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A walkthrough aimed at fast leveling is not just organized as a simple collection of tips and tricks for easier progress but offers an ideal singular path through a game. Joana’s guide, for instance, is based on the author’s claims to be the fastest player ever to reach level sixty when that was still the highest reachable level (he did it in four days and twenty hours, which, at the time, was less than a quarter of the average leveling time). His power-leveling guide functions both as proof that he did so – buyers get access to a video recording of Joana’s recordbreaking run through the game – and as a step-by-step manual allowing other players to do the same.
The process of advancing through a game as fast as possible and recording it as proof is part of the gaming subculture of “speedrunning”. The practice of speedrunning has been around since the early days of online gaming and has evolved. Through experimentation with gameplay recording as well as editing this material into videos, the speedrunning community also spawned machinima filmmaking – making films using game engines as cinematic tools (see also Salen 2002; Lowood 2006, 2007). The practices around machinima filmmaking will be investigated in chapter thirteen. Here I want to keep the focus on speedrunning part iii gaming the game and the way it affects the experience of the game for those who follow speedrunners’ leads.
While speedrunning traditionally involves single player games, players like Joana have extended the practice to MMORPGs.60 Speedrunning through a MMORPG looks different from “regular” speedrunning. In terms of sheer time investment, Joana’s record of less than five days is far removed from beating Quake in eleven and a half minutes or Zelda: Ocarina of Time in one hour and sixteen minutes.61 The way World of Warcraft is designed – a game of emergence with a quest system offering elements of progression – also differs from the linear games of progression on which speedrunners usually focus. Nevertheless, Joana’s guide shows that tactics similar to regular speedrunning were used to achieve his record run. As game designer and writer Simon Carless explains, route planning, sequence breaking and tricks form the core tactics of any speedrunner (Carless 2004: 258). Route planning forms the basis; advancing through a game as fast as possible means planning ahead. The only way to do so is to know the game extensively – study its spatial design, solve all its puzzles or other challenges, achieve a high level of skill in moving around, shooting and so forth. Sequence breaking or ‘tackling the levels of a game in an unintended order or skipping entire sections the designers intended you to play’ is needed to further optimize the chosen route through the game (Carless 2004: 262). Lastly, tricks (of which some can be exploitations, or “exploits”, of game design flaws) are used to achieve such breaks. This is what hyperproductive deviation is all about: speedrunners internalize the game’s instrumental rules, strategies and mechanics to go beyond the intended design.
Whether or not the hyperproductive deviance of speedrunning or power-leveling is actually cheating is arguable. As Consalvo points out, superior players do not consider themselves as potential cheaters anymore: ‘such players often see themselves as elite gamers that have already surpassed the challenges offered by a game, and so turn to gaming the game itself’ (2005: 6). By gaming the game, speedrunners achieve their own desired form of agency over the intended design of a game.
By analyzing Joana’s walkthrough guide and watching the accompanying video recordings, we can see how speedrunning tactics deconstruct World of Warcraft’s intended design. It also showcases the difference between this guide and the official, narrative-oriented walkthrough. As explained above, the latter stopped at the moment World of Warcraft’s design structure becomes too emergent to put into one coherent step-by-step guide. By using speedrunning’s route planning, sequence breaking and tricks, Joana’s walkthrough turns the game into a non-emergent, highly linear experience. As the introduction to his guide points out, for Joana,
the creation of the guide involved a less linear approach to the game:
96 battlefields of negotiation The first time I went through the game, I attempted virtually EVERY quest, by doing this I learned what quests are worth doing, and which quests should be avoided (because some of the quests are not good enough for the time/XP reward, and so quests are just down right to hard to solo at certain levels).
[...] I read EVERY quest description and took my time REAL slowly, learning everything I can about the game, I tried every profession, I did every instance like at least 5 times, and (with my dedication) I studied websites on every instance, about the loot from the mobs, all the quests for them, and the correct way to do each one (2007: 1).
Here, Joana claims to have played through and analyzed all the game has to offer for route planning purposes. The goals are obvious: to lay the groundwork for the perfect speedrun and to subsequently write (and sell) the best power-leveling walkthrough to expose how he did it. Hyperbole notwithstanding, the result of Joana’s efforts offer us an explanation of speedrunning tactics through which other, less “elite” players are given the chance to experience similar agency over the game.
Joana’s densely written walkthrough looks very different from the official walkthrough in terms of form and goal. Below is Joana’s rendition of the Valley of
Trials, the area I took as an example for the official walkthrough:
01) I do every single quest in Durotar! Here's the fastest way to do em:
02) Start off doing "Cutting Teeth"
03) Then once you hit level 2, go accept "Sarkoth" (at 40.62) and do "Sarkoth" (at 40.66). Then turn it in and accept "Sarkoth" pt.2
04) Go turn in "Sarkoth" pt.2 and "Cutting Teeth"... accept and do the following...
05) "Sting of the Scorpid" "Vile Familiars" "Galgar's Cactus Apple Surprise" and "Lazy Peons"
06) Turn those quests in, then accept and go do...
07) "Burning Blade Medallion" and "Thazz'ril's Pick" (these are done in the cave at 44.56)
08) Once those two are done use your hearthstone.
09) Turn those quests in, then..
