For as long as there have been games there have been players who need help playing those games. In the 1980s we could call tip lines (on our phones, which were attached to walls) to get hints for LucasArts adventure games. We subscribed to magazines that printed tips and bought strategy guides in bookstores. Then the internet gave rise to .txt walkthroughs and help forums, and now we've got wikis that are absolutely bursting with information.
It's a good thing: games keep getting more and more complicated, requiring more knowledge than can be contained in tutorials, menus, or tooltips. Alt-tabbing out of a game to look something up is so common and necessary that a game that doesn't alt-tab well feels majorly flawed. My second monitor is almost always opened to some game guide or wiki page.
But what's it like playing a complicated game today if you don't ever refer to a wiki or video when you need help? I thought I'd try to find out with Stationeers (opens in new tab), the space-based survival crafting game from RocketWerkz, by getting all my information from the game itself: no wikis, no videos, no alt-tabbing for outside help. As you can perhaps guess from the headline, it doesn't go so well.
I begin the Stationeers tutorial on a space station, where I immediately notice the game is running in a 4:3 aspect ratio, with black bars on both sides of my screen, which is strange (annoying, I'd call it). I check the display settings but I can't see any reason why the game isn't using my entire screen. I alt-tab out and—wait! I can't do that. I'm not gonna do that. I alt-tab back in.
See how quickly that happens? It's instinctual at this point. When I have a question, I'll immediately search the internet for an answer. Not today, though. I'll just figure it out for myself! Turns out, I can't figure it out for myself, so I just keep playing.
I take notes during the tutorial, because I don't want to forget how to do whatever it teaches me, which I definitely will because I've become so used to just looking things up whenever I want. In effect, by not using a wiki, I'm just writing my own wiki. And I really need to because in Stationeers even basic activities like picking things up, putting them in my inventory, and using them takes some getting used to. It essentially treats your hands like inventory slots (DayZ did this too), meaning there's a lot of swapping things around from hand to hand and slot to slot. It's a little awkward: I'm used to using the E key to activate things, but here it swaps focus between your left and right hand. I'm sure I'll get used to it. Hopefully soon.
Once my space suit is on, it's time to bake muffins. That's a strange sentence to write, but this is a survival game: I will need to eat. Plus, baking muffins teaches me how to hook up equipment (a microwave oven) and how to combine multiple items to make something.
Having baked and eaten muffins (the tutorial doesn't tell me to eat them, but I do, because I want to learn how to eat, and also—who makes muffins and then doesn't eat them immediately?) it's time to go out into space and make repairs to the space station. Having proven I can bake, I am now clearly ready to step into the cold vacuum of space.
Stationeers isn't ready for me to do that, however. It freezes and crashes when I pick up the steel plates needed for the repairs. There are actually two benefits to the crash: one, I get to go through the tutorial again, which I badly need since I'm still struggling with the control scheme, and two, when I restart, it's now displaying in the proper aspect ratio. Hooray! See, who needs a wiki? Problems sometimes fix themselves.
Having re-baked and re-eaten my muffins, I open the airlock and step outside, where I figure out how to use my jetpack to fly around. I clip some broken wires, and replace them. My next task is to weld a steel plate, though since I assume (wrongly) the welding is meant to take place over the wires, I wind up welding—and therefore destroying—the wires I just replaced.
Again, it's not a bad thing, since I get more practice at making repairs. Once the wires are re-replaced, I find the correct spot to weld the steel plate, and the tutorial ends. I've baked muffins. I've repaired two things. I am now dispatched to survive on the surface of the moon.
I feel woefully unprepared for this. There's nothing around me on the moon except for some flares and a couple crates of supplies. The tutorial didn't teach me jack shit about my UI so I have no idea what my spacesuit meters mean. How much oxygen do I have? Am I cold? Am I too cold? How cold is too cold? What do I do if I get too cold? Are cold and uncoldness (some call it heat) things I need to manage? Am I expected to build a space station like the one in the tutorial, and if so, how? All I know is how to bake muffins, but I have no place to bake them: no eggs, no milk, no flour, no microwave, no kitchen. What use is my muffin knowledge on the sterile surface of the moon?
It's a strain, really, not alt-tabbing out to get some basic information, so I'm just going to go with my own experience from the survival games I've played before. Basically, build an ugly box, slap a door on it, and live in it until I can build something better or I give up completely.
