I was browsing a Facebook group the other day when I came across a beautiful picture. Someone was avidly playing through Zelda: Breath of the Wild and they'd concocted their own physical journal of their progress. They'd drawn symbols to represent everything, even right down to tick boxes ready for them to, presumably smugly, tick achievements off. It was a work of art and something I doubt I'd ever have the patience or creative ability to do.
I thought about it for a while though, then saw someone's Animal Crossing themed journalling on Twitter a few days later, and realised I actually already have done similar in the past. Sort of. See, back when Final Fantasy VIII was first launched, I was ridiculously excited. A huge fan of Final Fantasy VII (which changed my life in many ways, as cliché as it sounds), I wanted to extract every single tiny morsel from Final Fantasy VIII, so I got a tatty old notebook and started writing down my every gaming session. It was a diary of my exploits, tracing every single tiny step and feeling. I'd write about how exciting it was to see Squall fall for Rinoa, write about the latest boss battle and how much of a challenge it was, even simply write about the satisfaction of a useful Draw point.
It would be hideously boring for anyone else to read through, I'm sure, but it captured a moment in time for me that nothing else could do in the same way. Also, it's not like the game had any way of tracking your progress in a clear and concise manner. Games were often terrible for proper guidance back then. Step away from RPGs for any length of time and you'd be entirely reliant on memory for knowing what you were meant to be doing.
Take EverQuest, for instance. One of my greatest gaming loves, it was also incredibly cruel. Imagine a vast sprawling world to explore and absolutely no way of mapping where you're going in-game. That was EverQuest. A fantastically important MMORPG but one that had no in-game map feature for the first 3 or so years of its existence. So, what did you do? In my case, I tried recalling my routes from memory. I'm lucky. I have quite a good sense of direction. I once managed to find a beloved elderly relative's home in Hatfield with no directions or street address, based solely on the fact I'd gone there once before. Like I said, I have a decent sense of direction. It translates well to games like EverQuest but it wasn't perfect.
Instead, I started drawing up my own maps. I'm no cartographer - while I'm not bad at the writing and the remembering, I'm terrible at the drawing - and my maps reflected this. Fortunately, I came across the EQ Atlas website and went crazy with the printer. Many ink cartridges later and I had my own atlas ready for me to be able to go anywhere in EverQuest.
That was the thing back then. Memory was everything with so many games. Had a break from playing through an RPG? You'd better hope you knew what you were doing as there'd be no reminder of what to do next. Suikoden was another iconic game for me, but it did a terrible job of telling you what to do more than once. Old enough to remember 'Allo 'Allo? It was like that - 'I shall say this only once'. Don't pay full attention and you will be incredibly confused. It was genuinely revolutionary to me when The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time offered up Navi who would incessantly tell you what to do next. A little irritating, yes, but oh so useful when you'd forgotten what you were doing.
If you're a fair bit younger than me, this will sound baffling, I know. Games are generally pretty kind to us these days when it comes to tracking and in-game journalling. Most RPGs offer a list of ongoing quests with a not so subtle nod to where you need to go, what you need to do, and often even objective markers so it's super simple to do. Fallout 3, Skyrim and other Bethesda games are particularly great at giving you a checklist of what to do and when, along with plenty others. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild offers a journey tracker of sorts, courtesy of the Hero's Path feature that came in its Trial of the Sword DLC, allowing you to see where you've been in the past.
The next big MMO love of mine after EverQuest, World of Warcraft, makes it almost too simple to know what to do next. Its maps are vast but it highlights where you need to go, who you need to talk to next - everything, basically. When it first launched, it wasn't quite so streamlined as recent returnees have noticed via WoW Classic, but anyone who'd played an earlier MMO soon appreciated how straightforward World of Warcraft made things. It's so simple that a lot of levelling up can almost be done in a mindless fashion. That's actually why I find it the perfect form of comfort gaming. I can switch off and simply achieve without really thinking about it.
Is it better, though? I'm not so sure. Not to sound like an old fuddy duddy (do people even say that anymore? Have I just aged myself even more?) but I wonder if all these mechanics make us a little too lazy. Surely gaming is partly to do with adventure and exploring new worlds, with no idea of what's coming up or even exactly where we are. The quiet thrill of taking down notes so that you feel like a true explorer, poking your way around uncharted lands.
And yet, just as much as there's a thrill to figuring it out on my own, I now find myself instinctively leaning towards games that give me a glowing trail of what to do next, feeling a little cheated when recent titles like Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order expect me to actually figure out where to go.
Ultimately, it probably doesn't matter. Life has its own set of easily accessible maps these days thanks to Google Maps and sat navs aplenty. You'll rarely find yourself truly lost, now, unless you go to a very rural part of the country. Life offers more than enough challenges along the way that perhaps always being told what to do next is useful, in the real world and the virtual. It's not like there's no shortage of more open-ended games either, so when it comes to the story-focused, maybe it's best that we actually know what's going on. Many allow you to switch off options too, or you can always choose to ignore a certain amount of guidance. It's all down to accessibility and improved accessibility is always a good thing.
That way, after all, we're not punished for taking an extended break and losing track of the storyline, even if we were 30 hours in and desperate to see how things concluded. Instead, we can simply enjoy the ride without feeling obliged to write up our own journals any more. Still, it was kind of perversely fun for a time, wasn't it?