10) Accept "Report to Sen'jin Village"
11) Leave starting noob zone... (2007: 2, emphasis in original). 62 This excerpt describes the entire process of getting from level one until leaving the Valley. For comparison: the excerpt from the official strategy guide shown earlier barely describes half of it (it ends halfway through step five of Joana’s guide). Before analyzing the differences between both walkthroughs in terms of its paratextual impact on the experience of play, which forms the topic of the next part iii gaming the game section, I will take a closer look at how this walkthrough of the same area takes a player through the game.
Being the product of speedrunning practices, the presence of instrumental tactics in Joana’s walkthrough is far more pronounced than in the official walkthrough. The excerpt above immediately announces that there is a “fastest way” to complete the quests in this area, presenting them in a numbered to-do style.
Step-by-step, the player is taken through the game world, a process Joana even highlights with the use of maps showing the location of each quest-object and the “correct” routes to travel between them. Should it still be unclear where a player using the walkthrough should go, there is also a video recording of Joana progressing through the same steps. Sequence breaking and the use of tricks – the other two hallmarks of speedrunning – are also present in the excerpt. In step eight, ‘using the hearthstone’ is mentioned. The hearthstone is a game mechanism that offers the player a fixed location to which he can return his character once every hour, independent of the location of the character. Usually, players link their hearthstone to a major city or travel hub in order to have quick access to banks, auction houses and the transport system. In this case, it is used to eliminate the time walking back from the cave (from step seven) to where the quest givers are located. Here, the hearthstone mechanism is used as a trick to break the normal sequence of walking back and forth between quest givers and quest objects. An additional trick that Joana refers to is the use of geographical coordinates for the location of certain NPCs (in step three) or destinations (the cave in step seven). As such coordinates are not part of the core game’s user interface, players need to install user interface modifications to be able to see them on the in-game maps.
The strategies and tricks mentioned above might provide players with the feeling that they are speedrunning through the game in the same way the original author did, although their agency over the game is not necessarily heightened in the same way. Using Joana’s walkthrough certainly sped up play considerably for me; this time, it took me a third of the time to get to the highest level with a new character than with my first character. It granted me the feeling of conquering the game in ways far beyond standard play; it made me feel powerful in negotiating Blizzard’s design, as I was indeed gaming the game. Whereas Joana internalized the game’s core design through extensive play and research, I was busy skipping a considerable amount of content. Following someone else’s path through a game that is built to offer thousands of different paths limits rather than expands your agency in and over the game. It is as if you are participating in someone else’s game rather than your own. Hyperproductive agency acquired by the use of walkthroughs rather than your own experience is therefore at least partly an illusion.
This situation of both gaining and losing agency is, of course, connected to a walkthrough’s potential in influence the reading/playing of the game.
98 battlefields of negotiation Hyperproductive demystification As a paratext, a walkthrough influences the way you experience a game, and the more dedicated a walkthrough is to a particular goal, the bigger this influence can be. The two walkthroughs discussed above have different goals; the official strategy guide means to introduce the game to the player, while the power-leveling guide means to deconstruct it. This difference is felt most strongly in the way the walkthroughs treat the fictional world in which play is situated. After a brief comparison of the way each of the two walkthroughs (re)present the fictional world, I will focus on Joana’s guide which, having been created by a speedrunner rather than a professional strategy guide publisher, differs most from the game’s indented use as implemented by Blizzard.
When comparing the excerpts from the official strategy guide and from Joana’s guide, the de-emphasizing of World of Warcraft’s fiction is immediately apparent.
As we can see in the excerpt above, Joana ignores the fictional aspects of the quests entirely, focusing only on those that had to be done and in which sequence, in order to traverse through the Valley of Trials as fast as possible.
While the official strategy guide’s walkthrough exhibits an elaborate writing style in tune with World of Warcraft’s fantasy history and setting, Joana’s approach reads like a list of declarative orders (“go there!” “do this!”). As both walkthroughs clearly explain what you need to do step-by-step, they also both contribute to what Consalvo considers a demystification of the game’s challenges (2007: 45).63 The power-leveling guide, however, goes on to demystify the fictional embedding of quests within the fictional worlds. To use examples from the Valley of Trials excerpts, the question of why you need to collect cactus apples for a quest is no longer motivated on a fictional level (because a character wants to make you some refreshing cactus apple surprise) but on an instrumental level (because it is the most efficient way to progress). The demystification of quests in Joana’s guide lays bare their instrumental purposes in ways the official guide refuses to do.
The demystification of the game’s quests has an impact on players’ spatial orientation. The step-by-step approaches in the walkthroughs prompted me to only pick up the quests they told me to pick up and, subsequently, to only go where the walkthroughs told me the quests’ goals were to be found. To improve speed by avoiding unnecessary travel, Joana’s guide especially limited spatial exploration. It bundles groups of quests together when their goals are roughly in the same area. Any coherence between quests on a fictional level – going where the story goes – is replaced with a coherence of quests on the spatial level – that is, going where the other quests go. Linking quests together like this makes reading the quest descriptions – which include most of the fictional reasons for doing the quest – superfluous to progress. Reading the descriptions becomes an obstacle that hinders speedy progress. Reading them for clues to finish a quest (which usually is part of the challenge of doing a quest) is not needed, as a pre-planned part iii gaming the game
route is followed. What we find here is a case of hyperproductive demystification:
instrumental progress going above and beyond the game’s own challenges and fiction, both of which are deconstructed in the process.