Somewhere in the middle of chatting about The Secret World on a stream for another game, ’cause I’m like that, I was reminded of something I used to love in my games that doesn’t seem to happen as often anymore – the need for a pen and a pad of paper. [I suppose, light spoiler warnings for the pics I’m using later in the post. Myst and Obsidian are awfully old for spoiler warnings though, and the TSW mission is from one of the earlier missions in the Savage Coast area.]
I remember making maps for The Legend of Zelda and jotting down melodies in Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars. The old text games of course; I needed my own maps and notes there. The Myst games, before they added a screenshot option and less so after, were responsible for plenty of time spent writing and drawing things out. I think I took notes for most of my early PC games, there were always a few puzzles that made more sense if I wrote it out or a maze that became much easier if you drew a map.
Am I the only one who feels like participating in the game in that way drew me into the story and world of the game more? Perhaps I should rephrase since I know plenty of folks who agree with me, it just feels like games are more often made to streamline that part of gaming right out the door.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of screenshots – though I tend to use them less for puzzles and more often because “Oh wow, that looks awesome!” Ingame maps can be incredibly useful in complicated areas; or even simple areas where it’s helpful to know where you are in relation to everything else. Still, I’ve always found it compelling when I need to take my eyes off the screen and figure out something with my brain and my notepad over in the offline world. I start feeling more invested in solving the puzzle, as if it becomes more personal.
As you can probably guess from some of these pictures, I still have the paper journal that came with my copy of Myst. It was a blank notebook that used to come packaged with the game. I’ve got notes in it from Myst, The Riven Journals, and Riven. The handwriting on my Myst notes tells me everything I need about how young I was when I first played it. It’s also got loose pages shoved in the back with my Obsidian and The Journeyman Project 2: Buried in Time notes. Flipping through the pages is a physical reminder of an earlier time in my life, back when I was first discovering these games.
I keep a notebook for The Secret World these days; the need for it was one of the selling points of the game for me. I also have some notes scrawled into that notebook from Ether One – but it seems like I’m not doing that as often in current games, and I miss it. Even the later Myst games had a screenshot feature built in, and the remastered versions of the original include an ingame map.
I understand that it’s more convenient for folks to be able to screenshot something ingame that they’d like to remember later. Ingame journals that auto update can be used quite well as both refreshers if you’ve been away for a while, and as a gentle nudge if the player has missed noticing a key piece of information. I’ve also seen ingame journals used beautifully to add lore to the game of the sort that some players (me!) love and others are happier to skip past. But those mechanics don’t make me feel a part of the world in the same way that scribbling notes down on my own does.
It could partly be because I grew up with the idea that keeping a notepad near me was an inherent part of gaming. Or it could be that I enjoy writing anyway, so the concept of jotting down a few notes isn’t likely to be a turnoff for me. I think there’s also a challenge level I enjoy, though. If I can’t memorize the information I need, I get to make the choice to find tools on my own, wthout the game telling me to.
Handwritten notes also personalize my experience. My notes won’t look like another person’s notes, I’ll consider different things important or challenging; I’ll sketch pictures differently or name what I’ve sketched with tags that make sense only in my own head. From the other side, some notes are universal in certain games, such as the Marker Switch note from Myst. There’s something neat in realizing most folks who played that game probably jotted down those same words at some point, a sense of a shared experience.
Or I’ll end up with notes that don’t even make sense to me anymore; I’m quite curious what I meant when I wrote “fat baleen” next to a sketch in my notes for The Riven Journals since I haven’t gone through that game/online puzzle in ages. A sunner? A wahrk? The Riven Journals were taken down after the launch of Riven, so the notes I have are also an interesting peek into something I can’t play anymore. They’re notes to something I had forgotten existed until I pulled out the notebook to get pictures for this post. I’ve found a site that says it’s tried to restore that particular online puzzle game; I’ll have to dig into it and see how much they’ve put together.
There’s a talent to crafting puzzles in a game that are complicated enough to require some extra footwork (penwork?) without being so obtuse as to be unfair. I very much appreciate the devs and writers who still do so. I helped Kickstart Obduction when I heard that the Cyan crew (of Myst fame) was going to make a new game, I’m definitely hoping to need a notebook when it comes out. My Myst and TSW notebooks are getting lonely.