In Richmond, Va., a 43-year-old father of three lines up a camera on his TV to film himself playing Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2.
In British Columbia, a college student flips open his laptop and fires up his PS3.
In San Antonio, a guy picks up another three memory cards on the way home from working at JC Penney.
These are the peculiar markers of the GameFAQ author, whose pursuit and completion of a video game guide—dozens of hours of uncompensated labour—seems to walk the fine line between video game obsession and expertise. It's a world in which 20,000 words can be considered small for a full walkthrough, and committing to write one means at least a week, and more likely two or three, devoting all of your spare time to playing, pausing and taking notes. And it's a labour that, with rare exceptions, provides zero material reward.
"I've gotten one bounty, for The Lost and the Damned," Robert Allen Rusk says, almost with pride. He's talking about the gift cards that GameFAQs offers for being the first to produce a complete guide to a new game. Rusk picked up a $US60 gift card for his work on Lost & Damned, which weighed in at 58,216 words — roughly 200 pages if it were a paperback novel. His work on Grand Theft Auto III, Grand Theft Auto IV and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas were each more than twice as long.
"I haven't done anything with that gift card," Rusk said. "I may save that one for Christmas."
I talked to Rusk and others among the more accomplished writers — authors who have handled very large games, who have published sizeable guides or sizeable numbers of them, and authors who have been the first to produce walkthroughs for current, high-demand games. As someone who's reviewed video games, I've felt that the demand to produce credible, authoritative work definitely interferes with, and in some cases crowds out altogether, one's normal enjoyment of a game. But at least I get paid for that.
Not so with these writers. They get to pick their games, of course. They stop and start and battle procrastination and hustle against deadlines, often ones internally set. But in the end, they definitely started doing it because they loved a game, and they keep doing it because playing a game this comprehensively seems to wring every last atom of enjoyment out of the disc.
"It might not seem that fun because it takes a long time," concedes Tony, a 20 year-old at the University of British Columbia who asked to be quoted by his pen name, ChaosDemon. "But these [developers]put years and years into making the game — and you got more out of it, because you had to break it down, and know everything about it."
More Impressive Than Achievements Among a gaming completionists' many badges of honour is the 100 per cent achievement. No matter how many hours of your life you lost to the game, that gold (or platinum) trophy, that 1000 Gamerscore achievement, it's definitely respected as the mark of a serious gamer.
But they aren't the ones pausing a game to take notes on a laptop at every checkpoint, or draw out maps on doodle paper and then figure out how to get their point across in ASCII text. And then they aren't sitting down to write dozens of pages about it. There aren't any achievements for this sort of thing, and it's hard to get across why you're going for it.
"I've been embarrassed to tell people about it, to tell you the truth," says Paul Williams, 23, of Brisbane, Australia. "Telling someone I write 20-page strategy guides on how to beat these games is not the greatest thing for my ego. But my parents and my girlfriend know about it, and they're all very supportive. They know it's a hobby and it's not the most important thing in my life."
Williams was the first (and so far, only) writer to produce a walkthrough for Halo 3: ODST for GameFAQs, not that he's bragging about it. He found it to be almost a fluke experience, owed in part to ODST's notoriously short campaign mode that's drawn some complaints.
"I was surprised at how fast I was able to get something up," Williams told me. He's written guides for Fable II, Resident Evil 5 and a partially completed one for Gears of War 2. ODST was atypical, compared with his other efforts.
"When you start, you at first don't realise how much work it is," Williams said. "Halfway through, when you feel yourself getting close to just having had enough of it, you realise you've done all this work and you might as well stick to it."
No matter how passionate they were for a game, the writers I talked to admitted that burnout inevitably becomes an issue. "The first time through is always fun," said Barry Scott Will, 43, of Richmond, Va., an IT director for a church who just finished a Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 guide. "When I'm writing for a game, I play through it at least twice or sometimes three or four times. By that third or fourth time, it's just work."
