There and Back Again, a Gamer’s Guide: Part 1 – Quest: Impossible
You’re too young to work and therefore had to endure the brutal wait until the holidays to finally get your hands on Metal Gear Solid! You’ve worn out your issue of GamePro, reading and rereading all about the hot new release they declared as “this season’s top offering and one game no self-respecting gamer should be without.” Self-respect has always been a scarce commodity for you, but you aren’t going to let that hold you back. It’s time to finally don the bandana and infiltrate the nuclear weapons disposal facility on Shadow Moses Island!
The game is insane and unlike anything you’ve played before. You’re having a blast with the stealth mechanics. Disguising yourself as a cardboard box seems like the sickest thing since mastering the Shoryuken. Snake is such a badass with his rough voice, cool cadence, and tactical getup. While Double-Oh-Seven is out getting laid, you’re saving the world from fucking FOXHOUND, the most bat-shit crazy group of terrorists the world has ever seen!
The adrenaline is still coursing through your thumbs after your fight with Ocelot when your mission grinds to a halt. Baker tells you to contact Meryl, her codec frequency is on the back of the CD case. You flip through your inventory and find nothing. Maybe you missed it somewhere. You comb through every polygon of the previous environments. Still nothing. You try to ask your friends for help, but they’re all busy playing some stupid game about Ocarinas in time, or whatever.
But all hope is not yet lost.
You remember seeing an advertisement for a Metal Gear Solid: Official Mission Handbook. Your parents are always trying to get you to read more. Maybe they’ll buy it for you? I mean, technically you would be reading. Plus, the word “book” is right there in the title. They’re happy to comply until you tell them it’s $14.99.
“That’s way too much for a book.”
Just wait until you go to college.
You scrape together what little allowance you can and start pounding the pavement for the rest, going door to door in your neighborhood collecting cans…for school. Finally funded, you have the bookstore order you a copy. Once again, you’re left waiting. In the meantime, you become a VR mission expert.
Friday comes. You ride your bike to the bookstore after school to pick up your order and pedal back home so hard that your legs feel like they’re going to fall off—which is fine. You won’t need them for the rest of the weekend.
The PlayStation’s powered on, your MGS save file’s done loading, and you flip to the page that will solve this fucking mystery of Meryl’s frequency. Your eyes are scanning through the white text in frantic anticipation, when they’re suddenly struck still. You slowly reread the sentence.
“Without Level 5 clearance you must check your standard issue Metal Gear Solid game packaging for Meryl Silverburgh’s Codec number [140.15] and call her.”
Your idle gaze floats to the right of the Sony console, locking onto the MGS CD case lying faceup. Mouth agape, you reach out and pick up the plastic packaging, turning it over in your hand. Sure enough, there’s Snake and Meryl chatting away on the codec, Meryl’s fucking name right in the middle of the dialogue box.
Don’t feel bad. I’ve consulted walkthroughs for less. From past Pokémons to present Personas, I’ve shamelessly used strategy guides since I could mash a button. Sometimes you’re new to a genre—Final Fantasy VII would’ve been nearly impossible to beat as the young, dumb me, a mere wet pup to JRPGs. Other times, you’re a victim of overthinking—trying every symbol that remotely resembles a fork and knife to unlock a door, when really you’re supposed to just use the symbols printed right there on the fucking eating utensils. And every once in a while, your confronted with a “How the fuck was I supposed to figure that out?!” situation.
I’ve loved pen and paper riddles since I was a little sprite, and always appreciated some light puzzle-solving in my video games, such as Resident Evil (a LttG franchise favorite). Recently I’ve discovered the joy of puzzle platformers. Where self-deprecation is my default setting, I was actually quite proud of myself after rolling credits on FEZ without looking up a single solution. However, New Game+ is another story…
I’m not one to typically start a new game+, but I had so much fun with FEZ that I wanted to go back and complete all the challenges that I missed. It didn’t take long for my cube-collecting confidence to crumble, and I began combing the Internet for Tetris Code ciphers, Alphabet translators, and guides to the numerical system—all of which left me scratching my head, wondering how the fuck I was supposed to have figured this stuff out on my own.
What made things worse was every time I went to look up the solution to a hidden cube, I would get sidetracked reading about some other crazy task put forth by a video game that seemed damn near impossible to complete without the help of some sort of walkthrough. Take Gabriel Knight 3: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned for example.
Gabriel Knight 3 is a point-and-click graphic adventure game developed by Sierra On-Line and released in November 1999 on PC. Designed by author Jane Jensen–which I was delighted to discover that the first game she ever wrote for was EcoQuest: The Search for Cetus, a childhood favorite of ours. The game centers around Gabriel Knight as he searches for the James family’s infant son, Charlie, after he’s been abducted by a couple of mysterious men. Of course, I would expect a puzzle game to be full of challenging puzzles, but one in particular seemed way too nonsensical to come from our beloved creators EcoQuest.