I look through the box labeled building supplies, and find some iron frames and sheets. OK, I know from the tutorial I need a welder in one hand and a metal sheet in the other, and I eventually figure out how to place a few frames on the ground.
While trying to jump on top of them, however, I fall through and get stuck. I can't seem to crouch under the frame or leap on top of it. I'm trapped in a moon cage of my own making.
Finally—and we're talking like after five or six minutes—I manage to split a stack of frames from my inventory, drop half of them, and use them as a step to climb out. Ha ha, no wiki needed! Of course, if I'd looked through my control settings when I first got stuck, instead of after I freed myself, I would have seen, as I do now, that the 'J' key turns my jetpack on, so I could have just flown out. Lesson learned, and at least now I can fly.
Even happily flying around on the moon, the feeling of wanting to use a wiki persists. When building a moon-house, it's helpful to know how much room I'll need. How much equipment I'll have to fit inside. The best ways to build. Some examples of other moon houses. Those kinds of things. I build a few more frames, weld some iron sheets here and there, add walls and a roof, which is just walls lying horizontally on top of the other walls, which I hope—but don't know—is a valid way to build a roof.
I've done it! I've built an ugly box.
There is of course the question of if I can live in this box. I'm on the moon, so my box needs to be filled with air, which is going to require an airlock, which I have no idea how to build. I'll need power—I see some solar panels in the box but I'm not sure how to build them. Oh, wait, there's another box of supplies filled with other things. That's good: right now I need as many things as I can get my hands on.
Something else I need: more jet fuel. While I discovered how to turn it on, I didn't realize that it needed to be turned off, and it's just been running this entire time, even while my feet have been on the ground. I've burned through nearly all my propellant and the game has begun to warn me loudly that I'm nearly out of fuel.
While trying to look inside the second supply crate (which is lying on its side) I slide down into a pit and burn off the rest of my jet fuel before I can fly my way out. I can't climb out and can't seem to jump out. I may be stuck for real this time. While shuffling things from hand to hand, I momentarily forget how to open my inventory, and press (as I'm accustomed to) the 'I' key. This, I'm startled to discover, opens my helmet. Opening your helmet, by the way, is not something you want to do on the moon.
I immediately press 'I' again. Warnings begin blaring about losing pressure and oxygen. Shit, does 'I' open the helmet but not close it? I press it again. I'm told the helmet is closed, and then hear more warnings, and then another warning that my helmet is open again. I finally understand that 'I' both opens and closes the helmet, but the suit's voice doesn't tell you the status of the helmet until it's gone through all the other warnings first, so even though I've closed it, it won't tell me that for a few seconds, during which time I've opened it again because I thought it was still open and thought I was closing it. But I was opening it.
Jesus, this is a disaster. I find an option to lock my helmet closed, which will be useful until I forget about it and try to eat muffins through it at some point in the future.
If I even live that long. I'm still stuck in a hole, I've lost pressure, I've lost oxygen, I have no propellant, and I don't know what to do about any of those things. I begin tampering with other items in my inventory, including a canister labeled 'waste' which I assume is probably now full due to the terrifying few moments I just experienced. Also, it appears to be leaking. Gross.
I'd love to just alt-tab out to look up a few things, like how to get out of a hole with no jetpack, how to build an airlock, how to set up solar panels, how to build a kitchen and microwave and raise space chickens for eggs to make muffins. But all I've got is a lack of oxygen, a canister of shit, an ugly box with no door, and a moon pit keeping me from reaching it.
I think this was a bad idea. I think I'm going to quit and start over with my second monitor open to a wiki page. I enjoyed the part of Stationeers where it was telling me what to do and how to do it, and I think I'd actually enjoy building a home on the moon if I had some shred of an idea how to accomplish it. In fact, opening a wiki page right now, I even see that you can use your shit canister as jet pack propellant in a pinch.
Farewell, wiki-less playthrough! Games are complicated, and that's perfectly fine as long as there are wikis and you use them. I unlock my helmet and let the rest of my oxygen out. The screen goes black. Several icons appear, including one that seems to be telling me I'm 200% asleep. I don't even know what that means. Am I dead? Am I alive? Not only do I need help from a wiki to live, I need help from a wiki to die.