Rusk, the Grand Theft Auto guru, was a game tester in the late 1980s for Broderbund Software, LucasArts, and later a studio in Colorado Springs. Guide writing offers flashbacks to those days, he says, and not necessarily in a good way. "Being forced to play constantly, you start hating the game," Rusk said. "There's a natural burnout writing a guide, you just want to get it out the door.
"But I don't lose my sense of enjoyment," he insisted. "The thing here is I love the games I work on. I love the Grand Theft Auto games. I love getting my hooks in and working on it."
Writing Walkthroughs For Minor Profit ChaosDemon—aka Tony, the 20-year-old in British Columbia—wrote his first guide as an 11-year-old: It was for Pokémon Stadium 2 on the Nintendo 64. "Some days I wasted a whole day when I wasn't at school, just working on a guide," he says.
It didn't kill his grades, actually. "My English teacher didn't like me that much," he says, "but she commented 'Your writing is better than what I expected.' And it was probably because of the guide. You have to be very organised in your writing."
To say there's no benefit to the FAQ writer beyond a sense of satisfaction is false, of course. Some have found a writing voice, others a readership, and a few have turned their work into paying freelance gigs. Rusk collected $US500 when his Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay guide was published in a 2004 strategy guide-compilation drawing on material from GameFAQs contributors. Williams, the Australian, was offered (and accepted) a gig writing an exclusive guide on Call of Duty: World at War for the Web site CheatPlanet.
Will, the father in Richmond, Va., has monetised his GameFAQs efforts further, building a site called papagamer.com where eBooks employing the text of his GameFAQs guides are uploaded with graphics and other enhancements and sold for $US5. Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2, which took him 10 days to complete, is the latest offering. Will sees his GameFAQs work as a kind of loss leader, providing free and comprehensive advice on a game with an upsell to a more robust, premium guide elsewhere. He says he's never made more than "a few hundred bucks a month" at what he does.
"It's not much more than a hobby that pays for itself," Will says. "In the past few months though, I've tried to boost my sales, so this is like a second job."
Will started his guide writing on Knights of the Old Republic II ("still a big fan of that game") to help gamers in BioWare's forums who kept showing up with the same questions. But as a father himself, he came to understand the real service of free guide writing — to the parents of frustrated kids, who can't be helped with a video game neither mum nor dad understands the way they would a bike or toy.
"I really get a feeling of accomplishment when I get emails from somebody who bought the game for their child, and the child gets frustrated, and that gets the parent frustrated, and they come online and get the help they need and everybody's happy," Will said. "And I've gotten emails from people in their seventies, playing games. I got one email from a man stationed on a ship in the US Navy. He had one game he'd brought with him, and he wanted me to email my guide (Dungeon Siege II) to him."
Williams has seen this kind of gratitude, too: "I've gotten some seniors who wrote in to thank me for my Metal Gear Solid 4 guide. For my Wall-E guide, I get pretty frequent thank-yous from parents. It's cool. It's like, whoa, people actually appreciate this."
Drawing The Line Not everything they play gets reviewed FAQ written about it. ChaosDemon, who put out a Batman: Arkham Asylum FAQ between summer school and the fall semester, wants to take his time with Uncharted 2. Williams, down in Australia, adores Japanese RPGs but won't touch them for FAQs. "I love those games, but I'll never write a guide," he said. "I hate to get interrupted when there's a big epic story unfolding." Plus, to comprehensively play a Final Fantasy or Star Ocean game — to anything close to 100 per cent "and write about it" would take "years and years," he groans.
Rusk, the San Antonian who's hoarding memory units for The Ballad of Gay Tony, enjoys but won't review Lego Star Wars. Earlier this year he tried Watchmen: The End is Nigh and enjoyed it enough that the guide he wrote for it became "an intro to the Watchmen universe for newbies".
But the solid bet is, by the end of the year, they'll be writing something.
"I don't watch TV," Will said. "Instead of watching TV, I play video games. Some people watch a sitcom, a drama and the nightly news, I come home and play Marvel: Ultimate Alliance.
"When you get down to it," he says, "we're gonna play the video games anyway."