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The more and more games I play, and the more I stream a handful of those games, the more I realize how useful certain practices can be that we often ignore. The kinds of things that we may scoff at normally because they seem silly or useless, which actually turn out to be incredibly useful. For this week and the next I wanted to examine two such practices and further encourage their use.
The first one is taking notes. As in, physically writing notes down on the game you’re playing. This is most commonly practiced through a pen and paper, but something like opening up a text document on your computer would work just as well. As long as you’re recording things that can be referenced later.
The practice of taking notes down is actually well-known among older players, especially those who had to work with point-and-click adventure games (the old Sierra games such as King’s Quest or Space Quest would often have the player traversing mazes that needed to be mapped out by the player). It’s also familiar to people who play puzzle games, especially more exploratory games like Myst which might involve clues scattered around the world that need to be connected to something else.
Part of the reason I suggest that this is a concept that players scoff it is that…well…a number of people genuinely did scoff at it. When Elden Ring came out, a few prominent people suggested keeping physical notes. Reporter Jason Schreier briefly tweeted that suggestion, and Polygon did an article suggesting the same. The reaction to that advice was a bit mixed. A number of people were excited about the idea or echoed the sentiment, saying that it made sense and talking about the kinds of things they might record (lore, questlines, information for how they wanted to build their characters’ stats).
And a decent number of people said “no, there’s no reason to do this.” Mostly suggesting that you don’t actually have to have a notepad or notebook, as though the advice were actually presenting a requirement. It’s hard to tell the proportions of these players.
But I didn’t just want to cover this idea because players sometimes scoff at it. But rather to encourage players to just do this more often. To do it with more than just puzzle games or big adventure games, but to record things down that could be useful for later.
One of the fundamental problems we run into is memory. Keeping note of where everything is supposed to be – especially if we are going to need to backtrack later – is a task we aren’t the best-suited for. And that becomes especially true if we can’t just play the same game day in and day out for a week or so. Eventually, we’re going to forget something. We’ll have to wonder around and get lost and try several possibilities for what we think we might be looking for, until we finally stumble upon the thing we found hours ago and just forgot about. Getting lost can be fun to a degree, but revisiting a dead end because you can’t remember why it was a dead end gets annoying.
Which is why making notes about what kinds of barriers we’re hitting, what stands out, what we think we need, all of that can be valuable information that games don’t really provide systems for.
Take Metroidvanias. Pretty much all of them have a map, and many (though not all), allow you to place markers on that map. But either A) the number of markers or types of markers will be limited, or B) you will get a variety of markers, but that variety might not be enough or useful for your purposes. Maybe you’ve encountered 8 different kinds of barriers you want to keep track of, but you only get five marker types. Or five markers period. These games almost never give you the fine-grained control that you would really need.
Where games can provide you with all the information you need, it’s where the amount of information you need is limited enough to be predicted. Outer Wilds, for example, has a helpful journal that records connections, suggests possible avenues of exploration, and tells you where you’ve encountered informational “dead ends.” Of course, even then it doesn’t necessarily give you every bit of information, and it’s still possible to want to record things that aren’t presented through the game’s systems.
Which is all to say that the reason physical notes are valuable is to make up for a gap that the development process will necessarily struggle with.
And in fact, a gap that it might be desirable for the game to not provide any information period.
Because one value of the interaction in a game is the sense of discovery and triumph that you can get for prevailing over a challenge. Where the game provides you information, that information could merely be a clue that helps you think through a problem and solve it. Or it could effectively tell you the answer that you need to be looking for.
In other words, the process of you as the player making connections and dictating your own experience at your own pace is what gives your play a sense of “youness.” It is what makes your playthrough different from anyone else’s. But the more that the game helps you and takes over for you, the less there is of “you” in that interaction. You become a cog in the machine merely doing what the game tells you to do.
Striking the proper balance is difficult, and there are certainly ways in which games can fail in both directions, and arguably games more often fail in providing too little than too much.
But it is not just the case that games providing everything you could ever need to keep track of what’s going on in the game may be impossible, but it would also be undesirable.
Hence, the value of notes. Where that gap will or has to exist, you have the opportunity to fill in that gap as you see fit. When you commit things to memory, that is you filling in that gap. The purpose of the pen and paper is simply to offload some part of that process – to make it easier to recall information because you don’t have to search your memories, but you can just look at what you wrote down.
So the next time you are playing a game and encounter something that you’ll need to remember it for later, give it a shot. Don’t just commit it to memory. Get a piece of paper and a pen and write it down. Build up that habit. Get used to that process.
Do even more than that. What kinds of goals are you trying to accomplish in the game – not just “beating the final boss,” but the kinds of items you think you need to progress or the amount of money you’re trying to save up? What kinds of problems have you run into, and how did you overcome them? Putting as much information down in a way that you can actually stop to think about it and process it in a more conscious way can help you to develop your skills as a player, to notice things that you might not have otherwise noticed about how you play the game and how you could play it differently.
One thought on “Take Note of This”
I have a copious amount of both physical and digital notes for Guilty Gear, and can confirm the usefulness of them. You’re never going to remember every single character interaction, but having a quick reference that you can scam before fighting said character always gives a huge leg up. Basically amounts to the difference of being prepared for a fight and going in blind lol
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