Apparently, our hero of the story is too much of a man to ride a scooter and wishes to use a motorcycle instead. I get it. I’ve seen Akira. Motorcycles are awesome! Unfortunately, Gabriel can’t be a badass like Kaneda and steal a bike. Oh, no. That would go against everything a Knight stands for. Fraud is a much more noble crime.
In order for Gabriel to get a motorcycle, he must impersonate someone. Now, I’m far from a super spy, so maybe I’m missing something here, but according to Gabriel, the best way to accomplish this task is to steal the person of interest’s driver’s license, draw a moustache on the guy’s picture (childish), fashion yourself a fake moustache out of cat hair (gross), and then apply it to your face using an old piece of tape and some honey (overkill). Good luck figuring all that out by the way, because most of that shit isn’t even clickable until the point in the plot where you actually need to acquire the motorcycle.
Digging a little deeper into Sierra On-Line’s publishing catalog, I discovered that Gabriel Knight was not their first act of gamer transgression.
In King’s Quest V: Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder! you play as King Graham, the only royal family member to be left behind after an enchantment sends Castle Daventry flying away atop a giant whirlwind. Met by a talking owl named Cedric, a witness to the castle’s disappearance, King Graham is told of an evil wizard named Mordack, who was responsible for the attack. Cedric takes Graham to meet his master Crispin, who lives in the land of Serenia. Once introduced, Crispin arms Graham for his journey ahead.
Along the way you’ll find yourself lost in the Dark Forest. Because hugging a tree and blowing a whistle are not available gameplay options, you’ll need to search for help elsewhere (here’s where I would’ve eventually died of starvation). A quick glance around will reveal a pair of eyes glimmering from the shadows that belong to an elf. In order to coax the peeping-tom out of hiding, you’ll need to use an emerald as bait. If you drop an emerald on the ground, the elf will dash out to snatch it up, but the little asshole doesn’t stick around, and quickly retreats back into the bushes. Drop another emerald, and the same shit happens again. For your third and final try, you need to first take a honeycomb from your inventory and squeeze a puddle of honey (again, with the fucking honey, Sierra?!) onto the ground, then drop your last remaining emerald into the middle of it. Bingo! You caught the elf! Why you needed to use the first two emeralds before busting out the ultra-mega-emerald-honey-combo seems a bit excessive. Maybe the first two were to just build up the elf’s confidence?
As annoying as dealing with this dick-of-an-elf may be, it doesn’t seem quite as frustrating as trying to guess the gnome’s name from the first King’s Quest.
King’s Quest: Quest for the Crown, tells story of a kingdom in peril, and a brave Knight who must save it. The tale begins when the benevolent ruler of Daventry, King Edward, rescues the young princess of Cumberland. Enchanted by her beauty, Edward marries princess Dahlia. The king, being such a solid dude to the people of Daventry, deserves this happy ending.
But the world can be a cruel place.
On the night of their wedding, the princess is unveiled to actually be an evil witch, who steals the king’s treasure (this sounds like a similar experience I had with an ex-girlfriend). Due to a terminal condition, Edward must send his most gallant Knight in his stead to save the kingdom. Enter Sir Graham, whom if successful will become king of Daventry (I always love a good origin story).
During Graham’s quest to recover the king’s three lost treasures and do battle with the evil witch of Cumberland, he crosses paths with a gnome. The gnome wants you to guess his name. Now, apparently, Sierra suspected you to go with “Rumplestiltskin.” I don’t know about you, but this did not seem like an obvious starting point to me. I’m familiar with the fairytale, but is Rumplestiltskin even a gnome? Maybe this was more common knowledge back in the 80s.
Whatever of Rumplestiltskin’s ancestry, Sierra thought this would be too easy of an answer, so Graham is left a clue in the witch’s house instructing him that sometimes it helps to think backwards. From that bit of mind-blowing advice, you’re supposed to conclude that you need to use a backwards alphabet (I know. Fucking obvious, right?), where a = z, b = y, c = x…you get the idea, to spell out the gnome’s name.
Using the cipher, “Rumplestiltskin” becomes “Ifnkovhgroghprm.” Here’s the kicker, though. According to Google and Wikipedia, the more common English spelling is “Rumpelstiltskin” with the “E” and “L” swapped. However, when using this spelling, the gnome informs you that you are wrong. Ridiculous!
After reading about Quest for the Crown, I began to believe that Sierra On-Line considered themselves to be on a holy crusade to punish players daring to feel clever. To my dismay, I discovered this to not be the case. Impossible quests are far from an isolated incident. I found several examples of video game tasks of questionable logic from many developers throughout the industry, and I’m excited to share them with you.
If you want to hear all about these absurd video game puzzles that seem hellbent on making people feel stupid, drop by in two weeks for Part Two of There and Back Again, a Gamer’s Guide, as I explore other games that seem damn near impossible to complete without aid. In the meantime, I would love to hear stories of your video game struggles, when you lost all hope and turned to the outside world for help, in the comments below! And please feel free to correct any facts that my amateur ass may have gotten wrong… But can you blame me? That shit’s confusing!