The Guide

If you’ve ever played a Final Fantasy game, you’re probably familiar with the idea of “ultimate weapons.” The holy grail of offense for each member of your party, acquiring an ultimate weapon often entails as much effort as getting through the game, if not more. These weapons are never so much as mentioned within the world of the game; the components necessary for producing them are often random and isolated, seemingly trivial. If no one told you they were there, you’d never even think to seek them out; certainly you’d never succeed in finding them.

Simply put, if you want the ultimate weapon, you’re going to need the strategy guide.

In recent years, buying a strategy guide has acquired a sort of taboo. Though publishers have added incentives (heloooo artbook) to justify the actual expense, most “real” gamers still look down on those who “need a guide” to beat a game. The theory is that if you had the skills you could get through a game without hand-holding, and having used a guide dramatically undermines street cred for your achievements. On top of that, you could have just used GameFAQs. For free. So you really suck.

Well, haters gonna hate. But I imagine if you look at the necessary steps for acquiring the ultimate weapons in, say, Final Fantasy X, you’d agree that, sans guide, it ain’t happening.

See, gamers value autonomy. Shoehorn them down a corridor with only one possible means of progress and they will damn you with words like “linear” and “boring.” Give them open country and they’ll relish the chance for discovery; “open world” and “player choice” ship a lot of product. Nevermind how this is the pure inverse of the punishingly straightforward platformers that gaming calls its progenitors (here’s looking at you, Mario); the modern gamer refuses to be told what to do.

But freedom comes with a cost; if you’re not forced into making the right choices, you will inevitably make a few wrong ones. Whether the game responds by punishing you (LA Noire), by adjusting (Mass Effect), or doesn’t react at all (read: “optional” sidequests), the fact remains that liberty guarantees that you will miss out on at least some of the experiences the game-maker intended you to enjoy.

If you don’t follow a very specific path through the game, you’re going to miss out on something. Sometimes, this is trivial. Other times you won’t realize until hours, days, even years later that you made a really big mistake way back when.

Strategy guides preclude that epiphany at the cost of true freedom. When followed verbatim, they deteriorate the very act of playing; no longer is your experience your own — it is merely a guided tour of someone else’s. For those who choose to follow along anyway, this is an acceptable loss. Playing by the creator’s intended path is ultimately more rewarding than the independence it denies.

Some, of course, treat strategy guides like user’s manuals, consulting them only when they are in a jam and have exhausted all personal knowledge to no avail. They come hoping for someone to point out the obvious mistake in their thinking, the quick fix solution to their momentary trial. As soon as the boss is beaten, the guide goes back on the shelf.

Of course, sometimes the answer isn’t so simple. Perhaps the solution is the use of a weapon or power-up that, while wallowing in your sovereignty, you failed to acquire. And most guides, as they assume you’ve been following their advice all along, don’t bother providing alternative solutions. If you’ve dug yourself a hole and forgot to bring a ladder, it’s up to you to improvise an exit plan.

Oftentimes progress for those who’ve ignored the guide can only be achieved by arduous backtracking to meet the standards prescribed for success. Some will do the bare minimum, others will permanently shift their play-style in an attempt to avoid future pitfalls like this one. In this way the guide is versatile: it portrays the ideal solution and allows the player to choose how closely he or she will follow it. Advancement does not always require complete adherence.

And sometimes, consulting the guide as user manual results in a very simple truth: sorry, dude. You’re screwed.

Many people, Christians and non, have this awful tendency of treating the Bible like a user’s manual. When life is going well, when they’re getting what they want, the Bible stays on a shelf collecting dust, a collector’s item purchased primarily for its aesthetic value. But when hardship hits — job loss, death in the family, stock market crash — people snatch it up and scan it desperately to find out how to get out of jail free. A few Our Fathers and Hail Marys later and, if life brightens up, the manual goes away.

Backsliding or apathetic believers accept that following scripture is the ideal means of living, but they’re too lazy or stubborn to actually do as it says. They cut corners, ignore what’s inconvenient, and try to figure out how little of the Word they have to obey while still, technically, making it from one stage to the next.

But the Bible was not written as a self-help book, a twelve-step (or, for that matter, a ten-step) program to a better life. Cute bumper stickers aside, it was not written as a user’s manual for the human soul. The Bible is a strategy guide, and it’s meant to be followed at all times, in all stages of life. It provides advice on every aspect of this game we call life. The best armor, the most dangerous dungeons, the spiritual bestiary and, yes, the ultimate weapons are all there. In the ultimate meta-statement, the sword of the spirit is also the very book that describes it.

Like dedicated players, we recognize that sacrificing our own control to follow the Creator’s chosen path for our lives is the only way to guarantee the best possible experience. And yeah, haters still gonna hate. But I’ll stick with The Guide anyway.

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