sanitarium, I had decided that as a reviewer I should take a hint — I didn’t want to recommend a game that was buggy or impossible, did I? — and I thought that I might have changed in the 15 years since I took my last hint. I don’t take games as seriously now as I did then, when I might have had a passionate opinion about whether hints were cheating and took unironic pride in completing a game.

But the thing that I was stuck on wasn’t a bug, or impossible, and instead was something I would have figured out in time. And now… I find that my enthusiasm for the game has dissipated. It feels like watching a movie with a twist ending that I know about beforehand. Good though it is, I doubt I’ll go back to play it.

You’d think I would have gotten the hint the first time.

10 replies »

  1. i can TOTALLY relate. my roommate is the kind of guy who buys the strategy guide when he buys the game, and then just follows it all the way thru to the end. i sit there going, “where’s the fun in that?” but then I remember how i never finished the old zelda or dragon warrior games because i would alwasy get stuck.
    i definitely have no problem with using it when you just. get. stuck. that would happen to me in metal gear and it was such a cool game that i would say, all right already, i’ll look it up online. but it does lead me to believe it is somehow tainted.
    i never use cheat codes, and when i earn cards on sports games i never use them to adjust the outcome of a game. i’f i’m undefeated in a season of football, and i’m abuot to lose, i suck it up and lose, i don’t reset.
    my roommie does these things and i can never understand how he can. 🙂


  2. hey,
    i’ve never understood cheat codes or game-genie type cheating, but i definitely rely on walkthroughs for really frustratingly stupid things — and depending on the case it doesn’t always run the game.
    the best non-ruiner i can remember is space quest 5: near the beginning you’re in a ship with 3-4 other people and several things you can interact with.
    i literally tried EVERY combination of inventory/action/environment/person.. and then i found out that the only way to progress was to stand in a corner of a room — a corner that was completely unremarkable, and out of the way so that standing there wasn’t something that you’d think of doing, or do by accident. argh!!!
    however, i do admit that it’s temping to keep reading past the thing you’re stuck on.
    a great tool/resource is Universal Hint System; it’s like an interactive walkthrough/faq which gradually reveals the solution to problems through a series of progressively less vague hints — this way, if you figure it out after the first couple of hints, you don’t feel so cheap because you’ve still done some problem solving. if you’re really stuck, eventually the hints degrade into a recipe for the solution which can be followed verbatim.


  3. I frequently cheat and read hints for games. I play games for the story value, now if there’s no story to be had or it’s multiplayer, I won’t cheat.


  4. uhs does work well — often the clues are just vague enough to require some thought/effort on the reader’s part. That is, uhs works _if_ you don’t just click through all the hints and instead read them one at a time when you’re desperate, as intended.
    Certain people (*cough*such as Raigan*cough*) find it very difficult to just read one hint! 😉
    I have to say though, walkthroughs are great when you’re hideously addicted to an rpg for a week (there are lots for supernintendo we’re in the middle of), then decide to take a break and do some real work, and then forget what the heck you were doing when you pick up the game again. In many rpgs it’s _impossible_ to pick up where you left off — or maybe I just have a terrible memory…
    that could be it too.


  5. Hi, Jim. I can relate because I got stuck in the EXACT same game (Sanitarium) and at the EXACT same level (level two – with the little kids).
    At first, I also thought that there was a bug in the game. Then I wander around the town for hours, retracing my steps. I knew that I needed that kid’s fishing-pole but I just couldn’t find out how to get it.
    So, just like you, I found the answer on the internet and that spoiled the rest of the game for me. Though, to be honest with you, I wouldn’t have found the answer because I am not good at ‘pixel-hunting’.
    By the way, I love the line at the end of your article : “You’d think I would have gotten the hint the first time”.


  6. This is an interesting discussion. I’ve never been one to use cheats or strategy guides, but every now and then you get stuck on a puzzle that you would never be able to figure out on your own. For example, I was stuck near the end of Maniac Mansion: Day of the Tentacle for the longest time, I left the game hanging for years. I finally looked it up online and it turns out that one of the things I had been missing required some serious “thinking outside the box”. You had to close a door in order to find a keychain that was stuck in the keyhole. It’s not very often you think to close a door that’s already open. Did seeking outside help ruin the game for me? Yeah, kind of, but I figured it was about time I finished the damn game already!
    I think there is a distinction here between games that are completely puzzle-based, and games that only have puzzle elements. If the game’s only challenge and reward comes from solving puzzles (ie. there is no action or reflex required) then looking up answers really spoils the game. But if puzzles are only one part of the game it’s not such a big deal.
    It’s interesting to note that completely puzzle-based games are few and far between nowadays. The popular belief is that puzzles in games are poorly designed unless they are easy. If there is even a remote chance the player will get stuck and give up then you’re taking a big risk. But on the other hand, if the puzzle’s completely obvious then it’s just a waste of time, right?
    I recently wrote a review of the new Mario vs Donkey Kong game for the GBA however and was happy to find that it’s mainly a puzzle game. At least someone out there still thinks puzzles in video games can be fun.


  7. I resorted to cheats in Tomb Raider 3 cause I got caught in a bug, but then I got hooked and finished the game too fast and disillusioned. I like walkthroughs and I think the distinction is interesting. It is also very interesting that the information we need to achieve our goal, solve our problem, complete our task, is readily available, and we need to exercise CHOICE and, to some degree, ethics, to decide whether or not to access the info. Struggle for hours in a closed, personal, mental loop; enacted in a small, finite, virtual space of someone else’s design; all the while attempting to achieve a set of abstract, arbitrary goals; with the instant solution to your woes a mere 1-degree-of-google away. The shared-info/choice phenomenon is sort of beautiful – a kind of communal exercise in something. Hopefully something good.


  8. I was somewhat forced to cheat with “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” as saving seemed to corrupt the game (on the C64) and what with the slow loading times, actually playing through the game was too much of a chore.
    There’s only one or two Infocom games that I got through without cheating to some extent (whether it be one hint or many).
    Anyway, over the years, I’ve come to terms with cheating and really don’t mind doing it. I no longer can afford to put hundreds of hours into a game like I did in grade school.
    I check walkthroughs when stuck then decide if the fault was with me or with the game design. There have been several games over the years where I admit that there’s no way I would have beaten it without cheating but have been enjoyed the plots so much that I didn’t mind. Without cheating, I’d probably still be stuck in the first Gabriel Knight game. Even if I beat that one, I most definitely would still be playing the second one.
    Even in action games, I find that developers like to jack up the difficulty for the final boss. I don’t think the hours put into defeating the final boss should be even a decent fraction of time put into the entire game. Without cheating, I probably would still have not beaten GTA3, Messiah, or Jedi Knight.
    I appreciate that some people want to beat everything themselves and feel that’s the only way to get their money’s worth, but I personally take offense when I feel like the game is going out of its way to jack me.
    Whether it takes 5 or 20 hours, just give me quality gaming.


  9. There is a certain degree of satisfication that comes form using your own intellect and skill to beat a game. I NEVER use cheats myself. Totally against my ethics. However I have used guides to get out of sticky situations. Sometimes the game just wont let you get past a certain stage.
    What I have however realised from playing these games is that a game always starts with the easy missions / tasks to get you to understand how the game plays out and also to get you into a certain frame of mind. The more you play the more you know intuitively how to get about. I find thinking out of the box also sometimes helps. If you get stuck take a break for a while and come back with fresh ideas. Invest the hours into figuring out a game. Its well worth it – After all whats the rush??
    UHS sounds good but it seems only confined to PC games. What of PS2? Maybe the traditional


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